Iraq – al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) claimed responsibility for a series of suicide bombings that killed over two hundred people throughout Iraq, predominately in Shi’a Muslim-majority areas. Following its recent operations, AQI stated on a militant jihadist website that, “…the car bombs and other explosions came to avenge the executions and massacres of convicted Sunni inmates held in Iraq prisons.” The statement continued and warned the Shiite-led Iraq government to stop executing Sunni prisoners or “…expect more bad events and seas of blood. What has reached you on Tuesday was the first drop of rain, and a first phase….that will be followed by more revenge.” AQI is attempting to position itself as an organization that is protecting the minority Sunnis in the country.
Israel – On March 21, a militant jihadist group known as the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Environs of Jerusalem (MSC), which is reported to be linked to al-Qaeda, claimed that it had fired several rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip. The attacks coincided with US President Barack Obama’s trip to Israel, although the rockets landed nowhere near the US president and only caused minimal property damage. The attacks were most likely a propaganda stunt by MSC in an attempt to demonstrate that it was capable of attacking the US president. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system was ineffective in stopping the impact of the rockets, and the attacks may also have been an attempt by the MSC to state that the Israeli’s missile defences are useless.
Saudi Arabia – On March 19, the Saudi government announced that it had broken a network of spies in its territory working for a foreign country. 18 people were arrested in raids in the cities of Mecca, Medina, and Riyadh. 16 of the suspects arrested were reported to be Saudi citizens, one Lebanese, and one Iranian. The raids were conducted in the eastern province of al-Hausa, which is a majority Shi’a Muslim. It is believed that Iran was the foreign sponsor of the spy network. Saudi Arabia may be the target of Iranian espionage as a result of its military intervention in and support for the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy in Shia-majority Bahrain, and its financial support for Syrian rebels against the Iranian-allied al-Assad government. Iran is reported to be involved in similar espionage actions in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Nigeria. Shortly following the arrests, the Iranian government summoned the Saudi ambassador to Iran to voice its discontent at being accused by the Saudis of organizing the spy network.
Syria – On March 18, the Syrian military fired rockets into northern Lebanon using fixed wing and rotary aircraft. The Syrian government did not comment on the incident. Syrian security forces are targeting border crossing points in an attempt to limit the movement of fighters and materiel from northern Lebanon into Syria. If this strategy is not effective, the Syrian military may decide to attack purported Syrian rebel training camps inside of northern Lebanon and in other countries, such as Turkey and Jordan that house Syrian refugees and may host military training camps for the armed Syrian opposition.
On March 19, the al-Assad government claimed that rebel forces in the country used chemical weapons. Both government and rebels accuse the other of using chemical weapons. Thus far in the conflict, each side has accused the other of committing a particular atrocity, such as massacres. There have been, however, no reports of the rebels attacking or taking over any chemical weapons facility, and the Syrian government has vowed to keep the chemical arsenal away from the rebels. It is possible, however, that some chemical weapons have managed to be acquired by the rebels when an army base or an airfield was overrun. There is also a possibility that the al-Assad government has used chemical weapons to attack its own forces a pretext to use chemical weapons on the rebel forces.
The United Nations (UN) has appointed a Swedish scientist to lead a fact finding investigation into the chemical attack. Also, more than half of the UN’s staff will be moved out of Syria after mortar rounds landed near their hotel in the Syrian capital of Damascus, damaging the building and a nearby UN vehicle. It is also possible that the organization does not wish to have any of its foreign staff abducted and held as human shields as a deterrent against Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
A report by KGS NightWatch presents a possible solution to the mystery surrounding the chemical attack. The Syrian government bases its chemical levels to that of the old Soviet doctrine. Non-lethal agents such as CS and Tear gas are used in the West as riot control agents and are declared as such. The old Soviet doctrine, however, classifies these agents as chemical weapons. It is possible that the Syrian government used a riot control agent in order to pacify the rebels prior to an attack. The non-lethal attack could be a test-run for using a more lethal agent in the future, as independent organizations cannot gain admission to Syrian front-lines to clarify what exactly happened.
It is no secret that foreign nationals are fighting in Syria on the side of the rebels against the al-Assad government. A March 20 report by the Long War Journal (LWR) gave an insight into the motivation of some of those foreign fighters and listed which countries they came from. In the March 15 361 Terrorist and Security report, it was stated that foreign fighters from the Caucuses were fighting in Syria. In this recent LWJ report, it is asserted that foreign fighters are also travelling to Syria from countries and regions including China, Chechnya, France, Germany, Kosovo, Libya, Malaysia, Palestine, Romania, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. On March 28 the LWJ also reported that in October 2012 a leader from the Russian Caucasus, Abu Omar al-Chechen, formed a foreign fighting group allied with the al-Nusra Front in Aleppo. The new organization claims to have over a thousand members, and is called the Army of the Emigrants and Helpers (Jaish al-Muhajireen wa Ansar), or the Muhajireen Brigade. The Muhajireen Brigade is known to have participated in two other major assaults against Syrian military bases since its first October operation in Aleppo.
The LWJ report also states that in mid-December, the Muhajireen Brigade teamed up with the al-Nusra Front to overrun the Sheikh Suleiman base, or Base 111. Arab and Central Asian fighters are reported to have participated in the battle. In mid-February, the al-Nusra Front, together with the Tawhid Brigade and the Muhajireen Brigade, stormed the base of the Syrian military's 80th Regiment (or Brigade), which is situated near the main airport in Aleppo in north-western Syria. These two groups along with the Tawhid Brigades will possibly become the three strongest armed opposition groups in Syria. It is possible that these groups may ally with one another to fight other competitors, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), for power in a post-Assad Syria.
Paul Ashley is the Senior Counter-Terrorist Analyst at 361 Security