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ANTAKYA, Turkey — Hala, 22, cuts a diminutive figure in her loose black abaya, a black headscarf framing her large, almond-shaped, pale blue eyes and fair skin. Eight months ago, before she married, the young Syrian woman didn’t even cover her hair. Now, she’s a combatant for Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, although most of her battles are with patriarchal commanders who try to keep her from the front.
Women fighters are rare in Syrian rebel ranks, with the exception of Kurds, who — like their Iraqi Kurdish counterparts — have all-women units. The few women working with Jabhat al-Nusra are mainly involved in intelligence gathering, according to several senior Nusra commanders in Syria’s Idlib province — which makes Hala a rarity.
Syria’s battlefield features a complex mix of rebel groups from across the Islamist political spectrum, as well as those outside it, all competing for control and influence. And then there are the radical transnational groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which remains Syria-focused, and the more virulent organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has declared a swath of Syria and Iraq as its new caliphate and renamed itself the Islamic State (IS).
The ultraconservative male-dominated domain of groups like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra is a harsh milieu in which a woman’s demand to be deployed as a suicide bomber is framed as a religious-based demand for gender equality. Such experiences also offer a glimpse into the evolving daily normalcy of the reality being created on the ground by these movements. Hala is one type of Al-Qaeda woman, Sara is another.
A 29-year-old with impeccable cheekbones, perfect teeth and a cascade of waist-length brown hair she twirls into a bun, Sara is one step removed from the front. She is from an Al-Qaeda family. Her husband, brothers and brothers-in-law are all armed members of Jabhat al-Nusra. One of her brothers is one of nine senior emirs, or commanders, in Idlib province. Her eldest brother, Rashid, was a member of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which became Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He is presumed dead, killed in the battle of Fallujah against U.S. troops in 2004, although his family doesn’t know for certain.
The two women don’t know each other, although they were once based in the same small village in northwestern Idlib province. Before the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Hala had been at university, studying trade and economy in Latakia, the provincial capital of a predominantly Alawite stretch of Syria.
“I used to dress casually, wear makeup, tight clothes, come and go with my friends,” Hala told me. “I didn't have an awareness or understanding of religion.” I met her and her husband in April, during a temporary stay in their friend’s apartment in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, close to the Syrian border.
I used to dress casually, wear makeup, tight clothes, come and go with my friends. I didn't have an awareness or understanding of religion.
Woman in Jabhat al-Nusra
Hala says that her views were not changed by a particular person or incident, but that they developed in tandem with a revolution that began with peaceful protests and morphed into an armed insurgency with an increasingly Islamist hue. “Once it became a jihad and there were mujahedeen, the philosophies of our religion were in front of us,” she says. “It awakened me to Islam.”
Hers was more than simply a religious awakening, however. Her condition for marrying her husband was that he help her secure a combat role alongside him. He agreed, and they both initially joined a Salafi fighting group independent of Al-Qaeda — but left it within a month.
“They wouldn't let me fight,” Hala says. “They said I should sit at home. I said, ‘Is there anything in Islam that says I should sit at home?’ I hate this ignorance. Convince me through my religion and I will accept it.” Instead her commander’s concerns were more parochial: “He said, ‘They'll say, what? He doesn't have men?’”
The next morning the couple pledged allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra. Though she wasn’t interviewed, she says her husband was asked two questions by the Nusra emir who accepted them: "Is she brave enough?" and "Does she have the strength?" He said yes to both. “They replied, ‘We welcome her and her jihad.’”
Nusra’s Al-Qaeda affiliation was an attraction rather than a detraction for Hala. “It bothers the West, which pleases me,” she says. “Let them say Qaeda is terrorist. It honors me to be called a terrorist.”
She shows me a photo, on her phone, of herself in full military camouflage, pants and a long kameez with a matching ammunition belt. Her face is covered with a balaclava, and a Kalashnikov hangs off her shoulder. She admits, though, that she saw little action and that most of her duty was holding the line on fronts that had already been won, which frustrated her.
Her presence among ultraconservative men was a logistical problem. She did not stay in Nusra bases but was housed nearby. A request to join her husband on a mission to the Sheikh Najjar neighborhood of Aleppo was denied because, she says, the Nusra base there consisted of two rooms and about 40 men. “If I went, I'd be in one room with my husband and the other 39 men would have to be in one room. That's not fair. So they didn’t let me go. I understood.”
She volunteered to undertake a suicide mission against a checkpoint in the regime-held city of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib, but her commanders denied her request. She hadn’t memorized the Quran, they told her, a condition Hala thinks was just an excuse. “They just didn’t want me to do it. The Syrian mujahedeen choke, they’re pained when they see a female fighting. It affects them deeply. The foreign fighters don’t.”
Hala and her husband now want to join Nusra’s rival, the newly rebranded Islamic State. The group was disavowed by Al-Qaeda in February, after an uprising against ISIL by a number of Syrian rebel units. Nusra had initially tried to cut an uneasy middle path between ISIL and the Syrian rebels, and offered sanctuary to foreign fighters who had borne the brunt of the anti-ISIL backlash because they tended to be more conservative and strict with locals than Syrians. At the time, Nusra asked Hala and her husband to share their home in Syria with a Tunisian ISIL emir and his wife, something they willingly did. Nusra later became openly hostile to ISIL, and the Tunisian emir fled to Raqqa city in the northeast, the only one of Syria's 14 provincial capitals to fall from the government's hands. It’s the de facto capital of a self-proclaimed Islamic state.
IS has publicly demanded that Al-Qaeda accept the authority of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (now referred to as Caliph Ibrahim), a request Nusra and Al-Qaeda have rejected.
Hala’s husband wants to join IS because he thinks Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has gone soft and has wronged al-Baghdadi. Hala wants to join because she has seen women fighting in its ranks, although they were all foreigners rather than Syrian. What makes her desire for combat and martyrdom even more startling is the fact that she was 10 weeks pregnant at the time of our meeting.
Hala’s pregnancy, however, was not the reason she and her husband were in Turkey. They were there because the internecine war between Nusra and ISIL had heated up, and they intended to travel to Raqqa city via Turkey to join the Tunisian emir who had been their guest. “If God grants us martyrdom, the child will be raised either by my parents or my husband's,” Hala said matter-of-factly. Her parents and siblings, now in Saudi Arabia, can’t understand her transformation. “They can't convince me [to stop], but they use emotion — you know how parents are — but I refuse. I say, ‘We'll meet in paradise.’”
Unlike Hala, Sara isn’t new to Al-Qaeda’s ideas, but she is new to having to do the laundry by hand because there’s no electricity, and to living in a two-story home whose first floor is often inhabited by the families of foreign fighters temporarily housed there by her brothers. When I first met her in early February, a German ISIL fighter, his wife, several children and two other German women whose husbands had been killed in battle had recently vacated the first floor. The women barely spoke any Arabic, Sara said, but she was happy for the female company.
“There's nothing here,” she said, gesturing outside the window at the homes around her. “The thing that makes me happiest now is to see my brothers after they come back from an operation. I'm the first to see them, to cook for them, wash their clothes, and the same for my husband. This is enough for me now. There is no need to think about another life.”
The thing that makes me happiest now is to see my brothers after they come back from an operation. I'm the first to see them, to cook for them, wash their clothes, and the same for my husband.
Woman in a Jabhat al-Nusra family
Sara once had another life. Her husband, Mohammad, had been imprisoned by Syrian security forces and served 26 months behind bars for attacking a checkpoint in Latakia province. He wasn’t a member of Nusra at the time, and was released five months before I met them. He spoke with a strong lisp because most of his teeth were knocked out during beatings he says he received in regime detention. Sara spent the period of his incarceration with her parents in Antakya, where she filled her days working in a honey factory. “I worked for three years, and I can work now if I want. People think that if we wear a hijab we are from the Stone Age. We are not the same as the Qaeda of Pakistan or other places. Our society is different here,” she said. “Look at Saudi Arabia, they're not Al-Qaeda, but women there have less rights than us here. They can't come and go freely or drive cars. I can. They fight Qaeda, but their mentality is harsher than Qaeda's.”
“Harsh” is clearly relative. One Friday afternoon in February, we watched from the window as men who now lived in the village streamed out of the mosque after prayers. The Tunisian emir Hala and her husband had taken in had delivered the sermon. The first half was a fiery rant against the evils of democracy and how Muslims who called for it weren’t true Muslims, a view shared by Jabhat al-Nusra. He railed against freedom of expression and action. “They curse God and the Prophet, peace be upon him, and say it is freedom of expression. They walk around naked and say this is freedom!” he said. “If you, a Muslim, express your opinion, you are a terrorist … This is the rule of the ignorant, and whoever wants it is an infidel.”
The second half of the sermon concerned rebel attacks against ISIL: “Look at our enemies. Who are they, what is their ideology and who are their backers? Before they started killing the State they would complain about a lack of weapons and ammunition, then when they decided to kill the State, we saw tanks, and 23s [antiaircraft guns] and weapons! Their financing is from countries that don’t want an Islamic project in Syria or Iraq. Think about it!” he said.
Sara pointed out a redheaded Chechen fighter dressed in an almost-ankle-length kameez. He had defected from ISIL to Jabhat al-Nusra. He walked alongside a Syrian colleague with a thick, bushy black beard who was dressed in a salwar kameez patterned from military camouflage. The Syrian lived next door to Sara, on the other side of a small clearing where people burned bags of trash. “He killed his own father and uncle after Nusra found them guilty of collaborating with the regime,” Sara said, gesturing toward her neighbor. “He shot them dead.”
Her husband, Mohammad, had returned to shower. He yelled out from the bathroom that he wanted the nail clippers in the display cabinet. Sara couldn’t find them. “Where are they?” she bellowed. “Next to the grenades,” he said. She handed him the nail clippers and took a bottle of moisturizer out of the cabinet and applied it to her dry hands.
“Look at my hands,” she said. “I feel like I'm on a front too. I have to do everything here, and all by hand. My whole life has changed.”
A month later, in March, Mohammad would go missing on his way to the Turkish border. Sara returned to her parents in Turkey, and to her job in the honey factory, while she waited for news. He was found three weeks later, detained by a Free Syrian Army unit that thought he was a member of ISIL. During that time, the house in Syria where they were staying had once again been occupied by foreigners, this time a Chechen man and three of his sisters who had come to Syria to marry mujahedeen. It was a source of great amusement to Sara and her female relatives. “We used to worry about our men fighting the regime,” a Nusra wife said on a sunny afternoon in a home in Antakya where several women were gathered. “Now we also have to worry about Chechen women who are looking to marry them!”
To readers elsewhere, the idea of a self-declared Islamic caliphate or an Al-Qaeda-controlled belt creating a new social order in huge swaths of northern Syria and Iraq may seem far-fetched, given the overwhelming advantage in military strength of the states it is challenging. There is also strong local opposition to these schemes. But at the moment, for Hala, Sara and hundreds of thousands of men and women in many of the towns and villages that have fallen out of Syrian and Iraqi government control, the ISIL-Qaeda social order is slowly becoming a lived reality.