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One face of the Syrian revolt: a jihadi comes home

By David Enders, McClatchy Newspapers –

NEAR RAMTHA, Jordan — Outside a Bedouin shepherd’s tent, in view of the Syrian border, Abu Khalid sits in the grass, a laptop perched on his knees. He is using Skype and a pair of cell phones to speak with fellow militants across the border who are waiting to take delivery of weapons and ammunition he has procured.

Abu Khalid, 28, was born and reared in Daraa, the Syrian city just two miles across the border. For months, he has been providing logistical support to his comrades there as they battled the army and paramilitary forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“Since the 18th of March, we were involved with the demonstrations,” he said, referring to the date last year when Syrian security forces attacked large anti-government demonstrations in Daraa, killing dozens and fuelling further demonstrations that spread across the country. Daraa’s Omari Mosque became a symbol of the rebellion. “I was there when they raided the Omari Mosque, and started shooting bullets at the protesters.”

Last week, Abu Khalid was trying, unsuccessfully, to get himself and a half dozen automatic rifles and ammunition across the border. He said there were Libyans and a Palestinian in Jordan also waiting to cross the border to join the fight.

Abu Khalid — the name is a pseudonym that means father of Khalid in Arabic — is one face of the armed rebellion that has come to be known as the Free Syrian Army, the short hand phrase for the mosaic of army defectors, volunteers and religious militants who make up the anti-Assad forces.

But the name suggests more of an organization than may actually exist, and Abu Khalid’s story underscores the difficulty of knowing to whom to provide arms, should western nations and their Persian Gulf allies decide to give weapons to the rebels. That will be one of the topics on the table when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and representatives of 59 other nations gather Sunday in Turkey for a “Friends of Syria” meeting.

Abu Khalid says his group, the Tawhid (Monotheism) Brigade, has never had contact with the defected Syrian army officers in Turkey who claim to lead the FSA. With about 80 men under arms, the Monotheism Brigade operates in the villages and countryside outside Daraa, he said. They openly describe themselves as jihadis and Salafis, holy warriors and followers of a conservative strain of Islam. They play well into the Syrian government’s claims that the rebels are religious zealots.

Abu Khalid says his own career as a religious militant began in 2004, in a group that in part was sponsored, ironically, by the Syrian government.

After completing his mandatory service in the Syrian army, Abu Khalid joined Fatah al Islam, a group largely comprised of Palestinians and an offshoot of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah Movement. Fatah al Islam is best known for a 2007 standoff in northern Lebanon that completely destroyed a Palestinian refugee camp and left hundreds of soldiers, civilians and militants dead.

Abu Khalid became disillusioned, he said, when he realized he was being sent to Lebanon. He’d joined the group to fight Americans in Iraq. He left the group in May 2005.

In 2007 he was arrested in Syria and accused of fomenting rebellion against the Assad government. It’s a charge he doesn’t deny.

“I’ve been arrested four times. All the time I was thinking about how to get rid of the regime,” he said.

But it was the government’s repression of peaceful protests last year that spurred Abu Khalid’s group to take up arms, he said.

“We formed before the revolution as peaceful cells, but after the killing and torture took place in Syria, we decided to carry weapons,” Abu Khalid said.

Abu Khalid said Syrian authorities arrested him last April for his activities but released him in June. After that he fled to Jordan, where he began running guns.

Abu Khalid predicted the campaign to oust Assad would be a long one. He declined to say how many attacks his group had carried out, but said that they are focused on using roadside bombs to attack the Syrian military.

“Our goal now is to end the regime, even if another million people are killed,” he said. “We think it’s going to be a long war. Not less than one year.”

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