Rania Abouzeid writes: The eight men, beards trimmed, explosive belts fastened, pistols and grenades concealed in their clothing, waited until nightfall before stealing across the flat, porous Iraqi border. They navigated the berms and trenches along the frontier, traversing two-way smuggling routes used to ferry cigarettes, livestock, weapons — and jihadis to enter the northeastern Syrian province of Hasaka. It was August 2011, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and Syria was five months into a still largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Their leader was a Syrian emissary from the al Qaeda affiliate forged in the bloody conflict next door. He called himself Abu Mohammad al-Golani, and the young fighter, about whom little is known for sure except that he is a veteran of that war against the Americans in Iraq, had been authorized by his boss, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and al Qaeda’s central command to set up a Syrian offshoot of the notorious group. His mission, made clear in subsequent public statements, was nothing less than to bring down the Assad regime and establish an Islamic state in its place. No one knew it at the time, but that trip across the border would turn out to be a crucial turning point in the Syrian civil war, a key factor in the metastasizing of an internal conflict into a regional conflagration that now threatens the regime in Iraq as well as Syria.
Before Golani’s nighttime trek from Iraq into Syria, al Qaeda was looking increasingly like a spent force. Osama bin Laden had been killed a few months earlier. His successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had bin Laden’s passion but little of his charisma, and the Middle East was still in the throes of the so-called Arab Spring, experimenting with peaceful protests rather than violence as a means to bring about change.
But over the next few years, at times even aided by the cynical Assad regime, Golani would rejuvenate the al Qaeda brand and establish a firm base in Syria. His group, called Jabhat al-Nusra l’Ahl as-Sham (meaning Support Front for the People of the Sham, an Arabic term encompassing Damascus, Syria and the Levant), would create a whole new generation of jihadists from around the Islamic world, fighters who have become a crucial force in a Syrian civil war that has claimed well over 140,000 lives and displaced nine million Syrians, both internally and into neighboring countries.
Just as dangerously, Nusra’s very success would create a massive rift with its jihadist parent organization, the al Qaeda affiliate known as the Islamic State of Iraq. By April of 2013, that group would rebrand itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a new name that indicated its transnational ambitions. By this June, ISIL (also known as ISIS) had become so powerful that it would brazenly undertake a blitzkrieg-like advance across northern and western Iraq, rapidly capturing the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit and underscoring the seeming irrelevance of Zawahiri and the old al Qaeda leadership, somewhere in hiding off in South Asia, far from the newest jihadi battlefields.
Now, as a result of ISIL’s victories, U.S. President Barack Obama, a man who campaigned on extricating the United States from “dumb” wars in the Middle East, finds himself potentially embroiled in another one. He is sending a small contingent of special forces to work with the Iraqi military, but many in Washington are urging him to take more decisive action against the ISIL militants sweeping across Iraq, seizing territory and oil facilities and threatening to sow chaos in Baghdad and beyond.
This was not inevitable. The Syrian revolution—and the hesitant, confused international reaction to it—paved the way for the resurrection of a militant Islam that would turn vast regions of Iraq and Syria into borderless jihadi strongholds and inch closer to redrawing the map of the Middle East—in practical terms if not on paper. This is the story, pieced together over several trips into Syria and rare interviews with highly placed jihadi commanders on the front lines, of how it happened. [Continue reading…]