Nearly half the rebels fighting in Syria are jihadists linked to Al Qaeda or hardline Islamists fighting for a strict Islamic state, according to a study that’s about to be published by IHS Jane’s, the respected British defense consultancy.
Advance word of the study appears in Monday’s edition of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The Jane’s study is said to be due out later this week.
The study reportedly claims there are about 100,000 fighters in the Syrian insurgency, divided into about 1,000 independent and often hostile units. About 10,000 belong to “powerful factions” of jihadists linked to Al Qaeda. These groups are fighting for an Islamic state within a larger Middle East caliphate.
Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists whose philosophy is similar to the jihadists, but are focused purely on Syria rather than an international revolution. In addition, according the Telegraph, there are “at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character.”
The remainder, some 25,000 to 30,000, belong to secular groups with a democratic or nationalist orientation. In other words, between 25% and 30% of the total rebel force consists of groups considered friendly to the West, according to the British study.
According to the Telegraph, the assessment
accords with the view of Western diplomats [who] estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.
A week after the dramatic terror alert that shut down 19 U.S. embassies, experts are starting to weigh in on what it means, and specifically what it tells us about the state of Al Qaeda. If I can sum up the answer in two words, it would be: not much.
Here’s what Fareed Zakaria has to say in this week’s Time magazine:
On the broader question of the state of al-Qaeda, there’s room for debate. Al-Qaeda Central, the organization based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is battered and broke. But the idea of al-Qaeda remains vibrant in other places … in Yemen, Somalia, Mali and northern Nigeria.
Now look at this new analysis by Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel, who headed the Middle East desk at the National Security Council under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush:
In case anyone needed reminding, the recent global terror alert illustrates that, 15 years after its first attacks on America, Al Qaeda is thriving. … Failed revolutions and failing states are like incubators for the jihadists, a sort of Pandora’s Box of hostility and alienation.
Riedel points to the “rapid growth of these franchises—associated cells and sympathetic movements from Algeria to Aden”—as the newest element in the Al Qaeda puzzle. He recalls the tensions within Al Qaeda that hurt the movement in 2005, when “the CIA revealed [Osama bin Laden’s then-deputy Ayman al-] Zawahiri’s communication with “Jordanian terrorist Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.”
But the Forward’s Marc Perelman was reporting a full year earlier, in March 2004, that Zarqawi was operating an Al Qaeda franchise—apparently the first—in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Even if Zakaria and Riedel can’t agree on whether the fragmenting of Al Qaeda into many loosely-linked cells means it’s “thriving” or “battered and broke,” they do agree that the regional branches are doing well. The Yemen chapter is strong. The Syria branch is on the rise. And everyone agrees that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the African branch active in Mali and elsewhere, is a star player. Except the ones who think it’s falling apart.
Talking Points Memo on Friday ran an Associated Press story out of Timbuktu, Mali, reporting on a bundle of letters from Yemen AQ leader Nasser al-Wahishi (sometimes spelled Wuhayshi) to Algerian AQIM boss Abdelmalek Droukdel, full of chatty tips on how to govern once you’ve captured territory. The letters are part of a trove of documents the AP found in Timbuktu after AQIM was driven out of the city in January by French troops (you know, the ones that are afraid to fight wars):
Boy, President Obama is really taking it on the chin over the latest Al Qaeda threat and the closing of those 19 embassies.
On the right, he’s getting hammered by the likes of The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens, the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen, Long Island Republican Rep. Peter King and even the distinguished Bard College international relations scholar Walter Russell Mead, an Obama supporter, all accusing him of underestimating Al Qaeda’s resilience, foolishly dialing back the war on terror and trying to stop the bad guys by dialogue—all of which have brought us to this sorry juncture.
From the left comes Obama’s own campaign counter-terrorism adviser, La Salle University political scientist Michael Boyle, accusing him in the Guardian of foolishly continuing and even escalating the failed Bush administration policies that have simply made things worse and—brought us to this juncture.
Which is it? Did Obama recklessly take his foot off the gas in the war on terror, or did he recklessly floor it? Leave it to the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to point out the essential point, which is that the wheels fell off this clunker a long time ago. It was the war-on-terror strategy that created the current crisis.
The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped to create the decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike.
Robinson offers the perfect metaphor to illustrate the practical effect of the war on terror that we’ve been fighting against Al Qaeda for the past decade:
Al-Qaeda turns out to be like a pool of mercury. Hit it with a hammer and you end up with 10 little blobs instead of one big one.
Taliban and Al Qaeda members are fleeing northern Afghanistan in disarray, amid a “collapse of morale” following the death of bin Laden, Juan Cole reports on his “Informed Comment blog.
It appears that the Taliban were still linked to, and perhaps taking direction from, al-Qaeda, more than most analysts had suspected. It also appears that Bin Laden had more of an operational, strategizing role than we had thought.
If it is true that radicals are fleeing Qunduz, and indeed other provinces as well, and heading for safe havens in places like North Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, it is likely primarily because they had direct contact with Usama Bin Laden and now fear that information about them is in American hands, since the SEALS captured his hard drives and thumb drives.
Speaking of disarray, there are more and more signs of alarm within Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment regarding the cliff toward which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is resolutely leading the country.
Meir Dagan, the long-serving former Mossad director who was a close ally of Ariel Sharon, told a conference at Hebrew University on Friday that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear project, an option cherished by Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak, is “the stupidest idea I ever heard.”
Dagan was immediately lambasted by Barak and finance minister Yuval Steinitz, a frequent Netanyahu surrogate. Both said he should have kept his mouth shut. But a string of top security honchos sprang to his defense, including former Mossad directors Danny Yatom and Ephraim Halevy. So did Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee chairman Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff and Ariel Sharon’s defense minister.
Dagan has been in this movie before. The day after he stepped down as Mossad chief in January, he testified before the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee and said Iran could not acquire a nuclear bomb before 2015 at the earliest. He said that Western sanctions and various accidents plaguing the Iranian project were continually pushing the date further and further into the future. (Here is the latest Iranian public acknowledgment of the serious threat that last year’s Stuxnet virus posed to the computer guidance of their centrifuges. They say it’s mostly under control, but it’s not. Here’s the head of the Iranian miltary’s cyber-defense unit in the Iranian army describing yet another virus they found in their nuke computers just two weeks ago.)
That drove Bibi ballistic, according to numerous press reports (including this piece by Ari Shavit in Haaretz, who agreed with Bibi that Dagan was irresponsible.
Dagan sheepishly backpedaled a week later, allowing as how maybe Iran could have a bomb sooner than 2015. It seemed clear at the time that he had been bludgeoned into recanting. Now it’s obvious.