I was recently abducted by a group of rebels in northern Syria. I was strip-searched and held, handcuffed and blindfolded, for six hours along with three Syrian men before we were let go. Our captors suspected me – an American journalist – of being a spy.
That is the price – and much worse – that any journalist working in Syria today must be prepared to pay. For Mousab, a Syrian rebel spokesman with whom I’ve worked regularly since June 2012, it was the second time he’d been abducted in five months. The first abduction was by a group of criminals, and Mousab escaped. In this case, we were released because Mousab and I are well known to other rebel groups in the area where we were abducted.
The group that abducted us, the Nusra Front – or Jabhat al Nusra in Arabic – has good reason to be suspicious of Americans. In December, the U.S. State Department declared it a front for al Qaida in Iraq and a wing of the Islamic State of Iraq, another al Qaida branch – a relationship that its members don’t try to hide. One bluntly, and smilingly, told me last month: “Of course we’re all al Qaida.”
That relationship was formalized this week when the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq released a video announcing that the two groups would drop the pretense of being separate and operate under a single name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. On Wednesday, the al Qaida connection was completed when the head of Nusra pledged allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, the man who replaced Osama bin Laden at the top of the terrorist group.
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The chain of events comes at a time when the Saudi, Qatari, Turkish and Jordanian governments, with support from the U.S., have increased weapons shipments to the rebels. Those weapons have also reached Nusra, which also is getting a steady flow of non-Syrians across the Turkish border to fight. Turkey has made no steps to stop that traffic.
The U.S. government’s designation of Nusra as a terrorist group backfired on the ground, increasing Syrian support for the group, which is also working quickly to provide people in areas affected by fighting with basic services. It recently scored a major victory on that front, taking over a hydroelectric dam near Raqqa, the capital of the province of the same name, making it the only place in Syria that has power 24 hours a day. Nusra also has seized oil installations, grain silos and other strategic infrastructure across northern and eastern Syria.
The terrorist designation “is a badge of honor,” chuckled Abu Fera, a Nusra commander in Raqqa, which in March became the largest city in Syria to fall under rebel control after a battle fought in part by Nusra. “Even more people wanted to join us after that.”
Abu Fera, who agreed to an interview using a pseudonym that means “Father of Fera,” declined to use his real name because, he said with a laugh, he didn’t “want to be on the sanctions list.”
I had been preparing myself for years to be kidnapped, and though it was unpleasant, it went much better than I had expected. Which begs the question: How do we define al Qaida? And how have its tactics changed in the last 10 years? Simply put, had I, a military-age American male, been captured by these people’s Iraqi affiliates, I doubt I would have been released unharmed.
That said, it has been obvious for months that there is little difference between Nusra fighters and their Iraqi compatriots. They have carried out attacks that have killed a large number of civilians and are calling ever more loudly for religious law to be implemented. Many Syrians who support the rebellion now say they fear Nusra as much as the Syrian government they seek to depose. Others strongly support the group as better fighters and less prone to corruption than many of the scores of rebel groups that operate across the country.
After an hour or so of my detention, I was asked some simple questions by Abu Omar, an English-speaking member of the group: Who did I work for? Why had I come to Syria? He asked if had entered through border crossings from Turkey controlled by rebels or whether I had been granted a visa by the Syrian government. He wanted to know why I was interested in Jabhat al Nusra, and whether it was the only thing I had come to write about.
The abduction laid out the tensions between Syria’s rebel groups, writ small. Abdul Jabbar and Radoun, the driver and armed guard who accompanied Mousab and me and were detained with us, are members of another rebel group, one whose members espouse a less strict interpretation of religion. Our captors, who preferred the title “mujahedeen” (holy warriors) to “thowar” (revolutionaries), made it clear that they had little respect for the group.
After our release, the men who’d abducted us took us to their commander’s house for a meal and to have all our belongings returned. Abu Omar asked me whether I believe in God, and whether I thought Syrians had a right to an Islamic state. He suggested to Mousab that he read portions of the Quran that focus on separating oneself from bad influences, that is, from non-Muslims like me.
My glasses – they had been taken when I was blindfolded – and a satellite tracking device I was carrying were the only things that were not returned to us. Abu Omar apologized for the missing items, and I said something to the effect that it didn’t really matter, I was genuinely relieved to be alive.
Abu Omar turned to me, appearing somewhat pleased.
“That is the difference,” Abu Omar said. “We love death.”
Since then, I have continued to work in Syria and have continued to engage Nusra without problems. The conversations have often been similar, and sometimes they ask me more questions than I ask them. They reveal a worldview in which the U.S. and other European nations are engaged in a war against Islam, Sunni Islam in particular.
“Why did George Bush use the word ‘crusade’ when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan?” I have been asked multiple times.
More recently, a request to tour the hydroelectric dam that Nusra has taken control of near Raqqa was turned down with a tinge of disbelief from a Nusra commander: “He’s American? And Christian? No.”
Nonetheless, he had lunch with us, repeating the notion that East and West were locked in an existential, religious struggle.
I asked if I would eventually have to convert if I wanted to continue to work in Syria.
“You’re smart,” was the reply.