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Al Qaeda joins Syrian war

world Updated: Jul 26, 2012 00:56 IST
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It is the sort of image that has become a staple of the Syrian revolution, a video of masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s — with one unsettling difference.

In the background hang two flags of al Qaeda, white Arabic writing on a black field.

“We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of God,” said a speaker in the video using the classical Arabic favoured by al Qaeda.

The video, posted on YouTube, is one more bit of evidence that al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are doing their best to hijack the Syrian revolution, with a growing although still limited success that has US intelligence officials publicly concerned, and Iraqi officials next door alarmed.

While leaders of the Syrian political and military opposition continue to deny any role for the extremists, al Qaeda has helped to change the nature of the conflict, injecting the weapon they perfected in Iraq — suicide bombings — into the battle against President Bashar Assad with growing frequency.

The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including those operating under the banner of al Qaeda.

The presence of jihadists in Syria has accelerated in recent days in part because of a convergence with the sectarian tensions across the country’s long border in Iraq.

Al Qaeda, through an audio statement, has just made an undisguised bid to link its insurgency in Iraq with the revolution in Syria, depicting both as sectarian conflicts — Sunnis versus Shiite.

Iraqi officials said that the extremists operating in Syria are in many cases the very same militants striking across their country.

“We are 100% sure from security coordination with Syrian authorities that the wanted names that we have are the same wanted names that the Syrian authorities have, especially within the last three months,” Izzat al-Shahbandar — a close aide to the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki — said in an interview Tuesday.

However, the mainstream Syrian opposition is uniform in its opposition to a role for al Qaeda in its uprising.

In hard-pressed Deir Ezzor, a Free Syrian Army brigade leader said in an interview that he had heard rumors about al-Qaida fighters, but never actually seen one.