Al-Qa’ida in Iraq has said it has united with the most militant and effective Syrian rebel group, the al-Nusra Front, in a move likely to embarrass Western countries supporting Syrian insurgents seeking to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Qa’ida’s umbrella organisation in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, said in a statement posted on Islamic fundamentalist websites that his group had helped create al-Nusra, had funded it and reinforced it with experienced al-Qa’ida fighters from Iraq. He said: “It’s now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and the world that al-Nusra Front is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it.” The United States has labelled al-Nusra a “terrorist” group.
Al-Nusra has been at the forefront of the fighting in and around Aleppo and appears to have been behind a series of car bombings in Damascus. Some 15 people were killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up near the Central Bank in Damascus on Monday. Its use of suicide bombers, foreign volunteers and fundamentalist rhetoric, targeting non-Sunni Syrians as heretics or disbelievers, is similar to the tactics and ideology of al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
Many opposition military and political factions have sought to downplay evidence that the uprising in Syria is dominated by jihadi and salafi movements preaching holy war. Al-Nusra is not the only such organisation and it was Ahrar al-Sham, another well-organised Islamic fundamentalist group, which led the assault on Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition earlier this year. Al-Nusra also played an important role in the fighting while the Western-backed Free Syrian Army was largely absent. Religious courts have been set up in Raqqa, and al-Nusra has sought to ban the sale of cigarettes as un-Islamic.
Mr Al-Baghdadi said in a 21-minute audio talk that the new united group operating in both Iraq and Syria would in future be called The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Sham being the name for Syria and the surrounding area. He said that al-Qa’ida in Iraq had been devoting half its budget to supporting al-Nusra, of which the overall leader will apparently be Mr Al-Baghdadi himself.
The Sunni majority areas of Iraq in Western Anbar and Nineveh provinces share a common border with eastern Syria which is increasingly falling under rebel control. The degree of co-ordination was underscored early last month when 48 Syrian soldiers who had fled into Iraq were ambushed and killed at Akashat as they were being returned to Syria. An Iraqi intelligence officer was quoted as saying that al-Qa’ida in Iraq and al-Nusra have three joint training camps in the border area where they share training, logistics, intelligence and weapons.
The US, Britain and France, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have promoted and financed other factions of the opposition. But, while supposedly more moderate, these have often been denounced by Syrians in areas they control as being little more than bandits and incapable of maintaining civil government.