Al-Qaida offshoots may be exploiting Syria turmoil


Beirut, Lebanon — An al-Qaida-inspired group said it was responsible for dozens of attacks across Syria, the latest evidence that extremists are exploiting the chaos to make inroads in another Middle Eastern country.

The Syrian regime has long blamed terrorists for the 16-month-old revolt, and the presence of al-Qaida groups creates new difficulties for Arab and Western countries trying to help force President Bashar Assad from power.

The opposition and the rebel Free Syrian Army deny having any links to terrorism, and say they do not have the desire or the capabilities to carry out massive suicide bombings and other al-Qaida-style attacks.

On Tuesday, the SITE monitoring group, which tracks jihadist chatter on the Internet, said the Al-Nusra Front released statements on extremist websites in late June saying the attacks were to avenge the killings of Syrians by the government.

Little is known about Al-Nusra, although Western intelligence officials say it could be a front for a branch of al-Qaida militants from Iraq operating in Syria.

The group has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks in Syria, including suicide bombings, in the past.

Although the Syrian opposition disavows links to terrorism, the presence of al-Qaida among the forces fighting to oust Assad is a serious complicating factor for the international powers that say they want to help the opposition without empowering extremists along the way.

More than 14,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began, according to activists. Despite global outrage over the crackdown by the Assad regime, the international response has been focused entirely on diplomacy and sanctions as the violence escalates.

On Wednesday, the head of the United Nations observer mission in Syria called on all sides to stop fighting — even as activists reported government shelling in five provinces.