KILIS— Mohammad, a jihadi rebel from northern Syria, is describing his wedding night. His family had insisted on a non-religious ceremony. At the reception, just as his relatives began to dance and celebrate, he went home.
“The music made me uncomfortable,” he says.
Believing in the same religious tenets that have led extremists to outlaw music and singing in jihad-held areas of Syria, Mohammad chose to spend the night at home with his sister.
On this day, in Kilis, across the border in Turkey, the 35-year-old former salesman is running late, but makes a courtesy call to say he’s at the market buying fruit for his kids. He’s slowed down by a broken left arm, which happened when he lost control driving other mujahideen through the mountains of northern Syria. When his toddler daughters accidentally lean against the cast, he doesn’t reprimand them, but just sucks air through his teeth.
His car accident was caused when his car’s brakes gave out. The same mujahideen they were driving from the hospital was the only one who died when the car flipped twice, falling so deep into a ravine that they had to shoot their guns into the evening sky to get rescuers’ attention.
His family will go back to Syria after his operation. Latakia is the best place for jihad, he said proudly: “To take Damascus, you need the coast.”
Mohammed moved his family to Kilis in September: the regime had shelled their village and Mohammad, with his injured left arm, needed surgery. Their new apartment is home to three generations of his family. Living above a busy pedestrian alley, they keep roll-out mattresses in the living room at night to accommodate everyone.
His father moved with them, along with Mohammad’s business-like brother, who wears a suit. Mohammad’s little girls run around freely, too young to be caught up in the rules of family life. They will begin wearing head scarves later, at age seven or eight, he says.
He grew up hunting birds, and he’d chase pigs out of his family’s apple orchard above the Syrian coast. He holds his hand to his heart and says he loves the peace and quiet of hunting in Latakia.
About 10 years ago, he was like any other young man. He drank, looked for girls. He does none of that anymore. “My friends, they guided me,” he says of his religious transformation. He prays five times a day.
He went to his first anti-government protest when his wife was eight months’ pregnant with their first child. In May 2011, she was born in a hospital that had just been tear gassed.
He had no decisive moment, he said, no event that made him decide to fight.
In December 2011, he and six other anti-government Latakia civilians began to camp in mountainous Jabal al-Akrad in order to take shots at regime trucks and checkpoints. When it was safe, he’d visit his wife. He spent a year and a half with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) before joining a small extremist outfit. He says the jihadis are more moral than the FSA.
He treats the moderate rebels he knows in Kilis with respect. Visiting an FSA safe house across town, he sits quietly under a giant Syrian flag and drinks coffee while everyone else speaks. A young man from the FSA’s Northern Storm brigade, a group regularly accused of banditry, is enthusiastic when asked what he wants out of a post-Assad government.
“Democracy,” he says. “We want a secular democracy.” Mohammad shakes their hands warmly and leaves. “They have different goals,” he says. Mohammad’s group, Harakat Sham al-Islam, coordinate with al-Qaida’s two offshoots in Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS).
Sham al-Islam is led by a non-Syrian: a white-haired, 34-year-old man from Casablanca named Ibrahim bin Shakaran, a former Guantanamo detainee who, before Sept. 11, spent time in a terrorist training camp outside Kabul.
Mohammad welcomes foreigners like Shakaran to fight in his country. Unlike many extremists who rail against the influx of foreign fighters, he’s not a patriotic Syrian. “We do not believe in Sykes-Picot,” he said, referring to the French-British agreement that decided the boundaries of modern Syria. He is, he says, a proud Muslim who believes the ummah, or Muslim community, transcends international borders.
“Jihadis help one another,” he says, adding that anyone who wants to do jihad in Syria can find someone online who will pay for their flight.
Asked about the jihadis’ treatment of civilians – public executions, kidnappings and indiscriminate killings have been reported in Raqqa, which is largely under ISIS control – Mohammad says that some groups are too strict. He says al-Nusra is a shining example of how extremists should act in Syria. Their leadership begins in the mosque, he says, where they teach their interpretation of Sharia law.
Walking through Kilis’s dusty alleyways on his way to a mosque, Mohammad’s beard makes him look the part of a religious extremist, so much so that an old Syrian man stopped him and asked if he was on his way to fight.
Back outside, he laughed while practicing his bad English, confusing the words fish and finish. The muezzin began reciting the call to prayer over the loudspeaker.
“This sound,” Mohammad says, searching for the right word but coming up with nothing, and placed his hand on his heart. “This sound.”