The al Qaeda motorbike gang in Menbej, Aleppo province, July 2013
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realised Syria had turned into
Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria's two-year civil war.
Manbij's deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you're fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. "Look," he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers' passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
"Be careful," said the driver. "They won't be offended because you're a journalist taking pictures. They'll be offended because you're a woman taking pictures."
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call "smurfs."
From the passenger seat, my friend – a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony – looked back at me. "Well," he said, "that's freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar."
It was then that I realised Syria is a completely different country than it was even a year ago. Its transformation had happened so seamlessly that only by looking through my notes and photos from the previous six months did I see this progression for what it was: radicalisation.
The influx had been steadily mounting for the past year and change, but today all of a sudden, it seems as if al Qaeda is literally everywhere in rebel-held Syria: its logo on banners pinned in the windows of barber shops, its songs blasting out from car stereos, masked fighters at checkpoints, and Syrian teenagers sporting the getup of the jihadists in their Facebook profile pictures. And rather than the nebulous amalgam known as the Free Syrian Army, foreign-backed jihadist groups – Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) being the most ubiquitous of the bunch – have become the factions that young Syrian men want to join. FSA brigades suddenly seem old-fashioned and irrelevant; the green, white and black of the revolutionary flag and jumbled, piecemeal camouflage fatigues of those old-style fighters seem distinctly last season next to the sleek black uniforms and balaclavas of al Qaeda. It is simply no longer fashionable to be a moderate, liberal revolutionary in Syria.
"Before all this, my life was just like yours," a teenager named Salam from the city of Aleppo told me as he took surreptitious drags on my cigarette. "I used to leave my house at 6AM, skip college, and go to spend the day with my girlfriend." It was daytime during Ramadan, and Salam should have been fasting, but instead he kept bringing me an endless stream of coffee so he could drink it himself when no one else was looking.
Khalifa, a graffiti artist in Aleppo, sprays a smiley face onto the wall of a building destroyed by a Scud missile, February 2013.
Meanwhile, Syria's foreign jihadists follow a strict Salafist ideology that's as alien to most native Syrians as it is to the Pope. Abu Mahjin is a jihadist from Iraq who is fighting with ISIS, the most hardcore extremist faction in Syria. By the time I interviewed him in July, towns like Menbij in northern Syria were teeming with young men just like him: foreigners hostile to the West and the media who had come to Syria with the specific intent of establishing an Islamic state.
During our interview, Abu Mahjin made it clear that he bases his life in its entirety, to the smallest of details, on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the word of the Qur'an. That means lots of praying, no cigarettes and absolutely no contact with women other than relatives before marriage – a lifestyle that's a hard sell to teenage boys, even those in Syria with a proclivity to Islam.
But it is Abu Mahjin and his comrades' unwavering devotion to their cause that makes them such a dangerous force in war-torn Syria. Well trained, disciplined and effective on the front lines, they have quickly filled a void within a multipronged civil war that, up until the end of August, no Western country wanted to touch with a 20-foot Tomahawk missile.
Increasingly it's jihadist groups like ISIS – and not the FSA – that lead the majority of the opposition's successful attacks on regime bases. Even though Salam, the teenager from Aleppo who bummed a smoke from me, doesn't share their uncompromising ideology, he admires their fighting prowess; everyone wants to play for the winning team, even if their motives are questionable. He showed me a video of a checkpoint attack carried out by Ahrar al-Sham, one of Syria's largest – and perhaps its most powerful – brigade of freedom fighters, with an estimated headcount of 10,000 to 20,000, who also make up a significant portion of the umbrella Salafist rebel group the Syrian Islamic Front. In the clip, combatants rig a pickup truck with a remote-control driving mechanism, pack the bed with TNT and guide the unmanned vehicle straight into their target. The explosion sends a giant ball of flames shooting 60 feet up into the air. I was impressed, Salam jubilant.
After replaying the video for me four times, Salam showed me a shrapnel wound on his leg. "I got this when I was fighting with a jihadist brigade," he said. "My father was so angry when he found out. He thought I was still fighting with the FSA."
In late 2012, Salam, like many young Syrians, decided that the FSA brigade in which he had originally enlisted had become weak and ineffectual. He defected and joined Liwa Islamia, yet another al Qaeda-aligned jihadist group. It was a well-thought-out decision that had nothing to do with his religious beliefs. "When I was fighting with the FSA, if someone was injured, they would leave him behind," he recounted. "But the jihadists will never do that. Even if someone is killed, they will get his body back, no matter what."
From across the room, Salam's friend Abu Waleed nodded in agreement. Abu Waleed is a friendly bear of a guy who carries his rotund belly proudly. He was so candid and agreeable that I could barely get my head around the fact that he is a jihadist rebel.
"You don't look like a terrorist," I said to Abu Waleed.
He laughed. "Well, I didn't used to have this beard," he replied. "In fact, I used to think that all people with beards were terrorists. But now I would say that I'm a member of al Qaeda, yes."
Like Salam, Abu Waleed left an FSA brigade to join the largely Syrian-composed Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. It was quite a turnaround from his former life; just two years ago, he worked at the duty-free store in Aleppo's civilian airport, selling alcohol and cigarettes to tourists. In old photos he showed me he is clean-shaven with a crew cut. When I met him he was sporting luscious shoulder-length hair and a bushy beard. His Facebook profile picture is the seal of al Qaeda.
Salam took another forbidden drag of my cigarette before opening a photo on his laptop. It depicted him posing in a balaclava and an explosives belt. "Look, I'm going to be a suicide bomber. BOOM!" he exclaimed, cracking up with laughter as he watched the horror spread across my face.
Fighters from the Free Syrian Army eat ice cream in Saraqeb, Idlib province, May 2013.
If the flight of young Syrians from the FSA to al Qaeda is proof that extremism is taking root in Syria, then recent changes in what sort of music is popular among young people are indicative of an overall cultural shift.
"For the past two years I've been listening to the same 40 songs, over and over again," Mahmoud, an antiregime activist from Aleppo, said as we drove to the Sharia court. "I'm getting a bit bored of them now."
I was in the passenger seat dressed in an abaya, looking ridiculous. "I'm a bit bored of them too," I replied. "Although there is one that I really like."
The pop charts no longer apply in Syria. As soon as you cross over the border from Turkey, you enter a whole new musical paradigm – one that provides the soundtrack to an increasingly violent civil war with no clear end in sight. I've tried introducing some of the Syrians I've met to English tunes that make me less homesick. My Syrian friends turned their noses up at them, and it didn't take me long to understand why. Amy Winehouse doesn't exactly jibe well with landscapes lined with blown-out buildings and pockmarked with bullet holes. Instead, rebel-held Syria jams out to songs penned by al Qaeda, exemplifying their all-inclusive recruitment tactics, which now begin at the cultural level. And they can be very catchy.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that there's an al Qaeda tune I like so much that I had it stuck on repeat for quite some time. Roughly transliterated from the Arabic, the song is called "Awjureeny," and when I listened to it in the safety of a friend's kitchen, a world away from Syria, its eerie blend of undulating vocal harmonies brought back visceral memories of driving through apocalyptic landscapes on the road to Aleppo.
"Awjureeny" is included on a compilation of jihadist anthems that Soheib, an anti-Assad activist in Aleppo, copied onto my hard drive. The file's thumbnail is a picture of Osama bin Laden. Wanting to know more about the song's meaning, I messaged a Syrian friend on Facebook: "What does 'awjureeny' mean?"
Thirty seconds later he replied. "Hurt me," he wrote.
"It's a jihadist song," I typed back.
"I know it," he replied. "He's talking to his wounds. The emotional ones."
He'd confirmed what I'd already worked out: you can't spot a jihadist tune by its lyrics. Lyrically, al Qaeda's songs aren't far off from Vera Lynn's. There are the ones about being separated from your homeland, and others about the people who've passed on to a better place. It turns out that the jihadists have a sentimental side, and they choose to express it through music.
Soheib collects and studies jihadist songs the way a nine-year-old boy is captivated by insects and lizards – not because he likes them, but because he's a geek and is compelled to catalogue them like rare baseball cards. During my time with him in Aleppo, we listened to his jihadist playlist in the car everywhere we went because he thought the music softened up the soldiers at the many Islamist checkpoints throughout the region. Soheib let me into the secret of how to spot an al Qaeda tune as we drove past a notorious kidnapping spot. "Jihadist songs, there are no instruments," he said. "If it has instruments, it's not jihadist."
The songs' a cappella compositions are both their distinguishing feature and their genius. Al Qaeda's anthems are stripped-back choral requiems. They feature beautiful, haunting melodies that make the shattered visages around us look cinematically stunning. They elevate the sense of dislocation and abandonment that permeates everything in Aleppo: the streets in the city where every building has been shelled; the villages we pass on the road from the border that are intact one day, flattened the next.
That's why everyone I have travelled with – jihadists, activists, fighters and other reporters and fixers – listens to songs like "Awjureeny" almost exclusively: because they tap into the mood so perfectly. Al Qaeda is the Simon Cowell of the war zone, churning out hits the war-weary public wants and in doing so, providing itself with the perfect promotional gimmick. Those melancholy dirges capture the exact mood of Aleppo in summer: muted, suspicious and two years into a grisly civil war. And this is precisely the reason why Mahmoud and most of his peers will keep playing them ad nauseam until the melodies and lyrics bore deep into their subconscious.
Rebel fighters from the Tawheed brigade, an Islamist group aligned with the FSA, guarding the Sharia court in Aleppo, February 2013.
I have a ritual when I return from Syria to Antakya, the Turkish border town where I'm usually based when I'm in the region. After I've dumped my flak jacket and showered, I call my friends in Turkey – a mixed bunch of Syrian refugees, foreign journalists and photographers – and we head to a bar to get drunk. Abdullah is an easygoing guy from Latakia, a city on Syria's Mediterranean coast. His head is shaved, and he has a sardonic sense of humour, greeting me the same way every time I return: "Hey, Hannah, welcome back! How was Tora Bora?" But in this instance he's only half joking.
My day-to-day existence in Syria has largely consisted of witnessing an intractable, complex and seemingly hopeless sociological and ideological transition in slow motion. Every time I go back it seems that national allegiance has succumbed to al Qaeda just a little bit more, as if this warped version of Islam is penetrating every bone of a once tolerant, multicultural, and accepting country – before it descended into a state of constant, increasingly violent warfare. Two years ago no one would have listened to jihadist songs on their car stereo, or flown the flag of a terrorist group from the back of their motorbike or posed for a picture wearing a suicide vest. Now it's all just part of the scenery.
To completely understand how al Qaeda has taken root in Syria, one must pay close attention to the details. It's pointless to talk about religious brainwashing because that has little to do with it, at least in what have become the "traditional" ways in which extremism has flourished over the past decade in the Middle East. In reality, and at its essence, Syria's transformation is due to a catalytic mixture of two elements: impressive fighters who have nothing to lose and clever marketing. In the same way that gang culture in the West comes in tandem with its own outlying cultural influence over music and fashion, so too does al Qaeda in Syria. Jihadist culture is perfectly designed to attract the country's disenfranchised teenage boys, cutting them off from their studies and social lives by making them believe they can shift the tide of a dirty war, that at its most basic level, they can do absolutely nothing about.
From what I've seen, it's working, but to what end, I am not sure.
More on Syria from VICE: