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David Ignatius: In Syria, a revolt's extremist threat

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: October 9, 2012

The alternative power center in the revolution is the emerging Salafist jihadist network. It's a mistake to see them all as al-Qaida affiliates or wannabes. Many of them are simply pious Sunnis who know they can get funds to fight Assad by playing the jihadist card.

“Growing your beard is the easiest way to get money,” Adib Shishakly told me. He's Yakzan's older brother and one of the founders of the struggling political opposition known as the Syrian National Council.

Extremist groups' power growing

Syrians tell me the power of these extremist groups is growing across the country. One example is a Salafist group called Soukor al-Sham, headed by a man who calls himself Abu Issa. He is now working to form an alliance with a similar Salafist group known as Ahrar al-Sham. To gather funds, Abu Issa was said to have visited the Turkish border city of Antakya last week to meet with Saudi businessmen who might contribute to his group.

Another jihadist group bidding for power is known as the Majlis al-Shura, or Shura Council. Its former leader, Mohammed al-Absi, is said to have been killed recently after he raised the black flag of al-Qaida at the Syrian border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. When supporters of the Free Syrian Army protested to Absi's group about the banner, decorated with words from the Koran, the extremists answered, “What's wrong with the name of God?” The black flag is now gone, but the confrontation between jihadists and moderates is just beginning.

Finally there is Jabhat al-Nusra, which openly boasts of its links with al-Qaida. Yakzan Shishakly says he tried to warn a U.S. official recently: “These people are among us. If you don't help now, there will be more and more.” From what I could see inside the country, he's right.