The leader of al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch, the Islamic State of Iraq, announced on Tuesday the formal merger of his organization and Jabhat al-Nusra (“Victory Front”), an al-Qaeda-controlled front group that has played a growing role inside Syria.
Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared, “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.” He renamed the union the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The announcement came two days after al-Qaeda’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for the establishment of an Islamist state in Syria. The timing and content of the two announcements demonstrates that al-Qaeda’s central command retains its leading role in guiding its regional franchises and remains a potent threat—despite repeated claims by the Obama Administration that al-Qaeda has been defeated and is “on the run.”
Like many other countries destabilized by the Arab Spring, Syria offers al-Qaeda an important opportunity to expand its influence. The brutal repression meted out by the Alawite-dominated Bashar al-Assad regime has spurred sectarian tensions that Sunni supremacists such as al-Qaeda easily can exploit, and the growing anarchy inside Syria has created a power vacuum that it hopes to fill.
Al-Qaeda has already established a zone of influence in northern Syria and controls 90 percent of Syria’s oil wells and much of its food and cotton crops. After the fall of the Assad regime, al-Qaeda will also push to establish bases closer to Israel, which would allow it to launch a terrorist campaign against the Jewish state that would boost its popularity and claim to leadership in hard-line Islamist and Arab circles.
The Obama Administration’s feckless Syria policy has also given al-Qaeda an opening to establish itself as the champion of Syrian Sunni Muslims while the United States and other Western powers remain on the sidelines of the conflict. The lack of effective Western aid for the opposition has magnified the impact of arms aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which has favored Islamist groups at the expense of secular and nationalist opposition groups.
The Administration’s failure to retain a residual military force in Iraq also undermined counterterrorism efforts, which contributed to the revival of al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq. Last year, al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq threatened to attack targets inside the United States. And the terrorist organization is likely to grow even stronger by expanding into Syria.
The bottom line is that al-Qaeda now is well-positioned to carve out a sanctuary inside Syria that will pose a mounting threat to the U.S. and its allies—particularly Israel, Jordan, and Turkey.