Al-Qaeda have a bit of an image problem. Their reputation as the world’s most feared terrorist network can be traced back to precisely 8.46AM EDT on September the 11th, 2001. And it’s a reputation that they’ve since cemented by kidnapping and executing foreign journalists and aid workers, bombing public transport systems in Europe and involving themselves in several particularly nasty African civil wars.
Now al-Qaeda are fighting in Syria under a handful of banners. The most well known is the homegrown Jabhat al-Nusra, the first jihadist group to emerge in the Syrian conflict and the one that the US Government made infamous (and, incidentally, rather popular with many young Syrian fighters) when they stuck it on their list of forbidden terrorist networks back in December 2012.
But in recent months Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to distance itself from al-Qaeda, and increasingly it is being overshadowed by the new kids on the block – the Iraqi, al-Qaeda backed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a group that is both led by and almost exclusively made up of foreign Mujahideen fighters. ISIS established itself in Syria in April after a People’s Front of Judea-style spat between one Jabhat al-Nusra leader, who wanted to formally link the group to al-Qaeda in Iraq, and another Jabhat al-Nusra leader, who didn’t.
ISIS make Jabhat al-Nusra look like moderates; in recent months a number of videos have surfaced on the internet that apparently show members of the group beheading suspected regime collaborators and executing a Catholic priest. And whereas Jabhat al-Nusra have occasionally granted interviews and frontline access to foreign journalists, ISIS have always refused outright to talk to the media or to explain their presence in Syria, as well as doing absolutely nothing to deny the validity of those videos. In short, they’re the Milwall FC of the Syrian conflict: everybody hates them and they don’t care.
But someone, somewhere in an al-Qaeda strategy room, has decided that it’s time for a rethink. In the past few weeks the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham has orchestrated a number of bizarre publicity stunts, all of which seem to have been designed to prove to the people of Syria (many of whom are becoming rather nervous about the presence of jihadists who want to set up a hardline Islamic state in their country) that they have a cuddly, likeable side. There was the children’s ice-cream eating contest in Aleppo, and my personal favourite, the ISIS versus Jabhat al-Nusra rope pulling contest.
It was in this context that I received a call from one of my contacts to say that a fighter from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was willing to give me – a Western, female journalist – an interview. There were conditions: we would do the interview on neutral territory in a secret location, I would wear an abaya and headscarf and he would keep his face covered throughout. I have a problem with men in face coverings that stems back to the time I was mugged as a teenager by a man in a balaclava, but I’m also a believer in shock therapy. And I was not going to pass up the opportunity to have a chat with a member of the shadowy group that I see everywhere in Syria but have never come close to interviewing.
And so, on a humid night in late July, I found myself in the back of a 4x4 on the way to an apartment in a small town in northern Syria, where an Islamist with a Kalashnikov was waiting for me. The car pulled up in a deserted back street, and after climbing up two flights of pitch black stairs I entered the room where I came face to face, for the first time, with a member of al-Qaeda. He introduced himself as Abu Mahjin and I was pleased to see that he looked like the archetypal jihadist: dressed in the Taliban style with three-quarter length trousers and a tunic, and his eyes – the only bit of his face that I could see – ringed in black kohl. It suited him, and it definitely made the whole face covering thing a lot less sinister. Maybe the setting helped, too: Islamic extremists seem more approachable when they’re sitting in a family living room surrounded by soft furnishing and children’s toys.
I started by asking him where he was from, but the answer I got back was obtuse. “I come from far away,” he said, which didn’t really narrow it down at all. I persisted. “Are you Syrian or foreign?” I asked. “There’s no difference if you’re Syrian or non-Syrian,” he replied. “I don’t want to create divisions. We’re all Mujahideen in the name of Islam.” Sensing that I was getting nowhere with that line of questioning I left it, but later on the translator told me that he thought he was from Iraq. It was going to be a difficult interview.
Abu Mahjin told me – predictably – that he had come to Syria to “perform jihad and raise the banner of Islam”. He was reluctant to talk about his former life, but said that this is his first experience of fighting as a jihadist and that he sees it as a massive privilege. “Everyone dreams of doing jihad,” he said. “And any Muslim that has never performed jihad or thought about doing it will die as a hypocrite.”
As would happen repeatedly throughout the interview, he then began talking about the Prophet Muhammad. “There is a prophetic tradition,” he told me. “The Prophet said that we should follow jihad in Syria because that is where the angels will bestow their wings on Islam.”
And Abu Mahjin is not the only foreign fighter who is paying attention to this particular prophetic tradition – he told me that jihadists have come from Somalia and Mali, both countries that are currently engaged in significant Islamist battles of their own, to fight in Syria. I asked him how they communicate. “It’s not easy on a practical level,” he replied. “All the Mujahideen fighters here have to learn Arabic, even the ones who come from places like Chechnya, Turkey or Belgium. But we also rely on rare languages to communicate securely and disrupt the enemy’s espionage. Sometimes we use the Chechen language, or Ukrainian when we’re speaking on the radios.”
The global Mujahideen would, he said, “heed the call of any Muslim who wants aid or calls for assistance”. But he also made it clear that the aim of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is not to fight for the kind of freedom that Syrians started demonstrating for in March, 2011 – quite the opposite, in fact. “Our aim is to implement Sharia law in Syria and uphold the principles of the Islamic State,” he said. “If that was not the aim then we wouldn’t have come from far afield to fight here; we would have left the Syrians to fight by themselves. The Syrian people don’t decide on this – it is the Prophet Muhammad who decided it.”
“In that case,” I asked, “are you not simply aiming to establish another kind of dictatorship in Syria?”
“We are not a dictatorship because we will not be unjust towards anyone,” replied Abu Mahjin. “Sharia is the law of Allah and it’s written in the Koran and the Hadith. But if people feel that injustice has been done by an individual then they can demonstrate against that in accordance with Sharia law.” I pressed him further. “But will you accept people opposing your Sharia system?” I asked. “I support demonstrations that call for the imposition of Sharia,” he said. I couldn't envision him changing his mind on this.
What he said next clarified his position on what will happen to people who try to undermine a future Islamic State. “We will uproot those who are trying to cause sedition in this land,” he said. “Those who try to cause sedition are more dangerous than the Syrian regime and uprooting them will be even more difficult. And all those who try to cause sedition will be dealt with very severely.”
And so I started to quiz Abu Mahjin about the details of what it would be like to live in an Islamic State – and specifically what it would be like for women. “The woman has rights according to Islamic Sharia,” he said. “She has her rights, but within the confines of what pleases Allah.” Pressing on, I asked him about the rights of women to wear what they like – predictable, perhaps, but foremost in my mind given the fact that I was, by that stage, sweating profusely beneath my abaya. “In time, when the Islamic State is properly launched, we will focus on these details,” he said. “If a woman is unsuitably dressed we will not punish her to begin with; we will advise her on her wrongdoing. But if she insists on carrying on doing what she is doing then we will punish her.”
“What will the punishment be?” I asked.
“The Sharia courts will decide on this,” he replied. “Either she will be put in prison or she will be whipped.”
“Would you kill a woman for dressing inappropriately?” I asked.
The translator stepped in. “Move on from this one,” he said. “The whole 'women’s rights thing' makes them a bit touchy.”
At that point our host’s wife came in with a tray of ice cream, and that put us both in a difficult position. Abu Mahjin wasn’t prepared to remove his face covering to eat his, and so he had to leave it to melt in front of him – much to the dismay of the host’s wife. I was torn between offending a very nice lady who’d agreed to let me interview a jihadist in her front room by also leaving mine to melt, or eating it and rubbing it in the face of a man with a gun and some pretty extreme views about women, the West and sedition. My love of desserts won out: I ate mine while he looked at his with hungry eyes. I’m not sure if that annoyed him more than my insistence on asking about the Islamic women’s dress code.
As a public relations exercise, I’m not sure what Abu Mahjin hoped to achieve by agreeing to an interview. He said nothing to make me believe that ISIS's presence in Syria will improve the lives of ordinary people there. If anything, the state that they hope to establish will be even more repressive than that of Bashar al-Assad, and I can’t believe that many Syrians will tolerate their presence in the long term. But in my hour with an al-Qaeda jihadist, I learnt three things. Firstly, he spends a lot of time thinking about what the Prophet would do in his situation. Secondly, we don’t see eye to eye on women’s rights, and we probably never will. And finally, when it comes to ice cream, he has a lot more willpower than me.
Follow Hannah on Twitter: @hannahluci
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