Geopolitics

Has Syria Become Al-Qaeda's New Base For Terror Strikes On Europe?

Exclusive investigation: The terror network in Syria includes dozens of European members, and wants to get its hands on Assad's stockpile of chemical weapons.

The aftermath of a bombing last month in Damascus that the government blamed on terrorists
The aftermath of a bombing last month in Damascus that the government blamed on terrorists
Florian Flade and Clemens Wergin

A photograph from Syria shows a large man in fighting garb, carrying an assault rifle. His head is wrapped in black cloth, and the sign on his armband indicates beyond a doubt that he is an Islamist. But the man is not Syrian; he identifies himself as "holy warrior Abu Ahmad al-Almani" from Germany.

The picture of him was posted on Facebook. The information the man provides about himself says that he was born in Lebanon, and until recently lived in Germany. He left to join the fight against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

But now "Abu Ahmad" is an Islamic fighter, and he’s calling for German Muslims to join the cause. "Dear brethren, come join our ranks, fight with our brothers as if we were a wall. Faith is the weapon our enemies most fear."

According to a Die Welt investigation, the fighter from Germany is only one of hundreds of foreigners who have associated with Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime. Most of them are young men from North Africa, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. But more and more Europeans are joining the militia fighters.

Western intelligence agencies believe that there are some 100 Muslims with European passports involved in the war in Syria, Die Welt has learned. A great many of these are fighters, some are radical Islamists, and see it as their duty to join the “Holy War” against the Syrian strongman.

"There could be many reasons for somebody to travel to Syria," one source told Die Welt. "Somebody might want to help their family. Somebody else might aspire to become a martyr. Some only become Islamists as a result of taking part in the fighting."

German intelligence views the travel of radical Muslims to Syria with concern. The assumption is that most of them plan to take up fighting against government troops.

From the standpoint of intelligence agents, the situation of the Syrian opposition remains highly opaque. According to the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) – the German intelligence service – the biggest problem for foreign jihadists is the chaotic situation of countless warring parties, citizens’ militias, and rebel groups. Only very few Islamists coming in from Europe know anything about the group they join up with, or what that group’s ideology and goals actually are.

The most radical of the rebel groups is probably Jabat al-Nusra, which has a jihadist orientation and wants to create a theocracy in Syria. Jabat al-Nusra is considered to be a regional branch of al-Qaeda, but the group -- which is said to have about 1,000 fighters -- has deliberately avoided official affiliation with the terror network so far, for reasons of image and strategy. Intelligence operatives believe that Jabat al-Nusra doesn’t want to give Assad fodder to nourish his claims that the opposition consists of al-Qaeda fighters.

Egypt's terrain is ripe

Western intelligence operatives say that al-Nusra runs several large training camps in Syria where Islamists with fighting experience – veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – train new recruits, including Islamists from Western countries. In a situation similar to the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, hundreds of Islamists are presently being trained in the use of fire arms, bomb-making and hand-to-hand combat in Syrian camps managed by Jabat al-Nusra.

Al-Qaeda boss Ayman al-Zawahiri is focusing his efforts on Syria and Egypt, trying to build new structures in these two key countries since many of the established al-Qaeda offshoots no longer listen to the network's leadership after the death of Osama Bin Laden, according to information from Western intelligence sources.

Al-Zawahiri's contact in Syria is Abu Muhammad al-Julani, the Jabat al-Nusra leader. In Egypt, Jamal al-Kashef and Sheik Adel Shahato look after al-Qaeda interests. Al-Qaeda’s aim is to fight the "heretical regimes" in both countries; to al-Zawahiri the new regime of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi also counts as one of these. In one of his recent speeches, al-Zawahiri called for attacks on the Egyptian military to help bring down Morsi’s government.

According to intelligence sources, several al-Qaeda leaders who were originally from Egypt have returned there after years of fighting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other leaders and active members have been released from prison by the Morsi government. The al-Qaeda cell in Egypt is thought to have been involved in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

On October 24, Egyptian security forces however did raid a "safe house" in Cairo that was used by al-Qaeda members under al-Kashef’s orders. One al-Qaeda fighter was killed, and others were taken into custody. A large weapons depot and explosives were found at the site. In several other raids over the next few days, 20 more al-Qaeda operatives were arrested. Egyptian sources said the cell was directly under al-Zawahiri’s orders and was working to bring the Morsi government down.

Because of the political turmoil in Egypt, the country has become a stomping ground for global jihadists. A German al-Qaeda fighter, Denis Cuspert, who has threatened attacks in Germany, has gone to Cairo. Many German and European fighters pretend to be going to Egypt to study Islam or Arabic, but then head for al-Qaeda training camps in Egypt, the Sinai or Libya.

Chemical and biological stockpiles

But the most important field of operations for al-Qaeda at the moment is Syria. According to Die Welt’s information from Western intelligence sources, last year al-Zawahiri sent at least three organizers to Syria to create jihadist groups to carry out his instructions.

Particularly worrying for the West are al-Qaeda efforts to get their hands on chemical and biological weapons. Local al-Qaeda operatives have allegedly already been told to find out where these weapons are stockpiled. Intelligence sources also say that al-Qaeda is looking for experts in Syria to train their fighters in how to use the weapons.

Al-Qaeda’s efforts are said to be focused mainly around Deraa in the southwestern part of the country, and Aleppo, where its HQ is thought to be located.

Another major concern for Western intelligence services is al-Zawahiri’s intention to train extremists with European passports in Egypt and Syria so that they can build terror cells in Europe, and to see Syria turn into a kind of Waziristan – a remote part of Pakistan where members can move about pretty much unhindered.

For future attacks in Europe, extremists with European passports are particularly valuable – men like the Spaniard Rachid Wahbi who arrived in Syria via Turkey in June 2012 headed for a training camp for European fighters, or Mehdi al-Harati, a Libyan with an Irish passport. He was one of the founders of the Tripoli Brigade, the first rebel unit in Libya. He now leads the rebels in the north of Syria.

According to Western intelligence sources, al-Nusra commander Abu Mohammad al-Julani is already planning to expand his base of operations to Europe via Turkey. He’s preparing to make Syria – after the fall of the Assad regime – a center of jihadist activity with branches in other countries.

Some of al-Julani’s al-Qaeda cells are already up and running in other countries in the region, and Western intelligence operatives say he is in the process of building additional cells in Europe.

It has been noted that so far Jabat al-Nusra has avoided using European fighters in suicide missions. Apparently these fighters are too valuable to “burn” right now – their European passports will come in good stead when the fighting in Syria is over and the terror network enters a Europe-oriented expansion phase.

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Art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 你好*

Welcome to Tuesday, where violence erupts after Sudan's military coup, Australia finally gets onboard with climate change goals, and Harrison Ford stars in Raiders of the Lost Credit Card. From Bogota, we also see what the capture of drug kingpin Otoniel means for Colombia, a country long stained by cocaine trafficking.

[*Nĭhǎo - Mandarin Chinese]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Saving the planet is really a question of dopamine

The elite of the ecologically minded are set to descend on Glasgow next week for the Cop 26 conference on climate change. But beyond debating policy prescriptions, French daily Les Echos explores the role our own brains have on making the right choices for the planet:

Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the "pleasure hormone."

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Stefano Lupieri / Les Echos

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Sudan in chaos following military coup: After Sudan's military seized power from the transitional government, defiant anti-coup protesters have returned to the streets of the capital city Khartoum, for a second consecutive day. At least seven people have been killed and 140 injured. Coup leader General Al-Burhan has announced a state of emergency across the country, while the military cut off access to the internet and closed roads, bridges, and Khartoum's airport. Washington condemned the coup and suspended aid, and the U.N. Security Council was expected to discuss Sudan behind closed doors later today.

• Egypt lifts state of emergency in force since 2017: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, announced the end of a four-year-old state of emergency, undoing powers that had given the government sweeping authority to quash protests, make arrests, search people's homes without warrants, and control everyday life in the most populous Arab country.

• Platforms take down Bolsonaro video linking vaccine and AIDS: Facebook, Instagram and YouTube have removed an anti-vaccine video from their respective platforms posted by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Beyond blocking the video, in which Bolsonaro falsely linked the COVID-19 vaccine with developing AIDS, YouTube went further and suspended the far-right leader for a week.

• COVID update: The U.S. will launch a new travel system on November 8, imposing new vaccine requirements for most foreign national travellers and lifting severe travel restrictions over China, India and much of Europe. Meanwhile, authorities in northern China are reimposing lockdown, and other emergency measures as COVID-19 infections spread to 11 provinces.

• Australia pledges net zero emissions by 2050: As one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita and a major exporter of fossil fuels such as coal, Australia has finally committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This is a target already adopted by most nations heading to next week's COP26 international climate conference, but that Australia had so far refused to pledge.

• Japanese princess loses royal status over wedding: Japan's Princess Mako married her boyfriend Kei Komuro, giving up her royal status. Under Japanese law, female imperial family members lose their status upon marriage to a "commoner" although male members do not.

Raiders of the Lost Credit Card: A tourist returned the credit card of American actor Harrison Ford, who had lost it in Sicily while shooting scenes for the latest Indiana Jones movie.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Out of control," titles German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, reporting on the release of a series of articles by a consortium of 17 U.S. news outlets, called the "Facebook Papers," that reinforce whistleblower Frances Haugen's claims that the social media giant is prioritizing profits over the well being of its users and society.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

$1.01 trillion

After striking a deal to sell 100,000 electric vehicles to car rental firm Hertz, Elon Musk's Tesla has joined Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google's Alphabet in the club of companies that have reached a $1 trillion valuation.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

What the capture of a drug kingpin means for Colombia

While the capture of Otoniel, Colombia's most wanted drug trafficker, made global headlines, Bogotá daily El Espectador writes about the significance of the news for a country that has battled narcotrafficking for decades.

👮 The arrest of the Colombian mobster Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, a.k.a. "Otoniel," is a victory for Colombian intelligence, law-and-order forces and the broader fight against crime. Details of the eight-year-long pursuit of the head of the Gulf Clan, of the tireless and meticulous work, testify to the capabilities that the police and army have managed to develop in the fight against the narco-trafficking that has long been a stain on Colombia.

🇨🇴🇲🇽 Otoniel is responsible for a criminal organization with more than 3,800 members and influence on 12 departments and 128 districts in Colombia (though data from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation counts 211 districts). The Gulf Clan sends half the drugs going out of Colombia, and is the main exporter to Mexico. Its ties to the Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "el Chapo" Guzmán are well-documented — and Otoniel had aspired to fill the power vacuum left by Guzmán's capture.

⚖️ Some have observed that the ensuing power vacuum will engender more violence, which is true. But we are, in any case, far from eliminating drug trafficking in Colombia or cutting its tentacles across public life. That shows the limitations of the hard-line response to drugs, when we have seen it is not enough. Still, it is essential in any fight against crime for the state to show its operational capabilities. The message is clear: not even drug overlords are above the law in Colombia.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I love Mako. I would like to spend my one life with the person I love."

— Kei Komuro said during a news conference after his wedding with Japan's Princess Mako, the niece of the current emperor and the sister of the likely future sovereign. The princess lost her royal status as a result of her marriage with Komuro, a "commoner."

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

An art installation "Greetings From Giza" by French artist and photographer JR faces the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, as part of the 2021 exhibition "'Forever Is Now," the first international art exhibition to take place there — Photo: Balkis Press/Abaca/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Send all commoner and royal well wishes to Mako and Kei — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com

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