Middle East
4:48 am
Thu May 10, 2012

Jihadist Group In Syria Carries Out Violent Attacks

Originally published on Thu May 10, 2012 8:17 am

It was Friday, April 27, when a car bomb exploded in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan. Syrian state television showed soldiers and civilians running from the smoke of the explosion under a bridge. Then the camera closed in on streams of blood and body parts.

The Syrian regime's narrative is that the uprising that has gripped the country for more than a year is not a case of people protesting and sometimes fighting for their rights; the official stance is that it's terrorism.

Days after the April attack, that narrative seemed to be validated, as a new jihadist organization released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack in Midan. The al-Qaida-style terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra Li-Ahl al-Sham, or Front to Protect the Syrian People, has apparently entered the fray.

Following the group's claim to the attack, alarmist media stories emerged about how rebels who oppose the Syrian regime have worked with foreign fighters and that they make their own bombs.

Terrorism experts say, however, that it isn't quite so simple.

Some See Democracy As Religion

Brian Fishman has been studying jihadist groups in Syria's neighbor, Iraq, for years. He says so far, Jabhat al-Nusra appears to be legitimate. Online, he says, they use the typical jihadi icons and rhetoric.

"Moreover, the [Jabhat al-Nusra] as a group has been embraced by the jihadi community online," Fishman says, "including some important scholars, particularly in Jordan, but other major figures, ideological figures, within the jihadi trend."

Still, the group is very small, he says, and not necessarily aligned with the protesters and the rebels in Syria. While jihadists might have the same goal as the protesters and the rebels — overthrowing the Syrian regime — Fishman says they don't have the same plan for what happens after that overthrow. And they certainly don't have the same ideology.

"From their world view, democracy is a religion because it asserts the sovereignty of human beings over the sovereignty of God," Fishman says. "So when they see protesters in Syria calling for democracy, they believe that this is a call for the imposition of a religious system that is antithetical to the system they would like to install."

For now, Fishman says, the jihadists might be willing to put these differences aside and work with the protesters and the rebels. That's not to say the protesters and the rebels want to work with them, though.

'The Disintegration Of Order'

The irony in all this is that the presence of these jihadi groups might actually strengthen the regime in the short term, by scaring Christians and other minorities in Syria into believing the regime is their sole protector. It could also scare off the international community, which fears any intervention might only attract more jihadists.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton University, used to be the policy planning director at the State Department. She says the presence of jihadist groups in Syria shouldn't dissuade the U.S. and its allies from intervening. Rather, she says, it should wake them up to the dangers that a prolonged conflict in Syria could create.

"If countries in the region and beyond start seeing this as the disintegration of order within which any number of groups can then act," she says, "that becomes an even greater danger than simply an internal civil war spilling over borders, which is bad enough."

Slaughter says one major threat is the Syrian regime's stockpile of chemical weapons. No one would like to see those fall into the hands of jihadists.

She says while the jihadist presence in Syria might help the Syrian regime in the short term, it could eventually force the international community to intervene — and change the regime's narrative for good.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Thursday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

In Syria, there are more signs that a U.N.-brokered peace plan is failing. Two large explosions rocked the center of the capital, Damascus, this morning. Dozens of people were killed in the blasts, which also did heavy damage to a military intelligence headquarters. The Syrian government and the main opposition group in the country have traded blame for the blasts.

Amid all this ongoing violence, there are deepening fears that an al-Qaida-style terrorist group may have entered the fray. As NPR's Kelly McEvers reports, the group began making its presence felt earlier this year.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It was Friday, late last month, when a car bomb exploded in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MCEVERS: Syrian state television showed soldiers and civilians running from the smoke of the explosion under a bridge. Then the camera comes in close, focusing on streams of blood and body parts.

This is the Syrian regime's narrative about the uprising that has gripped its country for more than a year now. It's not an uprising of people protesting and sometimes fighting for their rights, the regime wants you to believe. It's terrorism.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Days later, that narrative seemed to be validated, as a new jihadist organization calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra Li-Ahl al-Sham, or the Front to Protect the Syrian People, released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack in Midan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)

MCEVERS: This is one of their propaganda videos.

Alarmist media stories followed about the fact that rebels who oppose the Syrian regime have worked with foreign fighters, that they make their own bombs. But terrorism experts say it's not quite so simple.

Brian Fishman has been studying jihadist groups in Syria's neighbor, Iraq, for years. He says so far Jabhat al-Nusra, or JN, appears to be legitimate. Online, he says, they use the typical jihadi icons and rhetoric.

BRIAN FISHMAN: Moreover, the JN as a group has been embraced by the jihadi community online, including some important scholars, particularly in Jordan, but other major figures, ideological figures, within the jihadi trend.

MCEVERS: But still, the group is very small, Fishman says, and not necessarily aligned with the protesters and the rebels in Syria. While jihadists might have the same goal as the protesters and the rebels - overthrowing the Syrian regime - Fishman says they don't have the same plan for what happens after that overthrow. And they certainly don't have the same ideology.

FISHMAN: From their worldview, democracy is a religion because it asserts the sovereignty of human beings over the sovereignty of God. So when they see protesters in Syria calling for democracy, they believe that this is a call for the imposition of a religious system that is antithetical to the system that they would like to install.

MCEVERS: For now, Fishman says, the jihadists might be willing to put these differences aside and work with the protesters and the rebels. But that's not to say the protesters and the rebels want to work with them.

The irony in all this is that the presence of these jihadist groups might actually strengthen the regime in the short term by scaring Christians and other minorities in Syria into believing the regime is their sole protector and by scaring off the international community, which fears any intervention might only attract more jihadists.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is a professor at Princeton University, who used to be the policy planning director at the State Department. She says the presence of jihadist groups in Syria shouldn't dissuade the U.S. and its allies from intervening. Rather, she says, it should wake them up to the dangers that a prolonged conflict in Syria could create.

ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER: If countries in the region and beyond start seeing this as the disintegration of order within which any number of groups can then act, that becomes an even greater danger than simply an internal civil war spilling over borders, which is bad enough.

MCEVERS: Slaughter says one major threat is the Syrian regime's stockpile of chemical weapons. No one would like to see those fall into the hands of jihadists. Slaughter says while the jihadist presence in Syria might help the Syrian regime in the short term, it could eventually force the international community to intervene and change the regime's narrative for good.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.