In Syria, the Jihadist Campaign for Hearts and Minds

A TIME reporter accompanies an Islamist fighter out to smooth over any bad feelings over a raid

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Hamid Khatib / REUTERS

A man raises his hand as he stands on the spot where the fallen statue of President Bashar Assad's father used to be in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, on March 13, 2013

The dusty, battered navy blue Subaru sedan with a blown-out rear window rolled up to the street corner in Raqqa city. The bespectacled Jabhat al-Nusra fighter behind the wheel was five minutes early for our 9 a.m. appointment. Kalashnikov rifle slung across his shoulder, he stepped out of the car to open the front passenger door for me. “Good morning,” the young Syrian said after we were both seated. He placed the Kalashnikov near the gear stick. “Are you scared of me?”

I smiled at his choice of greeting, told him I was not. “Good,” he said, as he unfastened the black headscarf he kept wrapped around his face to conceal his identity. The piece of fabric fell away, revealing a bushy black Salafi-style beard (no mustache) and a broad smile with a gap between his two front teeth. “See, I’m not scary,” he said, smiling before securing the scarf back across his face, covering everything but his brown eyes.

Jabhat al-Nusra was one of three Islamist groups that spearheaded the brief battle to capture Raqqa city in early March, making it the first of Syria’s 14 provincial capitals to fall from President Bashar Assad’s grip. The Jabhat is an ultraconservative fighting force the U.S. considers a terrorist outfit because of its ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — links that AQI apparently confirmed in an audio statement on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir Abu Mohammad al-Golani said his group was not consulted ahead of the AQI statement, but he nonetheless pledged his allegiance to al-Qaeda leader.

We set off on a 45-minute drive out of the city, to see a former senior regime official who had been a mole for Jabhat al-Nusra. He was a judge who passed light sentences on captured rebels, as well as intelligence to Assad’s foes.

(MORE: Will Syria’s Refugee Crisis Drain Jordan of Its Water?)

Several weeks earlier, the Jabhat fighter and two colleagues had led eight vehicles of fighters, including a truck mounted with a 12.7-mm antiaircraft gun, in a raid deep in Raqqa province on the home the judge had fled to after the rebel victory, the same home we were now heading toward. The judge was detained — like many senior members of the regime in Raqqa city, including the governor and the head of the Baath Party who both remain in rebel custody — but the judge was freed shortly after the raid, as soon as his role in aiding the Islamists had been determined.

We stopped at a local patisserie, where the Jabhat fighter — Kalashnikov in hand, scarf across his face — bought several kilos of sticky, syrup-drenched Arabic sweets for the family we were going to see. He hadn’t been back to the home since he’d raided it. “There was a young girl there,” he said of that night as we got back in the car. “She grabbed my legs and said ‘Please, uncle, don’t take baba [Dad].’ I was really affected by that.”

The sound of the wind rushed in through the blown-out rear window, while Koranic chanting played through the car’s speakers as we drove past small villages dotted among dusty plains and green fields of shin-high wheat crops. The fighter, a 21-year-old former literature student, used to engage in relief work for an Islamist charity before he picked up a gun eight months ago. “A normal person reaches death through life, while the mujahid [holy warrior] reaches life through death,” he said. “I don’t know who first said that, but I like it. It’s what I believe.”

We reached our destination, a modest single-story gray concrete home whose exterior wasn’t painted. A young girl of about 5 or 6 opened the door. She recognized the fighter, despite — or perhaps because of — his face covering. We were led into the sitting room, where her father, an older man with gray hair in a navy blue tracksuit, was reclining on a thin mattress along a wall. He stood up and greeted his guests, as did his wife, a plump woman in a tight long-sleeved floor-length burgundy dress and a burgundy and lilac headscarf.

They said the judge and his family — one of four families staying in the five-room home as guests — had left for Hama shortly after the judge was released from the Jabhat’s custody. “That’s a real shame,” the Jabhat fighter said. “I would have liked to talk to him.”

The talk soon turned to the raid, which had begun at 4:30 p.m. The parents, including several of their eight young children, sat around the fighter. They asked him his name, where he was from. He declined to tell them, saying only that he was “from God’s country.” He did, however, take off his face covering.

He was the only one of the three men commanding the raid who entered the home that evening. The 40 or so men who had come with him fanned out in the field around it as townsfolk, many armed, made their way toward the men standing around the house. “We could see them coming,” the Jabhat fighter told the family, “we didn’t want a fight.”

“He told me ‘Don’t be scared,’” the mother said, referring to the Jabhat fighter, as she served coffee in gold-rimmed cups.

“I told you we were going to take [the judge], one way or the other, so let me help you,” the fighter said.

“Yes, and then I told you I want to search you, and I did!” she said. “I thought, I don’t care, kill me if you want, but I must try and protect my children.”

The fighter said at that point, he went outside and gave his gun to a colleague, before submitting to the woman’s search. “She even searched my shoes!” he said, as everyone — except the father — laughed.

The judge, who was hiding in a bedroom, didn’t hand himself over, and the family insisted that he wasn’t there. “I gave a promise to the women — there were three, the judge’s wife, she was wearing blue wasn’t she? A policeman’s wife and you, auntie,” the fighter said, gesturing to the mother. “I told you we weren’t going to harm you.”

The mother was feisty and was doing most of the talking. Her husband seemed nervous as she chided the Jabhat member about a fighter who had shot open a bedroom door, after her teenage daughter couldn’t find the key. “He shouldn’t have done that,” the mother said, “the children were scared for three days after that.”

The Jabhat fighter apologized, and said that the man who shot open the door had been reprimanded because he had broken his commander’s word that there would be no shooting if the judge came peacefully.

(MORE: Portrait of an Activist: Razan Ghazzawi, the Syrian Blogger Turned Exile)

A pretty young girl in black track pants and a purple top entered the room. “You’re the one who asked me not to take baba, aren’t you?” the fighter said. She smiled. “Yes, you are Jabhat, aren’t you?”

Her name was Noor, and she was 11 years old. “He looked friendly from his eyes,” she said, explaining why she had pleaded with an armed man. “I wasn’t scared of him.”

“I was very moved by what you did,” the fighter said, “by your courage to protect your father.”

The fighter told the father that he remembered he did not have a gun in the house, a point the father confirmed. “You should have a gun,” the fighter said.

“If I took out a gun that night, what would have happened?”

“You didn’t, and you shouldn’t have, but you have daughters. It’s not safe.”

The visit was brief, no more than half an hour. The fighter requested a photo with all of the children, and a separate one with Noor, who had clung to his legs that night, pleading for her father’s safety.

“Forgive us sheik,” the father said, as he walked the fighter to the door.

“We had refugees in the house, the judge was a guest, we feared for him,” the mother said. “I swear, from now on, even if he is my own brother, I won’t let anyone stay with us.”

“I wanted to see the children,” the fighter told the parents, before heading back to the car.

It wasn’t the first time the Jabhat member said he’d returned to see a family in a home he’d raided. He said he hadn’t come back for the man and his wife who had lied to him and said the judge was not in the house. He’d come back for the children. “I tell the guys that we are all ambassadors. I am an ambassador for Jabhat al-Nusra, and I am a person who pays more attention to children than adults. A child is the only person who is still innocent,” he said as we headed back to Raqqa city.

“Do you remember when you were a child, if somebody did something bad to you, you remember it,” he said. “What we did that night might change their life, they may never forget it, or it might alter their personality. Now, they will remember that I came back to see them.”

MORE: The Limits of Saber Rattling

70 comments
JanFearing
JanFearing

You are kidding right? Is this supposed to allay anyone's fears of al Nusra? Time, have you lost all ability to reason along with the ability to report actual news? This is absolutely bone chilling. These people, the "rebels", the US supports are armed by Qatar and Saudi Arabia using money they've made selling the US our oil and gas and we want to help even more (and have been involved for years in this plan)! Qatar and Saudi Arabia, our great allies, those "twin towers" of freedom and human rights. Is anyone at Time old enough to remember that al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11? Remember that? Do you remember where bin Laden came from? What the rebel groups want is actually the same thing the Muslim Brotherhood dominated opposition wants - an extremist Islamic takeover of secular Syria. That would be the opposition that took over two years to make one decision (Hitto's "election) and that one was so bad 1/3 of the coalition walked out. The media has been duplicitous in this phoney revolution to the point where many outlets ought to be tried for aiding and abetting the enemy in addition to many of our elected officials.

JanFearing
JanFearing

I may be naive and stupid, but as far as I'm concerned, al Qaeda and any Wahhabi Islamist movement is an enemy to the US, not an ally. The embarrassing bow Obama made before the King of Saudi Arabia is more prophetic than anyone wants to admit. On the other hand, Syria has a prudent and effective leader in Bashar al Assad and he bears no relation to the portrait painted of him by the media or western/US governments. We need to get our hands off Syria. We need to lift the sanctions that were put on in 1956! We need to respect that Syria is sovereign with a legitimate and popular government and stop participating in the shredding of that nation.

Basilkabbani
Basilkabbani

@syrianews Wrong!! they did not attack the home. They were looking for Assad loyalists and in particular a judge@raniaab

snot4you
snot4you

@TIME @timeworldWhat About that secret that they are passing CISPA??? ANYTHING on THAT!!!!! Hello no more free Internet!!!M

goodmorningsin
goodmorningsin

@TIME @TIMEWorld Let's not use the word 'jihad' out of its context please. It's time an influential magazine like TIME learnt the definition

ArabiSouri
ArabiSouri

NATO tools the Jihadists need a campaign for hearts and minds with the sponsorship of NATO other corporations with expertise and paid by citizens of NATO's member states and their stooges as these Jihadists are invented by NATO and sent where 'democracy' needs to be spread..!

We don't ask any help from citizens of NATO member states to fight these prehistoric savages coming from Tora Bora and the deserts of Arabia to teach us free speech and to democratize us in Syria the Libyan, Iraqi, Afghani, Somalian style.. We just ask citizens of NATO member states to look after their own interests in their own countries and leave us alone, we can take care of these filths of the world's filthiest filth. Just STOP helping us and help yourselves achieve a real 'democracy' and get your own 'free speech' in your own countries. Countries ruled by 2 parties for the past 6 decades with colonial and imperial history do not have any moral right to preach democracy or free speech to others. Countries that have political journalists inside prisons more than those outside like Turkey, who carpet level entire Kurdish villages under the guise of fighting terror, and countries that women just earned their right to drive a bicycle with a guardian around their houses do not have any moral right to preach any country democracy or free speech.

A last message to citizens of NATO member states: STOP creating further enemies for yourselves and your children with your own money by your own will and using your own men. We Syrians, will never forgive the blood of our lost ones and we will never forget. Each citizen of NATO member states and their stooges are involved in the killing spree in Syria. No sovereign nation on the planet would accept a 5th column to be appointed by their foes and send 'arms' and 'money' to Jihadists brought from worldwide under any circumstances, and in case someone fooled you it was a 'spontaneous public uprising', I'm telling you it's not, it was a pre-planned bloody criminal intervention in a sovereign state to install a puppet regime there to be able to suck their riches, yes Syria discovered vast reserves of natural gas on shore and off shore, and it's a passage to Qatari gas to Europe through Turkey to surrender Russia and Iran. Check this documentary to see stacked weapons and what the 'peaceful' protesters did from day one in Daraa: http://www.syrianews.cc/syria-lean-days/ we have tons of other material your mainstream media, or call them NATO propagandists and warmongering tools never show you.

MarkusBei
MarkusBei

@TIME @TIMEWorld Of course an article about Jihadists, but no mention of the massacre committed by Assad troops in Sanamein that killed 60+

bojack
bojack

The Arab Spring (AS) is a misnomer that the media coined when they incorrectly thought the revolutions were about freedom and democracy. When the poor Tunisian vegetable vendor, who was credited with setting of the (AS) self immolated, he was heard by many people shouting, "I just want to make a living." He was tragically protesting his current state of grinding poverty. The last thing on his mind was freedom of speech or Habeas corpus.

When the (AS) spread to Egypt, Western news reprters flooded Tahrir Square. Once there they hastily interviewed the relative few fluent English speakers in the crowd. Naively, those reporters didn't realize that fluent English was a sign that the interviewee was from an affluent family and probably Western educated. These protesters were in no way representative of the crowd.

The proof of all this is the fact that in the parliamentry elections in Egypt (and Tunisia) the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more militant Salafist parties received about seventy percent of the vote combined, the liberal Western leaning parties less than twenty percent.

A final thought: Until very recently there was no word for "democracy" in Arabic for the simple reason that it was never experienced and therefore couldn't reasonably be labeled. The only way the word "free" was ever used in Arabic was in contradistinction of free man and slave.

thecamelshumpblog.com

markb3699
markb3699

Great journalism. Shows the tactics and motivations of a jihadi without allowing the writer's opinions to get in the way.

syrianews
syrianews

@Basilkabbani yes, they were looking, with guns in their hands. It wasn't a tea time visit, it was an attack.

Basilkabbani
Basilkabbani

@syrianews No. U r twisting the truth.one shot was fired and one fighter was welcomed back when he returned. Don't lie this is NOT an ATTACK

Basilkabbani
Basilkabbani

@syrianews what was the aggressive action , knocking on a door and asking if they r hiding a judge. U r wrong and u know it! @Raniaab

Basilkabbani
Basilkabbani

@syrianews there has to b intent to hurt. Look it up in the dictionary and admit u r wrong. It was a raid and not an attack.

Basilkabbani
Basilkabbani

@syrianews Definition of attack - aggressive or VIOLENT action agst a person or place. This was neither.

syrianews
syrianews

@Basilkabbani if gunmen raid a house and detain someone, it's an attack, regardless of whether a shot is fired or a tank is used.