Members of Jabhat al-Nusra, the most feared jihadist group currently operating in Syria.
“Ameriki?” the jihadi asked, pointing at me with a bemused look on his face. I'd just approached him at a house that serves as the local base for Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the most feared Islamic militant group operating in Syria. A month ago, his colleagues took over a street right next to my fixer's house, blocking it off and hoisting up the black flag that serves as their symbol. They spend their time milling about outside, sometimes riding off in pickup trucks, the beds overflowing with black-clad young men holding RPGs and AK-47s.
Accompanied by a few Free Syrian Army rebels, I was still quite apprehensive about approaching al-Nusra. More experienced journalists had warned me to be wary of them and the Obama administration had recently designated them as a terrorist group. While the al-Qaeda link hadn't yet been made official, it was confirmed a couple of days later. Additionally, I had awoken that morning to the news that the FBI had just arrested Eric Harroun, an American who allegedly fought with al-Nusra in Syria.
Al-Nusra and other Islamic groups showed up in the Syrian border town of Ras Al Ayn in November, and – along with the Free Syrian Army – forced out the remnants of the Assad regime in fierce, block-to-block fighting. Afterwards, this coalition fought against Syria's most powerful Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). The fighting lasted months before a ceasefire was arranged, and the city was essentially divided in two, with the YPG operating on one side and the FSA and al-Nusra on the other. More recently, al-Nusra had even clashed with an FSA brigade in the nearby town of Tal Abyad, but peace was restored shortly after.
At the al-Nusra base in Ras Al Ayn, the jihadi who had asked me if I was American pulled back his fist in an exaggerated motion, then play-acted punching me when I confirmed my citizenship. The man – a cross-eyed Egyptian who I would later learn served as the group's public relations officer and preacher, of sorts – laughed heartily.
“Watch out, we’re terrorists!” his colleague, a lanky Emirati with facial hair reminiscent of Orlando Bloom chimed in, before he started laughing too. The Emirati then excitedly asked me what part of New York City I was from. “Oh, Brooklyn? Yeah, I know it. I went to school in Seattle for a year,” he said.
We then talked about his visits to Detroit, Chicago and Disneyland, as well as the weather, coffee and sports teams in Seattle. “Go Huskies!”
Eventually, the other members of the group came outside, including “the big boss man”. Things took a more serious tone. Our request for an interview was denied. The man then warned me about walking around the area, saying it could be dangerous, though he blamed the danger on the potential of a YPG attack or an airplane raid. Yilmaz, my fixer, had told me that when al-Nusra first moved a block away from him, he worried about their base being blown up since he knew it was filled with explosives and ammunition.
Two men walk through the site of a regime air strike on the outskirts of Ras Al Ayn.
Al-Nusra's presence in Syria is a matter of some controversy to locals. Fayez Durbas wasn’t a religious man before the war here started. Clad in a short-sleeve Adidas shirt, sweats and sporting a closely cropped beard, Fayez told me he's a member of the Fatah brigade in the Free Syrian Army, but thought that he'd soon join Jabhat al-Nusra. “They are working for God, not for money,” he said. “They give food to the people.”
Durbas is originally from the countryside of Aleppo, but now works a border checkpoint in Ras Al Ayn. He credited al-Nusra with the truce in the city and said that he’s very happy with the way they’ve stepped in – a happiness shared by many of his friends, who weren't religious previously either, but are now also turning to al-Nusra. “When they see the West and all the world not giving help, they go to Jabhat,” Durbas told me.
Durbas’ feelings were echoed by a number of others in the city. Al-Nusra has gone the route of many savvy resistance groups, providing goods and services in the cities they occupy to citizens hungry for both. They settle disputes and try to provide justice at a time where the vacuum of power presents an opening for chaos and criminality. A Christian man was even said to have contacted JAN when his son was kidnapped, though other Christians I met in the city were hesitant – fearful, even – to speak about them.
In the mostly Kurdish areas of town that are controlled by the YPG, it's a lot easier to gauge the feeling towards al-Nusra. In these places, any encroachment by Islamists into Kurdish territory will be met with fierce resistance. The mostly secular and progressive Kurdish population sees al-Nusra and the other jihadi groups as just as much of a threat as the regime.
Al-Nusra has also tried to establish control over crucial goods, like oil and grain. Montaser Al Khaled – a defected captain of the regime army who's now said to be one of the highest-ranking FSA soldiers in the Al-Hasakah province – has a decidedly negative view of them. “People here refuse them, they don’t like their behaviour. They try to control the resources, they try to sell the crops and the petrol,“ he said. “Their objective is to dictate the future of the people, not fight Assad."
Four members of an FSA brigade stationed outside the city.
However, unlike Al Khaled, many FSA soldiers seemed conflicted on how they view JAN, even though they fight alongside them at times. A lot of the younger soldiers admired them for their fighting ability, as they are said to be fearless in battle. They admired the al-Nusra members' courage and dedication to Islam, even though the FSA soldiers themselves are quite moderate. Sometimes they cracked jokes about them. Whenever whiskey or women were discussed, they'd point at one of their friends and shout, “Be careful, he’s Jabhat!” A few times, they joked about taking me to al-Nusra when I joined in on the conversations.
Marwan, a Kurdish fighter in the FSA who has fought all over Syria, countered Al Khaled's claim, saying that al-Nusra does have a significant amount of support in Syria. “Not all people do [support JAN] – our area here is not for Islamic people – but Jabhat services the people. In Idlib, Aleppo, Homs, they all love al-Nusra because they give them food, water and help,” he said.
Marwan said that the FSA cannot do anything without the West’s help, but that al-Nusra didn't need it. Still, he admitted that when the regime falls, the FSA may have to fight al-Nusra, and noted that the Americans may finally give the FSA weapons to do so. For now, though, he said, “In my mind, I’m with them, even though I’m FSA.”
Though they had different views on the popularity of al-Nusra, both Marwan and Al Khaled agreed on how they were able to gain support. “Because no one in the world gave any weapons to the FSA, the FSA and Jabhat fight together,” Marwan told me.
Al Khaled took a more direct approach. “The reason Jabhat al-Nusra is so strong is because of you,” he said to me – with “you” meaning "America". Lack of resources among the FSA has led people to embrace those with money, weapons and food: al-Nusra.
The YPG have a large number of women in their ranks.
Five days after initially approaching the al-Nusra base, I got a call from the Emirati I'd spoken to about Disneyland. Despite not receiving permission from their superiors for a formal interview, both he and the Egyptian wanted to meet with me informally to clear up any misconceptions I might have had regarding their beliefs and intentions. I met them at a local man’s house, along with two FSA soldiers and my fixer, Yilmaz.
The Emirati had decided that jihad was his path at 22. Though he studied in both the United States and Australia, he grew enamoured with the jihadi videos he was watching on the internet and eventually decided that the jihad life was the life for him. His parents think that he's living in Turkey holding down a job in business, and his favourite things to watch before joining al-Nusra were Game of Thrones and the movie Troy.
The dialogue began with the two men educating me about the history of Islam. Then we got into a discussion of what al-Nusra was about. They said Islam was a religion of peace, that they were fighting a defensive war. I asked them about a recent decapitation video I'd seen and they said that this is what happens in war. They talked about Iran being the enemy and Shiites not being true followers of Islam, but then added that they would not force their ideas on anyone. They blamed the Shiite leaders, not all Shiites, for blinding the people.
They had a brilliant rationalisation for every point of criticism I could level at them. When I questioned them on women’s rights, they said that it's alright for a woman to walk around in a miniskirt in the US but not in the nude, and that things are all relative. They pointed out that the West had similar rules hundreds of years ago to the rules al-Nusra have now, but who's to say the West won't change their minds in 50 years and revert back? During the Dark Ages in the West, there was incest and women couldn't inherit money, but this was never the case in Islamic areas, so why should they trust Western standards?
An al-Nusra gunman.
When I asked them about how they'd come into Syria and started telling Syrians what to do, they pointed out that we were smoking cigarettes and it was OK with them. They said that if a man wants to commit a religious sin, he should do it out of sight, secretly in his home… but that they also didn't approve of anyone committing religious sins in secret. They have strict laws that have been handed down for 1,000 years and are still strict with the basics of those laws, but find room to adapt and modernise where needed.
They don’t hate Americans purely because they're American, they hate only those who want to fight them. They said they don’t appreciate the West trying to push moderate Islam on the people, that the people want Sharia and that the only people in Syria who fear al-Nusra are ignorant about Islam. They said separation of religion and politics is a Western idea. They said that the Western media reports that al-Nusra is full of uneducated, poor, backwards people, but claimed that this isn’t true and that they have many Westerners and educated men fighting among their ranks.
Lastly, they wondered why the Western media tried to misrepresent Islam. They told me to read the Qur'an and to check Aaron Zelin’s website, Jihadology, for the truth on their beliefs.
After I'd finished talking to the al-Nusra soldiers, we walked away, Yilmaz shaking his head and muttering, “The young guys, they're OK. But the brains, they're bad guys, man. They are not good for Syria.”
Jabhat Al Nusra has emerged as arguably the most formidable rebel fighting force in Syria. The fighters, estimated to number around 5,000, are battle hardened, fearless and disciplined. They've already struck significant blows against the regime in battle and continue to work hard to win the hearts and minds of civilians and rebel fighters. They've pledged to take the fight to Hezbollah and it seems likely they'll eventually clash with the YPG again.
Some, like Marwan, believe that eventually the more secular elements of the FSA will turn against Jabhat, or vice versa, once their common foe falls and no longer unites them in cause. For now, the only thing certain is that they'll continue to prove pretty effective in battling the Assad regime and pretty troublesome for Western and Arab nations looking for methods to support the rebels.
Follow Danny on Twitter: @DGisSERIOUS