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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Buyer

£19000 - £21225 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Duties will include assisting t...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Membership Manager

£35 - 38k + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Account Manager ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Advisor / Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This position will in the main ...

Recruitment Genius: Ecommerce Assistant

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the top Cosmeceutical br...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks