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
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Walker and Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious 5
film
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
  • 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: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss