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Al-Qaeda Bid for Role in Syria Cited by Panetta as Concern

February 21, 2012

(Adds intelligence officials’ testimony starting in fifth paragraph.)

Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta expressed concern that al-Qaeda has voiced support for the opposition in Syria, a sign the group may be seeking a role in the conflict there.

“It does raise concerns for us that al-Qaeda is trying to assert a presence there,” Panetta said yesterday in response to a question during a briefing at the Pentagon. “The situation there has become that much more serious as a result of that.”

While Panetta said it’s too early to assess whether al- Qaeda is intertwined with the Syrian opposition, and if so how deeply, another U.S. official said the militant Sunni group is sending men, money and weapons to the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence on the matter is classified, said yesterday there is some evidence that the group’s Iraqi affiliate was responsible for recent bombings in Damascus, the Syrian capital, and Aleppo, the nation’s largest city.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, testifying yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, referred to two bombings in each city that “had all the earmarks of an al- Qaeda-like attack.”

“So we believe that al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria,” Clapper said.

‘Lions of Syria’

Sunni militants of al-Qaeda’s “ilk” also appear to have infiltrated the opposition in Syria, he said. “The opposition groups in many cases may not be aware that they’re there,” he said.

Al-Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is believed by the U.S. and other governments to be in hiding in Pakistan, issued an eight-minute video on Feb. 12 called, “Onward, Lions of Syria.” In it, he called on Muslims in surrounding countries, including Iraq, to aid the Syrian rebels.

In doing so, al-Qaeda in Iraq is turning on the Assad family of Syria that helped provide the group with arms and money after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Still, U.S. intelligence hasn’t seen “a clarion call” from al-Qaeda for outsiders to enter Syria and join the fight, said Army Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, who testified alongside Clapper yesterday.

Arab Spring Spectator

While al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq, Yemen and North Africa have grown increasingly independent of its diminished core leadership in Pakistan, all of them share the late leader Osama bin-Laden’s goal of toppling secular Arab rulers such as Assad and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein with the goal of opening the way for an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East and North Africa.

Al-Qaeda was a spectator to the Arab Spring rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as well as the largely Shiite uprising in Bahrain and the Shiite unrest in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The group’s numbers and power were declining even in Iraq’s largely Sunni Anbar province, the official said in an interview. It now sees an opportunity to reassert itself in Syria, the official said.

The fragmented nature of the armed Syrian opposition, the growing antipathy of fighters in the streets to exile leaders, and the reluctance or inability of Western nations or the United Nations to halt the attacks by the Assad regime have offered al- Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate an opening, he said.

Anti-Aircraft Missiles

The appearance of Iraqis affiliated with al-Qaeda has raised concern that terrorists may get their hands on some of the Assad regime’s stockpiles of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, other arms and ammunition and even chemical weapons, the official said. So far, there is no evidence that has happened.

Syria possesses “tens of thousands” of shoulder-fired missiles, Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, told defense writers in Washington on Feb. 15.

“We do wish simply to have the neighbors of Syria do some of the same prudential planning that the neighbors of Libya are doing” to prevent such weapons finding their way across the border, Countryman said.

Hezbollah in Lebanon

Stopping the flow of arms out of Syria may be even more important than in Libya’s case because of the potential they could fall into the hands of the Shiite Islamic Hezbollah movement in neighboring Lebanon, according to Matt Schroeder, a small-arms expert with the Federation of American Scientists in Washington.

An al-Qaeda presence in Syria also would create the potential for a battle between the militant Sunni group and Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Israel and others, and which receives much of its support through Iran via Assad’s Syria.

A Feb. 2 report on “Lebanon and the Uprising in Syria” by Rebecca A. Hopkins, a Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service, lists “opportunities for suspected al-Qaeda supporters” as a primary concern about the Syrian unrest.

--Editors: Larry Liebert, Terry Atlas

To contact the reporters on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at vgienger@bloomberg.net; John Walcott in Washington at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net


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