November 1, 2013 3:33 pm

Alarm over rise of al-Qaeda linked jihadists in Syria

Members of jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra

Members of jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra

In the Turkish frontier province of Kilis, metres away from Syrian territory, bedraggled fighters, refugees and locals talk of the jihadists just on the other side of the border.

“You see those two white houses; those are al-Qaeda,” says Nasir, a grizzled smuggler in his fifties, pointing out two hillside buildings he says are jihadist watchposts.

He is referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, now the fiercest, most brutal and most successful of al-Qaeda’s offshoots in Syria.

In September, the group captured the town of Azaz, just 7km away, and a strategic point on the road to Aleppo, a prize to add to the oilfields it already controls.

Rebel fighters complain that al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria have more funding than their own organisations and take up arms not just against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad but also against other rebel forces.

“They get money from abroad; we have to sleep under trees, both here and in Syria,” says Muhammad, a fighter who owes his allegiance to the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella grouping.

Isis also deploys foreigners from as far away as Chechnya, Libya and Pakistan, he says. “They want their own independent state,” he adds, referring to the group’s ambitions beyond its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds.

Yet the story of al-Qaeda’s rise in Syria is not just one of foreign funds and fighters. While Turkey has taken a more aggressive stance in recent months, it has been accused of not having done enough to contain the extremists’ rise.

Al-Qaeda-linked groups have also benefited from the fragmentation of an opposition in which it is far from the only perpetrator of atrocities. At the same time, Isis has increasingly tried to build support among the local population.

Two hours drive to the southwest of Kilis is the border outpost of Reyhanli, where wounded fighters can be seen everywhere. The town’s 78,000 refugees outnumber the 60,000 locals. The fighters are in Turkey to rest, recover and regroup before the next onslaught in Syria, whether to prise the country from Mr Assad’s grip, or to wage jihad, or both.

Four fighters from the Syrian city of Homs sit cross-legged on the floor of their cramped sleeping quarters. On the wall beside them are the flags of the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the black flag of jihad.

The men effusively praise Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, for what they say is the free passage Ankara has allowed them over the border. “Who is our father? Who is our father?” asks Abu Mahir, a fighter for a group known as the Farouk Brigades. “Father Erdogan; we worship him,” the other men reply.

One fighter, Isa, reaches for a Koran and praises Mr Erdogan as the only Muslim leader “who bears the Koran in his hand”. A former barber, he is a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate that established itself in Syria before Isis moved into the country from Iraq. He joined al-Nusra because he saw it as the rebels “strongest fighting force”.

The fighters’ praise for Ankara comes despite calls from campaigning groups Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group for Turkey to do more to stop jihadists crossing through its territory into Syria. In August, President Barack Obama spoke with Mr Erdogan about “the danger of foreign extremists in Syria”.

In depth

Syria crisis

An apparent chemical attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad on a Damascus suburb has shifted opinion in the west towards possible military intervention

Earlier this year, Ankara disagreed with the US’s designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist organisation. Turkish diplomats deny they supported jihadist or al-Qaeda groups in their eagerness to see the departure of Mr Assad or because of tension with Syrian Kurdish groups now fighting the jihadists. They say the dispute was about presentation; they feared the designation would make it easier for Mr Assad to depict his opponents as terrorists.

But, unnerved by the criticism and the rise of Isis, which fighters and officials describe as more ruthless than al-Nusra, Ankara’s position has shifted. Mr Erdogan has spoken out more explicitly against al-Qaeda operations in Syria. Turkey has moved to freeze the assets of al-Qaeda linked groups.

Last month, in its first exchange of fire with a rebel Syrian group, the Turkish army shelled Isis positions after a mortar landed in Kilis province. There was no such response when four Turkish citizens died in July and August as a result of cross-border shootings, widely presumed to be by al-Nusra.

Even so, Isis’s advance has acquired momentum and it has established a presence of its own near the Turkish border and beyond. It is also waging a campaign to win hearts and minds, say fighters and aid workers, including offering gifts of meat during the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, as well as subsidised bread, milk and nappies, they say.

As the war intensifies, savagery is no longer the exclusive preserve of either the regime or al-Qaeda. Of the men sharing the room in Reyhanli, the fighter with the bloodiest tale came not from al-Nusra but a less prominent group called Liwa al-Haq. The man, named Hani, described how he helped wipe out a village inhabited by people from Mr Assad’s Alawite sect. “We cleaned it up,” he said, his face expressionless.

Meanwhile in Kilis, refugees and local inhabitants expect Isis to fire more shells over from Syria. The Turkish army shuttles armoured vehicles to and from the border in case it needs once again to respond. In the shadow of al-Qaeda, almost everyone is on edge.

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