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Al Qaeda ‘rat line’ from Syria to Iraq turns back against Assad
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s anti-U.S. strategy during the 2003-11 Iraq War has come back to bite him.
Mr. Assad allowed al Qaeda operatives to set up a “rat line” through his country and into northeastern Iraq. Hundreds of young terrorists, many recruited from North Africa, took airline flights into Damascus and joined networks ready to sneak them across the border.
The al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front is conducting war on the Assad regime with a band of about 6,000 fighters established by jihadists in January 2012. It wants Mr. Assad to be replaced by a Sunni Islamic state.
“Al Qaeda fighters who are back in Syria, I am confident, they are relying on much they learned in moving through Syria into Iraq for more than five years when they were waging war against the U.S. and Iraq Security Assistance Force,” said retired Army Gen. John M. Keane, an adviser to commanders in Iraq.
In fact, al Qaeda kept alive its networks in Syria, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, N.Y., which advises Washington policymakers. It notes in a May 2012 report, as jihadists streamed into Syria, “Al Qaeda has an active affiliate in neighboring Iraq that has long-standing logistical capabilities in Syria.”
More than any other Middle Eastern leader, it was Mr. Assad who bolstered al Qaeda’s ranks in Iraq. He let fighters use his country as a platform to jump into Iraq, where they learned how to inflict mass killings of civilians and ambush U.S. and Iraqi troops — skills used today against Syria’s regime.
Thousands of al Qaeda recruits moved through Syria into Iraq in the mid- to late 2000s, said a former military intelligence official who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss what he did in Iraq. In some instances, the U.S. intercepted 10 to 20 in one group trying to make their way to the homes of a network commander.
“Inside Syria, they moved from safe house to safe house,” the former official said. “They crossed the border at check stations where they had sympathizers or paid off dirty guards.”
Now, however, with U.S. troops gone and Iraqi counterterrorism not on a par with that of the Americans, al Qaeda has rebuilt networks, freed some fighters from prison and sent manpower to the Al Nusra Front.
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