Skip to main content

Terrorist group fills power vacuum among Syria rebels

By Nada Bakos, Special to CNN
updated 10:44 AM EST, Thu January 10, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. declared a key opposition group in Syria a terrorist organization
  • New report says it is the most effective group in the opposition, with 5,000 fighters
  • Nada Bakos: The group has ties to al Qaeda but also seeks to provide social services
  • She says the chances are slim that it could be persuaded to give up radical goals

Editor's note: Nada Bakos is a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst.

(CNN) -- In the midst of the struggle against Bashar al-Assad's government stands Jabhat al-Nusra, recently designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization.

A new report by the Quilliam Foundation in London says the organization is the most effective arm of the Syrian insurgency and now fields about 5,000 fighters against the Assad regime.

Practically speaking, the terrorist designation means little that is new for the immediate struggle in Syria. Shortly after al-Nusra claimed credit for one of its early suicide bombings in January 2012, the Obama administration made known al-Nusra's connection to al Qaeda in Iraq, a group with which I was intimately familiar in my capacity as an analyst and targeting officer at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Nada Bakos
Nada Bakos

The administration's position was reinforced when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper one month later testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee that "...we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria."

Analysis: Study shows rise of al Qaeda affiliate in Syria

Al-Nusra is filling a power vacuum through charitable efforts to galvanize local support and generating influence among Syrians. In light of al-Nusra's influence in Syria, the real question is not so much about the scope and scale of al-Nusra currently, but rather how should the United States respond to its rise, particularly after al-Assad's eventual exit?

Read more: Al-Assad touts plan for resolution, says enemies of Syria 'will go to hell'

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Historically, the U.S. government seemed to believe that as soon as people are given the chance, they will choose and then create a Jeffersonian democracy. Then we are surprised, if not outraged, that people turn to organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood in electoral contests. These organizations often provide the basic necessities that people need to survive: food, water, medical care, education and security.

As ideologically distasteful as we might find them, they are often doing things corrupt, weak or failing governments do not: providing the basic necessities that people need to survive (let alone create the conditions that enable people to aspire to thrive).

Why does al-Nusra keep quiet about its ties to al Qaeda in Iraq? The documents pulled from the Abottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden shed light on his awareness that the al Qaeda brand had been deteriorating.

Read more: Appeals court to consider release of photos of bin Laden's body

U.S. calls Syrian rebel group terrorists
Unrest at Syrian refugee camp
UNICEF struggles to help Syrian refugees

Bin Laden urged regional groups, "If asked, it would be better to say there is a relationship with al Qaeda, which is simply a brotherly Islamic connection, and nothing more," according to CNN. Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had criticized the Jordanian-born founder and leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for his killing of civilians and lack of political acumen to win public support.

Talk about al Qaeda seems distant. It was a bogeyman made real in 1993 when it unsuccessfully attacked the World Trade Center and terrifyingly tangible in 2001 when its operatives succeeded in destroying the twin towers and expanded their attacks to the Pentagon and the air over Pennsylvania. Its looming shadow has since faded from the public eye, particularly with the death of bin Laden. Its vision and ideology, however, continue to have a strong appeal.

Now that al Qaeda central has a less visible role, what makes players like al-Nusra and al Qaeda in Iraq threats? Even today, after Zarqawi's death, al Qaeda in Iraq has managed to continue to wreak havoc in Iraq and in the region through an autonomous, adaptable structure.

Read more: Senior al Qaeda leader killed in Pakistan, officials say

Al-Nusra has declared itself a player in the fight for a global jihad, a bold statement for what is today a localized group . Even small groups, however, have the potential to disrupt regional stability and complicate America's pursuit of its national security objectives—a fact I learned firsthand tracking and trying to stem the rise, influence and efficacy of al Qaeda in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Zarqawi, until his death in 2006, was able to confound U.S. forces and attack Jordan by attracting recruits from North Africa (including Libya), Central Europe, Jordan and Syria.

Some of Zarqawi's earliest recruits were veterans of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that lashed out against the Syrian government during the 1980s. Captured records from a raid near the city of Sinjar, Iraq, indicated that during the 2006-2007 time frame, 8% of al Qaeda in Iraq operatives were Syrians. The percentage likely ebbed and flowed as the group formed, became influential and waned, but it suggests that there was no shortage of recruits amenable to engage in religious conflict in Syria as recently as 5-10 years ago.

Read more: What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The most striking thing about the captured records, however, is that it appears almost every foreign fighter entering Iraq to join al Qaeda in Iraq came through Syria. As a targeter, I can tell you that facilitation networks are key: they are the means by which groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq are funded, supplied and sustained. During the Iraq war, Zarqawi's top aides in Syria played a critical role in recruiting, funding and operational planning outside Iraq.

Read more: Syrian minister: Enemies 'brainwashed' slain rebel son

One of the things U.S. officials and the international media should watch for is how al-Nusra uses its terrorist designation: If it seeks to use the declaration to burnish its jihadist credentials, it might be able to bolster the image of the organization in the eyes of the extremist community and parlay that recognition into larger, or steadier, streams of funding—a development that will make the group more viable over the long-term or allow it to expand its operations or influence in the short- to mid-term.

An important differentiator between al Qaeda in Iraq and al-Nusra is one of its tactics: Zarqawi made a practice of indiscriminately killing Iraqi civilians, effectively terrorizing the Iraqi population, especially the Shiite minority. Zarqawi, despite identifying with al Qaeda, had a much thinner theological basis than al Qaeda central.

Key figures at al Qaeda central such as bin Laden and Zawahiri argued with Zarqawi over his tactics, complaining that alienating mainstream Muslims would not help achieve the over-arching goal of instilling Sharia law.

Read more: Ayman al-Zawahiri - Fast Facts

Al-Nusra is using some of the same tactics as al Qaeda in Iraq (e.g., suicide bombings, kidnappings and car bombs), but it appears to be trying to strike a balance Zarqawi was unwilling to make: Not only does it seem to be avoiding alienating—if not antagonizing—the larger population, but it also is providing the people of Syria with a range of goods and services such as food, water and medical care—basic necessities that people need to survive in the best of times, let alone when their country is in the throes of a civil war.

If this becomes a trend, it might signal that al-Nusra aspires to be more like Hezbollah or Hamas, organizations that defy neat categorization based on the range of social, political and military activities they engage in and the resultant legitimacy they have in the eyes of their constituencies.

Read more: Hamas leader unbending, but seeks Palestinian unity

In the Syrian uprising, the opportunity for meaningful U.S. intervention might have passed: Exhaustion from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll on the U.S. military, have taxed the national treasury, and sapped political will, especially as the state of the economy remains at the center of the debate in Washington.

Our absence from the fight is going to cost us if the al-Assad regime fails, leaving rebel groups like al-Nusra dictating the direction, pace and scope of a new Syria.

Read more: Syrian rebel leader talks victory and squalor

Given that managing affairs in the Middle East has never been one of our strong suits, the question at this point should be how can the United States, particularly the Department of State, best engage groups that might be inimical to U.S. values but necessary to our interests in the Middle East? For that, I am not sure there is a clear or simple answer.

One opportunity would be if the United States uses its designation of al-Nusra as both a stick and carrot, cajoling and encouraging it to enter into mainstream politics when (or if) the Assad regime falls.

My read of al-Nusra, however, is that, like Zarqawi, it does not aspire to be a political player and is unlikely to settle for a political role in the new government. Instead, it may aim to play the spoiler for any transitional government and use its resources and political violence to empower and encourage other like-minded extremists. With time and opportunity, al-Nusra could not only add to regional instability in the Middle East, but also rekindle global jihad.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nada Bakos.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT