Abu Adnan smirked from behind his black balaclava, his auburn whiskers peeking through the fabric as the corners of his mouth rose. A religious scholar and Shari‘a law official in Jabhat al-Nusra’s leadership in the Aleppo area, the 35-year-old had a ready answer for what he thought of the U.S. designating his Islamist group a terrorist organization: “It’s not a problem,” he said. “We know the West and its oppressive ways. We know the oppression of the [U.N.] Security Council, the lies of the international community. It’s not news. This means nothing to us.”
The designation, officially announced on Dec.11, lists Jabhat al-Nusra as an alias of al-Qaeda in Iraq and says that since November 2011 the group has claimed responsibility for “nearly 600 terrorist attacks, killing and wounding hundreds of Syrians.” The group was unknown until late January 2012, when it announced its formation, although Abu Adnan admits that it was active for months before then. In the months since then, it has become one of the most effective fighting forces against President Bashar Assad, undertaking some of the most audacious attacks against the regime.
Little is known about the religiously conservative, secretive group except for a mysterious leader and the fact that it now wants to establish an Islamic state. But Jabhat al-Nusra’s vaunted discipline and reputation on the battlefield among other fighters (even secular-minded ones) is growing in line with the boldness of its attacks, and many young men are seeking to join it. Jabhat al-Nusra does not differ ideologically from other Syrian Salafi Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Liwa al-Tawhid. “We are all Sunni Muslims,” says Abu Adnan, “so there is no difference.” The difference, he suggested, was in the type of fighter Jabhat al-Nusra was prepared to accept into its ranks: “We pay a great deal of attention to the individual fighter, we are concerned with quality, not quantity.” Smokers need not apply. A potential recruit must undertake a 10-day religious-training course “to ascertain his understanding of religion, his morals, his reputation.” A 15-to-20-day military-training program follows.
That the U.S. has now made an overt enemy of this group only makes it seem more attractive to many who have long viewed U.S. intentions in the region with suspicion. War can make strange bedfellows, but Washington has clearly calculated that this group is too dangerous to court. The trouble is, many in the Syrian opposition, think otherwise.
It took weeks to set up an interview with Abu Adnan, whose role in the organization was independently confirmed by several Syrian jihadi sources. An earlier meeting was canceled for security reasons after a vehicle he was traveling in was targeted by a warplane. The air strike narrowly missed the car. He and his colleagues viewed it as an assassination attempt, believing their location was pinpointed by an electronic tagger attached to their vehicle — although nobody actually saw the alleged device.
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.
If the designation was intended to isolate Jabhat al-Nusra, it appears to have done the opposite and actually enhanced its standing and reputation among some Syrians. The nationwide protest in Syria on Dec. 14, for example, used the slogan “The only terrorism in Syria is Assad’s,” a clear rebuke to the naming. Dozens of rebel groups have publicly declared, “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra,” while even the leadership of the political opposition in exile has condemned the terrorist label.
Abu Adnan, like a number of people in the opposition, believes the designation reveals that Washington is not serious about removing Assad. “We see it as if America wants to give the regime a big break, to give it an opportunity to remain in power for as long as it can,” he said. “The regime has been practicing terrorism for two years and America did nothing, so why has it moved quickly against a fighting force on the ground in Syria, labeling it a terrorist organization? Has it forgotten the regime?”
At the core of this thinking is the notion that the West wants to retain the Israel-centric status quo, including keeping leaders like the Assads in power rather than risk Islamists coming to power in Damascus. Bashar Assad and his late father and predecessor Hafez Assad ensured that the Golan Heights, occupied by the Jewish state, was the quietest Arab-Israeli front line for decades despite the dynasty’s fearsome rhetoric.
Some rebels think the designation was meant to foment fitna, or internal divisions, within the already fragmented rebel ranks in a bid to dissipate their momentum, or that it will be used as an excuse to avoid arming Syrian rebels at all, given that many operations are joint attacks between Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and secular FSA units. In practical terms, it would be very difficult for the West to provide weapons to select groups it wants to work with and at the same time ensure that the weapons would not also end up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, unless it expressly wants those favored groups to fight the Islamist militia group.
In any case, Jabhat al-Nusra isn’t waiting for weapons from the international community, according to Abu Adnan. A recent raid on a regime outpost in Daarat Izze in the Aleppan countryside secured more weapons “than what a country can give us,” he said. Foreign fighters were also a source of support, both physical (in terms of their presence) and material (funds).
In the meantime, the organization maintains a firm grip on information about itself, disseminating statements and videos via its media wing al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (its material is promoted online by Shamoukh al-Islam, a leading pro-al-Qaeda forum). Its members do not generally grant media interviews. “We don’t care about the press. It’s not a priority to us,” Abu Adnan said. “Our priority is to fight the regime, if we film an operation, we film it. It’s not important, but for many other groups, the filming is a priority, it helps them get funding.”
Jabhat al-Nusra is headed by a man who uses the nom de guerre of Abu Mohammad al-Golani (Golani is a reference to Syria’s Golan Heights, occupied by Israel). The U.S. Treasury Department has also slapped financial sanctions against two men it believes are senior leaders in the militia group: Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab. Recent media reports also mention one Mustafa Abdel-Latif, also known as Abu Anas al-Sahaba, as the new “emir” or leader of Jabhat al-Nusra. A Jordanian national, al-Sahaba is the brother-in-law of the late al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Abu Adnan would not disclose any information about the men named by the Treasury Department and said al-Golani remained the Jabhat leader. Al-Golani’s real identity remains a well-kept secret, even to the leaders of other similar Islamist militant groups in Syria. At a recent meeting of the leaders of the Salafi groups Ahrar al-Sham, Suqoor al-Sham, Liwa al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra and several other units to discuss the creation of a Syria-wide pan-Islamist coalition, al-Golani kept his face covered throughout the proceedings, according to a participant. He was introduced by the Jabhat leaders in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, who vouched for his identity, but al-Golani offered no information about himself. “He knew everything about each one of us,” the participant said, “how long we’d been in the fight, our personal backgrounds, how long we’d spent in prison [before the revolution], everything.”
Dressed in jeans, a light gray sweater, a black leather jacket and black loafers, Abu Adnan was calm, polite but clearly uncomfortable with several lines of questioning, particularly about the group’s numbers (which he refused to divulge) and details of its structure (“These have the spirit of an intelligence agency’s questions,” he said.)
Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Adnan claims, has extended its presence throughout Syria. Each region has an overall leader, a military commander and a Shari‘a leader, he said. In the past, Jabhat members largely kept to themselves, mingling with other fighters but otherwise not interacting with the local communities in which they were based and not seeking to forcefully impose their conservative Islamic views on them — unlike members of Ahrar al-Sham, for example, which have had run-ins with locals who have rejected their attempts to ban the sale of alcohol in their communities.
But in the past month or so, that has slowly changed. Jabhat al-Nusra was one of several groups that in late November rejected the freshly anointed Western-backed group of Syrian political exiles baptized as the National Coalition. Instead, the Jabhat declared its intention to form an Islamic state in Aleppo. That statement was broadly rejected by many members of the Syrian opposition, but Abu Adnan says his group will continue to fight for it. “Those in exile think that we will scare the West and Europe if we are an Islamic state. We are not an Islamic state now, and what have these countries offered over the past year and nine months? Why has the West for a year and nine months not given anything to the revolution?”
Minorities, he said, had nothing to fear from such a state. “The Prophet, peace be upon him, had a Jewish neighbor,” he said. “Whoever has not oppressed, or participated in the harming of the people, his rights are his rights and his duties are his duties.” But those who had blood on their hands, whether minorities or not, would be shown no mercy. Abu Adnan defended several recent videos including one of a member of Jabhat al-Nusra gunning down unarmed regime loyalists. “We detained them, lined them up and killed them. They were fighters fighting us. So this is terrorism, but we forget that there is an entire state that has terrorized people for 40 years?” he said.
He said that if anything, Jabhat al-Nusra was keeping itself in check. “Many of the people who are wanted by us, who we have scores to settle with, very important people are present in Turkey, in areas close to the border, we can easily reach them. It would be very easy for us, but we won’t do this and yet they still call us terrorists. We are fighting in Syria, and who are we fighting? The security forces, the shabiha [proregime thugs also listed as terrorists by the U.S.] and those who help the regime.”
At the same time as announcing plans for an Islamic state in Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra has begun undertaking relief efforts in the neighborhoods of the city it is based in, seeking a stronger foothold in the local community, even though paradoxically like many rebel groups operating in Aleppo, its fighters are largely not from the city. It has distributed much needed supplies of petrol, diesel, and flour to bakeries. “We are keeping the price of bread at 15 lira [about 21 U.S. cents], which was its true price,” Abu Adnan said, adding that transgressors would be punished according to Shari‘a. (Jabhat al-Nusra has also thus far avoided indiscriminate civilian casualties.)
That’s not to say that Jabhat al-Nusra does not have fierce critics, especially within rebel circles. In addition to its civilian detractors, many more secular-minded fighters are wary of the Jabhat’s social conservatism, but insist that its brand of ultraconservative Islam will not find a home in any post-Assad Syria. These fighters often say that they will “deal” with conservative groups like Jabhat al-Nusra later, but that right now they need them in the fight against Assad. Other rebels view Jabhat al-Nusra as a transient jihadi group that will move onto foreign fronts like Afghanistan or Gaza after the fall of Assad.
Abu Adnan smirked when asked to comment about such sentiments, especially by fellow Sunni fighters, whom he dismissed as “the brainwashed.” He repeated that “the idea that we are a global organization or that we have some other goal elsewhere after the fall is not true.” He was emphatic: “We are Syrians.” He admitted that “we also have foreigners who came from other countries, but,” he explained, “that is because the wounds in the Arab lands are the same wound, and the oppression is the same oppression.”