Twin suicide bombings today in the restive city of Idlib in northwest Syria left at least eight people dead and suggests that the nascent insurgency against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad could be shifting to jihadist tactics that have been a hallmark of conflicts in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
The latest bombings came a day after Gen. Robert Mood, the head of the United Nations military observer mission in Syria, arrived in Damascus to oversee implementation of a cease-fire that was supposed to come into effect on April 12.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Idlib blasts. However, earlier suicide attacks in Syria have been claimed by a previously unknown group called Jabhat al-Nusra, purportedly a salafi jihadist organization.
Jabhat al-Nusra said it carried out the suicide bomb attack in Damascus last week, which killed 11 people and wounded 28. According to the jihadist website Shumukh al-Islam, Al-Nusra identified the suicide bomber as Abu Omar ash-Shami and said he detonated his bomb against security force personnel.
Jabhat al-Nusra also claimed twin suicide bombings in Damascus on March 17 which killed 27 people. In January, Lebanon‘s Al-Akhbar newspaper said it received a videotape from Jabhat al-Nusra showing a group of militants undergoing training. The video included a statement by Fateh Abu Mohammed Golani, the group’s leader, in which he predicted the downfall of the Assad regime. The suicide bomber’s name, Ash-Shami, means “of Damascus” in Arabic and “Golani” refers to the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel since 1967, suggesting that Jabhat al-Nusri is composed of Syrian nationals.
Still, the Syrian opposition has cast doubts on the jihadist provenance of past suicide bombings, claiming they were actually carried out by the regime to justify its claims that it is confronting “Al-Qaeda terrorists” and “armed terrorist gangs” rather than an ostensibly peaceful opposition.
“The only Al Qaeda cells that operate in Syria are those manipulated by Assad’s security apparatuses,” said Ammar Abdulhamid, a US-based Syrian opposition activist in an online newsletter emailed today. “The suicide bombings are directly staged or facilitated by them. Issues pertaining to the timing and the real beneficiaries, and everything we know about the Assads’ involvement in terror networks, all point in this direction.”
Mr. Abdulhamid’s post carried a YouTube link that quotes Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, telling a news conference in Damascus in December that suicide bombings would not be an “embarrassment” for the government but would bestow “credibility” upon its claim that it is under threat from Islamist militants.
Some analysts have long maintained that the Syrian authorities have cooperated with jihadist networks on a short-term tactical basis, even though the nominally secular nature of Syria’s Baathist regime and its Alawite identity makes it an unlikely bedfellow with Sunni jihadists. Such jihadists view the Alawite faith, an obscure offshoot of Shiite Islam, as apostate.
On the other hand, there is increased evidence that the year-long uprising in Syria is attracting the interest of jihadist militants looking for a new theater of conflict following the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq and the gradual cessation of NATO military operations in Afghanistan. In February, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri explicitly stated support for the Syrian uprising, saying it was incumbent upon all Muslims in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan to come to the aid of their Syrian brothers.
Last week, Abdel-Ghani Jawhar, a top Lebanese jihadist militant and bombmaker, was reported to have been killed in Syria. The circumstances of his death were unclear, with competing reports saying he was killed in Qusayr, five miles north of the Lebanese border, when a bomb he was preparing exploded prematurely. Other reports claimed he died in the flashpoint city of Homs in a clash with security forces. Jawhar was wanted by the Lebanese authorities for several deadly bomb attacks against Lebanese troops in 2008.
On Friday, the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper reported that two Jordanian jihadists were killed recently in Syria in clashes with security forces. The newspaper added that the Jordanian security services had arrested Abdullah Qabbaa, a top explosives expert, along with eight other jihadists as they attempted to cross the border into Syria.