Caliphate of Fear The Curse of the Islamic State
Part 2: Growing Support Abroad?
After the insurgency against Bashar Assad began in Syria in March 2011, the regime released many jihadists from high-security prisons who had previously fought in Iraq, a move meant to support Assad's claim that he was fighting against radical Islamists.
At the time, though, the opposition fight was largely being waged by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a conglomeration of army deserters and civilians. The FSA may not have been Islamic, but there was also little to it beyond a name. There were few overarching command structures and FSA never had the money or weapons needed to defeat Assad. The West was concerned that weapons might fall into the wrong hands if it supported FSA.
Today, it's not just in the United States that a debate is flaring over whether the West could have stopped IS if it had provided more concerted support to strengthen the moderate opposition at the right time.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who could become the Democratic Party's next presidential candidate, has been openly critical of Obama. His refusal to provide support to the opposition in Syria early on "left a big vacuum" that fostered the rise of IS, she argues.
So who's right? It's hard to say. Brookings expert Lister believes IS still would have been able to gain a foothold in Iraq, but that it would nevertheless have made sense to support the moderate rebels in Syria in the beginning in order to keep the IS at bay.
At some point in the summer of 2011, eight men crossed the border from Iraq into Syria. One was Abu Mohammad al-Golani. IS chief Baghdadi had dispatched him on a mission to establish another branch of al-Qaida in Syria, the Nusra Front, marking the start of the jihadist segment of the Syrian civil war.
Al-Golani wanted a departure from the extreme methods deployed by al-Qaida in Iraq and eschewed meting out brutal punishments. Nusra established itself quickly as the most effective forces in Syria and even became popular among the people. Its fighters delivered yeast to bakeries and distributed food provisions.
A Split Among Jihadists
But in April 2013, Baghdadi sought to win back control of his Syrian creation. He declared himself the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and Syria, which from that point on would carry the name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But Nusra leader al-Golani rejected the demand and secured the support of the global head of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri. That marked that moment at which Baghdadi parted ways with al-Zawahiri and al-Qaida. Al-Nusra also split. Some of the fighters remained loyal to al-Golani and al-Qaida, while others, including most foreign fighters, defected to Baghdadi. Even back then, Baghdadi viewed himself as the head of a state and not just one militia leader among many. He even appointed himself the leader of all faithful.
In May 2013, ISIS conquered the city of Raqqa in Syria from Nusra and later turned it into its capital. Since then, the jihadists have been fanning out across northern Syria, nourished by a constant stream of new radicals from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Europe and even Indonesia.
The Islamists did little to combat the regime, instead picking fights with other rebel groups. So it came as little surprise when, in January, an alliance of opposition from almost every group drove the jihadists out of northwestern Syria within a matter of just weeks. It didn't last long. After regrouping, the IS returned and began a new offensive with weapons secured in Iraq.
In recent weeks, the jihadists focused mainly on seizing areas in northern Syria. IS fighters took control of several places west of the Euphrates River near the Turkish border. In doing so, they cut off rival fighters with the Free Syrian Army from important supply lines. The fighters were already under pressure in Aleppo, where they are facing off against troops loyal to Assad's regime. It's unlikely they'll be able to hold out for much longer.
IS Struggles to Gain Traction in Syria
Contrary to IS propaganda, it is in no way true that all Sunnis in Syria are welcoming the jihadists as liberators. There has, for example, been resistance to the new rulers in the Deir el-Zour province. The powerful Shaitat clan has also revolted against IS in several places.
There are even small signs of resistance in the IS stronghold of Raqqa. In mid-July, fundamentalists there condemned two women to death by stoning for alleged infidelity. Witnesses said that most of the residents ordered to assemble in Bajaa Park refused to take part in the stoning. The jihadists had to step in to do the job themselves.
Although IS has succeeded in attracting large numbers of Islamists in Iraq to its cause, it has failed to do so in Syria. Propaganda videos aimed at Syria mostly include men with North African or Saudi Arabian accents. They are at the top of the IS hierarchy and they are also the ones introducing Sharia courts in Syria.
That's one of the reasons social networks are so important for the Islamic State's propaganda efforts. IS supporters relish their reputation for brutality, tweeting photos of crucifixions and massacres. The group even publishes its own magazine in PDF format, with the aim of attracting additional fighters from around the world to the caliphate.
Support among European Radicals
And, with support apparently growing in Europe, it seems to be working. In recent weeks, Islamic State flags could be seen at protests in Paris and Brussels and last week, a flag was spotted flying outside a home in New Jersey. Meanwhile, on busy Oxford Street in London, Islamists were handing out leaflets about the Islamic State, rejoicing that the caliphate is here and calling for people to migrate to the "Khilafah," the spelling used by IS for the caliphate. Some fanatics seem to regard the IS fighters with pop star-like status.
It's not just men who are rushing off to join the caliphate. Fanatic women seeking jihadist husbands are also making their way. The person behind the "Umm Layth" blog presents herself as a British immigrant to the caliphate. On it, she posts photos of herself and her "sisters" -- covered in black, of course -- and calls on readers to follow in her footsteps to the Islamic State, asking: "How can you not want to produce offspring who may be, God willing, part of the great Islamic revival?"
She also offers fashion tips for women who have already been convinced to make the trip. "There are many materialistic things that can be found here," she writes. "However, it is better for you to bring clothes, shoes etc. from the West. There are clothes here, but ... the quality is really bad."
Arrests in Germany
It is believed that several hundred fighters have made their way from Germany to Syria. SPIEGEL has obtained information indicating that the Federal Prosecutor's Office is investigating more than two dozen cases of suspected members or supporters of the Islamic State, including a number of people who hold German citizenship. Prosecutors have likewise charged several for supporting a foreign terrorist organization.
It appears that IS is also dispatching experienced campaigners from the Middle East back to Germany in order to raise money, gather materials needed for the armed conflict and even to help launch jihad in Europe.
On Nov. 13, 2013, investigators detained three suspected Islamists at a rest stop along the autobahn near Stuttgart. They were carrying medication, camouflage clothing, night-vision devices and 6,250 ($8,329) in cash and they appeared to be making their way to Syria. At least one, a Lebanese man, had previously received training in a camp. One of his helpers was a German citizen.
At the end of May, the Federal Prosecutor's Office placed charges against the three men, and on June 6 it pressed charges against an additional man, a 20-year-old German. Investigators believe he also went through six months of weapons training in Syria. After he returned to Germany, police arrested him in Frankfurt. He is suspected of preparing a "serious act of violent subversion."
So far, the Islamic State has had no real interest in conducting any kind of spectacular attack in the West. But, as experts like Charles Lister note, that could be one of the next steps. After all, IS has essentially succeeded in doing everything al-Qaida has done with the noted exception of carrying out a foreign attack.
By Markus Feldenkirchen, Christoph Reuter, Mathieu von Rohr, Jörg Schindler, Samiha Shafy and Christoph Sydow
- Part 1: The Curse of the Islamic State
- Part 2: Growing Support Abroad?