The black flags of al-Qa'ida fly over Syrian streets as radicals take hold
Published 13/05/2013 | 05:00
The black flag of al-Qa'ida flies high over Raqqa's main square, in Syria, in front of the governor's smart new palace, its former occupant last seen in their prison. Their fighters, clad also in black, patrol the streets, or set up positions behind sandbags.
The Islamists smashed up one of the two shops that sold alcohol. That much was pretty inevitable, the locals agreed. The other off-licence had already closed, as had the casino on the outskirts of town.
They brought in a radical cleric from Egypt to preach Friday prayers, and set up a sharia court in the city's new sports centre with the support of other brigades. They had their fiefdom – an entire city to run only 60 miles from Nato's border.
Then, one night, 10 men came for Nagham and Nour al-Rifaie, two teenage sisters from a well-known liberal family. They were at home with a family friend, Yusra Omran (30), and their male cousin (32).
"All these guys came in with guns and wearing masks and with handcuffs," said Nagham (19), a civil engineering student.
"They started searching everything and shouting. They were saying, 'Put on more clothes than you are wearing, put on a headscarf.' I just said I'm wearing clothes and I'm not putting on a headscarf'."
The men took them to the sports centre. There the girls were charged with being alone with a man and interrogated.
In Raqqa, a once conservative but by all accounts not religious city, the triumph of al-Qa'ida's Syrian arm, Jabhat al-Nusra, would seem to be complete.
Little known a year ago but suspected of having being founded by al-Qa'ida in Iraq, they have grown in stature, leading many of the rebels' most successful recent battles. Last month, they publicly declared their loyalty to al-Qa'ida's supreme leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Their newfound power is such that it is changing international calculations over the conflict. After first being discouraged from taking action by their presence in rebel ranks, Britain now has a revised diplomatic strategy.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's officials now feel Jabhat al-Nusra has to be defeated by actively supporting the less militant rebels, including through supplying arms. Many of Jabhat's rival militias are being marginalised in cities similar to Raqqa across the north. Today Britain will seek to have Jabhat al-Nusra added to an official list of organisations facing sanctions at the United Nations.
In taking Raqqa two months ago, al-Qa'ida achieved its greatest coup in the war to date: it was the first provincial capital to fall outright to the rebels, and allowed Jabhat to assume a leadership role over a large swathe of north-eastern Syria, to the Iraqi border.
To many it is a welcome development. "Jabhat are excellent for us," said Abdullah Mohammed, a man from the nearby village of Mansoura.
"They deal with us according to Islamic rules, so there are no problems. They are honest and they run everything pretty well."
Other locals, too, particularly shopkeepers, say the all-pervasive corruption of the Assad era has vanished with the regime's men. "I like Jabhat," said Ahmed al-Hindy, who runs an optician's shop. "They are better than the regime, at any rate."
Part of it is money. Jabhat al-Nusra has always been well-funded compared with other militias – most people assume due to wealthy backers in the Gulf, though few have been able to track down the lines of the money supply.
Now they have control of good sources of income and can pay salaries. They have also taken the oilfields in neighbouring Deir al-Zour province. Production is hardly booming, but they are able to sell enough on the local market to keep cash rolling in.
It is not all plain sailing, though. Even in Raqqa, no single militia is all-powerful, even Jabhat, and they depend on an alliance with Ahrar al-Sham, another radical Islamist group.
They also have to deal with a slew of other brigades with a variety of ideologies.
The dynamic of Jabhat's rise is being challenged out of both envy and fear, leading to clashes.
Two senior rival militiamen have been assassinated in the past 10 days: Abu Awad of the Farouq Brigade, and, on Thursday, Abu al-Zein, the head of the Ahfad al-Rasool.
Another militia leader, Abu Deeb of the Lions of Islam, was arrested after a fight on Tuesday with Jabhat that brought the city to a brief standstill. Different explanations have been given, but Abdullah al-Khalil, the civilian who heads the town's interim administration, said it was over control of the town's largest bakery.
"After Assad falls, there will be a second revolution, against Jabhat al-Nusra," said Amar Abu Yasser, a battalion leader with the Farouq Brigade. The Farouq was once the most famous brigade in the Syrian revolution, spreading its power from its base in Homs across the north of the country. But its power and influence has been severely curbed by Jabhat.
"The problem is due to ideology," said Mr Abu Yasser, until two years ago a student of Arabic literature, now a tough, bearded warrior in fatigues and a black turban. "There is a conflict between the black flag and the revolutionary flag.
"It is not wise to try to make an Islamic state here," he went on. "There are Christians, Alawites, Druze living here. It will just be a big problem."
He also said Jabhat al-Nusra was not as honest and righteous as it seemed. He claimed it had stripped the town's factories and smuggled their goods, including nearly 200 tonnes of sugar, to Turkey for profit.
Jabhat has withdrawn into itself as tensions rise, and particularly since the declaration of obedience to al-Qa'ida was issued, which confirmed its status as a terrorist group. It has banned its men from talking to foreign journalists.
Some locals regarded as fanciful the idea that Farouq and other groups would ever again have the strength to rise up and throw out Jabhat. But most proclaimed defiantly that Syria would not become a radical Islamic state. "This is all just for the war," said Mr Khalil, the town leader, who is happy to co-operate with Jabhat as he tries to re-establish schools and keep the water running.
A former human rights lawyer once jailed by the regime, he said he could tolerate the black flags for now. "But I think the modern Islamic project will win in the end," he added, using a phrase commonly used to refer to a civil state with a Muslim ethos, like booming Turkey next door. He added a refrain repeated now across rebel Syria: it will be harder to keep the Islamists out if the West does not come to the aid of this "modern" project.
At first glance, Jabhat have tried to play safe. A small but visible minority of women go without the hijab, or headscarf. The town's handful of Christian families have stayed put, for now. But it may have made a major strategic error with its announcement of loyalty to al-Qa'ida. It did not cause a big stir in the West, where the link had been assumed, but it shocked many who had begun to tolerate Jabhat's presence.
Their main Islamist allies, Ahrar al-Sham, immediately denounced the group. "It was like a thunderbolt," said Abu Abdullah, an Ahrar al-Sham fighter outside their main base, largely abandoned after being hit by Assad missiles.
Then there was the arrest of Nagham and Nour al-Rifaie, and their cousin and friend. That was a "what the hell?" moment, said Mohammed Shuaib, a student who has helped found a human rights discussion group, Haquna. It led a 500-strong protest to the sharia court the morning after the arrest. What happened is a glimmer of hope to men like Mr Shuaib.
On arrival at the court, the girls were told they would immediately face two judges, local worthies brought in by the ruling Islamist alliance. It was one o'clock in the morning. Nagham was told to put a headscarf on. Again she refused.
"They said to me, 'It's a sharia court, you can't go in without a headscarf'. I said, 'That's fine by me!' So we stood before the court with no headscarves on."
One of the judges, a teacher called Mohammed al-Omar, referred them to the charge sheet. "He said, 'It says you were alone with a man, what do you say'. I said, 'It is none of their business'. And he said, 'I agree'."
The girls were freed immediately. Whether the rest of Raqqa will escape so lightly, the girls could not say. "The problem is with the people," said Nagham. Because of the regime, if someone speaks to them who has power, they just sit there. But my father has taught me to have opinions. So I cannot stop." (© Daily Telegraph, London)