Anthony Loyd, in The Times and The Australian, 20 September 2013, where the title is” Will I die today? Face to face with jihadists fueled by hate”
A TEENAGE foreign fighter stepped out into the dusty road before us. Turbanned and wild-eyed, he stared into our car with a gun in one hand, jabbing a finger in repeated accusation with the other. Catalysed with anger, long hair falling over his shoulders, he spoke with a voice that was a tumble of loathing. “ISIS,” murmured our interpreter, alias “Hamza”, confirming we had just driven into a checkpoint controlled by al-Qa’ida’s affiliate in Syria. The very word seemed to suck the oxygen out of the vehicle. Infamous for abduction and torture of its enemies, hatred of Westerners and a radical interpretation of sharia, it is believed to be holding two dozen forlorn foreign hostages inside Syria.
It was a few minutes before Hamza turned and spoke to us again, by which time more ISIS fighters had appeared beside the car, every bit as hostile as the first, their mood caught between anger and delight at finding two British journalists in their hands.
“Iraqis,” Hamza said. “They want to take us to their Islamic court for investigation,” he added quietly, pale and grim-faced. “One of them wants to shoot us as spies.”
The autumn sun suddenly seemed unbearably hot and I felt the first drip of sweat break from my hairline and run down my face. My nightmare was on the edge of becoming reality. We looked at a field to our right, murmuring between us that a headlong rush over it could be our best chance of escape for the next year or two. In the front seat, unseen by the fighters around us, our young Syrian driver eased his leg off a concealed submachine pistol. There was so much that could go wrong. Fear of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, known inside Syria as ISIS, is not just the preserve of foreign journalists unlucky enough to run into their checkpoints.
With ISIS grabbing at the ideological wheel of Syria’s careering and chaotic revolution, its growing strength and numbers are beginning to shape the direction of the war. It is squeezing out less extreme rebel groups as it begins a grab for doctrinal and territorial dominance.
Thousands of its fighters are spread across Iraq and northern Syria to within striking distance of the Mediterranean coast. Espousing the most radical takfiri brand of Islamic ideology, ISIS wants to create a caliphate under sharia, uniting Sunni territories in Iraq and Syria. Westerners are its natural enemy, but so too is any Syrian who opposes it.
I had only to look at the marble expression on the face of Hamza, a tough and resolute Syrian activist who had seen war at its worst and spent months in jail for his opposition to the regime, to see how bleak was our situation. “Once we welcomed them as a necessity in the fight against Assad when no one else came to help,” he had told me. “Now, many people are more frightened of them than (of) the regime.”
ISIS is the direct descendant of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians during the peak of the war there as well as the failed bomb attacks in London and Glasgow in 2007. It is commanded by the Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has sworn loyalty to the command of al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The group conducts war in both countries, so the suicide bombers killing Shia civilians in Baghdad belong to the same command structure as those attacking Alawites in Syria, now regarded by al-Qa’ida as the most important global arena for jihadists.
Exploiting Syrians’ sense of abandonment, ISIS has spread westwards from the Iraqi border, seizing oilfields around Raqqah this year, before moving across northern Syria to the coastal province of Latakia, where in July it killed Kamal Hamami, a leading commander in the Free Syrian Army, Syria’s home-grown anti-Assad rebels. That was just one killing in what analysts have noted as a summer surge in ISIS attacks on FSA units considered a threat to its power and ideology. Last week jihadist online forums announced the start of ISIS’s Cleansing Evil operation, aimed at destroying the FSA’s Farouk and Nasr battalions, which ISIS denounced as traitors and apostates.
The FSA and ISIS also clashed in the town of Boukamal, in eastern Syria, after local mullahs called for the group to leave the area. Two days earlier ISIS killed three Syrians protesting against its presence in al-Bab, northwest of Aleppo. The same day it shot dead a leading figure in a Syrian Islamic brigade, Abu Obeida al-Binnishi, after he intervened to protect two Malaysian Islamic relief workers from abduction.
It would be too easy to describe this growing division as a two-way stand-off. Syria’s war is more complicated and the lines between ideological affiliation are blurred.
Among the men detaining us were Syrian ISIS fighters as well as Iraqis. The younger were almost indistinguishable, feral teenagers dressed in camouflage shalwar kameez, some long-haired and turbanned. The Iraqi commander who then approached, confirmed that we were British and sent our passports away with a fighter on a motorbike was different: older, better groomed, self-possessed and chillingly cold.
At one point a gun truck halted behind us, with fighters from what looked like a half-dozen different countries, including sub-Saharan Africans. “They come from everywhere,” Hamza said. “Once I even met fighters from Brazil.”
Though Iraqi al-Qa’ida veterans dominate the ISIS command and Gulf Arabs dominate its rank and file, the policy of Turkey has ensured that fighters from across the globe have had easy access to Syria’s conflict. Estimated to number between 5000 and 8000, they come from as far apart as The Philippines, South America, the Caucasus, North Africa, Sudan, Pakistan and Europe. “I’ve even met a blond-haired blue-eyed Australian Muslim convert among them, as well as Belgians, French and Africans,” a Syrian community leader said. “They don’t all get to the war via Turkey, but many do.”
Last year Turkey relaxed its border controls with Syria, pulling its patrols back from swaths of territory to allow the FSA better logistical access. Thousands of jihadists took advantage. Ankara has denied giving official help to ease the passage of foreign fighters to Syria, but opposition parties are convinced the government aided and abetted the jihadist flow.
“This government is giving money, accommodation and safe passage to jihadists,” said Servet Mullaoglu, head of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in Hatay governorate, southern Turkey, a staging post for foreign fighters. “Ninety per cent of the jihadists are getting there through Turkey. Some are just young men going to fight jihad, but among them too are slaughterers and terrorists well known to international intelligence organisations.”
There was a time I remembered in Syria when it was best to ignore foreign fighters, certain that they in turn would ignore me. The increase in their numbers has led to a shift in gravity. A growing trend of abduction and murder has followed in ISIS’s wake. There are thought to be at least two dozen foreigners missing in Syria, mostly journalists and aid workers, including at least one Briton, three French and three Americans. In most cases their fate is unknown. Most, including the Italian Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, are presumed to have been abducted by ISIS or its affiliated groups, also thought to be behind the murder last week of a surgeon in Aleppo.
A message posted on a jihadist forum a few days ago reminded foreign fighters in Syria that journalists, especially foreigners, were “enemies of the mujaheddin” and should be kidnapped, investigated, and punished under sharia. In border areas seized by ISIS, non-governmental organisations have received letters warning foreigners against entering Syria.
So after an hour at a roadside verge beside an ISIS base, dripping with sweat in our airless car, I had very little faith that the negotiation conducted by local Syrians to secure our release – a process over which I had no control – could save us from captivity, or worse, a roadside killing.
Yet we were released suddenly, for reasons I cannot fully explain, but which felt little short of miraculous. As we left that place, scarcely daring to look over our shoulders, Hamza spoke again. “I could never imagine when it started that our revolution could end like this. Foreign fighters everywhere, chemical weapons, every important building damaged or destroyed, the honest fleeing and the thieves on top. There is no choice now but to leave, or seek respectability by becoming a radical. It’s over.”