Some rebel checkpoints in Syria are currently flying the black flag of al-Qaida. One of the flags is attached to a stick stuck into a tire weighed down with rocks in front of a checkpoint manned by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo, the country's largest city. The Islamic creed, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God," is written in Arabic on the flag.
Even though it is Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, the clean-shaven men at the checkpoint offer the foreign reporter something to drink. Some do not abide by the fasting requirement.
When asked whether they know they are flying the al-Qaida flag, one of the fighters responds: "Of course we know, but is it al-Qaida's invention? It's also the flag of the Prophet, and we fly it because we are Muslims and we are waging a holy war."
Nothing illustrates the gray area between reality and perceptions of the war in Syria more concisely than this flag, which comes in various colors. Sometimes it has white lettering on a black background, and sometimes black lettering on a white background.
Western intelligence agencies report that the al-Qaida network, founded by Osama bin Laden, has "up to 1,500 combatants" participating in the Syrian civil war. In response to an inquiry from the German parliament, the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence agency, stated that, in the first half of 2012, it had counted about 90 attacks "that can be attributed to organizations or jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida." United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is apparently referring to similar analyses when he says that the presence of the terrorist organization in the region has created "very serious problems."
However, these assessments are based on a small number of sources that are sometimes murky. According to the Washington Post, the CIA didn't have a single agent in Syria by the end of July but, rather, "only a handful stationed at key border posts." In contrast to the situation in Libya a year ago, the Americans must now rely on information from the intelligence agencies of Turkey and Jordan.
Whose War Is This?
Eleven years after the 9/11 attacks, even experienced intelligence services are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish between al-Qaida jihadists and other militants. "Anyone who believes that al-Qaida fighters have long beards and wear Pakistani clothing is naïve," says a senior Arab intelligence agent.
Most rebels with the FSA deny having anything to do with al-Qaida. "Okay, we're Islamists, but we want to overthrow Assad and then have a country like Turkey," says Abu Bakr, one of the FSA commanders in Aleppo, who manages a cell-phone store in his civilian life. "What's wrong with that?"
It's an attitude one encounters from Damascus to Idlib. In the 17th month of the rebellion, the fighting has spread to almost all Syrian cities, the opposition group in exile remains divided, and the regime has abandoned many segments of the border. Neither side is completely in control of events.
These are golden days for terrorist groups and terror experts alike. The experts have been warning for months that al-Qaida is infiltrating the rebels and that large numbers of foreign jihadists are streaming into to Syria.
However, by July, none of the few independent Western journalists active in Syria had encountered any such foreign combatants.
But the situation is gradually changing, as British photographer John Cantlie and his Dutch colleague Jeroen Oerlemans have now experienced firsthand. On July 19, just after crossing the Syrian border from Turkey, they stopped at what they thought was an FSA camp. But they were taken prisoner by jihadists wielding Kalashnikovs and speaking in a familiar accent. "Londoner against Londoner. This wasn't what I had expected," Cantlie wrote in the Sunday Times.
According to Cantlie, there were young Britons, some of Asian origin, staying in the camp. Some were barely 20, and the group of about 30 people included a handful of Arabs, a woman and four or five older combatants from Pakistan or Chechnya. "It was clear that they had never seen a Kalashnikov before. They were thrilled to be in Syria. All their talk was of how to take out a tank, how to advance across open ground and how to clear a building," Cantlie wrote. "The camp was like an adventure course for disenchanted 20-year-olds."
FSA rebels liberated the two journalists after a week. ""This is not the way of the Syrian people. We don't want these people coming here in our name"," they said apologetically to Cantlie.
"This is our revolution," says Abu Abduh, the local FSA commander. "We said to them: Fight against Assad's troops, stay in your camp or get out of here!" At first, Abduh adds, a wealthy Saudi Arabian sponsor from Jeddah paid for the fighters, but not anymore. "They probably need money," he says. The rebels agree that this is the largest jihadist camp in northern Syria.
Increasing Religious Undertones
Smugglers report that more foreigners are now coming across the Turkish border, but that most of them soon turn around and leave Syria again. Even those who stay, say the smugglers, remain near the border. The same applies to the area along the border with Iraq.
Hundreds of Syrians from the eastern Deir el-Zour province began fighting in Iraq in 2003, but now Western and Arab intelligence agencies say the current is flowing in the opposite direction. The Shiite government in Baghdad views many Sunnis from the border region as its enemies because their vision is the same as al-Qaida's was in the Iraqi civil war: They all want to establish a caliphate that would unite the Sunnis of Syria and Iraq.
But even without al-Qaida and foreign instigators, the Syrian rebellion is increasing marked by religious overtones. However, this isn't because the rebels are being infiltrated but, rather, because the regime is increasingly shrinking down to the hard core of Alawite elite troops and militias, who are attacking centers of the primarily Sunni opposition with artillery, tanks and helicopters. This, in turn, is fueling a growing thirst for revenge.
Even FSA combat units with no religious affiliation are now joining forces under names like "Ansar al-Islam" ("Partisans of Islam"), which was also the name of a notorious jihadist terrorist organization during the Iraqi civil war.
"We've asked the West for help again and again," says Amer al-Nasr from Aleppo, who studied in Germany and is now the spokesman for a network of Syrian activists. "We warned that, otherwise, other people would show up, people we don't want but who bring money along."
Syrian State Ties with al-Qaida
It's difficult to gauge al-Qaida's true presence in the civil war. Since the end of December 2011, a number of large bombs have been detonated in Damascus, Aleppo and other cities. Syrian state television consistently blames al-Qaida, while the opposition denies any involvement with the terrorist group, saying the regime itself is staging the attacks.
But on Jan. 23, 2012, the Al-Nusra Front, a previously unknown jihadist group, took responsibility for several suicide bombings. On February 11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's successor as al-Qaida's leader, praised the Syrian rebels as "lions" and called on Muslims to support them. A few days later, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the most recent bombings in Syria "had all the earmarks of an al-Qaida-like attack."
Since then, there have been more attacks and videos, but there are also more contradictions. For instance, Syrian state television showed a group of alleged victims who then stood up when they believed they were no longer on camera. Lists of names of "martyrs" published on the website of the state news agency SANA have contained the names of soldiers who had been announced dead earlier and elsewhere. And a minibus that appeared in a video claiming responsibility for an attack was merely demolished after the explosion, even though it should have exploded.
The rebels' claim that the Assad regime is staging attacks on its own operation centers to portray itself as a victim of al-Qaida sounds difficult to believe. But the accounts of earlier collaboration between the regime and al-Qaida are no less absurd -- and yet they are well-documented. As long ago as 1999, a charismatic imam named Abu al-Qaqaa was allowed to develop a zealous following in Aleppo. Al-Qaqaa was known for his hate-filled sermons against Jews and Americans and in favor of radical Islam -- and that in Assad's Syria, no less, where the death penalty is imposed on anyone convicted of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
When the United States invaded Iraq, the imam became a magnet for jihadists from Syria -- as well as from Libya, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait -- who wanted to join al-Qaida in Iraq's fight against the Americans. But Syria didn't want them to come back.
The jihadists allowed the regime to apply pressure on US troops in Iraq while keeping an eye on the international jihadist scene. Syrian intelligence agencies organized training and transfers and, for years, up to 100 foreign combatants arrived at the Damascus airport each month to travel on to Iraq.
In November 2004, US troops in Iraq reported that they had found photos of high-ranking Syrians and a navigation device containing the coordinates of western Syrian cities with fighters of the radical group Jaish-e-Mohammed (Army of Mohammed) in Fallujah. During a raid at the border in 2007, an entire archive was found that contained the travel details of hundreds of fighters who had entered Iraq through Syria. In October 2008, US troops even attacked a village in Syria, where they killed an al-Qaida commander who had collaborated closely with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then leader of Al-Qaida in Iraq.
A year and a half later, when tensions had eased in the Syrian-American relationship, Syrian intelligence coordinator Ali Mamlouk, now Assad's top official as the commander of the general intelligence directorate, explained to US diplomats the regime's special treatment of al-Qaida: "In principle, we don't attack or kill them immediately. Instead, we embed ourselves in them and only at the opportune moment do we move."
The same Ali Mamlouk has been indicted by Lebanese authorities for having planned up to 20 elaborate bomb attacks in Lebanon and for having personally given the explosive devices to Michel Samaha, a former minister of information in Lebanon and staunch ally of the Syrian regime, and his entourage. Samaha was arrested last Thursday in Beirut and has confessed, according security sources quoted in the newspaper Daily Star.
Since the beginning of the rebellion, many Syrian veterans of the war in Iraq have been released in waves after spending years in prison. These have included a man with the nom de guerre Abu Musab al-Suri, viewed as al-Qaida's top theoretician.
This brings us back to the Al-Nusra Front. The group does not appear to be a pure invention of the regime, as the opposition claims. Several sources in rebel-held Damascus suburbs, such as Douma and Harasta, report that there are about 30 members of a cell with the same name, and that their leader and half of the men are veterans of fighting in Iraq who had been freed from Syrian prisons. But the sources also point out that the group has neither the means nor the capability to obtain explosives by the ton and smuggle them through all the checkpoints. Their leader reportedly doesn't even have a cell phone.
The connection between this and the series of attacks for which Al-Nusra has claimed responsibility remains questionable, as does the existence of its alleged leader, Mohammed al-Golani, who only appears in videos wearing a mask and with his voice electronically distorted. "No one knows Golani," says a source in contact with several Al-Nusra members.
Whereas groups that rave about a theocracy and receive support from Saudi Arabian backers are increasingly taking shape in northern and eastern Syria, things have become relatively quiet around the alleged leaders of al-Qaida in Syria. In late June, Al-Nusra denied having planned an attack on the al-Rifai Mosque in Damascus. But, in early August, it took responsibility for the murder of a TV host. Otherwise the group has been silent.