By Lucky Gold
(CNN) - Despite the claims of some within the Obama administration, al Qaeda and its offshoots aren’t dead, yet. They’ve insinuated themselves into Mali, Somalia, Yemen – and now in Syria, too.
Journalist Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker is in Aleppo, which has become a key battleground Syria’s civil war. And in an interview with Christiane Amanpour on Thursday, he gave a unique insight into the fighting there.
Speaking of the out-gunned opposition, Anderson told her, “They’re young men prepared to fight. They believe this is the decisive battle for Syria. That if Bashar al-Assad can’t dislodge them from Aleppo, then it’s over for him. So they have to fight to the death.”
But do they count foreign fighters among their numbers and are there members of al Qaeda and its splinter groups opposing Assad?
“Here in Aleppo countryside there are some Islamist groups,” said Anderson. “I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as Jihadi, yet… I had an interesting encounter with one young commander yesterday who declared to me that he wanted an Islamic state.”
That’s what al Qaeda does, they blow things up
That same question was then posed to Mike Sheehan, Assistant Secretary for Special Forces Operations under President Obama: Is there evidence of al Qaeda in Syria?
He told Amanpour, “We know that al Qaeda has taken advantage of the situation in Syria,” said Sheehan. “They’ve moved in there, they’ve become active in terms of terrorists events, blowing things up. That’s what al Qaeda does; they go into places, take advantage of ungoverned space and blow things up.”
Asked if al Qaeda remains a threat to the U.S. and the West, Sheehan said, “Right now what al Qaeda seems to be doing in Syria, as well as some other places around the world, is that they’re focusing locally. They’re using terrorism to play on the scene and trying to influence events there.”
Is their message gaining traction? Sheehan has his doubts: “I think they’ve been rejected across the Arab world by most people. Their narrative does resonate with a small number of people that continue to join them in these terrorist attacks…We’re concerned about that and hopefully we’ll be able to marginalize them going forward.”
As for the opposition in Syria, Sheehan feels “most of the people involved in this rebellion want nothing to do with al Qaeda and their message of violence and hate. Most of the folks that are in rebellion against the Assad regime want a new future for Syria; and I don’t think most of them, the great majority, think al Qaeda any role to play.”