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The United States, worried about what it says are terrorist groups operating among the Syrian opposition, has so far resisted aiding the rebels. But in Syria, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. So who are the men the United States is worried about? In rare and exclusive interviews, GlobalPost went inside Syria to talk to them.
Ayachi Abdel Rahman never imagined he would become a military leader, much less branded a terrorist.
IDLIB, Syria — Ayachi Abdel Rahman never imagined he would become a military leader, much less branded a terrorist.
Behind a welcoming smile, he is soft-spoken and articulate. Even with the Islamic headscarf and the AK-47 on his arm, there is something peaceful about his appearance.
The son of a controversial Islamic cleric, 30-year-old Abdel Rahman was born in Saudi Arabia but grew up in France, his mother’s native country. He excelled in web design and ran his own IT company between France, Syria and Belgium before the Syrian conflict began.
“My dream was to expand my company and be a successful businessman. Now I have a company of 600 men, but they are fighters, not computer technicians,” he said, laughing. As he spoke he shared a meal of eggs, humus and falafel with some of his men on the floor of a home they turned into a base near the city of Idlib in northern Syria.
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The Syrian uprising began as a peaceful protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Almost two years later, it is a largely sectarian civil war, the lines drawn between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority, a Shiite sect to which the Assad family, and most of Syria’s leaders, belong.
The Syrian opposition too has evolved. What began as a peaceful call for democracy, now includes groups as diverse as Sunni Islamic extremists, defected Syrian troops and democracy activists. Suqur al-Sham, the moderate Islamist group in which Abdel Rahman serves as a brigade commander, falls somewhere in the middle.
Even after nine months of heavy fighting, Abdel Rahman — known to all as Abu Hajar, which means “Father of Hajar,” a reference to his four-year-old daughter — hardly fits the stereotype of a terrorist. But others have labeled him as such.
In June, a Belgian court convicted Abdel Rahman to eight years in prison after he launched several websites on which he expressed his views on Islam, the Israeli government and the true meaning of “jihad.” He faced similar charges in 2009 for a website he created that the Belgium government called anti-semitic. In an appeal, Abu Hajar argued that his statements were against the Israeli government only, not the Jewish people. His sentence was reduced to a fine.
The current charge is in relation to the Centre Islamique Belge, an Islamic center set up in Brussels in the 1990s by Abdel Rahman's father. His father previously served three years of an eight-year sentence in Italy, accused of smuggling Palestinians into Italy and conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, before he was acquitted through an appeal in July last year. Abdel Rahman says the Palestinians were only refugees.
The Belgian court accused Abdel Rahman, who managed the center’s website, of facilitating the travel of combatants to Iraq and Afghanistan. Abdel Rahman said he did nothing to help them travel, and only defends their “right” to fight the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ironically, even though Abdel Rahman is now, for the first time, actively fighting, there have been no new accusations or charges of terrorism.
Defending Abdel Rahman in court last June, his lawyer, Sebastien Courtoy, responded to questions about his client’s whereabouts.
"My client is from Syria. He is at this time committing terrorist acts against the regime of President Assad," Courtoy said, according to the Dutch newspaper De Standaard.
The lawyer was trying to make the point that the charges Abdel Rahman faced — of assisting fighters to travel to Iraq — were not in European interests. But fighting the Assad regime is, so no one is bothering him.
“Whether someone is a terrorist or a hero simply depends on the geostrategic interests of our country," Courtoy said at the time.
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Abdel Rahman said he intends to return to Brussels to defend his name, but now is not the time.
“When I see I have no important work left here, or if I see the Islamic groups fighting among themselves, I will go to defend what they say about me,” he said.
“It is not terrorism to defend your country, whether it is Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Syria,” he said. “Maybe some have become terrorists later by killing the