An exclusive conversation with European radicals fighting for an Islamic state in Syria.
ATMEH, Syria — European jihadists in Syria have been blamed by some Syrians for ruining the purity of their revolution, held up by Bashar al-Assad's regime as a sign of that the rebels are foreign-backed radicals, and feared by Western security agencies as a potential terrorist threat. But despite all the talk about them, they rarely speak with outsiders about their beliefs and goals. So when two European jihadists agreed to speak with us, it marked the first time that fighters working with al Qaeda inside Syria explained to the world why they are doing battle in Syria and what future they imagine for the country.
ATMEH, Syria — European jihadists in Syria have been blamed by some Syrians for ruining the purity of their revolution, held up by Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a sign of that the rebels are foreign-backed radicals, and feared by Western security agencies as a potential terrorist threat. But despite all the talk about them, they rarely speak with outsiders about their beliefs and goals. So when two European jihadists agreed to speak with us, it marked the first time that fighters working with al Qaeda inside Syria explained to the world why they are doing battle in Syria and what future they imagine for the country.
The two fighters — one of whom is an ethnic European who converted to Islam, while the other is ethnically neither European nor Arab, and was born a Muslim — set a couple of preconditions. Their real names and countries of origin could not be published; as they put it, "Europe will do." They also wore masks during the interview, so they could not be recognized. "I still want to travel to my family in Europe," one said.
It was also strictly forbidden to name the town where the interview would take place. "You can mention somewhere in northern Sham," one of the men declared, a reference to Greater Syria — encompassing not only modern-day Syria but also Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq — that existed in the early Islamic period.
Getting to the location of the interview posed another problem. In a sign of how perilous Syria has become, al Qaeda-affiliated militants man a checkpoint slightly more than a mile outside the Atmeh refugee camp along the border with Turkey. And there were many more such checkpoints along the way to where the two European jihadists live. With kidnappings of journalists and aid workers by rebels spiking in recent months, locals all advised against the idea of driving deeper into the country. After long deliberations, we chose to stay in Atmeh and send a trustworthy Syrian middle-man on our behalf deeper inside the country. He carried our questionnaire, a camera, and conducted the interviews.
The meetings with the European jihadists occurred separately, on two separate days in two different locations. The interviews were conducted in English, as the fighters are not fluent in Arabic.
The phenomenon of European jihadists flowing into Syria is increasingly attracting the attention of Western security agencies, which fear what they will do when they return home. According to American and European intelligence officials speaking to the New York Times, more Westerners are currently fighting in Syria than in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen: The estimates range from 600 to 1,000 fighters. Their primary motivation is religion — the vast majority are white converts to Islam or naturalized immigrants with a Muslim background.
The jihadists’ religious extremism, military experience in Syria, and the ease with which they could travel around Europe and the United States make a potentially lethal cocktail. Matthew Olsen, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, recently told a conference that Syria has become "the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world," and raised fears that such jihadists could return "as part of really a global jihadist movement to Western Europe and, potentially, to the United States."
Abu Talal, a blond-haired, blue-eyed fighter sporting a black balaclava, is just the sort of religious warrior that keeps Western security officials up at night. He says that he came to Syria "to help the mujahideen [jihadists] against Bashar," but refuses to say how he arrived from Europe. However, he adds that he "will visit my family [in Europe] again and then return to Syria."
In the interview, Abu Talal, who carries a gun and sits in front of a black banner used by jihadist groups, says that he has joined the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," — the al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq that is both fighting against the Assad regime and attempting to extend its "Islamic emirate" into Syria.
The ISIS, which is headed by Iraqi national Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is considered the most radical group in Syria. With bases in and around the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, the northern cities of Raqqa and Aleppo, and the northwestern Turkmen Mountains, it is an extension of the al Qaeda forces that battled U.S. and Iraqi government troops in Iraq during that country’s civil war.
He claims that the relationship between the ISIS and the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group of more mainstream Syrian rebel groups, is good. "They are mujahideen and we are mujahideen. We ask God to guide us both to fight Bashar."
But why do many around the world see foreign jihadists as terrorists? "That is funny," Abu Talal says, "because we don’t kill innocent people like the forces of Bashar do. The whole world thinks sharia [Islamic law] is bad, but that is not true. We help people…. And we will bring the sharia here — no matter what."
The jihadists often stated their conviction that the United States will sooner or later get involved in Syria — not to topple the Assad regime, but to target them for death. Both believe that the United States will use drones against Syrian jihadists — just like what is happening in Pakistan or Yemen.
"I am sure the Americans will start using drones," says Abu Salman, the second European fighter, who wears a traditional Arabic shawl to hide his identity. "As soon as we get rid of the Assad regime they will send their weapons. But of course, we will fight them. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘The infidels will fight you as they fought me.’ But God willing, we will win this fight… [E]ven if the Americans attack, we will not retreat."
Abu Salman is something of a free agent in the Syrian jihad, moving fluidly between groups depending on who needs his services. "I am involved in electronics," he says. "I cooperate with any group who needs me here. I did not join one specific group because of the nature of my work, every group needs me."
But Abu Salman adds that he mostly works with al Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, or alternatively Ahrar al-Sham and Suqoor al-Sham, militias known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law. "They are the best fighters of Islam," he explains.
Abu Salman believes that foreign jihadists in Syria have gotten a bad rap: He says he agreed to give this interview to explain to the world what foreign fighters are doing in Syria. "It doesn’t matter how long you speak of what you do," he says. "If you have a beard, if you do salaat [Muslim prayers] you are considered a terrorist. The outside world doesn’t understand us. They don’t have our mentality. They don’t know what we want."
Unlike Abu Talal, Abu Salman is willing to explain how he came to Syria. "I came from the airport [in Turkey] and went illegally through the border from Turkey into Sham," he says. "Everybody is taking this road.
The journey, however, is starting to become more difficult for foreigners. "The road is starting to get cut," Abu Salman says. "You cannot enter into Sham anymore without a Syrian passport, there are many more checks."
Abu Salman agrees with his jihadist comrade that some elements of the Free Syrian Army are good "mujahideen" — but worries that the United States is funneling support to "bad" elements within the umbrella organization. "They [the United States] only give weapons to the worst groups; those who want democracy," he explains. "These groups operate inside the Free Syrian Army, but they even don’t fight for democracy, they just steal money."
The presence of foreign jihadists is controversial among local supporters of the Syrian revolt. Foreign Islamists regularly flog or execute alleged regime supporters in Raqqa, while in Aleppo jihadists executed a Syrian youth they believed had committed blasphemy. Kidnappings of Syrians, foreign journalists, and aid workers by Islamists are on the rise. Just this week, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a well-known Jesuit priest who lived in Syria for three decades and was staunchly pro-revolution, disappeared in Raqqa.
Abu Salman knows how tenuous the jihadists’ position is among the Syrian population: He is convinced that after the Assad regime’s defeat, some Syrians will launch a second revolution against radical Islamist groups. "I feel this will happen," he says. "But it doesn’t matter. Because the prophet peace be upon him, has said ‘You will win this fight.’"
And after Abu Salman and his cohort topple Assad and crush more secular rebel groups, what then? What will become of Syria’s sizeable Christian, Alawi, and Shiite minority populations?
"The minorities?" he answers. "They must just accept it. Those who do not accept it, they will be thrown out — or they can leave."
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