Al-Qaeda in Iraq attacks places of worship, culture and education deeming them blasphemous, officials say. Above, a theatre in Samarra, Salaheddine province, lays in ruin, after an AQI attack in 2008. (Mohammed al-Qaisi/Mawtani)
As tensions increase between Syrian citizens and members of extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) Iraqi officials, researchers and security leaders warned of similarities between JAN and al-Qaeda in Iraq in terms of ideology and strategy.
They called on the Syrian people and other opposition group to prevent members of the JAN from taking over their revolution, warning that though both sides share the common goal of toppling the regime of President Bashar Assad, JAN has other intentions.
“We are monitoring with concern the recent attacks conducted by the extremist JAN in Syria because it is ruining the situation there,” said acting Iraqi Defence Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi. “JAN is turning its attacks on the people, just as al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups did in Iraq.”
He said attacks on churches and destruction of statues, archaeological sites and sacred shrines bears resemblance to what al-Qaeda did in Iraq in past years.
In February, Syrians from the Idlib town of Maaret al-Numan accused JAN of cutting off the head of a statue in town of the poet Abu al-Alaa al-Maari, who was born there, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
They posted pictures online of a headless dark brown bust riddled with bullet holes, lying on the ground near its former pedestal.
In December 2012, the Universal Syriac Union Party condemned alleged JAN attacks on citizens’ houses, private possessions and houses of worship in Ras al-Ain, Hasakeh province.
The party said the violations included the desecration of religious symbols as well as attacking the Syriac school and destroying its contents.
JAN attacks indicate only one thing, al-Dulaimi told Mawtani. “They are terrorists and different from the other revolutionaries”.
“This confirms al-Qaeda’s ideology and style are the same, anytime, anywhere, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Syria,” al-Dulaimi said.
The Syrian people alone can determine their future, and they “must not allow anyone to take away their freedom, because allowing terrorist groups to proliferate there is a repeat of the Iraqi scenario”, he said.
JAN TIES TO AL-QAEDA IN IRAQ
According to a recent report published by counter-extremism think tank Quilliam Foundation, “many members of JAN come from the jihadist network of Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi”, which was created in 2000 and solidified in Baghdad in 2002.
“Syrians who had been with al-Zarqawi in Herat, Afghanistan, in 2000 were sent to build branches of his network in Syria and Lebanon,” the report said.
“With approximately 5,000 members, JAN is by no means the largest group fighting in the [current] conflict, although it has often been described as the most effective,” Quilliam said.
Lt. Gen. Radhi al-Malhamy, commander of Iraqi army operations in Anbar province, which borders Syria, spoke to the similarities between JAN and al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group al-Zarqawi eventually joined.
“Attacks by JAN in Syria remind us of horrific attacks by al-Qaeda that targeted houses of worship, such as churches, husseiniyas, mosques, sacred shrines, archaeological sites, statues, monuments and even artwork, which are all considered by al-Qaeda in Iraq as blasphemous and atheistic,” he told Mawtani.
“Syrians cannot trade a fever for certain death, nor can Syria be reduced to one faction. It is a country with multiple sects, religions and cultures, and groups [like JAN] will eventually begin to target people’s personal freedoms and their beliefs, and may even ban women from driving cars, wearing modern clothes or listening to music,” al-Malhamy said.
He advised Syrians to tighten the noose on JAN and boycott it completely, saying “after everything is over”, it will turn to kill them inside their homes.
“We are confident the Iraqi experience is sufficient for all people to learn the lesson of al-Qaeda and the terror it unleashed in past years,” he said.
According to al-Malhamy, JAN’s spread in Syria would not only threaten security in the country, but in the region as a whole.
He called on the Free Syrian Army to “assume responsibility for protecting Syria against them, and preventing them from hijacking the revolution from the people”.
‘ACT SWIFTLY TO REJECT JAN’
Meanwhile, Col. Mohammed al-Rubaie, deputy commander of border guard forces along the Iraqi-Syrian border, said the “majority of the terrorists involved in killing hundreds of Iraqis fled to Syria after security forces killed or cornered many of their fellow criminals”.
They formed JAN “after they found in the troubled situation in Syria a suitable environment for establishing an al-Qaeda branch, as happened in Iraq the first time”, he said.
He said the blood of their Iraqi victims — children, women and the elderly — has not dried yet.
“Soon you will be like them unless you act swiftly to eradicate [JAN members] by boycotting and rejecting them. At the present moment, it is possible to deal with them and wipe them out as a social disease, but if they spread and expand more than they have so far, it will become very difficult,” he added.
Sheikh Ahmed Abu Reesha, head of the anti-al-Qaeda Iraqi Sahwa Council, also appealed to “all mothers and fathers in all Syrian cities to prevent your sons, particularly teenagers and enthusiastic youth, from joining those who promote the terrorist project JAN — the ones with beards, black banners and resonant slogans”.
He said now JAN members are destroying statues and the arts, and “afterwards they will move to destroy people by way of killings, arsons and torture, if the people do not side with them.”
He said that by then, “all the sacrifices of the Syrian people will have gone in vain”.
‘AL-QAEDA CANNOT BE A REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT AGAINST PERSECUTION’
Fouad Ali, an expert on al-Qaeda in Iraq and member of the security committee at Anbar provincial headquarters, told Mawtani “al-Qaeda cannot in any way be a revolutionary movement against persecution”.
It cannot be “because it is an ideology based on calling others apostates, and opposing the principles of democracy and freedom. It is presently fighting in Syria not to establish a free, pluralistic, democratic system, but rather to find an alternative to [being in] Iraq, after security forces triumphed over it”, he said.
Ali said JAN now resembles to a large extent the Tawhid wal Jihad group when it came to Iraq, “which soon enough revealed its name as al-Qaeda”.
“JAN will reveal its identity openly under the name of al-Qaeda in Bilad al-Sham, but we hope and wish the Syrians do not fall into the trap as Iraqis did in the past,” he said.