Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Al Qaeda's potent force in Syria

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
August 30, 2013 -- Updated 1028 GMT (1828 HKT)
Turkish fighters with an al Qaeda-linked group hold positions in April in the Syrian village of Aziza outside Aleppo.
Turkish fighters with an al Qaeda-linked group hold positions in April in the Syrian village of Aziza outside Aleppo.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Bergen: U.S. may be reluctant on Syria due to role of al Qaeda-linked group
  • He says group has emerged as most effective rebel force and helps fill social needs
  • Bergen: Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate attracts the most foreign fighters in conflict
  • He says group has shown ability to stage suicide bombings, threatens U.S interests

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN) -- Why has the Obama administration been so reluctant to intervene in Syria? There are a host of reasons -- American fatigue with war, President Barack Obama's disinclination to start another conflict in the Middle East, and the splintered, fractured opposition to Bashar al-Assad.

But one reason looms large: al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, is generally acknowledged to be the most effective force fighting al-Assad.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen
Damascus 'nervous' amid airstrike fears

Its fighters are willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause, are widely viewed as uncorrupt and are not involved in looting as other opposition forces are. A number of them are battle-hardened from other conflicts such as the Iraq War.

Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate is also well supplied as it benefits from the support of Sunni ultra-fundamentalists in the wealthy Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which means the "Victory Front," was listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in December and is essentially a splinter organization of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Nusra's military prowess and close ties to al Qaeda make it a potentially serious threat to U.S. interests in the region, and the group has shown it has the ability to conduct massive suicide bombings.

A Syrian town ruled by rebels
Obama: 'I have not made a decision'
Senator to Obama: Ask Congress on Syria

In November, al-Nusra claimed responsibility for 45 attacks in the provinces of Damascus, Deraa, Hama and Homs that killed dozens of people, including one suicide bomb that reportedly resulted in 60 casualties.

It was the first insurgent organization in Syria to claim responsibility for attacks that caused civilian casualties.

Despite these civilian casualties, the group has been able to garner considerable support from Syria's Sunni population, not only because it is the premier fighting force in the campaign to topple al-Assad but also because it is involved in providing critical services such as food, medical services and Sharia courts to the embattled population.

Also, for the moment, al-Nusra is not imposing Taliban-style rule in areas that it controls as al Qaeda did in Iraq's massive Anbar province during the first years of the Iraq War. Al Qaeda's harsh rule in Iraq precipitated the 2006 "Sunni Awakening" in which Iraq's Sunni tribes rose up against the group.

Al-Nusra seems to have learned from this mistake and is operating in a Hezbollah-like manner as a large-scale provider of social services, and with the consent of the population in the areas it controls.

There is some confusion about how exactly al-Nusra fits into the larger al Qaeda network.

Al Qaeda in Iraq released a statement in April announcing its official merger with al-Nusra, proclaiming that their joint organization would be called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. A leader of al-Nusra later rejected the merger but pledged the group's support for al Qaeda's overall leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

On June 9, Al Jazeera obtained a copy of a letter from al-Zawahiri annulling the merger.

But a week later, in an audio recording posted online, al Qaeda in Iraq rejected al-Zawahiri's annulment of the merger, likely adding to the confusion of al Qaeda cadres.

Syria is a particularly agreeable environment for al Qaeda. During the Sunni insurgency in Iraq that began in 2003, it was a key base for training and supporting foreign fighters.

Al-Assad is also the perfect al Qaeda villain. He is an Shia Alawite and therefore a heretic in the eyes of the Sunni fundamentalists. He is a secularist and therefore an apostate in their view, and he is conducting a war without quarter against much of his Sunni population.

Some 2,000 to 5,500 foreign fighters are believed to have traveled to Syria since the beginning of the Syrian conflict to join the rebels who aim to topple the Assad regime.

Not all of them have necessarily joined jihadist factions of the rebel forces, but because most foreign fighters are drawn to the conflict because of a perceived religious responsibility, it is likely that these groups have drawn the lion's share of the foreigners.

Even at high-end estimates, foreign fighters make up a small portion of the forces arrayed against the Assad regime: no more than 10%.

Al-Nusra is the opposition group in Syria that attracts the most foreign fighters. It is believed that there are about 100 foreign fighters from the United Kingdom fighting in Syria.

Experts say the number of Americans fighting in Syria is likely less than 10, and only a couple of instances of Americans fighting with al-Nusra have been confirmed.

Eric Harroun, a former American solider, was charged in 2013 with conspiring to use a rocket-propelled grenade in Syria, and he admitted to fighting with al-Nusra.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT