Video Games and Cigarettes: Syria’s Disneyland for Jihadists

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Christoph Reuter, September 27, 2013 (Photo Gallery).

Foreign Islamists coming into Syria have been gathering in the relatively quiet north. But many of them are finding transit towns – with good food, video games and smoking – preferable to the front. When they do end up fighting, it’s often with each other … //

… The Turkish mobile phone network provides strong reception, and the shops carry Afghan pakol wool hats, al-Qaida caps and knee-length black shirts made of the same coarse material used in the Pakistani tribal regions. New restaurants have popped up, and a company called International Contacts books flights and exchanges Saudi riyals, British pounds, euros and US dollars into the local currency. The pharmacy sells miswak, a teeth-cleaning stick from Pakistan with which the Prophet Muhammed supposedly brushed his teeth. The package label promises that the use of miswak increases the effectiveness of subsequent prayers by a factor of 70.

The Jihadist is Always Right:

A third Internet café opened in mid-June to accommodate the many jihadists wanting to communicate with their relatives and friends at home via phone, email or chat programs. This prompted the owner of the first café to hang al-Qaida flags above his computers as a sign of loyalty to his customers. The move has improved business despite the growing competition. The heavily armed customers use Skype to tell their friends at home about what a paradise Atmeh is. The rents are cheap, they say, the weather and food are good, they can walk around with their weapons and, with a little luck, they can even find wives. In the evenings, the sound of several jihadists playing Counter-Strike spills into the streets in a cacophony of video game warfare. In Atmeh, the holy war is a costume spectacle, and everyone can feel as if he were part of it — without suffering any harm. In August, a restaurant specializing in various national dishes for the international crowd of jihadists opened in Atmeh. Falafito has koshari for Egyptians, falafel for Saudis and chicken tikka for Pakistanis, to list just a few offerings.

Even local business owners are pleased about their fanatical clientele. The Syrian salesman in a mobile phone shop says: “A man from Dagestan comes here every few days. First he bought a Samsung Galaxy, a week later he bought an iPad, and then he bought a newer model of the Samsung Galaxy. He must have spent more than $1,000 (€740) here.”

Why are the foreigners in Atmeh in the first place, asks an exasperated local commander with the Free Syrian Army (FSA)? “If they have come here to fight, then the front is that way,” he adds, pointing east.

In fact, Atmeh is a transit station for jihadists who usually arrive at the nearby Turkish airport in Hatay. Some remain in the region, while others continue on to Aleppo, to the mountains of Latakia, to Rakka in the east, or to wherever the unclear front happens to be.

Some Syrian rebels team up with the jihadists, but many find the foreigners sinister. And even when the latter do fight against regime troops, FSA commanders are puzzled as to why commanders like Abu Omar al-Shishani, from Chechnya, aren’t using the ammunition and anti-aircraft missiles they have obtained. Indeed, the FSA commanders fear the jihadists could use their weapons against Syrian rebels or even in terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world.

We Can’t Afford a Second Front: … //

… Disparate Groups Lacking Solid Leadership:

Meanwhile, in Atmeh, the jihadists are practicing a way of life that existed in the days of the Prophet, albeit with such amenities as Facebook and Counter-Strike. Though unintended, the scene is reminiscent of the early days of Islam, after the death of the Prophet, when three of the first four caliphs grappled with rivals from within their own ranks. All the radicals in Atmeh want a theocracy, but this doesn’t stop individual groups from constantly maligning each other, becoming rivals and occasionally starting feuds. In mid-June, there were at least five jihadist groups in and around Atmeh:

  • Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa bilad al-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), a growing group with more than 200 adherents
  • Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Army of Emigrants and Helpers), with about 170 fighters
  • Abu al-Banat, a group of about 70 men, named after its emir and consisting almost exclusively of Chechens, Dagestanis and Azerbaijanis. Its numbers are declining.
  • Abu Musab al-Jazairi, named after its Algerian founder and financier, with about 60 members Jabat al-Nusra (Front of Defense), with about 100 fighters
  • Al-Nusra is the murkiest of the groups, and it is in the process of disintegrating at least in Idlib province, now that its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, who has never appeared in person, swore allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in April 2013. The rank and file in Syria have a low opinion of Zawahiri for several reasons. The Egyptian is not seen as particularly charismatic, and although he managed to have himself named the successor of former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden from his hiding place in the Afghan-Pakistani border region, he has failed to unite the terrorist conglomerate, allowing new groups to grow along its fringes.

In addition, jihadist pilgrims want a leader to call the shots. They want an emir in the flesh, someone who issues commands and delivers verdicts in person. But al-Nusra lacks such an emir. Even in their own propaganda videos, all that one sees of Abu Mohammed al-Golani is a figure with a tinny, distorted voice and pixelated face. Members often say that they know someone who knows someone who has met the emir, but that, upon closer examination, their stories often come to nothing. Several former al-Nusra members from Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus have said in recent months that no one has ever seen or even spoken with the man.

Besides, says a Syrian who left al-Nusra to join Dawla, the latter is “cooler.” Members can smoke, he says, as long as no one is watching. This is an important competitive advantage in the chain-smoking Syrian rebel community. Cigarettes are normally taboo among the jihadists because “smoking drives away the angels and delays our victory,” says the former al-Nusra member, quoting his local ex-emir.

Taking Extremism Too Far: … //

… (full text).

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