Al-Qaida Extremists Fight For Influence In Iraq, Syria In Syria, militias linked to al-Qaida have taken the lead in the fight against the Assad government. In Iraq, they've caused a wave of violence including bombings against civilians and attacks on government forces.

Al-Qaida Extremists Fight For Influence In Iraq, Syria

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On a Monday, this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

We are looking this morning at the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and what might be a battlefield that's merging. In both countries, there's been a surge of al-Qaida-linked militias. In Syria, they've taken the lead in the fight against the Assad government.

In Iraq, they have caused a wave of violence, including bombings against civilians, and attacks on government forces. In both places, they are Sunni Muslim extremists, and they are linked, sharing territory and troops. And now the al-Qaida-linked forces themselves are under attack from moderate Sunnis.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been watching these developments from Beirut. Deb, good morning.


GREENE: So, can you just start by giving us a sense of why we're beginning to talk about these two conflicts as the same battlefield, in some ways?

AMOS: The war in Syria has softened the borders, and al-Qaida has taken advantage of that. The al-Qaida group in Syria is mostly from Iraq. They have been joined by radicals from across the globe. And because of the chaos in Syria, they have been able to gain territory in the north. At the same time, they have grown stronger in Iraq. That border is completely porous. So they move back and forth.

In fact, the al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria are funding themselves from money that they extort from people in Iraq. So, what we are seeing now is a conflict that has jumped borders. This is now a regional conflict, both in Syria and Iraq, and there has even been, for the first time, claim of responsibility of a car bomb here in Lebanon. And all of this is because of the Syrian war.

GREENE: Well, Deb, if we think back to the beginning of the war in Iraq, suggestions that Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to al-Qaida were dismissed by many people. How has al-Qaida's influence been growing there?

AMOS: It has been growing because of the conflict in Syria. These groups can move easily between one country and another, and that is what they have been doing. So, as they gain strength in Iraq, they came across the border into Syria, and they joined the fight against the Assad regime. And, in fact, they were welcomed here, because they were the most disciplined. They were the most well-armed of all of the factions. And so Syrians who oppose the government saw them as a savior.

But as time has gone on and they have turned from fighting the regime to controlling territory, their brutal tactics have created enormous anger among Syrians. I'll give you an example: In the town of Raqqa, which they control, they impose strict rules. They have burned churches there. They have turned churches into headquarters. They've banned smoking. The capital punishment there is beheading, sometimes in public. This is enraged Syrians.

You have felt this anger growing, but this has been the first time that there's been an armed challenge to an al-Qaida group in northern Syria.

GREENE: And who are the people who are challenging them?

AMOS: It's a group that calls itself the Army of the Mujahideen. What it is, is eight or nine brigades that came together and decided that they were going to go after this al-Qaida affiliate. On Thursday, they posted on Facebook - which is how Syrians talk to each other - a challenge: Get out of Syria.

Now, this newly-formed group then began a fight. And over the past three or four days, they have taken back to towns in northern Syria. They have seized a border post on the Turkish frontier that was controlled by this al-Qaida group. And the fight is continuing, even today. I spoke with an activist in Syria who says they are being challenged in every town that they control in northern Syria.

GREENE: And Deb, let's just step back, if we can, looking at both Syria and Iraq. I mean, if we have al-Qaida extremists who are Sunni, and then we have some more moderate Sunnis who are fighting and trying to stop them, that dynamic might be growing in both countries. How does that change these two conflicts?

AMOS: I think it's very new to be able to say it will change the conflict. I think it is important that it has happened. We've seen this model before in Iraq. It was a strategy by the U.S. military to say to Sunni moderates: Your future is better without al-Qaida. And that proved to be true, and they did join against al-Qaida in Iraq. It is now happening in Syria, where groups of Sunni rebels have decided that al-Qaida groups have gone too far and have become oppressive in the same way that they feel that the Syrian regime is oppressive. So now they are trapped between two forces, and they have decided to take on al-Qaida in northern Syria.

GREENE: All right. We've been talking to NPR's Deborah Amos, who joined us from Beirut, following the conflicts in both Iraq and in Syria.

Deb, thanks, as always.

AMOS: Thank you.

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