Masked Army: Jihadist Group Expands Rapidly in Syria

By Christoph Reuter

Photo Gallery: How a Murderous Islamist Group Is Making Gains in Syria Photos

Part 2: Lack of Resistance Hard to Explain

Once ISIS has established itself, as it did in al-Bab, the local emir begins issuing a constant stream of new decrees, the witness continues. "First it was that women were only allowed on the streets in an abaya" -- an ankle-length outer robe -- "then no one was allowed to be outside during prayer time. Then smoking was forbidden, and recently music as well. Now they check weddings to make sure no music is being played. They're worse than the regime."

It is hard to explain why people who rose up against the destructive power of Assad's fighter jets are now collapsing when faced with a band of masked murderers. "Against Assad, things were clearer," one person who fled Aleppo says in an attempt to explain. "Everyone knew why we opposed him. Now it's less clear. Have the Americans come to help us? The Europeans? No one came except the jihadists, who say they are our brothers."

There are also rumors that the ISIS terrorists actually work for Assad, but they make a concerted effort not to be perceived as a fifth column of the regime. Occasionally a few of them will engage in a skirmish against the army, for example in early August, when two ISIS suicide bombers assisted in the capture of a military airport near Aleppo. But the bulk of the group's fighting capabilities are applied to bringing towns and areas in the rebels' sphere of influence under their control.

In return, Assad's regime doesn't challenge ISIS. In Raqqa, the group has taken up headquarters in the governor's palace, a massive complex that's hard to miss. Yet Assad's air force has never attacked the building, nor any other ISIS-held buildings in or around Raqqa.

The ISIS fighters follow a carefully conceived strategy that encompasses everything from minor aspects, such as the frightening way they mask their faces, to a chain of command capable of mobilizing units from all parts of the north within hours if one of its local groups encounters difficulties.

Porous Border Crossing

The Islamists' hostage-taking strategy, though, presents a puzzle. When Mónica García Prieto, wife of Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa, who was abducted north of Raqqa in mid-September, spoke publicly about her husband's capture last week for the first time, she described circumstances that apply to all ISIS hostages. There has been "no sign of life, no ransom demand, no answer, nothing." The total of around 30 foreigners who have been captured, as well as most of the abducted Syrians, have been neither ransomed nor killed by the Islamists, but rather kept for some unknown later purpose.

The identity of ISIS strategists also remains obscure. Contrary to the common perception that al-Qaida members from Iraq with considerable military experience form the group's backbone, Iraqis make up only a small group within the multi-national terrorist organization.

One of ISIS' few defectors told SPIEGEL that of 2,650 foreign fighters under ISIS command in the "Emirate of Aleppo," one third are Tunisians, who make up the largest group. This is followed at a far second by Saudi Arabians, Turks and Egyptians, and only then Chechens, Dagestanis, Iraqis, Indonesians and a few Europeans. In total, the defector said, there are around 5,000 foreigners in ISIS, along with 2,000 Syrians.

Under American pressure, the Turkish government recently announced it would take action against those crossing its border with Syria to join ISIS' ranks. Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu called for closer cooperation with Western intelligence services to determine who exactly is entering the country.

More Syrians Flee as Jihadists Arrive

Yet a glance at the passenger lists of flights operated by Turkey's two airlines into the airport in Hatay, in southern Turkey, would suffice to obtain that information. Until late this fall, Tunisians, Chechens, Egyptians and Saudi Arabians traveled in and out unchallenged through this convenient al-Qaida tourism hub. They were easy to spot, arriving with heavy luggage and being picked up at the airport, then standing in line at the check-in counter when they left again. But no one asked questions, and no one stopped them. Even a group of Chechen jihadists, who later bragged in Syria that they were wanted by Interpol, flew in via Hatay.

A Turkish government representative vehemently denied to the British Daily Telegraph that his government was "turning a blind eye" as jihadists slipped over the border, saying, "Unless we are given information that these people are al-Qaida members, people from a terrorist organisation, what legal basis do we have to stop them if they travel on a valid passport?"

The jihadists are coming and the Syrians are going -- 160 kilometers east of the border crossing, the civil rights activists who fled Raqqa are now stranded in the Turkish city of Urfa. The rent for their temporary housing is being paid by a doctor who emigrated from Raqqa to Norway.

They don't want to stay here permanently, but most of them have given up hope of returning home. "We liberated ourselves from Assad, only to be hunted down by lunatics? No." They want to go to Sweden or Germany. "It doesn't matter where, as long as it's away," one man says.

With reporting by Abdulkader al-Dhun. Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.

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