BEIRUT — A rebranded version of Iraq’s al-Qaeda affiliate is surging onto the front lines of the war in neighboring Syria, expanding into territory seized by other rebel groups and carving out the kind of sanctuaries that the U.S. military spent more than a decade fighting to prevent in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the four months since the Iraqi al-Qaeda group changed its name to reflect its growing ambitions, it has forcefully asserted its presence in some of the towns and villages captured from Syrian government forces. It has been bolstered by an influx of thousands of foreign fighters from the region and beyond.
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.
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.
“There are a lot of reasons to worry that Syria will emerge as an even more powerful variant of what Afghanistan was more than 30 years ago,” he said.
Nonetheless, the Islamic State’s rapid ascent and aggressive methods have put it at odds with more-moderate rebel factions and with local communities, calling into question how long the group can sustain its role. In the eastern provincial capital of Raqqah, which has emerged as the Islamic State’s biggest stronghold, clashes with more-moderate rebel units erupted twice over the weekend, killing at least 13 rebel fighters and civilians, according to residents.
Meanwhile, residents there have been staging near-daily protests demanding the release of people thought to have been abducted by the Islamic State, foremost among them a renowned Italian Jesuit priest, the Rev. Paolo Dall’Oglio, who spent decades living in Syria before he was expelled last year for his opposition sympathies. His whereabouts have been unknown since he arrived in Raqqah late last month to attempt to open an interfaith dialogue with the Islamic State.
Others who have been abducted in Raqqah include the head of the newly formed provincial governing council, a top official with the humanitarian assistance arm of the main Syrian Opposition Coalition and the local commander who led the capture of Raqqah from government forces in March.
“They kidnap anyone who opposes their point of view,” said a Raqqah activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
The Islamic State also coexists uneasily in many places with Jabhat al-Nusra, which it sought to absorb in April. Jabhat al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, is a Syrian who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq, then returned in 2011 to set up a Syrian counterpart. He rebuffed the merger attempt.
That set the stage for a contest of wills with his Iraqi counterpart, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in which Jabhat al-Nusra has sought to label itself as the more Syrian — and less extremist — of the two groups. On Saturday, the State Department said it believed that Baghdadi has relocated to Syria.
In some areas, such as Raqqah, most Jabhat al-Nusra followers readily acceded to the announced merger, facilitating the Islamic State’s rapid ascendancy. In Hama province, a Jabhat al-Nusra leader who criticized the extremism of the Islamic State was detained by that group’s fighters until he recanted his comments.
In one town close to the Turkish border, al-Dana, Islamic State fighters consolidated their authority by shooting people who demonstrated against them, confiscating the weapons of the local unit of the Free Syrian Army and beheading its commander.
An accelerating stream of foreign volunteers is helping reinforce the Islamic State, which has been able to build on networks developed during the insurgency in Iraq.
A Lebanese security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media, estimated that at least 17,000 foreigners had joined rebel forces in Syria, most of them from Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, a figure in excess of the number that U.S. officials have given. Iraqis, too, are playing an important role, especially in the east, Syrians say, though their numbers are more difficult to measure because they traverse the long border virtually unchecked.
The influx has helped the Islamic State gain an advantage over Jabhat al-Nusra in some recent battles, including the capture of Menagh air base in Aleppo last week and an offensive in the coastal province of Latakia, said Aaron Zelin, who researches jihadi activity at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“At least perception-wise, it appears the Islamic State is doing the better job,” he said. “In the last four to six weeks, they’ve really stepped up their game and highlighted that theirs are the most capable fighters in the field.”
The Islamic State also has sought to win hearts and minds. A video posted over the weekend showed them distributing toys, including Teletubbies, at a gathering held in Aleppo to mark the Eid al-Fitr religious holiday.
The gift-giving suggests that the extremists have learned some lessons from Iraq, where they alienated local populations with their harsh tactics, and point to another key advantage they have over the loosely structured Syrian rebel units drawn from the communities that rose up against Assad in 2011, according to Charles Lister of the defense consultancy IHS Jane’s. “They’re highly organized, and that allows them to present themselves as an organization capable of running a town,” he said.
And unlike in Iraq during the insurgency, Islamic State fighters don’t have to contend with U.S. forces hunting them down, said Brian Fishman, a former director of research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center who is now with the New America Foundation. “They can plan better and discipline better, and that is dangerous.” he said.