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Al-Qaida Leader Eyes Opportunities In Syria


Bashar al-Assad's government in Syria has blamed terrorist groups for the violence. And while that's been impossible to confirm, the claim may please al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been struggling to make his mark. Officials say the fighting in Syria could help him if he somehow gets credit for the fall of the government there. But that won't be easy. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: During the Arab Spring last year, al-Qaida was caught flat-footed. And now, says Reid Sawyer, head of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, they are playing catch up.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL REID SAWYER: They were too late to the game in Egypt and Tunisia. And they really couldn't develop their story or their narrative very clearly with their actions inside of Libya. So Syria remains their one chance to be in the game.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In some ways, the events unfolding in Syria fit neatly into al-Qaida's longtime narrative. The group has always focused on apostate regimes. Arab rulers seen as illegitimate like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who are governing without the support of their people.

Throughout the Arab Spring, al-Qaida has dismissed the peaceful protests as ineffective or temporary. Al-Qaida's leader Zawahiri, who's Egyptian, says governments can only be toppled through violence. West Point's Sawyer says now Zawahiri is trying to make that case by focusing specifically on the violence in Syria.

SAWYER: He needs to frame this conflict in a way that makes sense to his followers and the people that he's trying to influence.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So far, all that Zawahiri has come up with is this video.

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Zawahiri released the video last month. He congratulated the Syrian rebels for taking up arms and then called on foreign fighters to travel to Syria to help them. U.S. officials say Zawahiri's call has hardly caused a ripple. Sawyer says not even the young men visiting jihadi chat rooms are talking about it.

SAWYER: Any time that Zawahiri releases a video, it's not only trying to mark the ground and claim the conflict as part of al-Qaida's historical narrative, but it's also about trying to shape the context of the ideas and the way others see this fight.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And there's another concern, and it has to do with geography. If al-Qaida could establish a presence in Syria, it would give them a foothold in a part of the Middle East that has always shut them out.

JUAN ZARATE: Syria is a strategic centerpiece for al-Qaida in many ways.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Juan Zarate is a former deputy national security adviser, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

ZARATE: This is an opportunity, I think, for al-Qaida in its own mind at least to re-assert itself in a way that puts it at the center of chaos and civil war, and begins to shape a future of al-Qaida that looks perhaps different from the past but one that has Syria at its core.

TEMPLE-RASTON: When the U.S. invaded Iraq, it became the primary battle space in the region. Zarate says if al-Qaida has a foothold in Syria, it will give the group a new base of operations there, right next to Jordan and Israel. And that would give the group's leader, Zawahiri, a legitimacy that he's never had before.

ZARATE: Zawahiri will have achieved perhaps much more than even bin Laden did, perhaps, in his mind.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But that won't be easy. Historically, al-Qaida's only been successful in places where the local population accepts them, places like northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. In this case, the rebels in Syria have gone to great lengths to say they're not fighting side by side with al-Qaida, which makes Zawahiri's call to arms a hard sell.

SAWYER: This is really the classic dilemma that al-Qaida faces in many places that it goes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Reid Sawyer of the Combating Terrorism Center.

SAWYER: They try to proclaim to be the vanguard or the people's movement. But when the people reject them, al-Qaida is left on the sidelines, albeit a dangerous player.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials are watching for more Zawahiri videos and looking to see if the fight in Syria is animating young jihadis outside the country. So far, that hasn't happened. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.