Connect to share and comment
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.
The United States calls Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization. But in much of the country its fighters are hailed as heroes, praised as the opposition's most effective force against a brutal regime.
JABAL AL ZAWIYA, Syria — Officials in Washington and Damascus agree on something, they both call Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization.
The US State Department describes the cadre of rebel fighters as Al Qaeda’s attempt to “hijack the struggles of the Syrian people for its own malign purposes.”
To date, members of al-Nusra have claimed responsibility for more than 600 attacks, which have killed hundreds of Syrians, both military and civilian.
But in rebel-held areas of the country, al-Nusra fighters are hailed as heroes, praised as the opposition’s most effective military force against a government that has leveled whole cities with airstrikes, killing tens of thousands.
More from GlobalPost: In Depth: In Syria, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter
In a rare, exclusive interview with GlobalPost, Al-Amir Gazi al-Haj — one of the “princes,” or top leaders, of al-Nusra — defended his organization.
“We only accept the best of the best,” he said from his sparsely furnished home in Jabal al-Zawiya, as he stoked a wood heater. “We have pure intentions. We fight only for Allah. We do not accept even small deviations [from God’s law], like smoking. We walk a straight line and you can see the results.”
Jabhat al-Nusra, or The Support Front, emerged in January 2012 when it claimed responsibility — in a now-removed YouTube video — for a double car bombing in downtown Aleppo.
Since then, it has grown into a large, highly trained fighting force, with several major victories behind it. Al-Nusra has carried out bombings and assassinations deep inside government territory, worrying both their enemy in Damascus and the West.
Hundreds of rebel factions have joined the war since March 2011, when a peaceful protest movement erupted into violence after it was met by overwhelming government force. The various opposition groups now range from secular coalitions fighting for democracy, to local and foreign religious extremists. Al-Nusra is among the most militant. Al-Haj and his men say they are fighting to establish an Islamic state under Sharia law.
Al-Nusra closely safeguards even minor details of their operations. The Quilliam Foundation, a London-based nongovernmental organization that promotes “counter-extremism” and more nuanced policies by the West toward Islam, released a report on the group last month that revealed the extent of Al-Nusra’s secrecy.
“Any breach of the group’s security is punishable by death, supported by a sophisticated religious justification — betrayal of JN is presented as a betrayal of Islam and of all Muslims,” the report said.
Al-Haj refused to even hint at the number of battalions or soldiers they have on the ground or the percentage of foreign fighters among their ranks. But he claimed al-Nusra has representatives in every village in the country.
The Quilliam Foundation estimates its fighters to number about 5,000, with about 2,000 more trainees.
More from GlobalPost: An Australian in Syria: The journey of a foreign fighter
The estimated percentage of foreign fighters within that group is large. But their leaders, like al-Haj, are predominantly Syrian. Al-Haj worked as a construction worker in Idlib province before the uprising.
Al-Haj said he joined the protests in the first days of the revolution. The walls of his house are still covered in soot from the first government assault on his village, when it burned the homes of activists.
As the call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque, he invited the male visitors to join him before continuing the interview with GlobalPost. He wore army fatigues, an old sweater and a checkered scarf around his head. At 34, his long beard was already streaked with lines of grey. His pleasant demeanor offset the strong, imposing build of this father of six.
Al-Nusra has used almost every terrorist-style tactic to fight the government, including car bombs, suicide attacks, arson, attacks on liquor stores, and — perhaps its biggest strength — assassinations. According to the Quilliam Foundation, al-Nusra carries out three or four assassinations a week.
Al-Haj told GlobalPost that bombings and assassinations play a key role in his organization’s strategy. But he said their operations do not put civilians at risk. Rather, he said the figures on civilian causalities were fabrications made by the Assad administration to discredit the opposition.
“We choose the right time and the right place,” he said. “We watch the target 24/7. Even if one civilian is at