Up close and personal with an Al Qaeda fighter in Syria
Playing outside the gates of Kilis refugee camp is Zahra, a six-year-old girl with a bright pink T-shirt and an infectious smile. Her father, three brothers and mother have been sleeping under the trees 10 meters from the Syrian border with 20 other families as they all wait for a place in Kilis or another of the official camps.
But this is no ordinary refugee family.
Her father, 34-year-old Farhan al-Juma, is a fighter with the Al Qaeda-backed group the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Surrounded by his energetic children, all under age 10, he sits in the shade of the parking lot at the entrance to the camp. Al-Juma wears a black baseball cap typical of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, emblazoned with the phrase: “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.”
Al-Juma fights for an unregulated Islamist group whose stated aim is to create an Islamic state in Syria, should Assad fall. So al-Juma, like his colleagues, waits and prays for the U.S. to strike Assad’s military targets.
He’s in favor of a U.S. intervention. He wants the international community to unite as a whole to defeat Assad.
“We support the United States, but we are not loyal to them. We are still enemies, but we can work together. My enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Al-Juma is from Jisr al-Shughur, near Idlib, in northern Syria. He has joined a battalion of 100 to 125 people fighting in the northeast of the country, in Hasakah province, linked with the Al Qaeda-funded ISIS. He has a low opinion of the more moderate Free Syrian Army, whom he brands as unfocused looters. Despite skepticism
of the opposition, he’s not yet resigned himself to a lifetime with ISIS. He’s chooses to fight with them because he thinks that they are, for now, the most effective group.
“As a battalion, we support ISIS, but we haven’t pledged allegiance. Once Syria is free we are able to walk away,” he says. “It is up to each fighter whether they will be loyal to ISIS or not.” The ISIS commanders, he says, “have specific goals and will achieve them whether it takes one week or one year. They will work on removing an Assad checkpoint until everything is ‘settled’.” He doesn’t gives specifics on what would happen next.
As for the gruesome reports of kidknappings and the Raqqa disappearance of well-known Christian priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, who was reportedly seeking a cease-fire between Kurdish militias and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, al-Juma blames unregulated gangs. He says they masquerade as al-Nusra and ISIS to kidknap and loot in their names. People are hungry now, he says, struggling to make ends meet, so they’re more likely to do extreme things.
His main concern today, however, is to wait until his family has a secure place to sleep. While camp residents get 80 Turkish lira (about $40) per month per person, those waiting outside rely on the kindness of strangers. One day a Turkish man spent $100 on sandwiches for the 20 families. Once his family has received a place at Kilis and is settled, al-Juma, like so many other men in the camps, will return to Syria to fight with his battalion.
As I leave, he shakes my hand. I am a woman. “Would I do this,” he asks, “if I was Al Qaeda".