Der Spiegel reports: 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.
Atmeh looks like the set for a movie about al-Qaida. New arrivals pulling suitcases on wheels search for their emirs, Africans and Asians can be seen on the village streets, and long-haired men dressed in traditional Afghan clothing walk around wielding AK-47s. There are patrons at the local kebab stand whose northern English dialect is peppered with Arabic words and phrases. “Subhan’Allah, bro, I asked for ketchup,” says one man. The many languages heard on the street include Russian, Azerbaijani and Arabic spoken with a guttural Saudi Arabian accent.
The once-sleepy smugglers’ nest on the Turkish border has become a mecca for jihad tourists from around the world. A year ago, SPIEGEL reporters in Atmeh met with one of the first foreign fighters in Syria, a young Iraqi who said that he had come to overthrow the dictatorship. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 jihadists are staying in and around Atmeh, making it the densest accumulation of jihadists in all of Syria. Ironically, while war rages in the rest of the country, the foreign jihadists have made one of Syria’s quietest spots into their base. Or perhaps they have chosen Atmeh precisely because it is so quiet. Once they arrive, many are reluctant to leave.
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.
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. [Continue reading…]