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In Syria, group suspected of al-Qaeda links gaining prominence in war to topple Assad

By Justin Vela and ,

ALEPPO, Syria — A shadowy jihadist organization that first surfaced on the Internet to assert responsibility for suicide bombings in Aleppo and Damascus has stepped out of the shadows and onto the front lines of the war for Syria’s cities.

Here in Aleppo, the al-Nusra Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant, widely known as the Jabhat al-Nusra, is fielding scores of fighters, some of them foreigners, in the battle for control of Syria’s commercial capital, a key prize in the bitter war of attrition being waged across the country.

The group, suspected of affiliations to al-Qaeda, says it is also fighting in other locations, including the cities of Homs and Idlib and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus. Its growing role has prompted concerns that the 17-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is becoming radicalized as the bloodshed soars.

On a recent morning, three jihadist fighters chambered rounds into their AK-47 rifles as their bearded driver sped through Aleppo’s streets in a bullet-ridden white van.

“If shooting starts, put your head down,” one of the jihadists said as the van headed toward the flashpoint Salahuddin neighborhood, blending in with the battle-scarred vehicles of other fighters hurtling through the streets.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s growing visibility on the streets of Syrian cities highlights one of the reasons the United States and its allies have been reluctant to arm Syrian rebels even as Obama administration officials repeatedly insist that Assad must go. Fears are widespread among Western governments that weapons sent to the rebels could wind up in the hands of extremists and be turned against their benefactors in a region already taut with sectarian and geopolitical rivalries.

In an interview at the mosque that serves as his headquarters in the Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra commander Abu Ibrahim said he has 300 men under his control. About 50 of his fighters were seen milling around the mosque, many wearing the baggy, calf-length pants and long beards associated with devout Islamists. Others were inside.

Most of those fighting for Abu Ibrahim, a 32-year-old stone mason from a nearby village, are Syrians from Aleppo and the surrounding countryside. But some are Arab volunteers, among hundreds from the region and beyond who are thought to have trickled into Syria in recent months to join the fight against Assad’s regime. Abu Ibrahim said his contingent included men from Morocco, Libya, Tunisia and Lebanon, as well as one Syrian who had fought in Iraq against the Americans.

‘They fight without fear’

Jabhat al-Nusra is the only Syrian rebel group that posts on a Web forum that is used by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and known affiliates of the terrorist network. This suggests a link, at least through its media department, to the main al-Qaeda organization, a connection that endows Jabhat al-Nusra with a credibility among jihadists that other groups lack, said Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“This is the premier jihadi organization in Syria right now,” Zelin said.

Most of the other rebel units battling government tanks and aircraft in Aleppo operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army and are primarily secular. But a visit to the city did not reveal any significant schism between the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra and the more-secular units.

Abu Ibrahim said his fighters are part of Liwa al-Tawhid, or the Unity Brigade, a newly formed battalion of rebel groups fighting in and around Aleppo. “We are together,” he said. “There is good coordination.” And although many in the Free Syrian Army say they reject the ideology of Islamist extremism, the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra are regarded “as heroes” in Aleppo, said Abu Feras, a spokesman for the Aleppo Revolutionary Council. “They fight without fear or hesitation,” he said.

There is no indication that Jabhat al-Nusra has access to sophisticated or heavy weapons, but the AK-47 rifles wielded by Abu Ibrahim’s jihadists seem newer than those used by fighters belonging to the array of Free Syrian Army groups battling in Aleppo. Abu Ibrahim drives a brand-new Toyota Hilux pickup truck, which he steered through Aleppo’s streets, showing a journalist highlights of the fighting that has raged for the past month.

“To be honest, we have received some support, but I don’t know from where,” he said, adding that the assistance was in the form of cash couriered in from Turkey.

Recruiting ‘people of jihad’

Jabhat al-Nusra emerged on the Internet in January, declaring its intention to overthrow the Assad regime “by fighting and arms” and calling on “the people of jihad” to volunteer for battle. A month later, it asserted responsibility for a spate of suicide bombings that started in Damascus and spread to Aleppo, attacks that U.S. officials said bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.

Most analysts say the group has a relatively minor role in what began last year as a mostly peaceful protest movement demanding greater freedoms. Any popularity that Jabhat al-Nusra enjoys among Syrians is “opportunistic” and rooted in disillusionment with the apparent lack of international support, said Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“They are not going to be fundamental,” he said, speaking from Beirut. “Perhaps they will accelerate the military demise of the regime, but they will not be the most fundamental factor here.”

But as Jabhat al-Nusra increasingly claims a range of other attacks, including kidnappings and bombings across the country, it is becoming clear that the group is cementing a presence on the ground and expanding its reach, said Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

There is, however, no evidence that the group has logistical or financial ties to al-Qaeda, Zelin said. Abu Ibrahim, whose pants, T-shirt and scruffy stubble give him a more secular air than some of the heavily bearded fighters under his command, denied any affiliation to the terrorist network.

He said his Aleppo-based unit did not carry out the suicide attacks, though he did not condemn the tactic. “If we commit a car bombing, we think it is justified,” he said, describing a recent airstrike by government forces in a nearby village that killed 11 people and blew a 30-foot hole in the ground. His recruits simply cite God as their reason for joining up.

Abdul Rahman, 26, who defected from the regular Syrian army in the summer, said he sifted through a number of Free Syrian Army groups before deciding to join Jabhat al-Nusra. His family lived in the United States for many years, and he attended primary school there before returning to Syria and studying English at Aleppo University.

“This unit was the best I could get. It fights for something I believe in. They fight for God,” he said.

Vela reported from Aleppo. Sly reported from Antakya, Turkey.

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