The two rebel groups, with their distinct lineages to the terrorist network founded by Osama bin Laden, have become the focus of Western fears that jihadist influences within Syria’s rebel movement are rising. Two and a half years after the conflict in the country started, 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 his name as 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 Syrian rebels with new weapons and training. Multiple independent studies, as well as assessments by 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 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The al-Qaeda affiliates have clashed with other rebel groups, and, occasionally, with each other, and their use of foreign fighters and attempts to impose an ultraconservative ideology have alienated some Syrians accustomed to secular rule.
“The situation is so bad,” said Mohammed Abdelaziz, an activist in the north-central city of Raqqah, who says the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — popularly known as ISIS — criminalized 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 in towns devastated by months of fighting.
A 22-year-old Syrian fighter who identified himself as Abu Bahri said in an interview here 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, which was in charge of the town. And the failure of the West to end the bloodshed has strengthened the message of extremists. “I support them because they hate the U.S., they hate the West, which has cheated us,” said Mohammed Saeed, a humanitarian aid worker from Palmyra now based in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli.