Mohammad at his home in Kilis, Turkey

The Family Man’s Mujahideen

This is the longer draft of a story I wrote in January, 2014 for Syria Deeply.

Mohammad sat on his couch, barefoot and politely reserved, and described his wedding night. His family had insisted on a non-religious ceremony, he explained. At the reception, just has his relatives began celebrating, he went home.

“I left early,” he said, “Because the music made me uncomfortable.”

Compelled by the same ideas that have led some militants to outlaw music in parts of rebel-held Syria, Mohammad chose to spend the evening at home with his sister. He shrugged, saying they didn’t talk about anything important.

Mohammad, a former salesman from the mountains above Syria’s northern coast, is a courteous man though he was late the morning I met him, busy at the market buying fruit for his daughters. He’s slowed down by his broken arm—an injury he brought with him from Syria, where he lost control while driving a Moroccan and three other mujahideen through the mountains. The x-rays show both bones in his forearm shattered. You can see it on his face when his daughters, one and two years old, lean back against the cast. He doesn’t say anything to them, just pauses and breaths in through his teeth.

The arm brought him here to Kilis, a dusty Turkish border town surrounded by farmland and skeletal, half-finished apartment blocks. In need of surgery and at the behest of his wife, Mohammad and his family—his brother, his parents, his wife, child and a rotating cast of relatives—came to Turkey and rented an apartment, placing rollout mattresses in the corners of the living room because there are so many of them. More family—his sister, brother-in-law, his nieces and nephews—live in a nearby refugee camp at the border, several miles away.

He doesn’t try to hide himself or his family. He walks freely around Kilis, buying chocolate at the market or going to the mosque here in NATO territory. When asked how he feels raising two girls in a foreign country, far more liberal than the kind of Syria he hopes to live in, he shrugs.

“Inshallah, it will all be fine.”

Mohammad is about 30 with a beard he jokes is too thin. He casually throws his folded cloth after prayer, where he kneels across the room from his father smoking. Sitting on his couch with Mahmoud (my translator, his brother-in-law) between us, I told him I wanted to know about his personal life and his beliefs to which he only said: “That will be difficult.”

He grew up hunting birds, and he’d chase pigs out of his family’s apple orchard high above the Mediterranean. “Everyone planted apples,” he said. Mahmoud’s phone rang and he answered, speaking for a few moments. Mohammad looked directly at me. “Hunting,” he said, having picked up the word from our back-and-forth. Without knowing the word for love, he pointed to his heart.

He got talking quickly. He lived and worked in Idlib province before the Syrian uprising began in 2011, when in that December he took his hunting gun and, with six others, began camping above town, taking potshots at regime soldiers and trucks. In the beginning they’d sleep outside and take turns keeping watch. They called themselves an unimaginative name — the Liberation Rebels Group.

Before that, before his religion and the war, he was like any other young man. He tried drinking, looking for girls. That all changed. He sat cross legged on the couch, his hand against his cast, and patiently described his idea of Islam. His father offered me a cigarette, but I declined.

“Don’t say no because of me,” Mohammad said, laughing. “I will judge him first.”

He stops what he’s doing five times a day, wherever he is, to briefly pray. He did so twice during our interview, politely excusing himself to the next room where he and Mahmoud stood, shoulders touching, before kneeling to the ground. He got up and quietly walked back to the couch. “Sometimes I miss one or two,” he said, smiling.

“My friends, they guided me,” he said of his early religious days.

How did it change his life?

“Islam is the religion of justice, forgiveness, and morals,” he said.

His little girls will begin covering their heads when they are 7, 8 or 9. The number isn’t important.

“The woman in Islam is like a jewel,” he said, “We protect them.”

The apartment’s frosted glass doors only showed shadows of his extended family — women who cooked lunch and only appeared to clean up a broken glass. His little girls ran throughout the house, too young to be caught up in the rules of family life. And his father, free to roam, sat in his own chair barefoot and surrounded by cigarette smoke, listing the names of world leaders he didn’t like. A little boy in glasses peaked his head in and scurried away.

His cell phone is full of pictures, many of which are essentially the same — bearded, pale faces surrounded by blankets. The stories behind them are the same, too — this man died last year in Jabal al-Akrad, that one last week, fighting on the Aleppo-Latakia highway. If you ask Mohammad what happened to his country, he will say the revolution began because there were no chances for a Sunni to make it on his own. He couldn’t go to college, he said, because a Shiite took his place.

The uprising began in early 2011, when over a dozen boys were arrested in Daraa for writing anti-regime slogans on the walls of their school. They were reportedly tortured. Their parents couldn’t negotiate with authorities and, in the protests demanding the boys’ release, police shot several civilians.

Late 2010-early 2011 was an unbelievable and exhilarating time for many people in the Arab world. Tunisia and Egypt had revolutions. Libya came after, but Syria, a country of 22 million that had lived through decades of Assad family rule, did not live the naive optimism of people who just pushed out a tyrant. There were no triumphant young guys in Damascus, as there were in Tahrir Square in Cairo, to promise a BBC reporter that they were renaming the country. Other people affected by the Arab Spring have suffered since, but none more so than the Syrians.

In April 2011, Mohammad went with a friend to protests. On May 13, his first daughter was born in a hospital that had just been tear gassed. And in June, the regime set up checkpoints in the area. He and others tagged walls with graffiti and later that year began shooting at Shabiha — Assad’s brutal, thuggish security — later that year along the highways outside Latakia. They’d drive through the mountains in packed cars, stop far off from a checkpoint and hike to a vantage point on foot, quietly. The Liberation Rebels Group hid behind hills above the road, quietly aimed and shot a few times before running off to hide in riverbeds.

“Latakia is a Sunni city, but outside are mostly Alawites,” Mohammad explained, referring to the Shiite minority sect to which the Assad family belongs. “The regime armed some Alawite civilians. We fought them too.”

The number of fighters grew. Bands came from nearby towns and their numbers surged from under ten people to somewhere around 140. Someone gave them a farmhouse to occupy, and they filled apartments in the countryside. They blocked roads with overturned barrels.

He talked about how groups within groups disagreed and argued, and how some men left. Back then, in the early days of the fighting, the germination of several of the major opposition groups had started taking hold. He called the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) — founded by several regime defectors — dishonest.

Some of the men he fought with changed groups several times. On the ground the lines between militias — even between the moderates and the hardliners — are not as clear as they are in news articles. There are freelance fighters, guys who fought for the moderate FSA, then an extremist militia, then another, then back for the FSA. Sometimes money makes the decision for them. Other times it’s just whoever is nearby.

Later that night the three of us — Mohammad, Mahmoud and I — visited an FSA safe house where, underneath a giant Syrian flag, a television played scenes from the war on mute. When asked what he wants out of a post-Assad government, a fighter from the FSA’s Northern Storm brigade, a group regularly accused of banditry, responded enthusiastically.

“Oh, Democracy,” the 23-year-old father of twins said. “We want secular democracy.”

The two men who run the FSA office chain smoked, talking about aid shipments that they couldn’t get over the border. Azaz, the town just inside Syria, was heavily contested — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were fighting the FSA. Mahmoud and I had taken a bus to the border, and Mahmoud pointed to a nearby hill: “The FSA and Kurdish fighters are in the mountain, and the ISIS is in the town below,” he told me. Everything was so close, and yet they couldn’t move a thing.

Mohammad’s jacket, zipped to the collar, made him look like a distance runner. He sat and stayed quiet, listening intently, his beard and demeanor setting him apart from the rest of the men in the room.

“We still haven’t finished the first battle,” one of FSA men said, referring to the fight against Assad, “And now this one begins.”

Mohammad shook their hands warmly afterward, shrugging away their differences.

Founded during the early days of the U.S.-Iraq war, ISIS is made up of Syrians, Iraqis and jihadis from North Africa, Europe, Chechnya and elsewhere. Mohammad called ISIS brothers, though he’s not a member. He does not have a problem with foreign fighters. The old men from Europe, he said, are tough and able.

But many Syrians, like those living in ISIS-run Raqqa, have fled cities and territory occupied by the jihadis, swearing they persecute Christians, Shiites and Alawites, and force their beliefs on people who don’t share them.

Mohammad admits that ISIS may be too strict. He believes another group, the Syrian-grown, al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, has a wiser approach. Their leadership begins in the mosque, he claimed, where they introduce people to their interpretation of religious law. ISIS is more strict, unpredictable — they cut down a 150-year-old oak tree outside a nearby town after accusing locals of worshipping it. But still: they are brothers. They share a common cause.

Mohammad, Mahmoud and I had lunch on the floor of his apartment, leaning over small bowls of hard boiled eggs, sour cheese, tomatoes and olives. His father asked about my family.

Mohammad said that he had been waiting for jihadis to come, and when they did he joined them. The group Mohammad says he’s now a part of— Harakat Sham al-Islam— was officially announced shortly before he left Syria for Turkey in September. They’ve coordinated and fought alongside Nusra and ISIS, and are led by former Guantanamo detainee Ibrahim bin Shakaran— a white haired, 34-year-old man from Casablanca who had lived in a terrorist training camp outside Kabul in the months leading up to September, 11 2001. Before coming to Syria, he recruited for al-Qaeda in Morocco.

Sham al-Islam is best known for kidnapping an Alawite cleric named Badr Ghazal from Latakia last August. They handed him over to Jabhat al-Nusra, who accused him of being pro-regime, then killed him.

The kidnapping was part of a larger event that rebels— Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and others— called Operation Liberation of the Coast. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Sham al-Islam, along with other groups, abducted Alawite women and children for use in prisoner exchanges, and that hundreds of Alawite citizens were killed.

Sham al-Islam leader Ibrahim bin Shakaran. Photo courtesy of YouTube.

I can’t verify to what extent Mohammad or Sham al-Islam participated in civilian killings. HRW’s investigation mentions several other groups, such as Suquor al-Izz — the the group’s name was tagged on the walls of one home in which nine members of a single family were killed. One video, however, is incriminating to Sham al-Islam: a man with a white beard closely resembling Shakaran can be seen walking an elderly lady that HRW confirmed was later killed.

“Alawites are unbelievers,” Mohammad said, but called ethnic cleansing categorically wrong when I pushed the question: “We don’t have a problem with anyone who doesn’t fight us.”

Mohammad said that, from the beginning of the war, he and his comrades only killed those who had guns. In Latakia, this is not as clean a statement as it sounds. Alawite civilians had been stockpiling weapons since 2011, and many had guns in their homes — some because the war strengthened their sense of community with the regime, but others because they were afraid of becoming rebel targets in what looks, from afar, like a tragic case of self-fulfilling prophecy.

One aggressive old man, a retired Syrian government employee who hung out near the border gate outside Kilis, gave the closest thing to an explanation of citizen killings: “People make mistakes,” he waved his hand, “Especially in wartime.”

Sham al-Islam, in the most conservative estimate, kidnapped Badr Ghazal and abducted women and children—at least some of whom have remained unaccounted for since August.

Accounts of mujahideen treatment of Syria’s civilian population paint a different picture— jihadis, most often the ISIS, have killed many unarmed prisoners on video and in secret. And Nusra publicly vowed to target Alawite villages in the aftermath of August’s chemical weapons attack in Damascus.

I asked Mohammad about his conscience, if he regrets anything he did. Does he get nightmares from his time fighting in Syria? He proudly said no. Everything was blessed.

Disgusted as he is with some of his Shiite countrymen, Mohammad welcomes foreign jihadis to fight in the towns and cities only he and other Syrians know intimately. He is not a proud Syrian, he says. He is a proud Muslim.

“We don’t believe in Sykes-Picot,” he said, referring to the WWI agreement that decided the international borders of modern Syria, Lebanon, and other nearby countries. There’s a sense of community among Muslims, the ummah, that is more important than borders. This is what the jihadis claim they fight for— the Muslim world, which they’re trying to pull out from under foreign influence.

“Nothing changed in Tunisia or Egypt,” Mohammad said, “One dictator was replaced with another. It wasn’t an Islamic Sping. It wasn’t what we’re looking for. We want a just, Islamic government.”

I asked if he and the jihadis would be able to fill the power vacuum in post-Assad Syria, and Mohammad said the fighters cannot do that. The armed groups would need to rely on the religious community, and they will choose a new leader. Look at Somalia or Gaza, he said, where the same people who fight have tried to govern. In Syria it will be different.

“There are no rules more merciful than those in the Islamic ruling system,” Mohammad said, playfully taunting his daughter. “Islam encourages people to be free.”

In the state of his imagination there are very few crimes that justify jail time, and even fewer that are punishable by death. He believes that punishments like lashings and lacerations are far more humane than executions or years in prison. They allow people to wake up in the morning in their own bed and not in a cage.

But would his country tolerate terrorist organizations, people making bombs in their kitchens? He has no idea. Muslim scholars and leaders decide that, not fighters like him.

And what about the rest of his life? Say he outlives Assad. If a revolution were to begin in Jordan, Mohammad will go and fight there too, to liberate the country until he can travel, back-and-forth, across international borders that he calls fabrication.

“Jihadis help one another,” he said, explaining that young men who want to do jihad in Syria can find someone online who will help them get to Turkey, where they can catch a bus to the border and step into the war zone. Mohammad said he will manage to make his way to Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Chechnya or anywhere else that nurtures a homegrown, Islamic movement.

And about al-Qaeda itself? “There is no difference between us and them,” he said. “Each of us has his own point of view.”

And so in the early days of what he believes is an Islamic revolution, after fighting Assad for two years, Mohammad and four others were driving through Latakia’s mountain roads late last summer. They were on their way back from a hospital where a Moroccan mujahideen sought treatment for his hurt shoulder. Mohammad told me how the breaks gave out and the car flew off the edge of the road and flipped twice.

They found the Moroccan, whom the doctor claimed had only a minor injury, lying motionless ten meters away. Mohammad’s arm was badly broken and, to get the attention of anyone up above them, they fired off a few shots in the evening air.

Mohammad suffered a painful, incomplete surgery—a doctor placed four rods looking like pistons stick out of a shabby cast. A fifth rod sticks out of the skin of his elbow, which he has to adjust from time to time.

He admitted that, months after the accident, he still couldn’t sleep without painkillers.

When asked how long he’ll stay in Turkey, he said he and his family will go back after his surgery. Latakia is the best place for jihad, he said proudly: “To take Damascus, you need the coast.”

Two days later we sat in his home and had coffee, and I asked where his father was— he had taken the short trip back to Syria, Mohammad said, but would return in a few days. I met his brother, a busy looking man who looked like he belonged in a much larger city.

I had to catch a bus to Istanbul. We walked through Kilis back towards the bus station, where Mohammad cracked up after confusing the English words fish with finish. We passed by a mosque and saw old men leaned over, putting their shoes back on. Mohammad pointed to his wrist, asking for a moment inside. I waited for him, reviewing the pictures I’d taken in the mosque’s empty courtyard.

We left, back into the dusty alley, where a man stopped us and, with bright eyes, asked if we were on our way to fight. Mohammad laughed and told him something, I have no idea what. The muezzin began reciting the call to evening prayer over the loud speaker.

“This sound,” Mohammad said, searching for a word but coming up with nothing, and placed his hand over his heart, “This sound.”

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