Keep the black flag flying: a show of strength in northern Raqqa province, Iraq, to celebrate the declaration of the caliphate, June 2014. Photo: Reuters
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From Bin Laden to Isis: Why the roots of jihadi ideology run deep in Britain

From Riyadh via London to Damascus, Baghdad and Isis – the jihadist surge.

Had Osama Bin Laden lived to see the present state of the Middle East he would have been rather pleased. The realisation of his ultimate ambition is gripping the Levant with the announcement of a caliphate straddling parts of Syria and Iraq. Controlling a piece of land roughly the size of Jordan and bigger than either Israel or Lebanon, Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is demanding international attention unlike any of his predecessors.

Islamic State is perhaps the most aggressive invading force in the Levant since the Mongols. Moreover, it is being given a free hand to recast the contours of power in what remains one of the world’s most sensitive (and volatile) geostrategic locations. This is no accident. The implosion of both Syria and Iraq, coupled with western reluctance to intervene in what is seen as yet another Arabian calamity, has fuelled the sudden rise of Baghdadi’s millenarian militia.

This is precisely what Bin Laden always envisioned. His main thesis on the failure of the Islamist project was that western interference in the Middle East prevented the rise of Islamic governments. Weaken the west’s sphere of influence, he argued, and a caliphate would emerge.

Events helped crystallise this view. Shortly after the Afghan mujahedin’s unlikely victory over the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and King Fahd turned to the United States to defend Saudi Arabia against his Ba’athist neighbour. Bin Laden was left embittered by the experience after the House of Saud scuppered his hopes of using the mujahedin to repel Saddam from Kuwait.

The humiliation for returning jihadists did not end there. Many from North Africa and the Gulf found themselves imprisoned and persecuted on their return. It was soon clear that going home was not an option and many of the Afghan alumni subsequently began to congregate in Sudan under the patronage of the chairman of the ruling party, Hassan al-Turabi, who had formed a Sunni Islamist movement at the time.

For the Arab fighters it was a comedown from their intoxicating victories in the mountains of the Hindu Kush against one of the great superpowers.

In Sudan, these fighters largely continued pursuing Islamo-nationalist aims. The Egyptians focused on Egypt, the Algerians on Algeria, and the Libyans on Libya. However, Saudi Arabia captured everyone’s attention. The arrival of US troops in the Arabian Peninsula – home to Islam’s most holy sites and regarded as sacred soil by Islamists – assaulted the imagination. This is when the gear shift occurred, redirecting the focus of jihadist anger from the metropolis to the periphery.

In an interview with the London-based Arabic-language newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi in 1996, Bin Laden explained: “. . . we believe that the US government committed the biggest mistake when it entered a peninsula which no non-Muslim nation has ever entered for 14 centuries . . . [America’s] entry was arbitrary and a reckless action. They have entered into a confrontation with a nation whose population is one billion Muslims.”

Having settled in Sudan, Bin Laden campaigned for Islamic revival in Saudi Arabia by establishing the Committee for Advice and Reform. This organisation had registered offices in Holborn, London, and was led by another veteran of the Afghan campaign, Khaled al-Fawwaz, who acted as Bin Laden’s representative in London.

Between 1994 and 1995 Bin Laden used his London address to send a total of 14 letters to the Saudi government. All of these urged the Saudi state to end co-operation with the United States. What he wanted instead was a more isolationist and self-assured form of Islam – a purer interpretation of sharia law, an end to western economic influence and a more Muslim-centred foreign policy.

Another letter by Bin Laden to King Fahd explained: “It is not reasonable to keep silent about the transformation of our nation into an American protectorate which is defiled by the soldiers of the Cross with their impure feet in order to protect your crumbling throne and preserve oilfields in the kingdom.” He continued:

Is it not right for the [Islamic] nation to wonder about who is behind instability and turbulence in the country? Is it the system that delivered the country into a state of chronic military debilitation in order to justify bringing the Jewish and Christian forces to defile the holy lands? Or is it the people who call for the preparation of the nation, arming it to be strong enough to take matters into its hands, protecting its honour and religion, defending its holy sites, its land and dignity?

Fawwaz sent all of these letters on Bin Laden’s behalf until he was indicted by the US for his alleged involvement in the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Bin Laden himself was implicated in the attacks.

Although a rationale of revenge was the primary argument Bin Laden put forward to justify the 11 September 2001 attacks, he also argued that confronting the US directly would undermine and weaken Arab regimes back home. Indeed, this is how al-Qaeda has sought to credit itself with the Arab-world uprisings of 2011, otherwise referred to as the “Arab spring”.

“The abandonment of America’s allies one by one is the fallout of its diminishing pride and arrogance after receiving the blows in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania,” argued Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s second-in-command, shortly after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in February 2011. The 9/11 attacks had “directly caused America to lose influence over the [Arab] people because its grasp over the [Arab] regimes was weakened”.

Fantastical though such a view may be, it explains al-Qaeda’s grand strategy for effecting change.


Nowhere was the policy of direct confrontation with the US more apparent than in Iraq. Led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda in Iraq launched a deliberately brutalising campaign aimed at shocking the west. From Iraq, Zarqawi sought to traumatise western societies into ever more reticence about intervention. His campaign struck directly at those who had supported “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, claiming 4,486 American lives in the process and a further 318 from allied forces. The civilian death toll was immeasurably higher.

Traumatising as these casualties were, it is the broader cultural ramifications of the conflict that have left an indelible scar on both our society and politicians. Large sections of the Arab world – not just those already consumed with a deep suspicion of the west – erupted in a fit of anti-Americanism after the Iraq war. Every death of a western solider was cheered, every suicide bombing applauded; a Nelsonian eye was turned to the excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

This perversion enveloped the entire region, from the trendy guests at Lebanese beach parties to the chattering classes of Dubai’s bevelled hotel lobbies. It is this cultural disengagement by ordinary Arabs, otherwise wholly unaligned to jihadist groups, that has proved so shocking.

While the west recorded uneven results in Iraq, the campaign was broadly a success for the global jihad movement. Zarqawi not only achieved a small foothold for his fighters in Iraq but also successfully redefined the balance of power within al-Qaeda. By 2005, his brutal campaign across Iraq had begun to alienate much of the regional support al-Qaeda previously enjoyed. This worried the central leadership. Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi, chastising him for two things in particular: executing hostages and pursuing a bloody, sectarian conflict with the Shias. “Many of your Muslim admirers among the common folk are wondering about your attacks,” he wrote. “Don’t lose sight of the target.”

The overtures had no impact. Zarqawi rebuked Zawahiri by insisting that he was on the ground and therefore best placed to decide what strategy the group should pursue. This prompted a lasting shift in the internal dynamics of the jihad movement – proximity now confers legitimacy. Those on the periphery could never be better placed than Zarqawi to dictate the prevailing strategy.

That precedent directly fuelled the rise of Islamic State today. Since Zarqawi’s death in 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq has drifted into greater autonomy, renaming itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) that year. Although still nominally tied to al-Qaeda, the ISI was a largely independent group.

Relations finally unravelled with the onset of the Syrian civil war. Syrian fighters from ISI led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani moved back into the country and established Jabhat al-Nusrah. They were supposed to serve as al-Qaeda’s official representatives on the ground, though ISI could not resist direct involvement. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi eventually ordered his own men into Syria, rebranding his group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and ordering Jabhat al-Nusrah to disband.

Zawahiri was furious. He insisted that Baghdadi limit his ambitions to Iraq and leave the Syrian campaign to Jawlani. It was not only the Qaeda leader who suggested this. Notable jihadist ideologues from around the world echoed these sentiments, including Abu Qatada, the radical Muslim preacher who was deported from London back to Jordan last year.

The disagreement opened up a chasm in the global jihad movement. Both al-Qaeda and theoreticians associated with the group had urged Baghdadi to fall into line, only to be rebuffed. Invoking the primacy of proximity, as Zarqawi had done, spokesmen for Isis strongly rejected suggestions that the group was acting ultra vires. “The wars in Syria and Iraq are the same,” explained Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, a leading spokesman for Isis. In both cases, the group insists, it is protecting Sunni Islam against Shia forces.

What is significant is how Isis has sought to justify itself to the broader community of jihadi supporters. It is al-Qaeda and its ideologues – not Isis – that has betrayed the true spirit of what Osama Bin Laden always envisioned. And Isis is the rightful heir to his legacy, exploiting the power vacuum in the Levant to create an Islamic state.

The Isis leaders’ frustration is understandable. They regard the current US inaction in the region as stemming directly from the Americans’ confrontation with them during the Iraq war from 2003. The spectre of that engagement continues to cast a long and enveloping shadow over western societies. It is precisely what Bin Laden had predicted would happen, which makes Zawahiri’s reluctance to capitalise on it all the more inexplicable.

Withdrawing to Iraq would signal an acknowledgement of the boundaries set in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, a false aberration imposed on Muslims by “crusaders”. Moreover, Adnani accuses Zawahiri of prioritising politics over jihad. Only this could explain why al-Qaeda did not exploit the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The corollary is clear: al-Qaeda has lost its way under Zawahiri.

In many senses, Islamic State has now surpassed al-Qaeda altogether. Whereas al-Qaeda is a terrorist organisation committed to confronting the west violently, Islamic State has grander ambitions. Once a terrorist group, it morphed into a sophisticated insurgency, and now operates its own state.

The organisation is also investing heavily in winning public support. It operates a broad range of social services, ensuring that people under its authority have access to basic necessities such as health care, education and fuel, as well as other public services. In July, during the Muslim festival of Eid, it hosted recreational events, including pie-eating contests for children and a tug of war for adults.


When Khaled al-Fawwaz came to London as Osama Bin Laden’s representative in the late 1980s he was just one of many Islamists pouring into the country. Others such as Abu Qatada, Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Mohammed followed and, in the process, they established a sophisticated Islamist network across the UK.

In 1994 a major international conference promoting the caliphate was held in London, gathering radical clerics from around the world. Some early adherents of Islamism even went on to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya. Others pursued more esoteric aims in states such as Yemen.

It is telling to chart the evolution of British Islamist discourse through the 1990s. When the 1994 caliphate conference was convened, a large part of proceedings was dedicated to discussing what the caliphate is and whether it is obligated in Islam. By the end of the decade, the idea of the caliphate was entrenched and the debate moved on. What Muslims discussed then was precisely how – not whether – the caliphate should be revived. Seen in this way, it is clear that the roots of Islamist ideology run deep in some parts of British Muslim life.

The caliphate is a broad concept bound up with another set of ideas, too. At its core lies an alternative identity, the umma – a fraternity of the faithful, in which loyalty and allegiance are defined through confessional affiliation over civic ideals. It is the belief in the umma that has inspired as many as 500 British men (and a handful of women) to pack their bags and migrate to Syria.

British jihadists are not in Syria to melt into the background. They are full and fervent participants in the conflict. In the past 12 months British fighters have volunteered to be suicide bombers, executed prisoners of war, and tortured detainees in their care.

Fighters from groups as diverse as Jabhat al-Nusrah, Ahrar al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army have all told me of their concerns over the extremism of British jihadists. They are regarded as some of the most vicious and vociferous. The issue emerged in sharp relief this past week with the murder of the American journalist James Foley, seemingly by a British executioner with a London accent.

Pressure is mounting on the Prime Minister to address the flow of British fighters into groups such as Islamic State. The challenges are many, not least because there is a perception in some parts that the battle against Islamism has been won.

The main institutions promoting an Islamist agenda in this country – the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain and the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, among others – have been beaten back. So, too, have the most prominent preachers of radical ideology. At the same time, hardline organisations such as al-Muhajiroun and Hizb ut-Tahrir have fallen into obscurity.

To an extent, it can be said that there has been a decline in Islamist agitation in the public sphere. Yet this success does not represent the whole picture. Because Islamist ideas have flourished in parts of the UK for more than two decades they remain a potent and pervasive force. That explains how a generation of men not even born during the 1994 caliphate conference has come to embrace the Syrian jihad so eagerly.

In 2011 David Cameron issued one of the clearest statements by any politician of the need to inflect British values in the public sphere. In what popularly became known as the “Munich speech”, the Prime Minister spoke of the need to build a strong civic identity to which all members of our society could subscribe. A few months later, Lord Carlile published his review into the Prevent counterterrorism strategy, adumbrating a new vision for the initiative.

Both the Prime Minister and Lord Carlile identified the role of Islamist ideology as a primary driver of radicalisation. It was a marked departure from the cosseted approach adopted by their Labour predecessors in government, though much work remains to be done in this regard.

Dissuading young men not to join jihadist organisations in Syria and Iraq is proving to be an arduous task. Where it was once thought that the domestic terrorism threat was being managed down, the revival of jihadist fortunes in Syria has extended its lifespan by another generation or two.


The Islamic State surge is not the first time a jihadist organisation has succeeded in taking swaths of land. It has happened before. Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces held significant parts of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province. In Somalia, al-Shabab has established itself in certain parts; Ansar Dine asserted itself over a significant area of northern Mali most recently.

What distinguishes Islamic State from its predecessors is that in every one of those cases there was international momentum to unseat the jihadists. Western coalition forces worked with Pakistan to uproot militants from the tribal areas, while the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), backed by the UN, pushed back al-Shabab. In Mali, the French committed ground troops to overcome Ansar Dine and its affiliates.

There is no comparable momentum arrayed against Islamic State. Neither the Iraqi nor the Syrian army is capable of overcoming it. Regional actors led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are unwilling to act and favour arming other rebel groups instead, a policy that has failed to deliver any meaningful results so far.

The western world looks on and sees only a conflict within Islam – Sunni pitted against Shia – and asks why we should intervene. The post-9/11 campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq appear not to have been worthwhile. This cognitive dissonance has allowed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to revive a caliphate in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world.

But public opinion is beginning to take notice of Islamic State. With the execution of James Foley and the prominence of European (especially British) fighters in the conflict, it cannot be ignored. And yet, the belated approach of western policymakers has made Islamic State an entrenched entity. It is a state in every sense of the word. It maintains a treasury of billions of dollars, provides social services and has an army of skilled fighters with combat experience.

All this points to one conclusion, however depressing: Islamic State will not be overcome without some form of western military intervention. 

Shiraz Maher is a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London and at Johns Hopkins University

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood