The rise of militant jihadists in the region is one of the reasons that Western policymakers have been reluctant to arm the opposition in Syria as the country’s 19-month-old conflict intensifies.
Most of the new groups have emerged in response to local grievances, and there are few signs that they have established meaningful organizational ties with the global al-Qaeda terrorist movement or even have transnational ambitions, analysts say. But many of them embrace ideologies akin to those espoused by al-Qaeda and — as last month’s attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi illustrated — could threaten U.S. interests.
“The potential now for the globalization of these groups is there due to the fact that there is significant ideological similarity,” said Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadist movements at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The likelihood becomes greater if there is stigmatization of these groups as being part of al-Qaeda’s global jihad and if, in their own societies, they are pushed deeper into the fringes.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the scope of the threat from such movements in an address Friday that outlined the challenges for U.S. policymakers in North Africa.
“A year of democratic transition was never going to drain away reservoirs of radicalism built up through decades of dictatorship,” she said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “As we’ve learned from the beginning, there are extremists who seek to exploit periods of instability and hijack these democratic transitions.”
Growing role in Syria
Among the groups causing Western officials the most concern is the increasingly active Jabhat al-Nusra, which surfaced in Syria this year to assert responsibility for a string of mysterious suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo and is shaping up to be an energetic participant in the battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Its claims of responsibility are posted on one of the main — and tightly controlled — online forums used by al-Qaeda, suggesting at least some level of coordination.
Experts say there are also signs that the group is working more closely with the Free Syrian Army, the name used by rebel forces battling Assad’s regime.
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters operate openly at a headquarters in a mosque in the embattled northern city of Aleppo and have won praise from other rebel units for their bravery. On Friday, the group was identified as a participant in an operation to wrest control of an air defense base outside Aleppo that contained sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, according to a video posted on YouTube.