Less than two decades after the attacks of September 11, the U.S. government has now effectively allied with the Al Qaeda terrorist group it has long blamed for planning and executing those attacks, which still remain the worst terror attacks to have ever taken place on U.S. soil.
Despite the U.S. having launched the war in Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the years-long “War on Terror” as a means of allegedly countering Al Qaeda and its affiliates, the past year has revealed several instances in which Washington has been making “deals” with, protecting, and even (indirectly but knowingly) arming Al Qaeda operatives in countries like Yemen and Syria. The about-face has come as the U.S.’ interest in “counter-terrorism” throughout the Middle East has been superseded by regime-change policies targeting countries like Yemen, Syria and Iran.
Currently, the Syrian government and its allies have been preparing to begin a military offensive against the last rebel-held province in the country, a province that is openly dominated by Al Qaeda-linked groups — namely Al-Nusra Front, now known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Despite the fact that Al Qaeda’s presence in the area is well known, top U.S. government officials and even U.S. President Donald Trumphave recently urged Syria to refrain from “recklessly” attacking the Idlib province, claiming that militants in the province are “not terrorists, but people fighting a civil war against a brutal dictator.”
Not only that, but the U.S. government has now openly made plans to attack the Syrian government if Al Qaeda affiliates in Idlib, including the controversial White Helmets group, make accusations against the Syrian government regarding the use of chemical weapons. Recent statements from U.S. officials show that the Trump administration is set to take Al Qaeda affiliates at their word and lay blame for any use of chemical weapons on the Syrian government, despite the fact that the U.S. government has admitted in the past that these very “rebel” groups possess chemical weapons themselves.
Furthermore, last July, Brett McGurk – the U.S. government’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (Daesh, ISIS) – called Syria’s Idlib province “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri [current leader of Al Qaeda].” He then immediately added that the Al Qaeda presence in Idlib was a “huge problem” and had been so “for some time.”
Since McGurk’s warning, Al Qaeda’s presence in Idlib has only grown, making recent comments from U.S. officials regarding Idlib’s “rebels” a clear example of the U.S. government seeking to defend the world’s current “largest Al Qaeda safe haven” despite continuing to blame the terror group for the September 11 attacks.
The dramatic change in roles for Al Qaeda in Syria from the U.S. perspective is the direct result of the U.S.’ “redefinition” of its objectives in the Syrian conflict, which now place regime change in Syria and Syria’s ally Iran above everything else, including the continued presence and growth of terrorist groups in the region.
Just change your name and we’ll be friends
U.S. cooperation with Al Qaeda in Syria is hardly new. Back in 2016, an Al-Nusra Front commander told German newspaper Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger that, when the Al Qaeda-linked group was “besieged” by Syrian and Russian military forces, “we had officers from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Israel and America here, …experts in the use of satellites, rockets, reconnaissance and thermal security cameras” that helped prevent the group’s defeat. When asked specifically whether U.S. officers were present, the Al Nusra Front commander stated that “the Americans are on our side.”
Then, a year later, the U.S. again aided Al Nusra by essentially removing the group from Washington’s terror watchlist, despite the fact that it is Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The removal took place after Al Nusra Front changed its name to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), following which the U.S. declined to add the group’s updated name to the terror watchlist. MintPress News previously noted that the U.S.’ reluctance in adding the group to the watchlist was likely related to the fact that some of the smaller rebel groups that joined Al Nusra Front under the HTS banner had previously been armed and funded by the U.S. government.
Even the U.S. State Department admitted at the time that the name change was likely “an al-Qaeda play to bring as much of the Syrian opposition under its operational control as possible” — which is exactly what took place as Al Qaeda consolidated control over the vast majority of the last “rebel” stronghold in Syria, the Idlib province. However, this rather candid admission from the State Department was not enough to see HTS added to the terror watch list.
Unfortunately, the U.S.’ willingness to treat Al Nusra as an ally in Syria seems set to continue, given the Trump administration’s ultimate goal of targeting Iran’s influence in Syria as well as its newly “redefined” goal of regime change in Damascus. It is now plain that the U.S.’ stance towards Al Qaeda can shift from enemy to ally depending on political expediency and Washington’s geopolitical goals.
Not just in Syria
U.S. efforts that have benefited Al Qaeda have by no means been restricted to Syria, as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has also greatly benefited from the U.S.’ support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Just last month, an Associated Press investigation found that the Saudi-led coalition — which enjoys the support of both the United States and the United Kingdom — has paid large sums to Al Qaeda commanders in exchange for their leaving key locations throughout coalition-controlled Yemen, while also allowing the terror group’s forces to retreat with all of their weapons, cash and supplies without fear of reprisal.
Senior government figures involved in the coalition’s dubious deal-making later confirmed to the AP that the United States had been informed of the arrangements and had even avoided conducting airstrikes against Al Qaeda militants in Yemen. However, the Pentagon vigorously denied complicity with AQAP militants to the AP when asked to comment.
That denial seems disingenuous, given that the U.S. has been aware for years that its “counterterrorism” policies in the country — ostensibly carried out to reduce AQAP’s effectiveness — were actually strengthening the terror group’s presence. Furthermore, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to the coalition’s open alliances with AQAP during major offensives as well as the coalition’s offering of weapons and cash to the group.
Even when the Saudi-backed government of Yemen sent Al Qaeda members to represent it in peace talks held in Geneva, the U.S. continued to give its full backing to the Saudi-led coalition, selling the coalition billions in weapons and supplying military and logistical assistance.
As a result of the U.S. willingness to cooperate with Al Qaeda in Yemen, AQAP — once called “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad” by the CIA — has “become stronger than at any time since it first emerged almost 20 years ago.”
Thus, despite the fact that over 3,000 Americans died on 9/11 and that the government still maintains that Al Qaeda was responsible for their deaths, current U.S. government policy now — less than 20 years after the tragedy — treats the infamous terror group more like a friend than a foe.