Syria: Al-Qaeda Looking for Local Mujahideen
By: Youssef Sheikho
Published Friday, September 13, 2013
The number of foreigners flocking to fight in Syria is on the decline, and with it, the extent of areas under al-Qaeda’s control in the embattled country. Local mujahideen are now in high demand.
Until this moment, the identities of the leaders of the two al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria – al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – remain unknown. The only public communication from the two leaders are voice recordings or written messages leaked through unknown sources, or perhaps even through the same source.
Also unclear is the groups’ funding sources, despite reports that point to Iraq or other centers where the global jihadi organization is active. The two radical groups have also been able to seize local revenue streams, for example, with fees collected at border crossings and profits from crude oil sold to Turkish companies and local vendors through unofficial channels.
Activists familiar with the two groups spoke to Al-Akhbar, saying that al-Nusra Front and ISIS, like other armed factions in Syria, are constantly seeking to recruit more fighters with a view to expand their territorial holdings. Consequently, the two groups are looking to attract local “mujahideen,” especially in rural areas.
To this end, the activists said, the two al-Qaeda affiliates entice recruits by highlighting the riches that await them, thanks to the “spoils” of war.
ISIS came into existence when fighters from al-Nusra Front merged with the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda known as the Islamic State of Iraq last April, under the command of the presumed leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The move was rejected by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the leader of al-Nusra Front Abu Mohammed al-Joulani. Despite the alleged dispute, the two groups did not fail to march together on lucrative areas in Syria, like border crossings and oil-rich regions.
Although Syrians have come to dominate ISIS, a considerable number of non-Syrian Arab and foreign fighters are active in its ranks as well. Recently, the leader of ISIS in Jarablos, known as Abu Hafs al-Masri, spoke out on his Facebook page about a number of his fighters – supposedly including Chechens, Moroccans, Egyptians, and Libyans – who died in battles. The occasion was the return of some ISIS fighters to their home countries, which is perhaps what prompted him to seek to recruit Syrians by offering more material rewards.
In the city of Jarablos, on the border with Turkey, one resident has been fighting for five months in ISIS’ ranks, after pledging allegiance to the radical group. According to sources in the city, the Syrian “mujahid” in question recently married after ISIS covered all his wedding expenses.
The group even seized a home for the fighter, belonging to former Homs mayor Ahmad Munir. Al-Nusra Front has seized all property belonging to Munir, whom the group deems to be “an agent of the infidel regime.”
In Yarubiyah, near the border with Iraq, a member of al-Nusra Front was killed nearly a month ago during clashes with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPD). Sources close to the fighter’s family, who hail from the nearby village of Tayeh, told Al-Akhbar that the man was paid 80,000 Syrian pounds (about $380) each day to guard an oil well.
According to the same sources, many of the residents of nearby villages have enriched themselves as a result of their work in selling oil and guarding wells, in return for fighting with al-Nusra Front or providing it with logistical and intelligence support. Reportedly, the same thing is happening in the Deir al-Zour countryside.
The number of fighters in the two radical groups is small relative to the vast area they control. However, the two groups are keen not to enter large-scale battles alone, preferring to partner up with other Islamic factions.
Although al-Nusra Front and ISIS have been able to lure many recruits who believe in their stated goals, especially foreign fighters, many observers do not rule out the possibility that the “spoils strategy” they adopt may well backfire. In this regard, an activist from the city of Raqqa purported that as soon as fighters aspiring for enrichment achieve their goals, they will desert the group. The activist said, “Many have deserted after getting their money. This is to be expected, because simply, there is no other cause.”
A resident of the city of Tall al-Abyad, near the border of Turkey, which is controlled by radical Islamic brigades, said that the residents always feared the moment when radical groups would need money themselves. The resident said that the groups would then turn to the residents, “after looting cash, equipment, grain, and so forth from government institutions.”
The residents’ fears came true. According to Kurdish sources, the radical groups recently robbed “billions of Syrian pounds from Kurdish citizens” in Tall al-Abyad. Then, “they demanded many Arab families to send men to enlist in their ranks or pay cash in return for exempting them.”
On a different note, leaders of al-Nusra Front and ISIS acknowledge that their groups have been infiltrated. In a previous interview with a local website affiliated to the Syrian opposition, Abu Musab al-Suri, deputy ISIS commander of the northern region (Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia), admitted to breaches in the group. At the time, he said that al-Nusra Front and ISIS were infiltrated by regime-planted elements, but also by agents of foreign intelligence services.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.