Abu Adnan, a 35-year-old religious scholar and Shari’a law official in Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership in the Aleppo area, gave an interview with Rania Abouzeid for Time magazine.
The interview took place in a town in northern Syria, in the countryside outside Aleppo. I was not blindfolded nor subjected to a physical security check. I was picked up at a northern Syria border post, driven for about 15 minutes inside the country before the vehicle stopped in front of a black pickup truck waiting in the middle of an otherwise empty stretch of road. There were three men in the vehicle, including Abu Adnan, who silently approached the car I was in, and sat in the backseat. He did not introduce himself until I asked who he was later.
We drove to a small cold concrete room with a tiny window that barely let in any light from an already overcast sky. We sat among boxes of long-life milk and bags of blankets and winter clothes waiting to be distributed. Our host, the driver, tried to start a portable gas heater, but there was no gas.
“America has called us terrorists because it says that some of our tactics bear the fingerprints of al-Qaeda in Iraq, like our explosives and the car bombs,” Abu Adnan said, his breath condensing as he spoke. “We are not like al-Qaeda in Iraq, we are not of them.”
Jabhat al-Nusra does count Syrian veterans of the Iraq war among its numbers, men who bring expertise — especially the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — to the front in Syria. Still, Jabhat al-Nusra is not the only rebel outfit to use IEDs and other groups — some so-called moderates operating under the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have also allegedly used suicide bombers who were either willing or unwilling (i.e prisoners). Like Jabhat al-Nusra, a number of other Islamist groups also want to install an Islamic state in Syria, while even secular rebel units increasingly speak in ugly sectarian terms that demonize minorities, particularly members of Assad’s Alawite sect. Yet only Jabhat al-Nusra’s tactics were designated as “terrorist” by a U.S. administration that admits it is still trying to understand the various armed elements in the Syrian conflict, fueling all manner of theories about why Jabhat al-Nusra was slapped with the description. Also why time the announcement just as rebels as a whole seem to have gained a renewed momentum? The key, it seems, is the alleged links to al-Qaeda in Iraq.