Al Qaeda-linked extremists cause new Syria refugee crisis

Refugees carry their belongings as they cross from into Turkey near the town of Azaz in Syria. Molhem Barakat / Reuters, file

ANTAKYA, Turkey – Syrian refugees once sought sanctuary in Turkey from the forces of President Bashar Assad, but now a reign of terror imposed by hard line Islamic fighters linked to al Qaeda is what’s forcing many to flee across the border, Syrians have told NBC News.

“We get killed now by two terrorist parties. Bashar and the ISIS," said Um Mohammed, referring to one of the groups known as the Islamic State of the Levant.

Speaking from a refugee camp inside Turkey, Mohammed said she had run away to escape from the “extremist Islamic group” after they came to her hometown near the border. 

“I'm afraid of the ISIS,” said the 34-year-old mother of eight whose husband was killed while fighting Assad's forces in Aleppo. “They prevented the teaching of girls in schools, imposed lengthening beards, banned smoking, playing music, loud laughter and asked the women to cover their faces.”

Groups like the ISIS have “expanded their influence significantly in 2013,” according to a recent report by military journal Jane’s Defense Weekly, bolstered by an increasing number of foreign fighters among their ranks.

Syrian refugees living in tents in Kilis, Turkey, close to the border with Syria. Aamar Cheikhomar / NBC News

They often enforce strict Islamic laws once they gain control over parts of the country. The Syrian civil war has already left an estimated 100,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.

“The ISIS imposes duties on us all,” said Mustafa, a 22-year-old, who did not give his last name for fear of reprisals. “Where are our rights?”

“They enter our areas and say that begging will be punished, but they are not able to able to offer work or food for poor people," said Mustafa. "We are all against them. There is no difference between them and Bashar Assad.”

For Islamist, Syria is just a stepping stone

Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow with Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, said the group - which began as an evolution of al Qaeda in Iraq - was seeking a long-term foothold in the country.

“Their final goal is to create an Islamic Emirate which becomes a piece of territory which they control. And from there they will start to export jihad everywhere else,” Pantucci said.

He added they were prepared to achieve this at the expense of other Islamic groups including Jabhat al Nusra, a Syrian group with similar aims and which also has ties to al Qaeda.

After fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) captured the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs in the Syrian city of Raqqa, they torched the religious furnishings inside, destroyed a cross atop its clock tower and flew their flag from it. Mohammed Abdel Aziz / AFP - Getty Images, file

“They fight together against Assad’s forces,” he said. “So they still have that sense of unity, but they don’t get along. For the Syrian nationalists the goal is to topple Assad; but for the international Islamists, their vision is bigger than that. Their vision is a stepping stone onto a bigger picture. Syria is basically the first stage in the process.”

Free Syrian Army (FSA) soldier Zain Azazi told NBC News that he had witnessed at least 11 fighters die in clashes with the ISIS and hundreds more had been taken prisoner by the group.

“The FSA lost a lot of martyrs in these battles,” said the North Storm Brigade fighter. “This was a new turning point…. People fled.”

Pantucci said there is a strong likelihood that the group, which used to fund operations in Iraq before turning its attention towards Syria, may gain a progressively stronger foothold in the country. Particularly since Assad is hanging onto power after striking a deal with the U.S. and Russia to allow Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons to be removed or destroyed by next year.

“The problem is that this group is quite well funded, effective and they are very well armed. So these guys can enforce themselves because they’ve got the biggest guns and the best fighters on the field. They are just a more effective fighting force,” he said.

His claims echo those of the deputy director of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, David Shedd who said in July that Islamic extremists were well-placed to expand their influence.

"Left unchecked, I'm very concerned that the most radical elements will take over larger segments (of the opposition groups)" he said, according to Reuters. 

Syrian: We were fighting for freedom, not Islamic extremism

For Qusai Abu Ismail, a 45-year-old father who fled with his family to Turkey this will give credence to Assad’s arguments that he is fighting terrorist groups.

“We went out against this Syrian regime because of freedom and dignity,” he said. “Not for the sake of establishing an Islamic extremist project linked to al Qaeda or other terror groups.”

Reuters contributed to this report.