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Al Qaeda in Syria: A Snapshot


1 December 2013

Given by Kawa Khalil, annotated by Michael Yon

The Syrian rebel Kawa Khalil told me the recent story of the Holy Cross church.

Before the war, the church doubled as a school, attended by Muslims and Christians.  After the destruction of Syria began, classrooms became homes for refugees.

On 27 October, the Holy Cross Armenian Orthodox Church was burned in Tal Abyad, Raqqa, Syria.

image003Cross torn from the roof by al Qaeda. Local people were afraid to remove the cross from the street.

The attack was blamed on the Hamza Brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Mr. Kawa Khalil reports that the day after the burning, al Qaeda came onto the streets blaming the arson on the FSA.  He stated, however, that al Qaeda committed the crime.

When a similar attack occurred in nearby Raqqa, other Muslims came onto the streets to apologize to Christians, saying they are not like this.  The crowd tried to right the cross but it was too heavy.  A video of the Raqqa apology was posted online.

Despite their long history, some believe the days of Christians in Syria are fading.  Many have fled to Turkey, possibly having already spent their final days in their homeland.

In the United States there is a tendency to view this as “Muslims vs. Christians,” yet on the scale of the troubles these are subtopics.  Stories that center on the Christian suffering can make it sound like “another Christian village has fallen,” when the stories coming from Syria are “another village has fallen, and this one happens to be mostly Christian.”

The targeting of Christians is often not the result of religious differences.

Politically, some targeting stems from many Christians siding with Assad’s regime, fearing an inevitable pogrom.  Assad nurtures Christian fears to gain their support.

But that hardly matters: if they side against Assad, his forces will also attack.  The price of being a minority can be dammed if you do and dead if you don’t.

In the ultimate “you are with us or against us, “ there is no option to play Switzerland and pretend lofty neutrality as if that were a choice.  Alpine geography and political circumstance afford lucky Switzerland the fantasy of being above it all, yet a desert village on key terrain and crucial routes has less fortunate geography and circumstance.  The options are to run, surrender, or fight.

image005Tal Abyad, Syria

A Syrian Christian told me that he supports the revolution while other Christian members of his family support Assad.  Pick your destiny.  He moved to peaceful Turkey to resist through other means.

Mr. Khalil estimated there are 200 al Qaeda in Tal Abyad.  He sees them walk around town wearing suicide belts in plain view, including among crowds.  In no country has al Qaeda ever been known for civic responsibilities.  AQ is always about “Me, me, me!  Look at me on a Mission from God!  Licensed to Kill!”

AQ will not allow people to smoke, yet impolitely wears suicide belts in the vegetable markets.  Talk about open carry.

Importantly, Tal Abyad and other al Qaeda-controlled areas are snuggled on the Turkish border, putting AQ in the enviable position of being able to throttle or profit from trade.

Town after town in the area close to the Turkish border is falling into the hands of the worst radicals, beating back both the FSA and the Regime.  They are being funded by myriad international sources.

Of these three main elements—AQ affiliates, FSA, and the Regime—all tend to hate the other two major categories.

Use of the word “categories” is intentional: the categories are not specific factions.  Liken it to saying FSA is the National Football League—a category—with factions that are “teams” within the NFL.

The analogy is loose but worth a few sentences.  And so, when someone says the FSA did such-and-such, who are they talking about?  Are they talking about the team in Tampa or the team in Seattle?  The teams are not associated other than by the FSA category and they may directly compete.

Yet the factions differ remarkably from football teams whose specific goal is to win the Super Bowl: kill Assad.  When a team wins the Super Bowl, the season is over, but these factions have the goal of winning the Ring and then doing something else, which might include or require killing off other teams.  For instance, many FSA want a secular Syria while others want an Islamic state, but they all want the Ring first: kill Assad.  Al Qaeda also wants to kill Assad, making yet another case of the enemy of my enemy makes two enemies.

Meanwhile, part of the large Kurdish population has moved to take its area of Syria into autonomy—something only the Kurds desire.  Turkey will resist Syrian Kurdish autonomy, possibly with force, because some Syrian Kurds supported terrorism in Turkey.  Many Kurds also voice opposition to secession.

Chaos reigns.  A week or so ago, al Qaeda members beheaded an Islamist.  The AQ beheaders published the customary video, and then friends of the severed head recognized him as a potential friend of al Qaeda.  They want revenge.

image007Al Qaeda Jihadist demonstrates a core skill by cutting off the head of an Islamist. VIDEO LINK

Now with their own necks in peril, the Jihadist headhunters have embarked on a campaign of apology after beheading an Islamist and provisional ally.

The mistake reportedly unfolded when AQ headhunters found the wounded victim in a hospital, where he incoherently uttered Shia phrases.  In a terroristic faux pas straight from the Naked Gun, the Sunni AQ then lopped off his “Shia” head, saying he surely would have raped the men even before raping the women.  Only a master can offend so many with so little effort.

From afar, it may appear that Muslims are making a business destroying churches, when the reality is that radical Jihadists are killing more Muslims than anyone else.  This has been true for years.

In context of this war, the words “Islamist” and “Jihadist” have different meanings, similar to the words “ocean” and “sea.”  The terms are not precisely interchangeable.

As I write more about Syria, the choice of the word “Islamist” versus “Jihadist” will be used with precision, recognizing there is overlap.

A Jihadist in the context of this war will advertise that he is fighting strictly for Islam, and in particular his sect.  The Jihadist is happy to scatter or kill non-believers, especially Muslims of other sects.  Al Qaeda franchises consist of martial Jihadists.  (Recognizing that “jihad” itself has nuance, mostly not associated with war, and more what we would call “self realization” or perhaps “vision quest.”)

An Islamist is a devout Muslim.  As with the Jihadist, the Islamist would like to see an Islamic world, but if the Islamist is on a warpath, it might not be strictly a religious warpath.

If the Islamist is fighting, his goal is not to wipe out other sects or religions, or if that is the case, only in the limited sense of winning the war, not global jihad.  The Islamist can be like a devout Christian who will fight but who is not interested in wiping out non-Christians other than to attain victory.  He is not on a global Crusade, and though just as many Christians would like to see the world under the Cross, most will not Crusade with guns to achieve that dream.

A Jihadist is always an Islamist, while an Islamist may not be a Jihadist in the war sense.

The saying “There are no atheists in a foxhole” holds some truth for Muslims and for Christians.  Meanwhile, for people in this part of the world, Crusade and Jihad are synonymous other than faith.

War has a magical way of intensifying religion, which can feedback and reinforce the war.

A general rule divined from observation in my travels is that the more that a people live on the edge, close to death as a daily reality—such as in the Sundarbans where tigers and crocodiles snatch people regularly, and the regular storms erase thousands, or in the unforgiving Afghan “desert of death,” or high in the Himalaya where every step is likely your last—the more spiritual people become.

Yet strip away the dangers and perpetual mortal uncertainties, and temple attendance dwindles.  US Army chaplains who go to combat will say that they get more attention when more bullets are flying, and if my theory holds any truth, it might help to explain some of the fanaticism in this region.  Maybe this is wrong but it smells right.

The Middle East is a physically dangerous place to live—these deserts are deadly business, and especially so in the olden days.  Afghanistan, as example, is a fantastically dangerous place to live, even without human enemies.  If you are not dying of thirst or drought or famine or polio, the villages are being washed away by floods or swept into forever by earthquake and avalanche.  If any place can make a man religious, that is Afghanistan, or the Sundarbans, or India on the edge.

As with some other wars, the latest is a Jihadist festival.  Many Jihadists that were caught in Iraq and Afghanistan came for the Jihad.  They came for the party, not the hosts, or for any overarching principle such as Syrian freedom.

By 2005 in Iraq, local Iraqi insurgents were forcing Jihadists against their will to commit suicide attacks.  Many Jihadists wanted to Jihad, capture personal glory, on video if possible, and go home for the bragging rights.  “There I was, on Jihad.”  They wanted to be veterans but not to be reduced to smoking scraps that dogs carried off the battlefields.

Among Jihadists are various levels of commitment ranging from a summer break to fight, to suicide attack.  If Syria follows the Iraq pattern, once the Syrians realize that the foreigners came for the party, not for the Syrians, there will be backlash, but there are far more foreigners in Syria than ever came to Iraq, and many are better funded than Syrian FSA.

image009The Holy Cross Church is a ten-minute walk from the Turkish border.

Currently, the most effective anti-government force is centered around the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.  Many Syrians call ISIS “Da’esh,” the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

ISIS members find being called “Da’esh” a mockery.  They prefer to be called “Dawlah,” The State, and will beat people who get it wrong.

Local Syrians call the boss of Da’esh in Tal Abyad “Temsah.”  “The Crocodile.”

The Crocodile is Syrian.  The name is appropriate for those foreigners who are feeding the crocodiles with money and guns based on the nonsense idea of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Foreigners and some governments are helping radicals so that they will eat the Assad regime, with others—such as the Iranian Quds force—aiding Assad because part of their long game is to eat Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel is watching with satisfaction as mortal enemies busy themselves killing and depleting one another.  No matter who wins the Syria war, there will be fewer of them to face Israel than there were yesterday.

In Tal Abyad, Mr. Khalil said he encountered about ten Jihadists from Dagestan, Tunisia, Iraq, Libya, and one from London.  They had joined Da’esh.

Mr. Khalil said he spoke with the Londoner while the Londoner bought cooked chicken on the street.  If history is a guide, al Qaeda will first pay for the food, and after their power is sealed, they will take as they wish with a sense of divine entitlement.

In Tal Abyad, according to Mr. Khalil, the Londoner was not wearing a mask.  He was slim, light beard, maybe six feet tall.  Mr. Khalil said he knew the Londoner was a foreigner on first glance.  His complexion could have been local but he obviously was a stranger from afar.

Mr. Khalil asked the Londoner why he came to Syria, to which the Londoner answered laughingly that you are cowards, you will not fight the regime, and we came to rescue you.  It is believed that over two hundred UK citizens have joined battle, and others are streaming in from around Europe and the world.  Thousands.

The Londoner was accompanied by one Syrian, and the Dagestanian.  They were driving an ambulance, which Mr. Khalil said they use for fighting.

All three were wearing the long shirts.  Local people never wear the long shirts though many al Qaeda members wear the long shirts.  Mr. Khalil said their clothes were dirty and the Londoner had two old bloodstains on his chest.  He said the Londoner looked tired.

Mr. Khalil reports speaking with the Londoner for about five minutes, and that he was friendly, as terrorists often are.

image011Dagestan: remember the name

Another couple of friendly terrorists had links to Dagestan.  Their names: Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  In 2013, the brothers used pressure-cooker bombs to attack the Boston Marathon.

Dagestan and neighboring Chechnya are among the breeding grounds and graduate schools for terrorism and militant Jihad.  In the Syrian war, international terrorists are flooding into the battlefield classroom, swapping techniques, tactics, and procedures, while acquiring combat experience.  Eventually some of these veterans will return to their homelands.  Danes and Germans, as example, are reportedly flooding into Syria, and just this last week a German Jihadist was reported killed in combat.

image013Friendly Jihadist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

In the west, Dagestan is known only for terrorism.  The Russians worry that the Syrian war will spill back to Dagestan and deep into Russia.  Effective attacks from Dagestan and its neighbor Chechnya were common even before the war.

Chechen fighters reached almost mythological status among some US combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are reported to be well represented in Syria.

Places like Syria, Dagestan and Chechnya may seem imaginary and safely afar, yet in the modern world they are on our doorstep.

The Tsarnaev brothers proved this yet again.  Radicalization spreads at the speed of instant messaging.

Luckily the Tsarnaev brothers were amateurish and impulsive compared to others their ages.  Despite their recklessness and lack of security, they succeeded with what on the wartime scale was a scratch.   The Tsarnaev brothers were not war-hardened or with any sense of magnitude or combat savvy.  Had they spent one season in a real war, they would have been changed.

Pressure-cooker bombs had a true debut during the Nepal war.  I was up there in the Himalaya listening to villagers complain about how the government was confiscating their “cookers,” which are essential for high-altitude cooking.

The cookers made such effective bombs that they spread to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, over to Europe, and finally to the United States, such as at the Boston Marathon.  And so despite fear-mongering by the US government, there is basis in fact that these methods spread globally, quickly.

The Tsarnaev brothers changed the way Americans view pressure cookers.

image015Al Qaeda has claimed Raqqa as their worldwide capital.

And now it seems little more than time stands between now and the day Americans will no longer be able to look at a fluffy cotton ball without remembering some tragedy.  Today in Syria countless young men are learning improvisations, such as the use of guncotton, which looks like normal cotton. 

By 2007 in Iraq, when I went into villages the first thing I looked for in the markets was cigarettes.  No cigarettes meant al Qaeda was in charge.  It became a joke that al Qaeda was doing fine until they interrupted the flow of nicotine to Iraqi nerves.

The city of Raqqa—south of Tal Abyad and the Holy Cross Church—has fallen to al Qaeda, where there are similar reports of AQ members openly wearing suicide belts during their daily activities. Normal Syrians are terrified of the Assad regime, and of al Qaeda.  Cigarettes and cameras are banned in Raqqa.  Locals are calling Raqqa the “Tora Bora” of Syria, while comparing Da’esh with the Taliban.

The outcome of the Syria war is uncertain.  One certainty: the Syrian battleground is attracting thousands of foreigners who are training, and creating future global Jihadists, and the war is spilling over, such as the large bombing last week in Lebanon.  At the current rate, Syria is on track to becoming the Afghanistan of the Mediterranean, and the world’s most vibrant source of global mayhem.

Kawa Khalil, annotated by Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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