KILIS, Turkey: Syrian refugees in this border outpost were delighted to hear their hometown of Azaz had been liberated – not from Bashar Assad’s troops but from Al-Qaeda fighters who subjected them to a regime that included torture and public beheadings.
In interviews with Reuters, Syrians who have escaped areas that have fallen under the control of Al-Qaeda-linked groups have spoken of the way the jihadists have imposed their harsh and often violent version of Islam on their fellow Muslims.
The priority of the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), as one of its fighters told Reuters, is to set up an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and on the doorstep of Europe, rather than fight the Assads.
At the same time, there has been pushback against ISIS – which has withdrawn to its strongholds bordering Iraq – not only from moderate and mainstream Islamist rebels but from rival Al-Qaeda forces such as the Nusra Front, which is more Syrian in its makeup and its focus on fighting the government.
Abdallah Khalil, a 25-year-old activist and student of Shariah law, recalls the liberation of Azaz in 2011.
“Life was OK, but then these jihadists started arriving. They set up a military training camp, run by a jihadist from Egypt known as Abu Obeida al-Muhajer. First he told us it is banned to clap or sing in protests, then they killed the mentor of the revolution, Sheikh Youssef, a moderate Muslim.
“They told us: ‘You are infidels who want to sin, you don’t want to apply Shariah,’” Khalil said. “Islam is strongly present in Syria, but not this kind of Islam. They disfigured the religion and the revolution.”
Activists described a feud inside Al-Qaeda when ISIS, led by Iraqi veteran Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tried to take over Nusra, led by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, but was rebuffed by Ayman al-Zawahri, successor to Osama bin Laden as the head of Al-Qaeda.
The Syrian fighters stayed with Golani and the Nusra Front, they said, but Azaz ended up under ISIS, known colloquially as Daesh. That was when local people learned what the black flags of the caliphate jihadists meant.
“They went into a preschool to segregate the boys from the girls,” said Mahmoud Osman, 27, an activist from Aleppo.
“They started going to schools to check whether the girls were wearing the head-to-toe black chador and they started asking girls to marry them. Parents stopped sending their daughters to school,” he said.
Al-Qaeda banned smoking, music and any mingling between men and women unless they were closely related. They forced Christians to pay protection taxes, activists said. They beheaded men in public squares because they fought for the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army.
“We used to hear about them or see them in movies but now we see them for real,” Osman added.
After local Islamic scholars pronounced it legitimate to fight ISIS, Azaz residents say, the group pulled back to its stronghold of Raqqa in the east.
While ISIS held territory, the government left the towns unmolested, activists said. Only when they left did regime forces drop barrel bombs – proof, they say, that Assad wants the most hard-line Islamists to prevail in rebel areas so he can portray his fight as a battle with Al-Qaeda.
Assad has repeatedly referred to his enemies as terrorists.
Khaled Ibrahim, 30, who worked in advertising before the war and is from Raqqa, describes his home as an ISIS province, ruled by terror. He said every Friday they executed activists, FSA fighters and also looters in the public square, either by the sword or by gunfire.
He and others said that anybody who worked for a foreign NGO or a media outlet was considered an “infidel agent.”
Abu Thaer, a 25-year-old computer science student and media activist, who was held by ISIS with FSA fighters and NGO workers, said “every day that passed there I wished for death.”
“They used to come into our cell with the sword, they would tell us ‘you are infidels, we will cut your throat.’ They started torturing the FSA fighters: One day they would cut a finger, another day a slice of their ear and let them bleed.”
Abu Alaa, 25, is a defector from ISIS now living in Kilis.
Formerly in the FSA, he fought for six months with the veteran jihadist who uses the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani (the Chechen), the ISIS commander who captured a government air base near Aleppo last summer.
Abu Alaa was jailed and then escaped after trying to help friends who were being rounded up, tortured and executed.
“They were torturing the prisoners with electricity and beatings,” Abu Alaa said. “They liquidated many on the grounds they are allies with the West.”
Abu Khaled, a former Syrian soldier and now an ISIS officer, made little effort to contradict these chilling accounts.
Reached by Skype in northern Syria, he spoke of a network of contacts abroad including in France and Britain, operating through mosques, but also using the Internet.
“We don’t have a problem getting fighters, and we have been able to get them into Syria. We are receiving jihadists from all over the world, from Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, Britain and France. ISIS has some 6,000 fighters,” he said.
The ranks of ISIS were swelled by 500 jihadists broken out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and a further 700 freed from Seidnaya military jail near Damascus in what was seen in rebel and Western circles as an attempt by Assad to boost jihadist forces in Syria at the expense of mainstream rebels.
“The aim of the ISIS is to set up an Islamic caliphate that will attract Muslims from all over the world. Our aim is to fight the infidels, whether it is Bashar Assad or the Free Syrian Army,” Abu Khaled told Reuters. “Any apostate should be beheaded and women must follow the Shariah.”