The al-Qaida affiliated commander in charge of the oil company in Shadadi, eastern Syria – a lean, broad-shouldered man who is followed everywhere by a machete-wielding bodyguard – was explaining the appeal of jihadi rule to the people of the newly captured town.
“Go and ask the people in the streets whether there a liberated town or city anywhere in Syria that is ruled as efficiently as this one,” he boasted. “There is electricity, water and bread and security. Inshallah, this will be the nucleus of a new Syrian Islamic caliphate!”
The al-Nusra Front, the principle jihadi rebel group in Syria, defies the cliché of Islamist fighters around the Middle East plotting to establish Islamic caliphates from impoverished mountain hideaways. In north-eastern Syria, al-Nusra finds itself in command of massive silos of wheat, factories, oil and gas fields, fleets of looted government cars and a huge weapons arsenal.
A few miles from Shadadi, travelling through hills dotted with oil pumps that resemble giant, long-legged birds dipping their beaks into the earth, we came to al-Nusra’s most valuable asset in the region, a gas refinery run by a young commander known to his followers simply as the “emir of gas”.
When the militants first captured the refinery, it was run by a joint committee that represented all the battalions in the area. But the emir decided to kick them out, for their “petty theft”.
“The Free Army has no funding so they steal stupid things,” he said contemptuously. “They steal anything.”
The emir had been a law student when the revolution started, he said. Back then, he identified himself as a salafist, though he did not follow al-Qaida. For a full year, he fought under the “Free Army” banner. When al-Qaida first emerged in the east, he thought they would harm the revolution. “I used to disagree with [al-Qaida] over their policies. Even now, they make mistakes on the ground and they have had setbacks in Iraq and Somalia because of this. They focus too much on the sword rather than the Qur’an and preaching,” he said.
“I thought we shouldn’t declare our animosity to America now. I said, we can be jihadis but raise the flag of the Free Army.”
What changed his mind was the chaos and corruption of the Free Army. He had fought four battles with it, he said, and seen how they argued over the spoils in the middle of the fighting.
“Religious leaders explained to me that we should not fight blindly, that the flag of the Free Army is the flag of infidel secularism and that America is our enemy, whether we declare it or not. Americans will always fight us and will never be satisfied,” he said.
The tactics with which al-Nusra is waging its war are no less brutal than those of its al-Qaida-affiliated counterparts in other areas of the Middle East. A few weeks before our visit, after a feud with a local tribe over oil, al-Nusra fighters had surrounded the village of Albu Saray and taken the whole male population of the village prisoner. A few of them were accused of killing an al-Nusra commander, and were executed, and many of the houses in the village were flattened. “Do you know why the Americans and Israelis are winning and we Arabs always lose?” asked the emir. “Because we Arabs are emotional.”
Al-Nusra, by contrast, was an international organisation, and was “not built on emotions”. Its members should be ready to kill their brothers or cousins if they were proved to have to committed apostasy.
“Hitting Albu Saray was a pre-emptive strike,” he said. “They were weak. They had a bad reputation. Kill them, and you teach more powerful tribes a lesson. They will start fearing.”
“They say that al-Nusra has become soft, [that] they deal with the infidel Free Army and co-ordinate with them and fight together,” said the commander. “The reality is that many of the people who have accepted al-Nusra in these areas and started to accept our ideology did so because they saw people of the area join them. Now, they have retreated because al-Qaida entered very heavily.”
He cites an old Arabic proverb, which states that the people of Mecca know its valleys better than the outsiders. “We know better than the outsiders, who are here just to fight and kill. We have to learn from the mistakes of Iraq and the mistakes that toppled al-Qaida there and turned the tribes against them.”