Jabhat Al Nusra's new Syria
The man wearing the balaclava had eyes that never stopped smiling.
Reclining on a pillow in an otherwise empty room, this burly, 41-year-old commander of Jabhat Al Nusra - the most fearsome jihadi group in Syria - exuded an almost disturbing calm, in marked contrast to the loud, chatty air that often characterises more mainstream groups of the Free Syrian Army.
The man, who calls himself Sheikh Abu Ahmed and said he was the military commander of Jabhat Al Nusra in the Hasakah governorate of eastern Syria, spoke to The National in the north-eastern town of Ras el Ayn, where fighting between Islamist rebels and the Kurdish PYD party has killed dozens of militants in recent weeks.
Dressed in plain clothes, Abu Ahmed outlined his group's vision for a new Syria.
"Our first goal is to get rid of Assad. Then we want a state where the Quran is the only source of law," he said. "Sharia is the right path for all humanity - all other laws make people unhappy."
Jabhat Al Nusra has emerged this year as the most powerful and high-profile Salafist group in the Syrian conflict, openly embracing suicide bombing as an important weapon against a technologically superior enemy. It has claimed several successful attacks, many of which have killed civilians, on major government targets such as the Damascus headquarters of the elite air force intelligence service.
According to news reports, the US State Department is preparing to designate the group a foreign terrorist organisation in a bid to help choke off its financing. Reports suggest that the move is also aimed at boosting the prospects of a new opposition umbrella group, formed last month in Qatar with western support, but rejected by the Islamists.
Jabhat Al Nusra's fighters are often praised by other rebels for their bravery. Yet it is also feared and even despised by many Syrians, including religious minorities and Sunnis with more moderate views, for its methods and unapologetic vision. Some even fear a future clash between the moderates and the Salafists.
Sitting in an unheated room furnished with only a carpet and a few pillows, Abu Ahmed described a new Syria, where alcohol and tobacco would be banned.
"These rules will be introduced gradually. We will advise people at first," he said when this journalist pointed out that enforcing such a law would be difficult in a country where smoking is so widespread.
Cinema and "immoral" TV shows would also be banned. "They corrupt the morals, especially of young people. Just look at the West," he said, adding that he had recently read in a magazine that in Germany, only 10 per cent of women were virgins by the time they got married.
Wouldn't the young be angry at such measures? "Perhaps they will be. But they will get used to it eventually," Abu Ahmed said.
Abu Ahmed's mild, friendly manner and relaxed delivery contrasted sharply with the dourness of his vision. He seemed to enjoy the discussion and being challenged. When asked if his ultra-conservative vision would not cause Syria to fall behind in a world dominated by scientific rationalism and liberal capitalism, he smiled and said: "If so, then that is fine. You can have this world and we will have the next."
But he didn't think this was a danger. "We don't want to leave modernity behind. We will not get out of our cars and ride donkeys from now on. We simply want our judges to apply Sharia [law] and not the civil code," he said. He also argued that in earlier eras Islam achieved great technological progress. "We are underdeveloped now because we left the path of Allah. Perhaps this is why this war is so cruel: as a punishment for our sins."
Such views are common in Syria after nearly two divisive years of civil conflict. Many rebel battalions that started out as protest groups with no particular agenda beyond bringing down the regime, uniting people with little or no religious fervour, have developed hardline views. And while before the war Syria was a tolerant and not especially religious society, the suffering since has brought many to embrace the only consolation and ideology that they know: Islam.
Jabhat Al Nusra has parallels with Al Qaeda and has been endorsed by it as the purest Islamist group in Syria. Abu Ahmed claimed his group had no links to Al Qaeda and stressed that their goals were purely Syrian. "We will respect everybody who respects us," he said.
But he also expressed sympathy with Al Qaeda.
"I like them because they are mujaheddin who want to apply Sharia," he said. He added that the killing of civilians is acceptable as long as it's a response to a similar attack. Jabhat Al Nusra is also linked to at least one execution of captured Syrian soldiers, a probable war crime, and beheadings of suspected spies.
The emergence of such extremist groups has greatly concerned some of Syria's minorities, such as the Christians and the Alawites, many of whom still support the Assad government as a result. Abu Ahmed said the minorities had nothing to fear, pointing to a long history of Christian presence in Muslim countries. "As for the Kurds, they will have no need for autonomy - they are Muslims, too, so we can live together," he said.
Yet in its communications, Jabhat al Nusra has embraced a fierce sectarian message. According to an analysis by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the group routinely refers in derogatory terms to "the Alawite enemy" - the main support base of the regime - and its "Shiite agents".
Jabhat Al Nusra also has a slick media operation, distributing YouTube videos of their attacks. One recent clip, filmed in the east of the country, showed a long column of Nusra fighters driving down the highway with several pickup trucks and what appears to be a T-55 tank.
Abu Ahmed admitted that there were foreign fighters in his group - mostly from other Arab countries - but he said they were only a very small minority.
Analysts say that many of its fighters are veterans of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. He said they took no financing from external powers and that their weapons were either self-purchased or ghanima - war spoils. The ICG report suggests that they probably receive money from private donors with jihadist sympathies, mainly in the region.
Abu Ahmed worked as a bus driver before the war. He said he'd always been very religious and as a result had problems with the security services.
"We joined the demonstrations in the very beginning but only took up arms when they started shooting at us," he said. "Our faith is very strong and we're not afraid of death, of becoming martyrs. This is what drives us, what makes us brave. We will not stop until the regime falls. And I advise all my people to be good Muslims to help win this war."
Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist with an interest in conflict, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Updated: December 15, 2012 04:00 AM