WASHINGTON – The Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, seeking to exploit the bloody turmoil in Syria to reassert its potency, carried out two recent bombings in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and likely was behind suicide bombings Friday that killed at least 28 people in the largest city, Aleppo, U.S. officials told McClatchy Newspapers.
The officials cited U.S. intelligence reports on the incidents, which appear to verify Syrian President Bashar Assad’s charges of al-Qaida involvement in the 11-month uprising against his rule. The Syrian opposition has claimed that Assad’s regime, which has responded with massive force against the uprising, staged the bombings to discredit the pro-democracy movement calling for his ouster.
The international terrorist network’s presence in Syria also raises the possibility that Islamic extremists will try to hijack the uprising, which would seriously complicate efforts by the United States and its European and Arab partners to force Assad’s regime from power.
The U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the bombings came on the orders of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian extremist who assumed leadership of al-Qaida’s Pakistan-based central command after the May 2011 death of Osama bin Laden. They suggest that al-Zawahiri still wields considerable influence over the network’s affiliates despite the losses the Pakistan-based core group has suffered from missile-firing CIA drones and other intensified U.S. counterterrorism operations.
U.S. officials said that al-Qaida in Iraq, or AQI, began pushing to become involved in Syria as Assad’s security forces and gangs of loyalist thugs launched a vicious crackdown on opposition demonstrations, igniting large-scale bloodshed. Growing numbers of army deserters and civilians have joined an armed insurrection, and perhaps thousands of people have been killed.
Al-Zawahiri finally authorized AQI to begin operations in Syria, the officials said, in what’s believed to be the first time that the branch has operated outside of Iraq.
U.S. officials believe that the Sunni Muslim AQI was looking to expand beyond Iraq, where it has been stepping up attacks on majority Shiites. In Syria, Assad heads a regime dominated by Alawites, a minority Shiite Muslim sect that has ruthlessly ruled the Sunni Muslim-majority country since Assad’s father seized power in a 1963 coup.
“This has less to do with the targets and more to do with the opportunity,” said a U.S. official with access to the intelligence reports.
Fears of AQI’s widening ambitions are one reason why the United States wants to maintain good relations with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki despite concerns over his increasingly autocratic rule, a second U.S. official said.
“We desperately need to partner with him (al-Maliki) to go after al-Qaida. We think we can,” the official said.
The first Damascus attack occurred Dec. 23, when suicide bombers detonated cars packed with explosives outside intelligence agency compounds in the Syrian capital. At least 44 people were killed and more than 160 wounded. Then, on Jan. 6, at least 26 people were killed and dozens injured in a bombing against a second intelligence agency compound.
As regime forces continued pummeling the opposition stronghold of Homs on Friday, two suicide bombers driving explosives-packed vehicles attacked security compounds in Aleppo, killing at least 28 people. It was the first significant violence to strike the commercial center, which has largely remained loyal to Assad.