Media references to jihadists in Syria typically portray them as a predominantly foreign, necessarily extremist, and largely opportunistic element in the uprising. Their intent, we are so often told, is to hijack the revolution. A report for Time magazine by Rania Abouzeid presents a much more nuanced picture.
In late January, the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl Ash-Sham, or the Support Front for the People of Syria, announced its formation and its goal to bring down the regime of President Bashar Assad. In the months since, it has claimed responsibility for many of the larger, more spectacular bombing attacks on Syrian state security sites, including a double suicide car bombing in February targeting a security branch in Aleppo that left some 28 dead.
Little is known about the shadowy group, beyond that it is headed by someone using the nom de guerre Abu Mohammad al-Golani (Golani is a reference to Syria’s Golan Heights, occupied by Israel.) Some say the group is a regime creation, to prove Assad’s assertion that he is fighting terrorists, while others say it is an offshoot of the al-Qaeda group the Islamic State of Iraq.
A foot soldier in the movement told TIME that it is neither. “We are just people who follow and obey our religion,” the young man, Ibrahim said. “I am a mujahid, but not al-Qaeda. Jihad is not al-Qaeda.”
It took weeks of negotiations to secure an interview with a member of the movement, the first time anyone from the group has talked to the media. Higher-ups in the Jabhat declined to be interviewed but agreed to let Ibrahim, a 21-year-old Syrian, be interviewed.
The Jabhat has a presence in at least half a dozen towns in Idlib province, as well as elsewhere across the country, including strong showings in the capital Damascus and in Hama, according to the Jabhat member and other Islamists who are in contact with senior members of the group.
Bespectacled, with a wispy beard and thin mustache, Ibrahim said he joined the group eight months ago. He was recruited by his cousin Ammar, the military operations commander for their unit and a Syrian veteran of the Iraq war who fought alongside his Sunni co-religionists against the American invaders. (Ammar declined to be interviewed.)
Dressed in a deep aqua blue zippered track top and black track pants that were rolled up above his ankles, the young man did not look as menacing as some of his colleagues, with their short pants and above-the-ankle-galabiyas and long beards. In addition to his self-identification as a member of the Jabhat, several Free Syrian Army rebels who know him — as well as townsfolk who know his conservative Sunni family — confirmed that Ibrahim is part of the extremist group.
“Our specialty is explosives, (improvised explosives) devices. Most of our operations are explosions using (IEDs), placing them on roads, blowing up cars by remote detonation,” Ibrahim said. On the night TIME spoke to him, several members of the Jabhat were in a remote field, in the final stages of testing a homemade rocket devised with the help of Syrian veterans of the Iraq war.
The device was a copper-lined shaped charge that could penetrate armor. When the device ignited, the copper element superheated enough to pierce a tank. “It’s a very simple idea, but it works,” Ibrahim said, adding that the device was the work of the Jabhat’s engineering branch. “There’s a killing branch, I’m in the killing and chemical branch,” he said, explaining the chemical branch was responsible for obtaining the fertilizers and other components of the IEDS.
There were 60 men in Ibrahim’s unit, he said, headquartered in a nondescript building that flew two white flags bearing a stylized Muslim Shahada — ‘There is no God but God and Mohammad is the messenger of God.” (…[I]t’s more common to see the Shahada printed in white on a black background. The local printer, a sympathizer, said he reversed the colors “so that people don’t think we have al-Qaeda here.”)
The Jabhat members maintain a low profile, and keep to themselves, townsfolk said, adding that they rarely ventured outside their outpost except to head to battle. “The shabab (young men) prefer to remain in the shadows, unseen, they won’t come forward,” Ibrahim said. Their low profile also enabled some members “not known to the security forces” to pass through checkpoints, especially in and around Damascus and the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, which is currently facing aerial bombardment from Assad’s forces as well encirclement by an approaching armored column. The secrecy extended to the group’s members. “We don’t really like to accept people we don’t know. We don’t need foreigners,” Ibrahim said, although he admitted there were some foreign jihadists in his group from Kuwait, Libya and Kazakhstan.
He was fighting because he wanted to “live in freedom.” His idea of freedom, however, was an Islamic state, free of “oppression” by members of President Assad’s privileged sect, the Alawites. “The Alawites can do what they want and we have no say, that’s why we are fighting, because we are oppressed by them,” he said. “We are nothing to them. They are the head, and we are nothing.”
In another town in northern Idlib, another jihadist — belonging to a different group — also shared Ibrahim’s goal of an Islamic state. “Abu Zayd,” is a 25-year-old Sharia graduate who heads one of the founding brigades of Ahrar al-Sham, a group that adheres to the conservative Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam.
He said minorities had nothing to worry about in any future Islamic state, despite the increasingly sectarian nature of some of the violence that has convulsed Syria. “Let’s consider that Syria becomes something other than Islamic,” he said, “a civil state. What is the role of the Alawites in it? What is the position of a Christian, a Muslim in it? They are all under the law, and it will be the same in an Islamic state. We are just exchanging one law for another.”
The young Syrian, with his neatly trimmed beard, dressed in military pants and a blue t-shirt, looked more like a member of the FSA than a Salafist. His facial hair was not fashioned in the manner of some Salafists, who shave their mustaches. (Interestingly, many FSA members have taken to wearing Salafi-style beards while not adopting the ideology. “It’s just a fashion,” one person told me, by way of explanation.)
The Ahrar started working on forming brigades “after the Egyptian revolution,” Abu Zayd said, well before March 15, 2011 when the Syrian revolution kicked off with protests in the southern agricultural city of Dara’a. The group announced its presence about six months ago, he said. Abu Zayd denied the presence of foreigners even though TIME saw a man in the group’s compound who possessed strong Central Asian features. “Maybe his mother is,” Abu Zayd said unconvincingly. “We are not short of men to need foreigners.”
Regardless, foreigners are coming across into Syria. One prominent Syrian smuggler in a border town near Turkey said that he ferried 17 Tunisians across the night before. It was a marked uptick in his business. He said he hadn’t seen many foreign fighters for about a month prior to the Tunisians. “Before that, every day there were new people, from Morocco, Libya, and elsewhere,” he said. (In the course of several hours of waiting to cross back into Turkey, I saw at least a dozen Arabs who were clearly not Syrian, and identified as foreigners by the smuggler.)
It’s unclear how large the Jabhat and Ahrar are, given their shadowy nature, but it’s clear that their activities are becoming more public. Both participate in operations alongside regular FSA units, although some FSA commanders remain suspicious of them and jealous of the deep Gulf pockets funding them. “Where were the Islamists when the revolution started?” is spray-painted on the wall of one town in Idlib. The response, spray-painted beneath it, was equally curt: “In prison.” [Continue reading…]