November 17, 2013, Sunday

Extrajudicial jihad on steroids in Syria

Extrajudicial jihad on steroids in Syria
A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra is seen in front of a burning vehicle. (Photo: Reuters, Hamid Khatib)

Even terrorists make mistakes. In fact, they are even asking for forgiveness. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, thought the man they just beheaded was an Iraqi Shia fighting for the Assad regime in Syria. But, as BBC News reports, “other fighters watching the (beheading) video recognized the man and said he was one of their commanders.” Now ISIS is asking for forgiveness for their grave error.

Here's what BBC News(Nov. 15) says about this error:

“The video shows two ISIS fighters in Aleppo province - one holding a knife - brandish a severed, bearded head, denouncing their victim as an Iraqi volunteer for President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

They decry his immorality, saying he is a heathen - one of those who have threatened rape of men as much as women.

BBC Arab affairs analyst Sebastian Usher says horrifying videos like this stream out of Syria every day from the rebel and government side - each with the aim of sowing terror.

What makes this one stand out, he adds, is that other rebels watching the video recognized the beheaded man.

Members of the hard-line Islamist rebel group, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham, said he was not a government fighter at all, but one of their own. They said he was a commander called Mohammed Fares.”

However, the hard-line Islamic jihadists fighting against the Assad regime in Syria certainly make no mistakes in imposing their harsh, Taliban-like version of Shariah (Islamic law) in the parts of Syria that they manage to control. They seem to be Shariah-obsessed jihadists on steroids.  

Consider an article in the Longwar Journal (Jan. 30, 2013) that describes Al Nusrah Front (Jabhat an-Nusra) setting up a Shariah town in eastern Syria, where they:

"have taken unclothed mannequins they see as sexually enticing out of the shops," in the town of Mayadin, Reutersreported. The al Qaeda affiliate has "also prevented women from wearing trousers, preferring that they adopt the shapeless head-to-toe black veil." Alcohol has also been banned in the town.

Al Nusrah Front fighters are providing "daily religious teaching" to children, and are recruiting teenaged boys to fight Assad's regime. Additionally, the group is making a profit by selling oil, even to members of the Assad regime.

The imposition of sharia in Mayadin by the Al Nusrah Front is eerily similar to al Qaeda in Iraq's activities in Anbar province and other areas in Iraq from 2004 to 2007. Taking advantage of the security vacuum that arose after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, al Qaeda in Iraq seized control of several towns and cities in western Iraq and declared Islamic emirates in towns like Haditha and Al Qaim, which is right on the Syrian border. The terror group immediately began to enforce its radical interpretation of Islamic law on Sunni tribesmen, who were too weak and disorganized to fight back.

Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters made women wear the veil, cut off the fingers of Iraqis who were caught smoking, and even forced produce sellers to separate cucumbers and tomatoes, as placing the two vegetables next to each other was deemed to represent the mixing of the sexes.

Additionally, al Qaeda in Iraq profited from smuggling and selling Iraq's oil. The group even named emirs to manage the sale of oil, which was in turn used to fund operations.

… In the city of Deir al Zour (Syria), which is about 20 miles north of Mayadin, the Al Nusrah Front has banded together with nine other Islamist groups to create the "Mujahideen Shura Council." The Mujahideen Shura Council in Deir al Zour was formed to "unite the ranks of the jihadi brigades in the Cause of Allah, organize the efforts and the attacks against the soldiers of disbelief and apostasy, and distinguish the ranks of truth from falsehood," according to a statement released by the group in December 2012.”

An article in RT (July 2, 2013) reports about a fatwa issued in Aleppo:

“Syrian rebels have issued a ban on women using make up or wearing “immodest dress” in a neighborhood in the city of Aleppo. Critics have blasted the move as another attempt by Islamists to impose Sharia in rebel-controlled territory. The fatwa (an order based on Sharia law) was issued by the Islamic law council in Aleppo's Fardous neighborhood. 

"Muslim women are banned from leaving the house in immodest dress, in tight clothing that shows off their bodies or wearing makeup on their face. It is incumbent on all our sisters to obey God and commit to Islamic etiquette,"the statement on the Fardous council's Facebook page says as cited by Reuters, which reports that Aleppo residents have confirmed the news.”

The town of Raqqah, Syria, is bearing the brunt of some of the worst behavior of the jihadists, as Asia Newsreports (Sept. 27, 2013):

“Jihadist rebels linked to al-Qaeda burnt statues and crosses in two churches in ar-Raqqah, northern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, often favorable to the rebels, reports that yesterday fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant entered Our Lady of the Annunciation Greek Catholic Church where they destroyed icons and furniture. They did the same at the Holy Martyrs Armenian Catholic Church where they destroyed the cross on the clock tower and replaced it with their al-Qaeda flag.

… In the city, Islamist fighters imposed on residents a strict observance of Islamic law (Sharia). They also went on a rampage, destroying Shiite mosques and Christian churches, as well as carried out summary executions against Alawis, and are suspected in the kidnapping of priests and bishops.

… At the beginning of the anti-Assad revolt, rebels were happy to see fundamentalist groups from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Chechnya, Indonesia, Qatar, and Egypt join their ranks.  But this did not last long as a chasm between secular and Islamist factions developed.”

For many Syrians, the line between Assad regime forces and the jihadists is increasingly blurred, as both use torture, brutality, and extrajudicial punishments, including executions, against civilians and combatants alike.

The Dail Mail Online (Nov. 6) has a detailed piece about the Al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS jihadists brutalizing the inhabitants of Raqqa, and the photos are really worth viewing. The article says:

“One man showed a TV news channel how he was left with horrific bruises and burns after jihadists beat him and tortured him with an electrical current for spraying graffiti.

This punishment for graffiti was also meted out by the Assad authorities ousted by the revolution, leaving many wondering what it's all been for.

He told CNN: ‘Every 15 minutes, someone poured water on me, electrocuted me, kicked me, then walked out.'

He went on to describe the anguish he suffered listening to others being tortured.

… Rebels who have voiced their opposition to ISIS have found themselves arrested and thrown in jail without trial.

The town's women, meanwhile, have been ordered by ISIS via posters to ‘cover up their beauty', according to CNN, and banned from seeing male doctors or even leaving home without a male relative.

One female activist drew comparisons between the once-liberal Raqqa and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

… She told CNN: ‘They [ISIS] are closing hair salons, women can't go out at certain times. They spat on one girl for disobedience. It's like Afghanistan. Now people call Raqqa Tora Bora'.”

I have lived in Damascus, where I saw women and men dressed in modern garb, eager to learn Western languages (in addition to French, which many Syrians are already proficient in), earn higher education degrees, set themselves on a promising career track, start families, live normal lives in peace. It has been hard enough on them to live under the Assad regime, that is, under the rule of both the father, Hafez, and now the son Bashar. They desire freedoms and rights, just like the rest of humanity. Now, they are tragically stuck between two totalitarian, brutal beasts. The graffiti on the walls of Raqqa sums it up well: “Bashar and ISIS are one.”

These developments are dangerous not only for Syrian civilians, but also for the entire region. The Talibanization of Syria, or even parts of Syria, can only exacerbate sectarian violence, prolong the civil war, and engender more intense spillover of the conflict into neighboring countries, including Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Some of this is already happening.

Also, many of these hyper-jihadists are locked in fierce battles against fellow rebels who happen to be secular or more moderate, while both sides are fighting against the Assad regime. High-ranking rebel fighters in the FSA have been assassinated, and infighting with the jihadists is ongoing. This is also bad news for a post-Assad Syria, because the hyper-jihadists have specific agendas for setting up a strict Shariah-based Islamic state in the country. The fact that they are bullying, torturing, and coercing people to comply with their Taliban-like rules in the few parts of Syria that they control is just a snapshot of what they would do at a broader national level.

Not unlike the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan, public executions are already taking place at the hands of ISIS and Al-Nusrah Front, and a few other Islamist groups. In some areas, they have already carried out numerous beheadings in public squares, often with young children mixed in the crowd of witnesses. The jihadists on ideological steroids are proud of this and even videotape and post beheadings online.

Power is intoxicating, and extrajudicial power and authority are addictive for these hard-line jihadists. They enjoy killing, and they relish indoctrinating the youth in their warped ideology.

These extrajudicial killings will no doubt continue and even spread as the jihadists take over town after town. Their “little mistake” of beheading one of their own commanders will not impede them. They are apologizing now, and then they will shout, “next.”

hayat alvi, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.

The views expressed are personal.