- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The State Department named a key leader of a Lebanon-based militant group with ties to al Qaeda factions in Syria as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” on Tuesday, shedding fresh light on evidence that Islamic extremists operating in Syria may be eager to expand their operations regionally.

Usamah Amin al-Shihabi was recently “appointed head of Syria-based al-Nusrah Front’s Palestinian wing in Lebanon,” according the State Department, which noted in a statement that “al-Nusrah Front was formed by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in late 2011 as a proxy for AQI’s activities in Syria.”

The department said that al-Shihabi has previously been an associate, and at times key leader, of Fatah al-Islam, a Lebanon-based “militant group formed in 2006, whose ultimate goal is the institution of Islamist sharia law in the Palestinian refugee camps and the destruction of Israel.”

That the group has close ties to the al-Nusrah Front should not come as a surprise, according to Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow focusing on al Qaeda and North Africa at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“Members of Fatah al-Islam, which is linked to al Qaeda and al Qaeda in Iraq, have been killed while fighting in Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Joscelyn wrote Tuesday in The Long War Journal, a project promoted by the foundation. “Some of Fatah al-Islam’s earliest leaders are known to have been close to Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the deceased head of al Qaeda in Iraq.”

Mr. Joscelyn also points to “leaked State Department cables” alleging that al Shihabi had been accused by Jordanian authorities in 2006 of “training a group of men who ‘plotted to attack American citizens, nightclubs, liquor shops, and hotels in Amman and Aqaba.”

The plot was foiled, however, after four members of the cell were arrested in September 2005, Mr. Joscelyn wrote.
Such context may be particularly disturbing in light of recent remarks from key lawmakers in Washington about the threat to U.S. national security posed by al Qaeda-linked groups operating in Syria.

Specifically, Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, has warned that such extremists have established safe havens in eastern Syria, where they are considering launching attacks throughout the Middle East.

“The only thing we think is stopping it now is the fact that there is this struggle between al Qaeda core leadership saying, ‘Hold off. Don’t do it yet,’” Mr. Rogers said in an October speech at the 2013 Foreign Policy Initiative Forum in Washington.

He also said that more than 10,000 “committed” al Qaeda members are operating along Syria’s border — more than the number of jihadists that were operating inside Iraq during the U.S.-led occupation, or in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the 1980s.

Jihadists in Syria are “talking about conducting external operations, which is exactly what happened in Afghanistan, which led to 9/11,” Mr. Rogers said.

Others have given similar assessments. Andrew J. Tabler, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Washington Times in October that Syria’s al Qaeda-linked extreimists could be compared to those who fought under the AQI banner during the early years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq a decade ago. 

While AQI was known to focus most of its operations locally, it’s leader, Zarqawi, did claim responsibility for suicide bombings that killed dozens of civilians at three hotels in Amman, Jordan, in November 2005.

In designating al-Shihabi as a global terrorist on Tuesday, meanwhile, the State Department effective barred any U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with him, and froze any property and other assets he may have in the United States.

“The Department of State took this action in consultation with the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and the Treasury,” the State Department said.



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