In recent weeks, there have been increasing reports in the Arab and Western press on involvement of Al-Qaeda and the global jihad movement in the fighting against the Syrian regime. Such reports should be regarded with some skepticism until confirmed by firsthand accounts testifying that Al-Qaeda, or individuals or groups affiliated with it, are indeed taking part in the fighting. That said, it is clear that these reports serve the propaganda interests of both the global jihad movement and the Bashar Al-Assad regime, which wishes to portray the uprising against it as nothing but a terrorist campaign against Syria. Indeed, the official Syrian press has depicted the rebels as a foreign force, funded and armed by certain countries in the region, that has infiltrated Syria in order to sow terror and anarchy.
The global jihad movement, for its part, wants to portray itself as the defender of the Sunni Syrian people. It should be noted that the crisis in Syria has, in many senses, helped Al-Qaeda and its affiliated ideological stream to extricate themselves from their own ideological crisis in the wake of the Arab revolutions. The nonviolent nature of the first uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and the fact that the regimes there were toppled only through mass demonstrations and civil resistance, struck a sore blow to Al-Qaeda by debunking its fundamental claim that jihad is vital to toppling the tyrannical Arab regimes. At the same time, the long and bloody war that has developed in Syria has provided Al-Qaeda an opportunity to open a new jihad front and to justify its adherence to the path of war and violence, while situating itself squarely in the camp of the larger Sunni world.
The following is an overview of some of these recent reports and developments:
Al-Qaeda Commander Ayman Al-Zawahiri: Down with Assad
On February 12, 2012, Al-Qaeda commander Ayman Al-Zawahiri published a video in which he called on the Syrians to intensify their struggle until Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is toppled. He stressed that they should not rely on the West or on Turkey, who are actually working against them, and ruled out leaning on "the corrupt Arab League," which does not want an independent Syria that fights Israel, but rather a Syria that recognizes Israel and submits to dictates from the international community. He called on the Syrians to fight until they establish "an independent government that rules according to Islam, cleanses the country of corruption, and faces the enemies of the [Islamic] nation."
Al-Zawahiri urged Muslims in the countries neighboring Syria – Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon – to support the Syrians with all means available to them, since Assad has become the enemy of all Muslims and must be eliminated. He added that ousting the Syrian regime is essential for the liberation of Jerusalem, and pressed the "Lions of Al-Sham" [i.e., the Syrian mujahideen] to "strengthen their resolve [to carry out] jihad for the sake of Allah... [in order] to establish a country that aspires to liberate the Golan, [and] which will pursue jihad until it flies the flags of victory over the mountains of oppressed Jerusalem."
Ayman Al-Zawahiri in his video message "Onward, Oh Lions of Al-Sham"
Syrian Regime: Al-Qaeda Part of Global Plot against Us
Al-Zawahiri's tape was published one day after twin bombings rocked Aleppo. Targeting security forces installations, the attacks resulted in dozens of deaths. As expected, Syrian regime spokespeople were quick to claim that Al-Qaeda had perpetrated the attack as part of a global conspiracy against Syria. For example, Syria's permanent representative to the UN, Bashar Al-Ja'afari, claimed that Al-Qaeda members had infiltrated Syria from Lebanon and Iraq to carry out the attacks, citing a U.S. report and statements by the radical cleric Sheikh Omar Bakri, who announced his intention to send men to carry out attacks. These Syrian claims were bolstered by an unexpected source when U.S. intelligence sources speculated in The New York Times that the attacks may have indeed been perpetrated by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, on orders from Al-Zawahiri himself. It was subsequently discovered that the attacks had been carried out by Jabhat Al-Nusra Li-Ahl Al-Sham (The Front for the Defense of the Syrian People), a new group affiliated with global jihad, on which there is currently very little information.
Aftermath of the Aleppo bombings.
Source: Wikipedia Commons.
To follow up on the regime's claim that the uprising is nothing more than a terrorist campaign being waged against Syria, the official Syrian press has spoken of a joint U.S.-Al-Qaeda conspiracy against the country. According to this narrative, the U.S. and the West, as well as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, have all conspired to use Al-Qaeda in order to fight the Syrian regime.[iv] Furthermore, media organs close to the regime have concocted evidence supposedly attesting to the presence of global jihad elements in Syria.[v]
Jabhat Al-Nusra: The Jihad Fighters Are the Only Hope
On January 24, after two days of promotion by means of large banners on the front page of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated message board Shumoukh Al-Islam, the site posted a video by a new group, Jabhat Al-Nusra (The Defense Front), declaring its formation. In the video, the group's leader, Abu Muhammad Al-Julani, reads out the declaration while footage is shown of protests and violence in Syrian cities, and of the organization's units training with weapons and operating in Sunni cities and population centers. Al-Julani declares that he and his men are Syrian mujahideen who have fought on various jihad fronts, especially in Iraq, and who felt obligated to come to the aid of their brethren in the face of the ongoing massacre perpetrated by the Syrian regime. He called on Syrians to recognize that the regime will only be ousted by force, and that, to that end, they must gather weapons and join the fight against it. According to Al-Julani, the jihad fighters are the Islamic nation's only hope, and those who rely on the West, the international community, Turkey, or Arab countries are worthy of condemnation.
Image from Jabhat Al-Nusra’s inaugural video
However, it should be mentioned that this video was not posted on the Al-Fidaa website, which is managed by Al-Qaeda's media company, Al-Fajr. This site completely ignored Jabhat Al-Nusra.
On February 27, 2012, Jabhat Al-Nusra released a video claiming responsibility for a January 6 attack against security forces in the Al-Midan neighborhood in Damascus and for the February 10 attacks against security facilities in Aleppo, in which dozens were killed. The video showed the explosive device used in the Damascus attack, the last statement of the suicide bomber who carried it out, and footage of the attack itself, shot at the scene. In addition, the video featured footage of bombs targeting security forces vehicles. The tactics used in the attacks, and the manner in which they were filmed, are reminiscent of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. This supports Abu Muhammad Al-Julani's statement that the group members are veterans of jihad in Iraq and elsewhere. The question of the group's affiliation to Al-Qaeda remains unanswered.
Image of Damascus bombing from Jabhat Al-Nusra video
Image of targeting Syrian army patrol, from Jabhat Al-Nusra video
It is important to note that Jabhat Al-Nusra was endorsed by several prominent clerics in the jihadi movement, notably Abu Mundhir Al-Shinqiti, a member of the shari'a committee of Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal Jihad, Abu Sa'd Al-;Ameli and the Jordanian Abu Muhammad Al-Tahawi.
Jihad and the Free Syrian Army
At the same time, various other groups displaying jihadi characteristics – such as the Al-Bara bin Malik Brigade and the Free Syrians Brigade – posted videos on Facebook and YouTube declaring their establishment. Some declared affiliation to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), while others described themselves as independent. Unlike other groups in the FSA, which fly its green-white-black flag, these groups fly a black flag bearing the message "There is not God but Allah," and utter religious slogans about fighting the heretical Alawi regime, etc. The footage in the videos indicates that these groups wish to stress the religious Islamic aspect of fighting the Syrian regime. However, since they are affiliated with the FSA, they shouldn't be seen as part of global jihad or as being tied to Al-Qaeda.
Global jihad supporters online differ in opinion of the FSA. Prominent Salafi-jihadi cleric Abu Basir Al-Tartousi, a Syrian exile based in London, has expressed explicit support for it, calling it a worthy body that is waging a blessed holy campaign against the Syrian regime. He pointed to its use of Koranic verses in statements, and to the naming of its units after the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, as evidence that it consists of loyal Muslims.
However, many in the global jihad movement do not consider the FSA worthy of acknowledgment as a representative of Syrian jihad, since it does not strive to turn Syria into an Islamic country and to instate shari'a law. These people prefer to support Jabhat Al-Nusra or hope that Al-Qaeda enters the arena.
Jihadi Forum Member: This Is a Battle between Supporters of Allah and Supporters of the Syrian Tyrant
One testimony of jihadist presence in Syria came from a member on the jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam. Al-Miqdad Al-Shami ["the Syrian"] spoke of participating in fighting against the Syrian army, and said that a group affiliated with global jihad has taken over part of Syria. Excerpts from his testimony are presented below. Note, however, that his claims that the Syrians greatly support the mujahideen and thirst for their doctrine, and that the mujahideen – whom he calls them "men of tawhid (monotheism)" – have taken over entire regions, should be taken with a grain of salt.
He writes: "Your brother Al-Miqdad Al-Shami blesses you from Al-Sham [Syria], the land of standing guard and of jihad. Let me assure you that I am well and that Allah did me the grace of introducing me to my brothers, the monotheistic mujahideen. I wish to tell my brothers, the supports of the mujahideen, and all Muslims about the magnificent grace that Allah has bestowed upon the Muslims in Syria [by allowing them to carry out] jihad against the tyrant Bashar the Nusayri [Alawi] - may Allah curse him, his father, his sect, and his supporters. By the grace of Allah... the battle is raging full force between the supporters of Allah and the supporters of the tyrant. Allah knows that the campaign is only beginning, and that, with God's help, Syria shall be free from this Alawi sect and from the rest of the heretical polytheistic sects, and will be ruled by the laws of Allah the Almighty, as it was in the days of the Companions of the Prophet [Muhammad] and those who came after them.
Al-Miqdad Al-Shami's posting in Shumoukh Al-Islam
"I wish to inform you, [my] brothers, that Allah granted a massive victory to your brethren the mujahideen in a certain area of Syria, an area we never dreamed men of tawhid would emerge from. Allah blessed them by enabling them to kill many Nusayris and their helpers, and the Alawis are now hunted by the men of tawhid, after the Muslims had suffered both [killing and hunting] at the hands of the Alawis for long decades…
"By Allah, my brothers, I hope that those who have not yet joined one of the jihad fronts receive some of this great blessing, and that Allah provides some way for them to wage jihad, so they can feel for themselves what I am feeling and [enjoy] the grace that Allah has bestowed upon me...
"Let me tell you honestly, my brothers, in the past I feared death and was always preoccupied by the thought that I might die before achieving the honor of Jihad for the sake of Allah and of fighting His enemies while angering the tyrants and their soldiers. However, now that Allah has bestowed these massive blessings upon me, I have forgotten death. All I want is that [my death] occurs on the fields of battle or while attacking the enemies of Allah.
"By Allah, how I would have loved to send you pictures of these areas and of the lions of tawhid who conquered them while their Muslim brothers gathered around them, fought under their [command] and learned the teachings of truth, tawhid, and jihad – the teachings of our Prophet Muhammad as passed on by his Companions and the [Muslim] forefathers. In these areas they have set up roadblocks, and they conduct patrols in order to hunt down the Alawis and their helpers, the heretical collaborators. They have fortified their positions with barricades and booby traps to thwart an assault by Alawi armored vehicles...
"Entire regions are rebelling against the heretics, and the heretics have no option other than to shell the area from the air or with cannon. But they dare not [launch a direct assault], because they know what the lions of tawhid have prepared for them... As for the situation on the other Syrian fronts – it is good, and we are utilizing attack and withdrawal tactics. The Muslim rebels use guerrilla tactics and have caused heavy losses to the Alawi army... By Allah, dozens of regime tanks have been hunted and destroyed while still on the transport trucks, before even hitting the ground, and this is a blessing Allah has bestowed upon the men of tawhid...
"Let me tell you that the remnants of Islam in Syria have made up their minds regarding this regime and the [Alawi] sect: they will defeat it and purge Syria of and its supporters, or die trying."
Declarations of Jihad against the Syrian Regime in Jordan
One of the spiritual leaders of the Salafi-jihadi stream in Jordan, Sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Tahawi, issued a declaration of jihad against the Assad regime, and called to defeat the Alawis. He wrote: "This is a message from the humble servant of his Lord, Abu Muhammad Al-Tahawi, to all men of monotheism who may receive it, in which I declare jihad on the [Ariel] Sharon of Syria, [Bashar Al-Assad]. I can find no excuse for me or my brothers, since God ordered us to mobilize and fend off the assault of the enemy who launched a bloodthirsty attack on the Sunnis, killing their children, elderly, and women while [continuing] its acts of corruption, indifferent and arrogant like the tyrants who came before it. The disaster he brings upon us cannot be fought off except by sending our sons to cause it agony and cut off its limbs and the limbs of its criminal soldiers – just as Allah unleashed Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, [the former commander of Al-Qaeda in Iraq] on the Iraqi Shi'ites – the pack mules of the Crusaders and the Jews...
The market of sacrifice is open for business. The scent of paradise wafts from Dera; [the fighters of] Homs and Hama are knocking on the gates of Heaven with their [spilled] blood and [severed] organs; the flags of victory fly over Dir Al-Zur and Albukamal; and angels spread their wings over Syria, home of the Muslims. Hasten! Hasten and defeat the Nusayris [Alawis]..."
The London daily Al-Hayat reported that this fatwa encouraged several jihadists to travel to Syria, and that Jordanian security forces arrested some of them as they attempted to cross the border. However, Al-Tahawi's fatwa sparked controversy in Salafi-jihadi circles regarding the proper way to wage jihad against the Syrian regime. Some figures in these circles said that at the current stage, support for the jihad in Syria should be done by donating money and weapons, and that only skilled military commanders should travel there, due to the dangers that face those who try to enter the country.
Salafi-Jihadi Stream in Gaza Uses Syrian Crisis to Attack Hamas
The Syrian crisis and the ensuing schism in the Islamic world between the majority of the Sunni camp, which has sided with the popular uprising, and Assad's allies, have given the global jihad movement a chance to present itself as part of the Sunni consensus. Thus, for example, the Salafi-jihadi movement in Gaza expressed support of the Syrian people, and used the opportunity to get even with Hamas by attacking its longstanding alliance with Syria and Iran. A flyer circulated by the Ibn Taymiyyah Media Center, the media wing of the Gazan Salafi-jihadi movement, titled "Come Wage Jihad in Syria," stated: "All sons of the Islamic nation should come to the aid of their brethren in Syria with all means available to them. No one has an excuse today. It is a duty to help in body and mind, or alternatively, with weapons and funds, or words and articles, and to pray for [the Syrians] at all times.
"Anyone who collaborates with the Syrian regime in any way is a legitimate target for Muslims. [The collaborators'] interests all over the world are legitimate targets for Muslims, in order to pressure those countries in a way that will serve the cause of our brethren in Syria and will not harm the Muslims [in Syria]. Silence in the face of what is happening to our brethren in Syria is an overt crime, and [constitutes] collaboration with the criminal Alawi regime. In war there [can be] no neutrality between Islam and unbelief. Refraining from aiding our brethren in [religiously] permissible ways violates the bond of loyalty [among Muslims] that Allah commanded his loyal servants [to uphold].
"Political aid for the Shi'ites in Iran [in the form of] an official visit [by Hamas Leader Isma’il Haniya to Tehran in February], including the exchange of kisses and laughter, on the so-called anniversary of the Khomeini Revolution, while the blood of the innocents is flowing through the streets and neighborhoods of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Baba 'Amr, and Latakia, and while young women are being raped and children are being butchered to the beat of Shi'ite-Alawi hatred, with the direct political and military support of Iran and of the fatwas issued by Shi'ite clerics… - contradicts religion, morality, manliness, and shame.
"All honest Muslims in Palestine should prove their loyalty and support the Sunnis in Syria with all means available. At the very least, they should publicly protest and sympathize with them, in order to tell our brothers in Syria: We are with you and we will not abandon you. Blood for blood, destruction for destruction. By Allah, if it wasn't for the walls, the borders and the Jews, we would have rushed to your [aid] in order to defend your blood and honor..."
Saudi Cleric: Killing Assad is More Important than Killing Israelis
As fighting in Syria escalates, calls for a holy war against the Syrian regime have also increased among mainstream Muslim clerics in Syria and elsewhere. In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, 'Aidh Al-Qarni, one of the most prominent clerics in Saudi Arabia, called to kill Assad. He said: "It is a duty for Muslim jurisprudents to assist the Syrian people against the treacherous regime... The Syrian people should take up arms against Bashar... Bashar has lost his legitimacy, and must be killed, because he is a murderer. He murdered hundreds of children and destroyed mosques instead of fulfilling his duty to defend the Golan." Al-Qarni claimed that 500 clerics have issue a fatwa against the Syrian regime, and explained: "These clerics believe that the regime is illegitimate, and that it is a duty for the Syrian people to carry out jihad and take up arms against this regime. At the present time, killing Bashar is a greater duty than killing Israelis."
The Imam of the Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas mosque, the largest in the Idlib area, said in his Friday sermon on March 2, 2012: "Oh, Muslims, Allah ordered you to fight the tyrant until he obeys the word of Allah, as well as those who have made your blood and honor forfeit and committed heresy against Islam. [Regime members] publicize their animosity towards Allah, and their war is against humanity..." Worshipers left the mosque shouting "jihad!" and "millions of martyrs are headed for Paradise." The Algerian daily Al-Shorouq, which reported on the sermon, mentioned that it was the first time a cleric inside Syria has called for a holy war.
The general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Himam Sa'id, ruled that fighting the Assad regime in Syria constitutes a "religious obligation." According to him, this obligation means that "every Muslim should assist the FSA, which is standing up to the army of crime, evil, and aggression, and the [Islamic] nation should stand by them. FSA soldiers are mujahideen, and those of them who are killed are martyrs." At the same time, Sa'id called to continue the peaceful protests against the Assad regime. It should be mentioned that, according to Sa'id, the duty to fight applies only to the citizens of Syria itself, meaning that it is not a holy war that all capable Muslims should take part in.
 See for instance: MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 4459, "Lebanese Daily 'Al-Akhbar': 'Al-Qaeda is Paving Its Path With Determination' in Lebanon and Syria; 'The Day Appears Nigh When All [Its] Sleeper Cells [There] Will Awaken'", January 29, 2012, Lebanese Daily 'Al-Akhbar': 'Al-Qaeda is Paving Its Path With Determination' in Lebanon and Syria; 'The Day Appears Nigh When All [Its] Sleeper Cells [There] Will Awaken'.
 Alfidaa.info, February 11, 2012. On Al-Zawahiri's statement, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 4490, "In A New Video Message, Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri Calls upon Syrians to 'March Forward Towards Death' in Order to Achieve Life," February 13, 2012, In A New Video Message, Al-Qaeda Leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri Calls upon Syrians to 'March Forward Towards Death' in Order to Achieve Life.
 Al-Watan (Syria), February 14, 2012.
 See articles by Ma'an Hamia and Misun Youssef in the Syrian daily Al-Watan, published on February 14 and February 23, respectively.
See MEMRI JTTM report, "Bogus Reports on Pro-Assad Media on Massive Presence of Jihadis in Syria," February 23, 2012, http://www.memrijttm.org/content/en/blog_personal.htm?id=5786¶m=GJN.
 For Al-Shinqiti's endorsement, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 4565, "Fatwa by Senior Salafi-Jihadi Cleric: Muslims Are Obligated to Join the Ranks of the Syrian Jihadi Group 'Jabhat Al-Nusra'", March 13, 2012, Fatwa by Senior Salafi-Jihadi Cleric: Muslims Are Obligated to Join the Ranks of the Syrian Jihadi Group 'Jabhat Al-Nusra'.
 For more on the debate regarding the FSA, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 4522, "Spat between Senior Jihadi Cleric Abu Basir Al-Tartousi and Online Jihadis over Free Syrian Army", February 26, 2012, Spat between Senior Jihadi Cleric Abu Basir Al-Tartousi and Online Jihadis over Free Syrian Army.
 Al-Hayat (London), February 17, 2012.
 Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), February 26, 2012.
 Al-Shorouq (Algeria), March 2, 2012.
 Al-Sabil (Jordan), February 12, 2012.