In raging Syria fire, al-Qaeda is fuel

INT

It is the sort of image that has become a staple of the Syrian revolution, a video of masked men calling themselves the Free Syrian Army and brandishing AK-47s — with one difference. In the background hang two flags of al-Qaeda, white Arabic writing on a black field.

"We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of God," said a speaker in the video using the classical Arabic favoured by al-Qaeda.

The video, posted on YouTube, is one more bit of evidence that al-Qaeda is doing its best to hijack the revolution, with a growing although still limited success that has American intelligence officials concerned, and Iraqi officials next door alarmed.

While leaders of the Syrian political and military opposition continue to deny any role for the extremists, al-Qaeda has helped to change the nature of the conflict, injecting the weapon it perfected in Iraq — suicide bombings — into the battle against President Bashar al-Assad with growing frequency.

The evidence is mounting that Syria has become a magnet for Sunni extremists, including al-Qaeda. An important border crossing with Turkey that fell into Syrian rebels' hands last week, Bab al-Hawa, has quickly become a jihadist congregating point.

Iraqi officials said the extremists operating in Syria are in many cases the same as those striking across their country. "We are 100 per cent sure that the wanted names that we have are the same wanted names that the Syrian authorities have, especially within the last three months," Izzat al-Shahbandar, a close aide to the Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said on Tuesday. "Al-Qaeda operating in Iraq is the same as that operating in Syria."

A 56-year-old Qaeda operative known as Abu Thuha who lives near Kirkuk in Iraq told an Iraqi reporter for The New York Times on Tuesday, "We have experience now fighting the Americans, and more experience now with the Syrian revolution. Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine."

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