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.

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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.

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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.”

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