One of the men behind a series of jihadist attacks inside Syria tells Ruth Sherlock about their battle to overthrow President Assad.
By Ruth Sherlock, Beirut
The blocks of explosive that lay neatly stacked on the back seat, connected by thin wires, weighed down the silver saloon car.
Gripping the steering wheel tightly, the man known to his comrades as Abu Hafez al-Shami looked steadily at the video camera, uttering a final message as he prepared himself to die: “I ask God to make me do well in this operation, and please, my brothers, pray for us.”
A few minutes later, a small grey mushroom cloud erupted over the military base in central Damascus that al-Sibahi attacked – blowing four Syrian soldiers to oblivion along with himself, and injuring many more.
This was one of the growing number of suicide bomb attacks that are changing the face of the Syrian rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They have shifted the balance of power away from the regime by bringing destruction to some of its most sensitive and well-guarded strongholds, often in the capital, but in doing so have also killed or maimed many civilian bystanders.
But there were few moral subtleties here for the man showing me the video of al-Shami’s last speech on his laptop computer. “We use suicide attacks a lot,” he said. “If you were faced with attacking a big checkpoint that has tanks, and concrete barricades and tens of men, what would you do? We have many operations like these.”
Sitting on a threadbare carpet in small room with concrete walls in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, the jihadist who called himself Yasser al-Sibahi spoke to me only after being introduced by a childhood friend with whom he grew up in the city of Homs, and whom he trusted.
His accounts of the operations conducted by his wing of the Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra provide an exclusive and terrifying glimpse inside the most extreme wing of the Syrian rebellion – one which many members of the more secular Free Syrian Army loathe, and which may prove to be the West’s worst nightmare.
They also give an insight into the further conflict to which Syria may descend, if or when the Assad regime finally falls.
The group, which has parallels with al-Qaeda, is the largest and most hardline of a score of jihadist organisations whose brutal methods – including beheadings – have shifted the dynamics of what had previously been a mostly moderate Sunni opposition.
The first attack for which Jabhat al-Nusra claimed responsibility came on Jan 6 this year – 10 months after the first anti-Assad protests began – when a suicide bomber blew up buses in the central Damascus district of Al-Midan that were carrying riot police to an anti-government protest. More than 26 people, mostly civilians, were killed.
Since then the use of suicide bombings or remotely detonated car bombs has dramatically increased, with Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups launching dozens of attacks against government positions each month. Almost two years into the conflict, such attacks have become a near daily reality in the capital Damascus.
The key to Jabhat al-Nusra’s extreme violence is its recruitment of radical fighters from abroad to join Syrians who follow its secretive official leader, known as Abu Muhammad al-Julani – whose fiery speeches on jihadist websites are electronically distorted to make his voice unrecognisable.
Mr Sibahi’s brother is the leader or “Emir” of Jabhat al-Nusra in the northern countryside of Homs province, while he has become a key figure in smuggling foreign volunteers and weapons across the border from Lebanon.
“I have sent in brothers from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, France and even from Britain,” he said, with evident pride.
He pulled up an old photograph of himself and his brother in younger and more relaxed days, both in their late twenties with neatly shaven beards and their arms slung round one another’s shoulders.
Then he showed a recent video in which his brother could be seen dressed in black, reading out a dictum in a voice modified to echo dramatically: “Jabhat Al Nusra is the sword of the Islamic land.”
The recruits from overseas join his brother’s group and train for operations against the regime, he said – linking up with other groups within Jabhat al-Nusra to conduct combined operations. “We are based in Homs, but our attacks are reaching Damascus,” he said.
The group had spent several weeks preparing for the operation in which Shami “martyred” himself, he said. The attack had targeted the building that houses the Syrian military’s general staff, located in central Damascus, on Sept 26.
“We struck early in the morning. Abu Hafez al Shami drove the car through the front entrance, blasting a hole in the building. Three others from our side went inside the building and kept shooting and shooting,” said Mr Sibahi.
The group has also attacked the government’s elite Air Force intelligence headquarters in Damascus, the state television building and security compounds in several of the capital’s central districts. Three car bombs targeting the army’s officers’ club in Aleppo that caused widespread destruction and killed more than 48 people were later claimed by the group.
Foreign fighters, many of them veterans hardened by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, were the first suicide bombers for Jabhat al-Nusra. But both Mr Sibahi and a “Adnan”, a Syrian Salafist speaking by Skype from inside the besieged Old City of Homs, said many Syrians were now putting themselves forward to die in this way. “I would do this. It is an honour to be martyred for Allah,” said Adnan.
According to Mr Sibahi, his brother formed his particular group of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters with al-Shami and others after being released from prison in Homs as part of an official amnesty early in the rebellion. They had originally been imprisoned for killing a drunk security officer who had urinated on the Koran, he claimed.
Like al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra harbours an ambition to create an Islamic state under Shariah law, not just in Syria but across the “Ummah” – all Arab nations, and ideally, the world.
Aspiring members must show their commitment to the beliefs, said Mr Sibahi. “Any pure Muslim can join Jabhat al-Nusra, but they have to be committed to Allah and fighting only for Allah,” he said.
So demanding is the group of its members that it will not even tolerate them smoking. “If they are smokers and they die in Syria, how do we know that they died for God – and not because they were trying to go to reach a place to buy another packet?” he said.
Now it is steadily growing in size and influence. Videos posted to Islamist websites on the internet and identified with Jabhat al-Nusra’s black flag logo show members jubilantly riding on tanks from a captured army base in Deir al-Zour, the northern part of the country over which rebels have almost complete control.
Rebels inside Syria say that videos like these, and the funding established through the global jihadist networks, are attracting more Syrian fighters to the group.
The growing strength of such extremist groups poses difficult challenges for the West as it inches closer to intervening in the Syrian conflict.
Syrian members of the group claim they are only fighting what they call the “near enemy”, the Assad regime, and would not follow in al-Qaeda’s footsteps by attacking western countries.
However, a video that helped publicise the group inside Syria is laced with anti-western sentiment, warning against foreign intervention in the country. “Is it reasonable to ask help from the criminals?” asks a voice-over commentary. “Have we forgotten that the West and the USA are the regime’s partners in his crimes?”
And “Adnan” issued a thinly veiled warning of the backlash that might follow if the West intervened. “We don’t want people to die here or in England,” he said. “But since the Second World War, Americans and British have tried to come here to control us and force us to democracy. I don’t think the British people want to feel the side effects on them of this war.”
Some of the Islamist groups with which Jabhat al-Nusra works have adopted radical methods, including beheadings of their enemies, said Mr Sibahi, who said that he had witnessed this brutal form of execution on two occasions in Damascus.
“The first was of a spy for the regime, a Sunni,” he said. “We found in his pockets a list of our names that he was giving to the government’s intelligence officials. They used a machete to behead him.
“The second was another spy, he was an Alawite shabiha [government paramilitary], also in Damascus.”
Unlike al-Qaeda, the group maintains that it does not conduct attacks against other sects and insists that the Syrian regime is wrong in its repeated warnings that Jabhat al-Nusra would “massacre” the ruling Alawite minority, or harm the Christians whose position in Syria has been protected by the regime.
In March Jabhat al-Nusra conducted a double car bombing on an Air Force intelligence building, killing 44 people in a part of the Damascus where many Christians live. Soon afterwards it published a statement on a jihadist website insisting that the intelligence base, and not the Christian residents, had been the sole target of the attack.
Mr Sibahi said he himself approved of this approach. “We have lived with our Christian brothers for centuries. There are millions of Alawites and Christians in Syria. We cannot just throw them into the sea,” he said.
But, he added, the foreign jihadists disagreed. “Some of the foreign fighters hate the west and all non-Muslims,” he said. “They want to attack churches. Personally, I don’t like this. But this is how they were taught in Iraq and Chechnya.”
Yesterday the United Nations’ secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the conflict in Syria had reached “appalling heights of brutality”, and international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned that the country was in danger of becoming a “failed state” if a political settlement was not reached soon.
But here was little sign of compromise on the ground, as Syrian government troops in Damascus mounted an offensive to cut-off rebel held suburbs from the city centre.
Tanks shelled southwestern and northeastern outskirts of the capital and troops fought to retain control of the crucial airport highway, an area that the rebels had sought to seize control of earlier in the week. The escalation also sparked a communications blackout with the internet and phone lines failing for more than two days
The growing strength and engagement of Jabhat al-Nusra, coupled with its desire to create a state run on Sharia law, is alarming the more secular fighters of the Free Syrian Army, who accuse it and others of hijacking a revolution that began as an uprising to demand a democratic system.
“We are not fighting Bashar al-Assad to go from living in an autocratic to a religious prison. We want to be able to live in Syria as freely; not under a dictator or the constraints of a strict interpretation of Islam,” said the leader of one rebel group in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
It also makes it harder to persuade the West to arm the rebels, in case weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists and are later be used against Western countries, or against Israel.
In certain parts of Syria, especially in the partly “liberated” northern areas of the country, the tension is palpable. Jihadist and secular rebel groups watch each other’s military bases warily, unclasping the safety catches on their guns as they pass.
A leading rebel fighter made clear the way events may unfold. “The next war after Bashar al-Assad falls will be between us and the Islamists,” he warned.