Jihadists see Syria insurgency as just the beginning of a Middle East revolution

Al-Qa’ida groups aim for a revolution right across the Middle East

Shortly before its operatives killed 14 Iraqi Shia children in a school bombing this month, the group once known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq sent guerrillas into northern Syrian villages with orders to reopen local Sunni classrooms. In a series of early-autumn visits, the militants handed out religious textbooks and backpacks bearing the group’s new name: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

A four-hour drive to the east, a rival al-Qa’ida faction, Jabhat al-Nusra, was busy setting up a jobs programme in Ash-Shaddadi, a desert town it has held since February. The Islamists restarted production in an oilfield that had been closed by the fighting, and fired up the town’s gas plant, now a source of income for the town.

The two rebel groups, with their distinct lineages to the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden, have concentrated Western fears of rising jihadist influences within Syria’s rebel movement. Two-and-a-half years after the start of the country’s uprising, Islamists are carving out fiefdoms and showing signs of digging in.

“We all have the same aqidah [Islamic creed] as al-Nusra or the Islamic State,” said a 23-year-old Jordanian Palestinian who gave the name Abu Abdallah in an interview in Jordan and who fights for a rebel brigade allied with the Islamists. “The aim is to free the Muslim lands and have the Islamic flag there.”

The prominence of the two groups — as fighters, as recruiters and, more recently, as local administrators — appears to have accelerated even as the Obama administration seeks to bolster moderate and secularist rebels with new weapons and training. Multiple independent studies, as well as Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials, show the hard-line Islamists surging ahead by almost every measure, undermining Western efforts to find a democratic alternative to President Assad.

The al-Qa’ida affiliates have clashed with other rebel groups, and occasionally with each other, and their heavy use of foreign fighters and attempts to impose an ultra-conservative ideology have alienated some Syrians accustomed to secular rule.

“The situation is so bad,” said Mohammed Abdelaziz, an activist in the city of Raqqa who says the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — popularly known as Isis — criminalised the use of tobacco and carried out public executions. “A lot of people have just escaped the city, and many more are planning to.”

But other Syrians have embraced the jihadists and welcomed the return of civil order. A 22-year-old Syrian fighter who called himself Abu Bahri said that about 100 people from his home town of Azaz joined Isis after becoming frustrated with the inefficiency of the more moderate Northern Storm Brigade. And the failure of the West to end the bloodshed has strengthened the message of extremists. “I support them because they hate the US, they hate the West, which has cheated us,” said Mohammed Saeed, an aid worker from Palmyra based in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli.

“In Syria, [the Islamists] have a level of control they never enjoyed in Iraq,” said Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on Syrian jihadist groups at the Middle East Forum, a Washington non-profit research organisation. In addition to their fighting and organising skills, he said, they appear to have absorbed lessons from Iraq, where al-Qa’ida’s indiscriminate attacks against civilians horrified and repulsed ordinary Iraqis.

“They’ve learned that you do need some outreach to locals – you can’t just entirely exploit them,” Mr Tamimi said. A key part of that strategy, he added, is “outreach to children”.

In the competition for local sympathies, the advantage so far belongs to Jabhat al-Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qa’ida in Iraq which has publicly aligned itself with Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s long-time deputy and his successor as the leader of al-Qa’ida. Since its founding early last year as a Syrian rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra has played down its connections to the international terrorist movement while seeking to limit collateral damage from the suicide attacks and roadside bombings.

A much harder challenge confronts Isis — the rebranded terrorist group behind a campaign of savage attacks on Shia markets, schools and villages in neighbouring Iraq. The group’s 8,000-strong Syrian contingent boasts a larger proportion of foreign jihadists than any other rebel group, according to analysts. In just six months of operations in the country, it has managed to frighten and enrage Syrians with its extreme interpretation of Islam.

Yet in recent weeks Isis, too, has sought to reform its image by reopening schools and delivering food, medicine and energy to war-weary towns. It has sponsored ice-cream-eating contests and tug-of-war competitions for children, and built training camps where teens learn fighting skills and participate in singalongs calling for the destruction of Assad and his allies.

Some Syrians who disapprove of Isis’s religious zeal said they applauded the arrival of the disciplined, battle-hardened force if it could shift the momentum in a fight that has appeared deadlocked for months.

“If the Islamic State were organised and didn’t interfere in people’s lives, we would welcome them,” said Mahmoud al-Hassan, a 30-year-old trader from Aleppo, who was visiting a hospital in neighbouring Turkey after his cousin was shot by a sniper.

To Western governments, the jihadists’ entrenched position in Syria is another ominous turn. American and Middle Eastern officials say the two are a magnet for much of the foreign cash as well as the majority of the foreign fighters streaming into Syria.

But what troubles Western observers is not the groups’ fighting prowess, but their shared vision of a jihad that extends beyond removing Assad. While other rebels fight to remove the Syrian dictator, former and current US and Middle Eastern officials say, the al-Qa’ida groups are transforming the conflict into a symbolic struggle against the West and Israel.

Abu Khaled, a 26-year-old Lebanon-born fighter, said the battlefield in Syria has expanded because of groups such as Isis, inspiring hope that the uprisings across the Middle East will give rise to a broader Islamic revolution. “We always said one of the main problems are the rulers, and now, see how one after the other is disappearing,” said Khaled, who refused to give his full name. “And it won’t stop until we get our aim.”

The formal titles adopted by both al-Qa’ida groups include the Arabic term for greater Syria — al-Sham — that radical Islamists use to link their movement to the ancient Islamic caliphate that ruled a vast swath of the Middle East, with Damascus as its capital. Its use, the jihadists say, evokes an image of a future Middle East with a single Islamic state, encompassing the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

It is the groups’ appeal to a greater jihad that explains why foreign volunteers continue streaming into Syria in numbers that surpass those seen during earlier conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia or Iraq, said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a Middle East adviser to four US administrations. “Syria has become the most important destination for aspiring jihadists ever, because it is the heart of the Muslim world on the border of Palestine,” says Mr Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “For jihadis, it is the road to Jerusalem at last.”

To terrorism experts, it was inevitable that an al-Qa’ida-aligned terrorist group would arise from the brutal sectarian violence of Syria’s civil war. How the conflict came to have two competing al-Qa’ida factions is a story that reflects the power struggles within  the jihadist movement in the decade after 9/11.

Yet despite the leadership rift and differences over tactics, the two factions cooperate more often than they clash, according to US and Middle Eastern experts.

“They operate in parallel to one another,” said Aaron Zelin, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They have different command structures, and Isis uses more foreign fighters. But they swim in the same ideological waters.”

©Washington Post

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

£15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Sewing Technician

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This market leader in Medical Devices is...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior IT Support / Projects Engineer

£26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence