Ayman al-Zawahri speaks from an unknown location.
WASHINGTON: Al-Qaida’s top leadership in Pakistan, badly weakened after a decade of CIA drone strikes, has decided that the terror group’s future lies in Syria and has secretly dispatched more than a dozen of its most seasoned veterans there, according to senior US and European intelligence and counterterrorism officials.
The movement of the senior al-Qaida jihadis reflects Syria’s growing importance to the terrorist organization and most likely foreshadows an escalation of the group’s bloody rivalry with the Islamic State, Western officials say.
The operatives have been told to start the process of creating an alternate headquarters in Syria and lay the groundwork for possibly establishing an emirate through al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to compete with the Islamic State, from which Nusra broke in 2013. This would be a significant shift for al-Qaida and its affiliate, which have resisted creating an emirate, or formal sovereign state, until they deem conditions on the ground are ready. Such an entity could also pose a heightened terrorist threat to the United States and Europe.
Al-Qaida operatives have moved in and out of Syria for years. Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s supreme leader in Pakistan, dispatched senior jihadis to bolster the Nusra Front in 2013. A year later, al-Zawahri sent to Syria a shadowy al-Qaida cell called Khorasan that US officials say has been plotting attacks against the West.
But establishing a more enduring presence in Syria would present the group with an invaluable opportunity, Western analysts said. A Syria-based al-Qaida state would not only be within closer striking distance of Europe but also benefit from the recruiting and logistical support of fighters from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Al-Zawahri released his first audio statement in several months in early May, and it seemed to clear the way for the al-Qaida figures to use the Nusra Front to form an emirate in Syria with his blessing. Some Nusra leaders, however, oppose the timing of such a move, so the affiliate has not yet taken that step.
“The combination of an al-Qaeda emirate and a revitalized al-Qaeda central leadership in northern Syria would represent a confidence boost for the jihadi organization’s global brand,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, wrote this month in Foreign Policy.
“Al Qaeda would present itself as the smart, methodical and persistent jihadi movement that, in contrast to the Islamic State, had adopted a strategy more aligned with everyday Sunni Muslims,” Lister wrote.
Al-Qaida and the Islamic State have the same ultimate objective to create an Islamic state, but they have used different tactics, Lister and other scholars said. The Islamic State moved quickly to impose harsh, unilateral control over territory in Iraq and Syria and declare its independence. The Nusra Front has painstakingly sought to build influence over areas it wants to control and with other Syrian rebel groups opposed to the government of President Bashar Assad.
US officials say the Islamic State has largely eclipsed al-Qaida in the global jihadi hierarchy, with al-Qaida hemorrhaging members to its more brutal and media-savvy rival. Many of the Khorasan operatives, including their leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, have been killed in eight US airstrikes in northwest Syria since September 2014.
The Islamic State has between 19,000 and 25,000 fighters, roughly divided between Iraq and Syria, US intelligence analysts estimate. The Nusra Front has about 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, all in Syria.
An emirate would differ from the Islamic State caliphate in the scale of its ambition, in that a Nusra emirate would not claim to be a government for all the world’s Muslims.
Some senior US and European intelligence and law enforcement officials say the small but steady movement