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Seeing Syria’s Islamist fighters through the eyes of a journalist

December 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to another area of conflict, Syria, where the uprising has reached its 1,000th day.

Recently, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reported on disarray among the Western-backed rebels.

Tonight, she looks at the Islamist fighters who are gaining traction through the eyes of a journalist with unusual access to the al-Qaida- linked groups.

MARGARET WARNER: For more than a year, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey, a vital lifeline for Syria’s rebels, was controlled by the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army. But, Saturday, a newly formed alliance of Islamist rebels calling itself the Islamic Front took charge.

It was the latest blow to the moderate forces backed by the U.S. which initially led the armed insurgency arising from Syria’s 2011 civilian protests. As the civil war has ground on, radicalization among native Syrian rebels has grown. And the conflict has attracted foreign jihadist fighters from throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

So, rather than a coherent force opposing Assad, there is an array of rebel groups on the moderate to extremist spectrum, the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, the new Islamic Front, including Islamist groups once allied with the FSA, the al-Qaida-linked Syrian-grown Jabhat al-Nusra, and its al-Qaida Iraqi parent, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

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Among the few Western journalists who have had access to report in depth on these groups has been Rania Abouzeid, now a contributor to “The New Yorker” magazine.

I spoke with her Friday in Washington.

Rania, thank you for joining us.

RANIA ABOUZEID, journalist: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: You have been up close reporting on a couple of these major rebel groups, both the moderate Free Syrian Army that the U.S. backs and also some of the al-Qaida-linked forces. Why do you think the al-Qaida-linked forces have gained the ascendancy?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, there are two al-Qaida affiliates in Syria.

They’re the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, which the more malignant, if you like, al-Qaida affiliate, and the other one, which is Jabhat al-Nusra. And that tends to be more Syrian. It has Syrian leadership. The other one has Iraqi leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: And the kinds of fighters that are attracted to Jabhat al-Nusra, say, as opposed to the Free Syrian Army, how different are they?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, they obviously have a more religious hue, a more religious tilt.

They’re also attracted to Jabhat al-Nusra because it tends to be more of a status symbol to be attracted — to be accepted into Jabhat al-Nusra, because they are very selective in terms of who they take. And they also enforce discipline, which is something that the other Free Syrian Army units often lack.

MARGARET WARNER: And how different are they in their ideology?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, even some groups that identify themselves as Free Syrian Army are Islamists, and they also want an Islamic state.

So, you know, it’s a very sort of blurry picture. And there’s a spectrum of Islamism, if you like, within the Syrian armed opposition.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us a little bit about some of your own personal encounters. You crossed into Syria and you went to see, I think you called him a Sharia law officer with Jabhat al-Nusra, but in Syria near Aleppo.

RANIA ABOUZEID: It was very cloak-and-dagger. I crossed the border. He told me to meet a particular man. I had met him before. I asked for him.

We were in a car. We ended up on this abandoned road, and there was only another vehicle there. A guy with a black scarf over his face — he was actually wearing a balaclava, but his face was covered — just opened the back door, got in, didn’t say a word. He didn’t even identify himself. And I had to ask him, are you …?

MARGARET WARNER: Did you feel safe? I mean, that sounds like a classic sort of journalist kidnapping scene.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Yes.

I did because I knew who had sent me, who had been the intermediary. I trusted the intermediary.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, given their views about the West, Western media and women, how did you — how do you think you got them to trust you?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Well, you know, I have been — I have been covering Syria since it started.

You know, I still have to get somebody to sort of vouch for me, make sure that — because the acquisition of spy flies around very easily. It still flies around. But, I mean, so often, it’s sort of familiarity with my work and what I’m doing, and just physically that I’m in these places that I’m in.

MARGARET WARNER: How do they treat you as a woman?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Sometimes, there are small telling things. Like, I was once climbing a hill with an Islamist fighter, and I needed a little bit of help. I’m not the fittest person. And rather than extend his hand, he extended the barrel of his weapon, of his Kalashnikov, because, as a conservative Muslim, he wouldn’t touch the hand of a woman who wasn’t a close relative.

There is a very — there’s a clear distinction between the foreign members of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Syrian members of Jabhat al-Nusra. I can sit with the Syrian members. It’s not easy, but they will sit with me. They will look me in the eye. And we can have a conversation.

The foreign — the foreigners won’t look at me. If they talk to me, they will turn their back to me or they will turn to the side. And they’re much, much more conservative.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you mentioned Raqqa, which is this one provincial Capitol that has fallen up to the rebels up near — not far from the Turkish border.

Jabhat al-Nusra was, I guess, the spearhead of the force that went in there, one of them. How are they governing?

RANIA ABOUZEID: I was in Raqqa a couple of weeks after it fell.

And Jabhat al-Nusra was one of about — I think there were about half-a-dozen Islamist groups that were ruling the city. And, you know, they had men posted outside the two churches, for example, of Raqqa. They had…

MARGARET WARNER: To preserve them?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Yes, to preserve them. Nobody touched the churches.

A few months over that, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham came to be the ruler, if you like, the predominant force in Raqqa. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham desecrated the churches, and a so very, very different sort of approach to governing.

MARGARET WARNER: So you are seeing a growing radicalization then or a growing ascendancy of even more radical forces among the Syrian rebels?

RANIA ABOUZEID: But there are forces — but there are forces that are taking them on, at great personal risk. They’re taking them on militarily. There are other units of the Free Syrian Army, for example, other Islamists who are taking them on.

And there are also civil society activists who are taking them on. And they do that at great personal risk in a city which is basically ruled by al-Qaida. So you do have pushback in many different forms inside Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: A fighter said to you, the fight after the fall of Bashar Assad among the rebel groups will be even harder than this one.

Do you think he’s right?

RANIA ABOUZEID: Yes. They have always — that has always been the case. There was always this idea that there was going to be a revolution after a revolution. That is how they put it, and they would put it in those terms, that after they finished with their primary enemy, they would turn to some of the other groups that were in the midst whose ideologies they didn’t necessarily accept.

The thing is, is that now that — that after is now.

MARGARET WARNER: And these are — the al-Qaida-linked groups are the ones that the United States and certainly Europe and Russia do not want to get their hands on weapons and do not want to take over even a part of Syria.

What is their view of what a post-Assad Syria would look like, particularly in terms of how minorities would be treated?

RANIA ABOUZEID: The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is antagonizing everybody. They basically hate everybody who doesn’t agree with them.

And that includes other Islamists, who they accuse of being infidels if they disagree with their ultraconservative view of what an Islamic society should look like. So you can put them aside. Jabhat al-Nusra has a more nuanced approach. They say that Christians, for example, are people of the book and, therefore, they will be treated according to — respected as people of the book.

The Alawites, however, are a different issue. They say that they are infidels and increasingly now they are saying that they’re perceiving the Alawite community as one bloc that is sticking with the regime. If you are Alawite, you are going to be assumed to have a certain political position, and that is sadly becoming the case.

MARGARET WARNER: It is a grim picture, a grim prospect.

RANIA ABOUZEID: It is.

MARGARET WARNER: Rania Abouzeid, thank you.

RANIA ABOUZEID: Thank you.