Breaking Syria's Reign of Terror

Are al Qaeda hard-liners finally on the run?

Al Qaeda's reign of terror over most of rebel-held Syria may have finally been broken last Friday. On Jan. 3, secular and religious Syrians in various rebel-held towns and cities protested against the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The protests evolved into clashes between ISIS and two rebel groups -- the newly formed Jaish al-Mujahideen and the newly organized Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The clashes began in western Aleppo and then spread into at least three other provinces -- Idlib, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor -- and groups affiliated with the predominantly Salafi Islamic Front became involved in some of the fighting against ISIS.

This is one of the most heartening developments in Syria in months. The rise of ISIS over the past year was the worst thing that could happen to the Syrian revolution. Its brutal tactics in liberated areas forced many Syrian moderates into hiding or into joining radical groups; it deterred journalists and aid workers from operating in those areas; it deepened divisions among rebel factions; and it ultimately helped to change the narrative in favor of Bashar al-Assad's regime.

On a practical level, ISIS's policies have made it difficult for rebels to move easily in their own areas. The jihadi group had a nasty habit of confiscating other rebels' weapons, cutting their supply lines, arresting their fighters and leaders, taking over weaker groups' headquarters, and establishing smothering checkpoints in strategic areas. Just a few days before the recent fighting erupted, for example, the group had run nine checkpoints on the road from the Syrian town of Atmeh, on the border with Turkey, to the city of Maarat al-Nouman, over 120 miles away. Last November, by comparison, it only possessed two checkpoints.

Despite these abuses, many rebel brigades were reluctant to push back against ISIS. That's in part because, before this moment, it was an open question how the most significant anti-Assad groups -- the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra -- would respond in the event of a full-blown confrontation. The ideological underpinnings of these groups were still in flux, and some fighters within them are jihadi veterans who could have ended up siding with their fellow radicals. And indeed, while Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham -- two brigades affiliated with the Islamic Front -- joined in the recent fighting against ISIS, two of these brigades' subfactions -- Liwa al-Abbas and Liwa Suqour Assunna -- expressed solidarity with the al Qaeda affiliate.

When the Islamic Front was formed, many observers were quick to condemn it as a radical group that had little ideological difference with al Qaeda affiliates. But, as I wrote recently, the Front was bad news for al Qaeda from the start. The Islamic Front was an attempt to halt fighters' drift toward extremism: Its religious slogans were necessary to counter the growing influence of radical groups, as those groups were increasingly seen by the Syrian public as the most effective at fighting against the ruthless regime.

The Islamic Front's most notable success has been in moderating the behavior of Ahrar al-Sham, a longtime ally of Syria's al Qaeda affiliates that has noticeably altered its behavior since it joined the alliance. Last week, for example, it apologized for the "individual acts" of some of its members who had lashed civilians for not going to the mosque to pray on Friday.

Although some members of the Islamic Front often publicly insist that it is ideologically close to groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, its members are largely religious moderates who oppose al Qaeda and its thinking. In private conversations, the alliance's fighters and ideologues commonly criticize the radicals. Even in public, some Islamic Front members have gone so far as to call on Jabhat al-Nusra to abandon al Qaeda and join Syrian groups, even as the Front's leaders publicly play down such sentiments.

In addition, Jabhat al-Nusra's behavior throughout the past few days of fighting has been particularly remarkable. The group faced a true dilemma when the protests broke out: On one hand, a core part of its strategy has been to win Syrian hearts and minds, thereby preventing a falling out with more moderate Syrian rebels. The group has thus maintained warm ties with the Islamic Front and has consistently spoke out against takfir -- the practice of accusing a fellow Muslim of apostasy. On the other hand, statements from its supporters and leading ideologues showed that it was fearful that the fighting could spin out of control and all jihadists could be targeted, or that a protracted conflict would ultimately push them to fight other rebels.

The group stayed quiet for four days as it tried to mediate between the clashing sides. On the fifth day its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, issued a balanced statement unequivocally criticizing ISIS's "wrong policies" -- and also highlighting ISIS's arrest, and probably killing, of Jabhat al-Nusra's commander in the city of Raqqa. He then said that fighting had to stop to prevent "the loss of a great jihadi arena."

This recent spate of fighting is a serious blow to ISIS. A major part of its strength was the cult of fear it had established: Despite its insignificant numbers in some areas, larger rebel groups were reluctant to stand up against it due to its brutal tactics. The jihadi group "mistakenly" chopped the head off of one of Ahrar al-Sham's leaders and displayed it to the public, and it drove a car bomb into the headquarters of a rival rebel group, the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade, in the city of Raqqa. These incidents displayed a savagery that had no limits -- few could bear the cost of refusing ISIS's demands.

Now that the fear barrier has been broken, ISIS will not be the same -- nor will be other radical groups that have so far managed to maintain an image of tolerance. Up until now, ISIS had imposed its own rigid set of Islamic laws, meaning that other like-minded groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, did not need to interfere in how people led their lives. Now, they will no longer have the luxury of ISIS doing it for them. Moderate rebel groups have also seen an improvement of their fortunes -- indeed, a new military council was formed this week in Idlib that includes several moderate rebel groups.

To be sure, this ideological realignment is still a developing story, and different rebel groups are still mulling which groups they should ally themselves with. There is also still a danger that Ahrar al-Sham, often described by al Qaeda sympathizers as a fellow jihadi group, could push the Islamic Front closer to al Qaeda. But so far, the opposite is happening.

ISIS will not exit the Syrian arena quietly. The jihadi group's spokesman has declared war on almost all rebels using the strongest terms imaginable -- including threatening suicide attacks and car bombs against Syrian civilians. Jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham will soon face questions about whether they intend to use similar tactics.

The fighting over the past week is a watershed moment for the Syrian uprising. The momentum against extremism can pave the way for the re-emergence of moderate groups that had been pushed to the margins under ISIS's reign of terror. The episode has proved that it is Syria's mainstream rebels who are best fit to face down extremists -- not the Assad regime



Blowback in Cairo

The Syrian civil war has now reached the heart of Egypt.

On Sept. 5, a car bomb ripped through the Cairo neighborhood of Nasr City, narrowly missing its target: Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group, took responsibility for the attack, which injured more than 20 people.

Almost two months later, the jihadist group released a video that detailed the attack and identified the suicide car bomber as Walid Badr. Most of the media reporting on the video focused on the fact that Badr was a former Egyptian Army officer, which missed an important detail: He had recently returned to Egypt after fighting in Syria alongside jihadists looking to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. "Allah destined him to return to Egypt to fulfill his wish [of] carrying out a martyrdom-seeking operation," said the video about Badr, who also purportedly fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Badr's video included a lengthy scolding of the current Egyptian government for, in his view, violently waging war against Islam. It also included a call to Egyptian Muslims to sacrifice themselves and fight Egypt's security forces: "We must kill from them just as they are killing from us," he proclaimed.

The raging conflict in Syria may be providing Egyptian Islamist militants with the skills to launch deadlier attacks against the military-backed government in Cairo when they return home. According to a recent study from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, a minimum of 119 Egyptians have gone to fight the Assad regime in Syria. The number may be as high as 358, if not higher, the report noted. In fact, one recent press report claimed that "thousands of Egyptians" have gone to Syria to fight among the opposition since 2011. And while many of these fighters are slain on the battlefield, there will be others who return home.

Badr isn't the only figure who used the training and connections he gained in Syria to advance the jihad in Egypt. Saeed al-Shahat is another: The Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis fighter was wanted in connection with the murder of a police officer, and died after detonating an explosive vest as Egyptian security forces raided his home. According to the communiqué issued by the jihadist group to confirm his death, Shahat returned to Egypt from Syria to join his "mujahideen brothers," and partake "in their jihad and preparation." 

It's no surprise that Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is an attractive option for Egyptian veterans of the Syrian revolt who are looking to bring the jihad home. The group has become the most significant terrorist threat in Egypt today: In recent months, it has killed dozens and wounded hundreds in its attacks in North Sinai, Cairo, and the Nile Delta. The group's recent attacks, such as its devastating Dec. 24 suicide car bombing in Mansoura, show that its capabilities are growing -- perhaps due to the experience of those joining its ranks from Syria.

Egypt has faced the threat of blowback as a result of its citizens fighting in foreign jihadi theaters before. In the 1980s, hundreds of Egyptians joined the fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Many of those Egyptians returned home and contributed to the terror campaign led by two al Qaeda-affiliated groups -- al-Gamaa al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad -- that ravaged Egypt throughout much of the 1990s. 

Jihadists are trying to leverage the recent political crises in Cairo to build support among Egyptian Islamists. They have argued that the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, vindicates their claim that the ammunition box -- not the ballot box -- is the only way to achieve their goals. Calls for violence against the Egyptian state, in particular against the security services, have accordingly seen a notable increase in recent months.

In November, jihadist ideologue Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti called on Egyptians to wage war against Egypt's security forces. It "is a religious duty and divine obligation," he proclaimed. "Whoever is able to travel to them, fight with them, and increase their ranks, it is a duty to do so."

Senior al Qaeda officials, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the Somalia-based al-Shabab, and global jihadi media outlets have issued similar calls for violence in Egypt. "We and you are one," a sharia court judge based in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo told Sinai-based jihadists in one recent ISIS video. "[W]ith whatever we can support you with, we will cooperate with you to establish the religion of Allah." 

If even a few of the hundreds of Egyptians fighting today in Syria return home, it could have grave consequences for stability in Egypt. The same, of course, holds for the West, where the number of Western Sunni jihadists joining the fight in Syria is historically unprecedented.

In contrast to the West, which has not yet experienced a direct case of blowback from the Syrian war, the nascent jihad underway in Egypt has already begun to be effected by the full-blown war in Syria. While the world is accustomed to thinking of the situations in Egypt and Syria as separate political crises, they could become more linked than we could have ever imagined.