I Visited Al Qaeda’s Syrian Stronghold and Saw How U.S. Backing of ‘Moderate’ Rebels Is Bolstering Jihadists

A dispatch from Idlib in opposition-held Syria.

By Lindsey Snell

I spent a night this past July crammed in a sitting room with a family in Kafr Halab, a small village in the western countryside of Aleppo. The Russian air force was in the midst of a bombing campaign, dropping cluster munitions on homes in the area. I held my breath each time I heard a plane, but the family’s matriarch offered reassurance. “If you can hear that plane sound, it means they are far away.”

The Syrian and Russian militaries have bombed civilian infrastructure in opposition-held Syria, hitting hospitals, schools and markets. My host squinted and listened before declaring the plane was roughly two kilometers from us, demonstrating an uncanny ability honed during years of life under bombardment. The fading sound of the jets filled me with relief.

The chemical attack this month in the rebel-controlled town of Khan Shaykoun was followed by international outrage and a frenzy of Western media coverage calling for the American government to ramp up arms shipments and military training to the Syrian rebels. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for the U.S. to “dramatically increase our aid to anti-Assad rebels,” describing them as “moderate.” At the same time, he urged the U.S. to weaponize ISIS, rather than combat it, in order to “bleed” the Syrian, Russian and Iranian governments.

The media often paints the Syrian opposition as a unified force primarily comprised of Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions—many groups on the same side, fighting both ISIS and the Assad regime. Much of the coverage of Syria either glosses over or completely ignores key details: the FSA is weak and splintered, and the most powerful force on the ground in northwestern Syria is an al-Qaeda affiliate. This group is growing stronger and more dangerous by the day.

I’ve made seven journalistic trips to opposition-held Syria over the last three years. On this last trip, I was reporting from the western countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. Since I left, these areas have become virtually impossible for foreign journalists to access because of the increasing presence of al-Qaeda.

First called Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate has rebranded twice in the last year, renaming itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) and claiming to have cut ties with al-Qaeda. In January, JFS formed a coalition with other area groups and called the merged groups Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS.) The group’s stronghold is Idlib, but it has territory throughout the Idlib and Aleppo countrysides.

Over the last few years, HTS has attacked many of the CIA-vetted, American-armed FSA factions on the ground. In the course of attacking these groups, HTS has seized large amounts of American-given weapons and vehicles. It will continue to do so as long as the arms are flooding Syria.

Another U.S.-backed rebel group folds to Al Qaeda

In October 2014, I interviewed a commander of the FSA group Harakat Hazm in the Western countryside of Aleppo. Hazm was one of the first factions to receive weapons and training under the fledgling American Train and Equip program.

Commander Thaer Akkoush seemed nervous when asked about the aid his group received from the American government. “It is no secret that we have received the TOW missile from America,” he said, “and we are not the only ones.”

Akkoush hinted at simmering tensions between Harakat Hazm and HTS. “Other groups say we are agents of America, but we are not; my sole interest in dealing with America is getting weapons from America.”

When asked about Hazm’s status as a moderate faction, Akkoush laughed. “We are not moderate. There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim. We represent true Islam. So of course, America did not choose us because we are ‘moderate.’”

Less than a month later, Akkoush’s car was hit with an IED, gravely injuring him. HTS militants attacked Atareb, a village in the Western countryside of Aleppo and Hazm’s stronghold. Many of Hazm’s men, realizing they were severely outgunned, simply surrendered their American-given weapons to HTS and agreed to join its ranks.

Some resisted and hid, but it was futile. Harakat Hazm was no more.

“Hazm was a strong group, and they were fighting ISIS and Assad. To this day, the village of Atareb hates HTS,” said Abdullah Abu Azzam, a 24-year-old fighter with Thuwar al Sham (another faction receiving American support). “When HTS attacked Hazm, some of the men with Hazm hid in homes in Atareb. HTS searched every home. If they found a Hazm member hiding in a home, they took everyone in the home to prison.”

Hostile to America, bristling with American weapons

Since then, HTS has targeted a number of other factions supported by the American government. In March 2016, HTS and the fellow Salafist-jihadist organization Jund al-Aqsa attacked the headquarters of the US-backed Division 13 faction in al-Maʿarra, killing four Division 13 fighters and wounding many others. Unable to hold them off, Division 13 surrendered two storage facilities of weapons to HTS and Jund al-Aqsa, including TOW missiles, a tank and armored vehicles.

A TOW missile operator from Division 13 found himself personally targeted by HTS. “I criticized them on social media, so they tried to shoot up my car,” he said. He was wounded in the attack. “They still threaten me every week. They threaten to kill me or throw me in one of their prisons.”

In the course of three years, I watched a number of militants from other factions, especially Jaish al-Mujahideen, defect to HTS. Most were drawn to the group by promises of more consistent pay and better equipment. Some felt joining the group was inevitable.

I interviewed an HTS militant near Idlib in July 2016. Mohamed Abo Magd, 23, joined the jihadist group when he was 20 years old, believing it to be more organized and religiously pious than FSA factions. He defended the practice of HTS attacking FSA factions receiving American support.

“These groups are not Muslim,” Abo Magd told me. “You cannot fight with America, for America, and call yourself a Muslim. And America will give them orders eventually. Maybe they are just supporting them now with weapons and training, but eventually, America will give them orders and they will act as agents of America. America could order them to fight us, to try to establish a secular state. So we must fight them now.”

Thuwar al-Sham fighter Abdullah Abu Azzam has a different take on the situation: “[HTS] fights the other groups because they want to take the weapons they have. They will say other groups are with America, or are not Muslim, but these are just excuses.”

On a global level, al-Qaeda is open about their long-term goal of vanquishing the West. Even in Syria, its goals extend beyond ousting Bashar al-Assad. “We will kill Bashar al-Assad and the Shia militias, and then we will establish an Islamic State,” Mohamed said. “We will establish Sharia law in Syria. Life under the law of Allah and punishments of Allah.”

Unlike FSA factions, HTS heavily employs suicide bombers. These jihadis drive vehicles packed with explosives into enemy targets, often injuring or killing civilians in the course of their missions.

When I began to ask about suicide bombings, Mohamed cut me off. “It’s not suicide, please! It is sacrificing. And it is not about killing ourselves…I have a friend who has driven a car bomb three times and he is still alive.”

Mohamed said anyone wishing to drive a car bomb must receive approval from HTS leadership and undergo lengthy training. “Many want to do it,” he said, “but the group does not always let them.”

Entering Al Qaeda’s Syrian stronghold

A sign at the checkpoint guarding the entrance of Idlib City has pictures of cigarettes inside “no” symbols with the words “is smoking haram?” Another sign bears drawings of women in niqab (full facial veils), advising that a woman’s hijab is her decency. Both signs tell residents to tune into 106-107 FM, the “Call to Jihad” radio station.

The signs seem almost gentle when compared to the oft-publicized brutality of ISIS in enforcing both rules, whipping women for what is deemed inappropriate dress and imprisoning men caught with cigarettes.

When asked about the policies, Mohamed cracked a joke. “Your country does the same thing with smoking. You cannot smoke in a public park in New York City! What is the difference?”

Questioned about the punishment for smoking or failure to wear a veil under HTS, he shook his head: “No punishment yet. We are in an advising period. We want the people to do these things on their own, and they are.”

Did that mean punishment for these offenses would be applied in the future? “Yes, probably,” he said.

When asked what civilian life was like beyond the signs, in HTS’ Idlib stronghold, Mohamed said people were happy: “It’s more organized than Aleppo, and safer, because of all the security Nusra provides.”

Samir, a 26-year-old fighter from Thuwar al-Sham in the western countryside of Aleppo, adamantly denies Mohamed’s rosy account. “I have relatives in Idlib,” he said. “Life for civilians in HTS areas is bad. They have outlawed wedding parties and game halls. They outlawed music. Their punishments are harsh.”

Samir says HTS has executed military rivals and civilians accused of adultery and other offenses. Civilians in Atareb and elsewhere have frequently staged demonstrations to protest their dissatisfaction with HTS’ policies.

Samir is one of many Thuwar al-Sham fighters both frustrated by and afraid of HTS. Parts of the Western countryside, where he lives, were under ISIS’ control until FSA factions ousted them in early 2014, so many civilians in the area have lived under both groups. Samir mentioned a major difference in strategy between ISIS and HTS.

“When [HTS] came, they were gentle to us and gentle to the civilians. They gave aid. They got support from the people, because they were not like ISIS. And then it became, ‘if you are not with us, you are against us.’ And they started fighting the other groups and anyone who opposed them.”

Samir says that when HTS began to fight one of the Western countryside’s U.S.-backed FSA factions, Jaish al-Mujahideen, earlier this year, many of its members fled to Turkey.

I spoke to a Jaish al-Mujahideen member who has temporarily settled in Reyhanli, Turkey. He wouldn’t comment on the situation beyond saying that a new initiative to fight HTS would be revealed soon, at which time he hoped to be able to return to Syria.

One of HTS’ strategies is establishing the appearance of a presence in areas controlled by other factions. Samir complained that HTS installed checkpoints throughout the Western countryside of Aleppo. (In July, I passed through a checkpoint near the village of Kafr Halab, a predominantly civilian area controlled by the Thuwar al-Sham faction.)

This practice further endangers civilians trapped in these areas, as any ceasefire future agreement is likely to exclude HTS and the territories they control, or which they aim to dominate.

“It is so they can try to control all of these places eventually,” Abdullah Abu Azzam said. He worries the checkpoint is a precursor to a coming attack from HTS. “They have attacked us before, and I think they will attack us soon. We can’t fight them. We are very weak compared to them. Their numbers are much greater than ours.”

In January, HTS attacked the Idlib bases of Ahrar al-Sham, a group previously allied with HTS. Six rebel groups, including Thuwar al-Sham and Jaish al-Mujahideen, joined a new coalition alongside Ahrar al-Sham in the hopes of ending HTS attacks. “But the problems continue,” Samir said. “I think it is just a matter of time until we all go to war with HTS.”

Western aid to the opposition has only served to enrich ISIS and al-Qaeda. In light of HTS’ relentless attacks on opposition groups, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which additional foreign support does anything but better equip a terrorist organization hell-bent on destroying the West.

HTS says its rule is what the Syrian people want. “Our rules are not specific to al-Nusra,” Mohamed said. “It is our culture. It is Islam. Real Islam. You have your camera … you can film stories and show the truth about the situation in our areas.”

I wasn’t able to delve further into a story about civilians in Idlib, because the day after my interview with Mohamed, leaders from HTS arrested me. The group fully acknowledged that I’d been granted permission to report, but said they suspected me of being a spy, an accusation they’ve made against every journalist they’ve kidnapped in Syria. After two weeks of captivity, a man from the rebel group Ahrar al-Sham helped me to escape to Turkey.