ISTANBUL — Two years ago, if a journalist had asked him about the foreign fighters flocking to Syria, Ahmad Barakat would have heralded them as heroes. And his praise of these muhajideen would have mirrored that of many Syrians at the time. “We thought that they came to sacrifice themselves for us, for our freedom,” said Barakat, 22, who works as a media activist for rebel groups in the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. “The general view of the mujahideen was that they came to support us and to support our revolution.”
The foreign fighters enjoyed this outsized reputation across much of the country as the Syrian uprising began to spiral into civil war. They were seen as noble freedom fighters who had come to help the opposition, even as it was becoming increasingly clear that the rest of the world would leave them to fight on their own against a brutal dictator and his Iranian-backed, chemical-weapons-wielding military.
It only contributed to the continued surge of foreign jihadis into the rebellion as the conflict raged on — including thousands of Westerners, and, according to U.S. officials, hundreds of Americans.
Many of these religious warriors now fill out the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the extremist group that has declared a caliphate and become the target of U.S. air strikes. The foreigners play an outsized role in ISIS propaganda — such as with the British former rapper who beheaded the U.S. journalist James Foley in a video released from Syria last month. The group’s slickly produced multimedia efforts, increasingly directed at Western audiences, can be seen as paeans to the muhajideen cause.
Yet all the publicity over foreign fighters can obscure a simple fact: In Syria, where they were once welcomed with open arms by rebels and civilians alike, they are now despised.
Syrians of all stripes now hold the same ire for the foreigners as they do for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Many mujahideen — and especially those who joined ISIS — proved not to be so brave after all, Syrians say. Instead of fighting the regime, they helped the group prey on other rebel groups, snatching territory already won by the opposition to carve out ISIS’ so-called caliphate.
They made little effort to understand the culture, often appearing lost in Syria. And most locals recoiled at their simplistic and extreme interpretation of Islam.
The foreign fighters in ISIS eventually became symbols of its worst abuses — the kidnapping, torturing, and killing of Syrians; a blind and dangerous brand of jihad. They fought other rebels to create their own vision of a religious state in Syria, accusing their less extreme rivals of not being true believers.
“They kill people under the name of Islam, but Islam’s not like that,” said Barakat, who knew many of the mujahideen in Syria. “And they don’t really fight the regime. Most of their battles were with other rebels. So they are killing Muslims — and their main victims are rebel fighters or innocent people.”
The backlash against ISIS in Syria sparked an internal war early this year. A broad range of rebel groups took part in the effort to drive ISIS from the country, including the local branch of al-Qaeda, which formally split from ISIS in February. In response, ISIS staged tactical retreats from strongholds in northern Syria. But it regrouped in the eastern city of Raqqa, before surging in June into the Iraqi city of Mosul and beyond.
A Syrian named Abu Farid, 24, said he quit the rebellion last year in disgust at the foreigners, even though he’d once proudly fought alongside them. He came to see them as little more than a “brainwashed” horde. “A lot of the foreign fighters are new to Islam; they haven’t been Muslims for a long time,” he said. “And because of that, they have a blind obedience to their leaders. That makes them more extreme.”
To another Syrian rebel, who saw ISIS kill his brother, this blind radicalism makes the foreigners among ISIS all the more unpredictable and dangerous. “If you don’t know what their leader is planning, or what ideology he is putting in their minds, then you can’t know their intentions,” he said.
“Not all the foreigners are bad,” he added. “Some are really coming to protect us. But the ones who join groups like ISIS don’t understand Islam at all, and are just ready to be brainwashed.”
Syrians who turned on ISIS and its foreign fighters at home say the group will eventually wear out its welcome in Iraq too.
In fact, a similar scenario played out with ISIS’ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation of the country. Local anger at the group for its hard-line policies and the prevalence of foreigners among its ranks helped — along with U.S. money and a surge of U.S. troops — to turn more moderate Sunni militants against the group, weakening its hold in areas it once controlled.
Now many of those same Sunni militants are aligned with ISIS against the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
But Syrians say that ISIS will likely face a backlash in Iraq again. “Of course it will happen,” said Barakat, the rebel media activist.
Barakat is eager to push a far different message on foreign fighters today than he would have promoted two years ago. “I just want everyone who’s not from Syria to get out of the country,” he said. “Whether they’re from the western, eastern — it doesn’t matter. We want them all out of Syria so we can continue our revolution.”