ISIL, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — The fighters with the Free Syrian Army were expecting an attack any day from the jihadis besieging the city of Minbej. They had fortified the carpet factory they used as a base, erecting concrete bomb-blast barriers around the entrance, and the fighters were instructed to shoot any strange vehicles on sight.
But they didn’t suspect the teenagers pushing a broken-down sedan past the front gate. Then a boy who looked no more than 14 blew up himself and the car, killing a sentry.
Their leader, Sheikh Hassan, said his Fursan Furat Brigade stood little chance when the jihadis, members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, finally came for them. The militants killed three of his fighters, whom they consider apostates because they accept American support. In the rout that followed, the jihadis wounded 25 more and drove the brigade from its base.
“They call us godless. They attack us from the front, they attack us from the back,” Sheikh Hassan recalled during a two-day break from fighting to visit his family in Turkey.
The militant group quickly took the entire city of Minbej, a provincial outpost in northeastern Syria with an estimated half a million inhabitants.
The battle for Minbej provides a snapshot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an Islamist militant group bent on establishing a caliphate spanning the northern sections of Syria and Iraq. Emerging strengthened from its fight with President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, with thousands of fighters, it is now focusing its growing power on the weak central government of Iraq.
Having seized vast areas of Iraqi territory and several large and strategic cities, including the country’s second-largest, Mosul, it controls territory larger than many countries and now rivals, and perhaps overshadows, Al Qaeda as the world’s most powerful and active jihadist group.
The fighting in Minbej took place six months ago, but the methods the Islamists used so effectively in northern Syria helped set the stage for their blitzkrieg in Mosul this week.
Detailed descriptions from Sheikh Hassan and his men, along with several other rebels who have been fighting the jihadis for the last six months, paint an unsettling portrait of the formidable jihadi movement.
The group is a magnet for militants from around the world. On videos, Twitter and other media, the group showcases fighters from Chechnya, Germany, Britain and the United States.
Its members are better paid, better trained and better armed even than the national armies of Syria and Iraq, Sheikh Hasan said.
Many of the recruits are drawn by its extreme ideology. But others are lured by the high salaries as well as the group’s ability to consolidate power, according to former members, civilians who have lived under its rule in northern Syria and moderate rebels.
Other rebel groups often squabble with one another while fighting the government. But the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has stayed cohesive while avoiding clashes with the military of Mr. Assad, who seems content to give the group a wide berth while destroying less fundamentalist rebel groups.
In areas that fall under their control, the jihadis work carefully to entrench their rule. They have attracted the most attention with their draconian enforcement of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic sharia law, including crucifixions of Christians and Muslims deemed kufar, or infidels.
On a recent Sunday, a steady trickle of civilian refugees from Minbej walked across the border to Turkey. “Thank God we’re free,” said a teenage boy named Ahmed, who had escaped with his family. He was relishing a cigarette, the first he had openly smoked in six months. But he refused to give his family name, because “I.S.I.S. watches everything.”
But the group is not only following a stone-age script. It rapidly establishes control of local resources and uses them to extend and strengthen its grip.
It has taken over oil fields in eastern Syria, for example, and according to several rebel commanders and aid workers, has resumed pumping. It has also secured revenue by selling electricity to the government from captured power plants. In Iraq on Wednesday, the militants seized control of Baiji, the site of Iraq’s largest oil refinery and power plant.
In Minbej, the jihadis initially left bakeries and humanitarian aid groups alone, taking over their operations once they had established military control of the city. The group takes a cut of all humanitarian aid and commerce that passes through areas under its control.
One of the first militia leaders to resist the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Abu Towfik, from the Nouredin Zinky Brigade, said that its sophisticated tactics made its fighters hard to dislodge. Since last year, the militant group has fought with tanks captured from the Iraqi military.
Given that tenacity, Abu Towfik said, they will be hard to drive out of the terriory they now occupy in northern Syria and Iraq. “I am afraid as time goes on they will spread their extreme ideology and we’ll have a regional war,” he added.
At a meeting of rebel commanders at a Gaziantep Hotel cafe, Abou Sfouk, head of the rebel Free Syrian Army’s Palestine Brigade, brought a prized captive: a former jihadi named Mustafa.
At the beginning of the uprising, Mustafa had fought with Abou Sfouk’s brigade, but he joined the Islamist group in early 2013, when it entered Syria from Iraq, because it offered to triple his salary, starting him at $400 a month.
“Wherever we took territory, we would declare people apostates and confiscate their property,” Mustafa said. “We took cars and money from Christians, and from Muslims we didn’t like.”
Mustafa, a trained bulldozer mechanic, became the “emir of the motor pool.” But he eventually came under suspicion when it became known that he had once served under the kufar, or infidel, rebel army.
After a summary trial before one of the group’s Islamic courts, Mustafa was sentenced to death. A friend helped him escape, and he sought protection with his old brigade commander.
“I would never trust him again,” said his old commander, Abou Sfouk. “But he has useful military information.”
The defector has revealed the locations of Islamist prisons and the identities of the group’s commanders. Many of the top leaders and front-line soldiers come from abroad, but more than half of the membership is made up of Syrian and Iraqi tribesman, people well known to their relatives and former neighbors now fighting against them.
“We are moderate Muslims,” Sheikh Hassan said. “We will fight anyone who covers themselves in Islam and tries to talk in the name of our religion.”
A graduate of Koranic studies from Damascus University, Sheikh Hassan considers his own credentials impeccable. He learned to fight as a foreign volunteer with Iraqi resistance fighters attacking American soldiers a decade ago.
Now, he said, he is desperate for more American help as he wages a war against jihadis with whom he once shared a struggle. “There is a hole between us,” he said with a shrug. “We will have to kill them. But we’re humane. We won’t cut their throats; we will shoot them.”