Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi jailbreak may have Syrian consequences

Syria is the obvious destination for the hundreds of jihadis now on the run

A Free Syrian Army fighter rides a motorbike along a damaged street filled with debris in Deir al-Zor, Syria, yesterday. Photograph: Karam Jamal/Reuters

A Free Syrian Army fighter rides a motorbike along a damaged street filled with debris in Deir al-Zor, Syria, yesterday. Photograph: Karam Jamal/Reuters


The escape of dozens of high-level al-Qaeda members from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq last Sunday may have far-reaching consequences in next-door Syria, say analysts.

Responsibility for the attack on the infamous prison, which left 10 policemen dead, was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate in the country.

In April the group announced it had expanded into Syria to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis). It has since been fighting both Syrian government forces and other rebel groups in northern Syria while increasing its number of attacks in Iraq.

“The variety of al-Qaeda franchises and offshoots have expanded their area of operations as a result of the conflict in Syria and its knock-on in the already fragile areas of western Iraq,” said London Foreign Policy Centre research associate James Denselow.

Daring assault
Iraqi officials said about 800 inmates escaped from Abu Ghraib but 400 have been captured or killed. Among them are hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters, including numerous leading members of the Islamic State in Iraq still thought to be on the run in one of the most daring assaults on Iraqi security since the 2003 invasion.

In Syria, the al-Qaeda-linked Isis has bloomed in recent months. It has taken over partial leadership of the most successful Syrian jihadi group, Jabhat al-Nusra, and has been fighting Kurdish militant groups for more than a week.

All of which means that for the hundreds of jihadis now on the run since Sunday Syria is the obvious destination.

“The abandonment of large areas of the north/northeast of the country by the Syrian regime means that it is likely far easier for al-Qaeda in Iraq to operate in Syria,” said Mr Denselow.

The Syrian government withdrew from Kurdish regions last July to concentrate its forces on major cities in the west and south.

The growth of jihadi activity has also emboldened the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, which claimed from the beginning of protests in March 2011 to be fighting back against extremists and “terrorists”. The United Nations says at least 93,000 lives have been lost over the past 28 months with neither rebel groups nor the Syrian military likely to prevail soon.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst with the Washington DC-based Jamestown Foundation, said Syria would increasingly become a fertile ground for al-Qaeda activity due to the breakdown of the central state in Syria and the ongoing civil war.

“Jihadi groups now recruit for Syrian Islamist armed groups in many countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as shown by pictures of passports from Islamist insurgents found in Syria,” he said.

Isis fighters have been locked in battles with Kurdish militants in northeast Syria over control of a string of towns and the exchange of prisoners. Kurdish militias have kidnapped Isis leaders and dozens from both sides have been killed in recent fighting.

Syria’s northeastern provinces are populated mostly by Kurds, which make up about 15 per cent of Syria’s population. Last week Kurdish leaders issued a declaration to temporarily establish an autonomous state. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party said Kurds were not seeking to declare independence in Syria but rather to establish functioning institutions to govern Kurdish-populated areas.

Analysts, however, warn against the idea of a sustained conflict between Kurds and jihadi groups, but say Syria is increasingly looking like a launching pad from where jihadis could establish an Islamic state.

“Their nominal aim of ‘an Islamic state’ or return to a ‘caliphate’ is almost by definition one that does not recognise poorly demarcated and increasingly unprotected international borders – giving these highly networked groups strategic depth that makes them both harder to combat and more effective in an operational sense,” said Mr Denselow.