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.