Al-Qa'ida opens a new front line
It is a sight the world had got used to: a crater in the road where the suicide bomber detonated the explosives packed into his vehicle; the pools of blood and hunks of flesh of people caught in the blast; ruined buildings where floors have collapsed on top of each other; shocked survivors wandering amid the mangled cars and broken glass.
Almost invariably over the last decade such carnage has been the work of al-Qa'ida or similar Islamic fundamentalist movements such as the Afghan or Pakistan Taliban. But the latest such explosions, coming a year after the killing of Osama bin Laden, took place this week in the Syrian city of Idlib where two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the headquarters of army and airforce intelligence services. The Syrian government says that nine people were killed and 100 wounded.
The Syrian opposition claimed that these and other attacks on symbols of the Syrian state are the work of the Syrian government seeking to discredit protesters. They said they were "fabricated, staged explosions". But the attacks have all the hallmarks of an al-Qa'ida operation and the CIA has confirmed that previous suicide bombings in Syria have been the work of al-Qa'ida. An al-Qa'ida inspired group called the al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant has claimed a bomb in Damascus that killed 10 people last week.
These bombings are significant because they show that al-Qa'ida is still very much in business, despite the death of Bin Laden and other al-Qa'ida leaders. It not only still exists but it is becoming engaged in new conflicts that have followed the Arab Spring. Al-Qa'ida has always been the child of war. This was true in Afghanistan when the Taliban were fighting to take over the country prior to 2001; in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003; and in Yemen where civil conflict has escalated since the Arab Spring last year.
Al-Qa'ida-type Sunni fundamentalist groups flourish in times of conflict because holy war is at the heart of their faith and martyrdom opens the way to heaven. Its militants make good soldiers. A moderate Sunni in Baghdad told me towards the end of the sectarian civil war there in 2007 that al-Qa'ida fighters would only be allowed back into his district if it came under assault from Shia militiamen. Otherwise, they were hated and feared by local Sunni for their ferocity, fanaticism and violence. "Why would you let them back in then?" I asked. "Because they will fight to the death," he explained. (...)