November 27, 2013
The jihadis scrawled their graffiti all over town. Black spray paint extends across wall after wall, spelling out religious exultations and verses from the Quran, written out in exacting calligraphy. It runs along the gates of shuttered storefronts; it’s stenciled onto telephone poles. It covers the former state security building, burned out and bullet-ridden, that was converted into an Islamic court.
Until recently, armed jihadi groups ran the dusty Syrian town of Yarubiya, pressed into the northeastern corner of the country, the gateway to a crossing into Iraq. The groups are gone now — driven out by Kurdish fighters in late October — but their graffiti remains, still visible beneath fresh layers of paint. The names of the fighting groups, like the Quranic verses, are also written everywhere, and they serve as a reminder: Al-Qaeda was here.
Rebels descended on Yarubiya and pried it from the Syrian regime in March. Most residents fled. Those who stayed recall a foggy transition among the town’s new overlords: Fighters who seemed moderate at first were replaced with — or superseded by, or became themselves — fighters who were ardently Islamist. Most belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra, the powerful force blacklisted by the U.S. as a branch of al-Qaeda; others to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, now the most feared group in the rebellion.