A quick scan of Google Trends, Google’s worldwide search volume analysis tool, shows the predictably one-sided view of the combatants in Syria popularized by much of the Western media. ISIS, the ubiquitous upstart terrorist group responsible for out-radicalizing al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, dominates the search interest (which is calculated proportionally). The Free Syrian Army, one of the largest groups in the conflict, maxes out at around 14% of the search volume expressed in ISIS. The al-Nusra Front never manages to gain even 1% of ISIS’ search volume.
Google Trends certainly doesn’t explain everything about the situation, but it does speak to a larger truth about any foreign understanding of the conflict in Syria. As any foreign interest in the conflict becomes increasingly risky—the public kidnappings and beheadings of Western journalists come to mind—the news media has little choice but to rely on external signs of power (i.e. territory possessed) and the image each rebel group wants to show.
Accordingly, people tend to know and care about ISIS. It’s the scariest, most powerful and most public rebel group in the Syrian conflict, and it gives the news media the sensationalist stories it craves so dearly. Unfortunately, the real picture of Syria lies in a much more complex, murky area.
In October 2012, Theo Padnos followed three young Syrian men over the Turkish-Syrian border. The men promised him a trip into Syria, where Padnos could study Syrian society and the dividing lines underneath what had become a tragic, prolonged conflict: the Syrian Civil War. As he explained in a recent New York Times article about his experience, he did not yet realize the full magnitude of his choice.
Padnos spoke fluent Arabic and had lived in the Middle East since 2004, save for a few months spent in Vermont during the summer of 2012. Although a Christian, he studied Islam and often worked as a freelance journalist.
Padnos’ latest idea came partially from desperation: he needed a bigger, bolder hook to get published. His search for that hook sent him spiraling through a 22 month long nightmare, every bit as painful and scary as it had earlier seemed unfathomable. Soon after sneaking through a barbed-wire fence into Syria, he was taken captive.
Several of the different Syrian opposition groups shuffled Padnos around in the first few days of his imprisonment. He bounced from a smaller al-Qaeda affiliate to the Free Syrian Army, one of the largest opposition groups in the civil war, and finally ended up a captive of the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s main Syrian affiliate.
Padnos could see the visceral, extensive hatred of the West from the very beginning of his ordeal. During his first week in captivity, he suffered at the foot of a particularly angry guard. The guard attacked Padnos with a heavy stick and a cattle prod, taking care to inflict as much pain as possible and reinforcing Padnos’ lack of humanity. Towards the end of the beating, the guard made his motive clear. He bent down over the crippled Padnos and whispered, “I hate Americans. All of them. I hate you all.”
To many foreign observers, Padnos’ early experiences with an extremist Islamic group provide an expected, if not particularly gruesome, glimpse into a far away society. The West’s experience with the Middle East and the rise of extremism has proved something of a bad dream over the past several decades. Padnos’ captors, the al-Nusra Front, currently lie somewhere at the back of the public debate, pushed aside in the wake of ISIS’ rise. ISIS, to the media’s credit, wasted little time foisting its power upon the West and begging for a discussion to be had.
ISIS’ rise came a few short months after breaking off from al-Qaeda in April 2013. The group is known for its excruciatingly brutal treatment of prisoners and singular focus on the establishment of a global Islamic State. The man behind the scenes, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appears to be even “more violent, more virulent, [and] more anti-American” than al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to a senior US intelligence official.
ISIS is perhaps best known for the painful video it released in which one of its members beheaded American journalist James Foley on camera. The group ostensibly used the video as recruiting material for an increasingly global campaign to find jihadists, but it also served to enrage and instill a profound sense of fear in the American public. ISIS immediately became public enemy number one and the next incarnation of the evil previously represented by Osama bin Laden.
The American media began frothing at the mouth at the chance to characterize such an important and easy target. Almost on queue, the most extreme interpretations began to gain footing. Bill O’Reilly announced a plan to manufacture a large group of highly skilled super assassins and send them traipsing about the Middle East in search of terrorists. Karl Rove actually wrote and published a speech he thought President Reagan would have given to confront ISIS. And while O’Reilly and Rove ultimately accomplished little apart from comic relief, the picture of ISIS they saw—one of limitless terror and incomprehensible evil—took a firm hold in the American consciousness.
In many ways, Rove and O’Reilly’s vision isn’t too far off base. By all accounts, al-Baghdadi is a veritable monster in the flesh, a danger to human decency everywhere. Armed with a knack for mega-fundraising, strategic prowess and a sociopathic disregard for the value of human life, al-Baghdadi probably should inspire fear among international viewers.
But in order to properly assess the situation in both Syria and extremism in the Arab world more broadly, any analysis has to go deeper than the name and face of an organization. Padnos’ story provides a rare look into the complex interplay between any of the groups involved in the Syrian conflict and the way in which the underlings—not those in charge, but the ones who guard prisoners, transport ammunitions, and do the actual fighting—treat Westerners, the civil war, and each other.
In one telling anecdote, Padnos recalls a conversation with several low-ranking fighters from al-Nusra. The fighters fully acknowledged that they practiced the exact same Islam as those involved with ISIS and interpreted the Quran in the same way. For the underlings, the biggest difference in organization was simple: ISIS paid better.
The al-Nusra Front, which is technically at war with ISIS, has a strong interest in warding its soldiers away from the wide net ISIS recruiters cast, but as several accused defectors told Padnos, anyone actually wanting to make the switch wouldn’t find the process too difficult. This trend goes all the way to the top; almost all of ISIS’ leadership is comprised of former al-Nusra commanders. Again, despite the differences in organization, the same tenets of Islam drive each group. The overlap may stop there, since ISIS’ leadership clearly encourages more brutal governance than al-Qaeda, with even less regard for the value of human life.
During his time in captivity, Padnos saw a gradually changing attitude from his captors. The guards who watched over Padnos originally all acted similarly. Padnos endured beating after beating, his spirit slowly wearing down. But over time, it became clear that the worst had largely passed. As Padnos grew to know the guards, some stopped beating him. One even brought him tea and apples, as opposed to the standard olive paste and bread he had been forced to eat.
Later, in a different prison, Padnos would go on to find a homier cell with even gentler guards. He received adequate food, joked with his captors, and even —though blindfolded and handcuffed—sat outside in the desert sun. He and his captors never lost the understanding that they were at war, but some kind of common humanity came to drive their interaction. It became clear that the guards saw Padnos in a different way. Whether they rationalized him as an exception to the rule of “ignorant American,” or internalized their experience with him to find a different way of looking at all Americans, is unclear. But in the ever-fluid world of radical Islam, Padnos’ captors clearly saw some commonality with him. And while it’s easy to dehumanize the enemy when faced with the hard-nosed rhetoric of those in charge, those who care about maintaining an honest view of the Syrian conflict would do well to look at Padnos’ experience as an important reminder of shared humanity, often ignored and inaccessible in an increasingly sensationalist media dialogue.