The group, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is by no means the largest of the loosely aligned rebel organizations battling to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and it is concentrated mostly in the northern and eastern provinces of the country. But with its radical ideology and tactics such as kidnappings and beheadings, the group has stamped its identity on the communities in which it is present, including, crucially, areas surrounding the main border crossings with Turkey.
Civilian activists, rival rebel commanders and Westerners, including more than a dozen journalists and relief workers, have been assassinated or abducted in recent months in areas where the Islamic State has a presence.
Most of the cases are being kept quiet for fear of jeopardizing the victims’ release, but the escalating pace of disappearances is turning already-dangerous parts of rebel-held territory into effective no-go areas for many Syrians as well as foreigners, deterring aid efforts and media coverage and potentially complicating future attempts to supply more-moderate factions of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
A rapid ascent
With multiple groups competing for influence, the Islamic State cannot be held responsible for all the incidents that have occurred in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra, the original Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate, which has resisted efforts by the Islamic State to absorb it, maintains a robust presence in many parts of the country. Criminal gangs also have taken advantage of the vacuum of authority to carry out kidnappings for ransom, mostly of Syrians.
But at a time when the Islamic State is undergoing a revival in Iraq, killing more people there than at any time since 2008 and staging a spectacular jailbreak last month that freed hundreds of militants, the push into Syria signifies the transformation of the group into a regional entity. The U.S. military — which referred to the organization as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — claimed it had subdued AQI by the time the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011.
Evidently it did not, said Bruce Hoffman, director of security studies at Georgetown University, who thinks Syria is even more strategically significant for the group than Iraq. Syria’s location — the country shares borders with Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon — gives al-Qaeda a foothold in the heart of the Middle East, Hoffman said.