Skip to main content

Al Qaeda-linked group strengthens hold in northern Syria

By Gul Tuysuz, Raja Razek, and Nick Paton Walsh
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 1612 GMT (0012 HKT)
  • ISIS in full control
  • ISIS presence
  • FSA fighting ISIS
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Al Qaeda-backed militants have taken control of towns in northern Syria
  • Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) aims to impose a strict Islamist ideology
  • Swift al Qaeda expansion poses tough dilemma for U.S. and its European allies

Gaziantep, Turkey (CNN) -- Al Qaeda has swept to power with the aim of imposing a strict Islamist ideology on Syrians across large swathes of Syria's rebel-held north, according to a CNN survey of towns, activists and analysts that reveals an alarming increase in al Qaeda-linked control in just the past month.

Al Qaeda-backed militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are the predominant military force in northern Syria, according to activists and seasoned observers, and have a powerful influence over the majority of population centers in the rebel-held north.

Al Qaeda's growing influence in Syria

Rami Abdul Rahman, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said: "ISIS is the strongest group in Northern Syria -- 100% -- and anyone who tells you anything else is lying."

Chemical weapons doubts in Syria
Syria's foreign fighters
Turkey's secret jihadi smuggling route

CNN conducted dozens of interviews with activists, local and international observers and residents of the towns affected by ISIS in preparing this study. Many of the Syrians CNN spoke to talked anonymously for fear of angering ISIS, saying ISIS has in some areas made it a crime punishable by flogging to even say their name.

The swift al Qaeda expansion poses a severe policy dilemma for the United States and its European allies who have long delayed their promised armed assistance to rebel groups as they struggled with fears that the weapons could end up in the hands of al Qaeda-backed extremists.

Observers say the delay has provided a vacuum in the often chaotic rebel ranks that the organized and fearless Islamists have moved to fill.

Many observers explain that the extent of ISIS's discipline and resources -- they are said to have considerable cash at their disposal -- means that the other rebel groups operating in the north do not seek to confront them.

Read more: Al Qaeda-linked group gains strength on NATO border

Charles Lister, analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, said: "Although not a numerically dominant force, ISIS is playing an increasingly pre-eminent role in the northern Syrian insurgency.

"Much of this is a result of its capability to exploit superior levels of financing and resources -- essentially, to spread itself thinly enough to exert influence and/or control, but not too thin as to be overpowered by rivals."

Most activists point to a clear strategy by ISIS -- which aims to dominate a large swathe of the north from the north-western town of Idlib to the north-eastern city of Raqqa and beyond -- of focusing on population centers on the edges of rebel-held territory and slowly choking off central areas. Some ISIS figures have described a broader aim of trying to link the Sunni province of Anbar in Iraq to the Mediterranean coast, near the Syrian town of Latakia.

There are a number of smaller towns in northern Syria which -- activists and residents have told us -- are controlled entirely by ISIS: Keftin, Tal Rifat, Azaz, Ad Dana, Dar Ta Izzah, Binnish, Raqqa, Ma'arrat Misrin, Jarablus and Al-Bab.

The survey has established that ISIS also has a presence -- which is often hard for other rebel groups to challenge -- in the following towns: Sarmin, Salqin, Hraytan, Tabqa Dam, Hayyan, Al Eyramoon, Karm Al Meeyasir, Karm Al Qatarji, Al Atarib, Sarmada, Tal Halef, Menbij, Athimah, Maarat an-Numan, Saraqib and Ariha.

Watch video: Secret jihadi smuggling route through Turkey

While the main city of Aleppo remains in the control of a series of different rebel groups, ISIS has begun exerting control on key entry points into the city, and has recently gained control of the al-Sakhour neighborhood. The group is also gaining ground in controlling the northern access points to the city and territory in the rebel-held east.

ISIS' control around Idlib, another key city, is complicated by the regime's continued presence there, but the group has established a foothold to the north east in Sarmin, is present in the town of Saraqib, and is in full control of Binnish, a key town to Idlib's north.

Their grip over the rebel town of Raqqa is considerably tighter than elsewhere, despite the continued presence of rival and even aligned rebel groups who do not seek to challenge them. The Washington Institute think-tank says ISIS' grip on Raqqa makes it "the largest city al Qaeda has ever controlled in the Islamic world."

CNN al Qaeda expert Peter Bergen said the Washington Institute assessment could be correct, given the nature of ISIS's dominance in Raqqa, but pointed out that the U.S. Marine Corps admitted al Qaeda was in control of the Iraqi province of Anbar in 2006, which contained, at the time, around a couple of million people, and so could technically be considered larger.

In these ISIS-held areas, signs of the kind of Islamist society that the al Qaeda-backed militants seek to create have been swift to emerge; one woman activist drew comparisons with the Taliban's rule over Afghanistan. Rulings have been posted in some towns forbidding women to travel without a male relative and at certain times of the day, ordering them to cover up their hair with the traditional Islamic headscarf and not to wear trousers in public, and banning them from wearing make-up and seeking treatment from male doctors. Smoking and cameras have also been banned.

Watch video: Al Qaeda's growing influence in Syria

On Sunday one northern town, Jarablus, saw a poster erected by ISIS threatening thieves with having their hand cut off -- an extreme form of punishment mandated by radical readings of Islamist, or Sharia, law.

While many Syrians have described the initial approach of ISIS towards towns they seek to control as friendly and peaceful, often offering generous cash incentives to cooperate, they are increasingly brutal in dealing with their critics.

One activist described how he was taken by ISIS militants from the town of Azaz and held in a blanket factory in Aleppo's northern suburb of Hyratan.

"I was tortured, beaten. They hung me from the ceiling and used electricity on me. They kept trying to make me confess being a British spy," he said, adding that the factory held 20 other prisoners, mostly from rival rebel brigades, and that the site was also used by ISIS to make bombs.

ISIS have released a series of slickly-produced videos about their growing control, and some skeptics say they are promoting stories of their dominance to increase their power over local populations.

Yet in recent weeks, many activists accept that ISIS' genuine hold on the rebel north has escalated to the point where rival groups are unable to challenge them.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
Syrian crisis
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
As a 10-year-old, this boy first hit the headlines in 1982 when he saved his cat from a fire. This year, he was reported to be a suicide bomber.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Aqsa Mahmood,19, would listen to Coldplay and read Harry Potter books. Then this Glasgow girl became an ISIS bride.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
The little boy looks barely old enough to walk, let alone understand the dark world he's now inhabiting.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0422 GMT (1222 HKT)
ISIS has released video of the aftermath of a mass execution. Another video shows alleged captured Peshmerga soldiers.
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0933 GMT (1733 HKT)
The number of people who have fled Syria and registered as refugees amid the country's civil war will surpass 3 million Friday.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, grew up in the Minneapolis area, but died more than 6,000 miles away in Syria, fighting for ISIS.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 2054 GMT (0454 HKT)
If the United States is serious about thoroughly defeating ISIS, it must, somehow, go through Syria.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1243 GMT (2043 HKT)
Jihadists have kidnapped over 140 Kurdish boys to "brainwash" them. But a few boys made a daring escape.
June 26, 2014 -- Updated 1248 GMT (2048 HKT)
Reports that Syrian warplanes carried out a cross-border attack on Iraqi towns is further evidence of the blurring of the two countries' borders.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2133 GMT (0533 HKT)
CNN's Atika Shubert speaks to a father whose teenage son joined the Jihad movement in Syria.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1141 GMT (1941 HKT)
At the start of Syria's civil unrest, Omar would rally against the government alongside his schoolmates, later taking to the streets in his hometown of Salqin.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 2117 GMT (0517 HKT)
Atika Shubert looks at the rise of European jihadists traveling to Syria and whether they soon could join ISIS in Iraq.
June 23, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
The final stockpile of Syria's chemical weapons has been shipped out of the country, according to the OPCW, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 2025 GMT (0425 HKT)
The US isn't doing airstrikes in Iraq. Is there a vacuum for Syria and Iran to step in? CNN's Fareed Zakaria weighs in.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 0804 GMT (1604 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh reports on Syrian rebels using underground explosions against the better-equipped regime.
June 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh returns to the besieged rebel areas of Aleppo, a pale skeleton of a city that has had the life bombed out of it.
June 2, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Syria may be embroiled in a brutal three-year civil war, but that's not stopping the government from holding presidential elections.
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1123 GMT (1923 HKT)
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh meets an ISIS defector in hiding and gets a rare look into the group's recruitment process.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1610 GMT (0010 HKT)
Over a thousand Syrian refugees have turned an abandoned shopping mall in Lebanon into makeshift living quarters.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2158 GMT (0558 HKT)
More than 100,000 people reportedly have been killed in Syria since a popular uprising in 2011 spiraled into a civil war.
ADVERTISEMENT