Syrian refugees in this border outpost have been delighted to hear their hometown of Azaz had been liberated from Al-Qaeda-linked militants who subjected them to a regime that included torture and public beheadings.
In interviews with Reuters, Syrians who have escaped areas that have fallen under the control of Al-Qaeda-linked groups have spoken of the way the terrorists have imposed their harsh and often violent version of their ideology on their fellow Muslims.
The priority of the Al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIL), as one of its militants told Reuters, is to set up an “Islamic caliphate” in the Middle East and on the doorstep of Europe, rather than fight the Syrian government.
At the same time, there has been pushback against ISIL – which has withdrawn to its strongholds bordering Iraq – not only from moderate rebels but from rival Al-Qaeda forces such as the al-Nusra Front.
Abdallah Khalil, a 25-year-old activist and student of Shariah law, explains the ordeal when Azaz came under control of the terrorist groups.
“Life was OK, but then these jihadists started arriving. They set up a military training camp, run by a jihadist from Egypt known as Abu Obeida al-Muhajer. They told us: ‘You are infidels who want to sin, you don’t want to apply Shariah,’” Khalil said. “Islam is strongly present in Syria, but not this kind of Islam.”
Activists described a feud inside Al-Qaeda when ISIL, led by Iraqi veteran Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tried to take over Nusra, led by Abu Mohammad al-Golani, but was rebuffed by Ayman al-Zawahri, successor to Osama bin Laden as the head of Al-Qaeda.
The Syrian militants stayed with Golani and the Nusra Front, they said, but Azaz ended up under ISIL, known colloquially as Daesh. That was when local people learned what the black flags of the caliphate terrorists meant.
“They went into a preschool to segregate the boys from the girls,” said Mahmoud Osman, 27, an activist from Aleppo.
“They started going to schools to check whether the girls were wearing the head-to-toe black chador and they started asking girls to marry them. Parents stopped sending their daughters to school,” he said.
Al-Qaeda banned smoking, music and any mingling between men and women unless they were closely related. They forced Christians to pay protection taxes, activists said. They beheaded men in public squares because they fought for the rebel Free Syrian Army.
“We used to hear about them or see them in movies but now we see them for real,” Osman added.
After local Islamic scholars pronounced it legitimate to fight ISIL, Azaz residents say, the group pulled back to its stronghold of Raqqa in the east.
Khaled Ibrahim, 30, who worked in advertising before the war and is from Raqqa, describes his home as an ISIL province, ruled by terror. He said every Friday they executed activists and also looters in the public square, either by the sword or by gunfire.
He and others said that anybody who worked for a foreign NGO or a media outlet was considered an “infidel agent.”
Abu Thaer, a 25-year-old computer science student and media activist, who was held by ISIL , said: “every day that passed there I wished for death.”
“They used to come into our cell with the sword, they would tell us ‘you are infidels, we will cut your throat.”
Abu Khaled, a former Syrian soldier and now an ISIL officer, made little effort to contradict these chilling accounts.
Reached by Skype in northern Syria, he spoke of a network of contacts abroad including in France and Britain, operating through mosques, but also using the Internet.
“We don’t have a problem getting fighters, and we have been able to get them into Syria. We are receiving jihadists from all over the world, from Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, Britain and France. ISIS has some 6,000 fighters,” he said.
The ranks of ISIL were swelled by 500 terrorists broken out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and a further 700 freed from Seidnaya military jail near Damascus.
“The aim of the ISIL is to set up an Islamic caliphate that will attract Muslims from all over the world. Our aim is to fight the infidels, whether it is Bashar Assad or the Free Syrian Army,” Abu Khaled told Reuters. “Any apostate should be beheaded and women must follow the Shariah.”