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Jalal Zein Eddine

Islamic State recruitment in Syria

A look into the factors that have caused some young Syrians to sign up with the world’s most infamous terrorist group, and the strategies it has used to draw them in

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters help a wounded man following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces in the Al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 6 November 2014. (AFP/AMC/Fadi al-Halabi)

North of Aleppo—The Syrian revolution has always been characterized by spontaneity. Even the call to arms was unplanned. Most of the people who first picked up weapons were civilians with no previous experience of war. As a result, most Syrians, and especially the youth, were amazed by the foreign fighters who joined Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups. Because many of these emigrants, or muhajirun, to use their religiously-connoted Arabic name, are highly skilled and experienced fighters, a large number of youths have felt inspired to join their groups and fight alongside them.

 

The starting point for most Syrians who joined Jabhat al-Nusra and similar groups was a simple and innocent one. Their sole desire was to topple the Assad regime; no ideological element or political aspirations were involved. It was the arrival of the “emigrants” that made young men burn with the desire to fight. “We felt ashamed when we saw the fervor and boldness of the muhajirun; we were the country’s inhabitants and we didn’t have their audaciousness or bravery,” says Liwa al-Tawhid member Abou Mahmoud.

 

When leader of the Islamic State (ISIS) Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the dissolution of Jabhat al-Nusra, a split began to develop. The picture became gradually clearer and the policies of the two groups differed on the ground. “Syrians liked Nusra because it dedicated itself to fighting the regime,” says Mahmoud, an activist from Aleppo. “It also provided services to the people, and at the time, didn’t want to make material gains or seize power. People were left to administer liberated public utilities for themselves.” ISIS, on the other hand, acted according to a very clear and very different vision. From an early stage, it appropriated vital economic establishments and facilities, and refused to recognize or join any of the revolution’s juristic, political, military or educational institutions. “I remember asking an emir in the group when the split developed, why he didn’t unite with us in the fight against Assad,” says Nasser, a former Free Syrian Army (FSA) member. “He smiled at me and said ‘your problem is that you do not understand we are a state and we work on that basis. How can you expect a state to unite with groups and factions?’ At the time, I made fun of the idea, thinking it was no more than a pipedream.”

 

Most foreign fighters in Syria joined ISIS after it parted ways with Jabhat al-Nusra in summer 2013, but the group was still seen as a rebel faction. During this period, ISIS fought a number of battles in rebel-controlled areas, and set up bases and missionary centers. Through these centers it succeeded in attracting a number of enthusiastic youths but the muhajirun were still the majority, as emigration to Syria had continued unabated.

 

These foreigners were especially drawn to the group. Its trans-continental, trans-boundary project did not recognize national or ethnic affiliation, and rejected all modern political theories. “The idea behind the group attracted the muhajirun most of all, as they had left their homelands looking for a new one to embrace,” says Skeikh Abdul Hayy, a Aleppo Governorate resident. “They found just what they were looking for in the promised state.”

 

The group received a severe blow at the beginning of 2014 that almost destroyed its presence in Syria and could have done so if there had been support for the rebels at the time; ISIS fighters fell back into a limited number of areas, withdrawing from the Idlib and Lattakia Governorates. Before this, ISIS had also withdrawn from areas west of Aleppo and eastern Idlib Governorate in fighting that was at its fiercest with rebel brigades. As a result of the fighting, many Syrians left ISIS, preferring to withdraw from the group than kill their fellow citizens. Nevertheless, ISIS benefitted from falling back, as the areas it withdrew to were rich in natural resources; its new heartland included oil fields, dams, power stations, grain silos and vast tracts of agricultural land. The group ruled these areas alone with fire and steel, beheading and crucifying dissenters in public squares.

 

Although it benefitted from the new areas it had taken, ISIS failed to attract a large number of Syrians; they saw it as a tyrannical and oppressive group that had torn apart opposition ranks and thrown the revolution off course. However, criminals looking to hide their past crimes and benefit from ISIS’s name did sign up. During this period, the group won major victories in Iraq, seizing vast swathes of territory around Mosul and in Anbar Province. As a result, the morale of the group’s members was boosted. The gains in Iraq helped ISIS attract a large number of new members. To further this trend, the group played on the sectarian strife provoked by the practices of Nuri al-Maliki and Bashar al-Assad.

 

The number of Syrians in the group’s ranks remained less than it wished. ISIS knew it would have to secure victories in Syria to motivate young men to join, so it entered three battles with the Syrian Army (the Division 17 Army Base, the Brigade 93 Army Base and Tabaqa Air Base, all of which are in Raqqa Governorate.) This was enough to prop ISIS up; in the period that followed, over 5,000 new members joined the group every month. To them, ISIS seemed invincible; it was an expanding state that had come to stay. Entry into the group wasn’t limited to individuals, either; now whole brigades and battalions were joining. For example, Idlib’s Liwa al-Dawood pledged its allegiance and took up an important position confronting the regime in the Shaar gas field.

 

The rate of entry into the group slowed down after the glow of its victories faded. The mistakes ISIS made by mistreating the populace and poorly administering the state it had called for also helped drive this trend. The street grew angry at its practices and policies in all areas.

 

Then the airstrikes by the US-led international coalition provided the group with a life line. The strikes gave ISIS legitimacy it had previously found hard to attain, making it seem like the only Sunni force standing up to Shiite expansionism and global imperialism. “Doubts haunted the group in all stages of its growth,” says former Ahrar al-Sham member Abu Hassan. “Because the coalition strikes didn’t target the regime, it looked like ISIS was defending the Syrian people against the West, which seemed determined to protect anti-Islamic Assad.” ISIS put these appearances to good use, the fiery addresses that accompanied the strikes drawing in thousands of fighters.

 

The battle of Ain al-Arab (Kobani) had a negative effect. The group became trapped in engagements in an around the city, and coupled with the immolation of Moaz al-Kassasbeh, the bitter conclusion of the fighting brought the number of entrants back down again after the boost the coalition strikes had initially provided. ISIS could no longer expand and was at risk of disappearing.

 

However, fighting in countryside areas south of Kobani gave some young Arabs a new motive to join the group when Kurdish fighters set fire to several Arab villages near the town of Tel Hamis. Once again, ISIS was the only force that could defend the area’s Sunni Arabs. Furthermore, as foreign fighters were still crossing the borders, the group’s training camps continued to receive new recruits.

 

The number of people joining ISIS has seen it ups and downs. Many factors have had their influence, and one of the foremost may well be poverty; the areas where ISIS has established control were neglected by the government and had high unemployment rates before the revolution. This is besides the fact that poverty had caused the internal displacement of a large number of Syrians. “Most Syrians who joined the group in the town of Manbij were displaced Safirah and Aleppo residents,” says Omran, a teacher from the town. “Recently, a limited number of people from Manbij and the surrounding countryside have begun to join up with the group because of poverty and the tempting salaries it offers.” Sharia training courses and missionary centers have also played a role in convincing many to join; the group has portrayed itself as the Sunni community’s only defender amid a raging sea of sedition. It is also worth noting that ISIS is now the only force fighting the regime in many areas, where it has wiped out all other groups—for residents of these areas, joining ISIS is the only way they can fight Assad.

 

Psychological and social factors have also played a role in convincing a large number of people to join. The injustice suffered by the masses has had a strong effect in pushing people towards extremism. ISIS knows how to market itself as a defender of the oppressed and exploit the nature of tribal society. This knowledge has allowed it to organize meetings and ceremonies where allegiance is pledged to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

 

Additionally, the issue of security has never been far from people’s minds. Many FSA members who joined the group did so to protect themselves and their families.

 

Despite all the consecutive instances of Syrians joining ISIS, the number of entrants has remained low. Syria’s moderate and open society has not accepted the group’s fanaticism. If the international community’s policy on the revolution changed for the better, the number of Syrians in the group’s ranks would decline dramatically.

 

This article has been translated from the Arabic by Ullin Hope. 

Jabhat al-Nusra fighters help a wounded man following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian government forces in the Al-Muasalat area in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on 6 November 2014. (AFP/AMC/Fadi al-Halabi)

He smiled at me and said ‘your problem is that you do not understand we are a state and we work on that basis. How can you expect a state to unite with groups and factions?’”