Sky’s Tim Marshall gains rare access to a prison where he finds evidence that international jihadists are operating in Syria.
Interviewing people who, under different circumstances, might kill you, is a strange experience.
To the soundtrack of multiple rocket launchers and small arms fire, I met six men who the Syrian authorities told us were jihadist rebel fighters captured by the army.
We were in a Ministry of Interior prison near Damascus in an area now close to the front lines.
The men, four Syrian, an Iraqi, and a Turk, said they had indeed been in the jihadist movement fighting President Assad’s forces, but now renounced the armed struggle even though they continued to espouse Salafist ideology. All are awaiting court appearances.
Jamil Us Turk, Ahmed al Rabido, Hamid Hassan al Attar, Bahar al Bashah, Ali Hussein and Mahmoud al Ahab said they were happy to be interviewed and had not been badly treated.
At one point I asked the guards to leave, spoke with the men alone and checked them for obvious signs of mistreatment, which were not apparent. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both accuse the Syrian regime of routinely torturing prisoners.
As far as I could ascertain, the men were who they said they were. The Turkish man spoke Turkish, the Iraqi had an Iraqi accent, they displayed religious knowledge of the sort taught to those with a Salafist mindset.
Most of the rebel militias are not radical jihadists, but in the last few months there appears to have been a sharp increase in the number of foreign fighters coming to Syria.
The Syrian authorities are keen to promote the view that they are fighting an al Qaeda type force which partially explains why, after much pushing, we were allowed rare access into the jail.
Mahmoud al Ahab, who described himself as a Palestinian Syrian, told me he was in the al Nusra Front which he said was an al Qaeda group. He had sworn an oath of allegiance to al Nursa but now felt this was a mistake.
Ahmed al Rabido, a 48-year-old Syrian, said he was a religious leader, a Mufti, in the Free Syrian Army.
“I joined because I wanted to demolish the secular state… I don’t believe in this anymore because the country is being ruined,” he said.
Bahar al Basah, 35, another Palestinian Syrian, told me he was influenced by the writings of Abu Qatada, the radical cleric currently under house arrest in the UK.
The men only became animated when I showed a little knowledge of Salafist ideology and brought up the works of Islamists such as the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb.
This led to a question about the future of Syria’s minorities such as the Christians. Ahmed, Basah, and Hamid Hassan all agreed – Christians could only live there if they either converted, or paid the ‘Jizyah’ – a special tax levied on non-Muslims in previous centuries in the Middle East. If not said Bahar, they could be killed.
When asked why, the answer was, to them, quite simple – because the Prophet Mohammed said so. I was then invited to become a Muslim.
The conversation verged on the surreal. There we were talking in a quite friendly manner, with the occasional joke, about killing people because they wouldn’t pay the Jizyah, which critics regard as effectively obtaining money through menaces.
The interview ended with Ahmed volunteering that eventually Muslims must reclaim Andalucia in Spain for the Islamic Caliphate.
His logic, that it was justified because Spain used to be under Islam, was somewhat undermined when he went on to say that Islam should move on to bring the UK under its control and indeed, eventually, the whole world.
This was a rare first-hand glimpse into the jihadi mindset.
The men are not representative of the FSA, indeed many militia units are deeply suspicious of the jihadists’ aims.
However, it appears that a lot of the best weapons are reaching the jihadist groups, and they are using these to gain influence and territory.
Even if the rebels overthrow the government, they won’t just have a problem dealing with militia from the minority groups, they will have problems with each other.
As the men left to go back to their cells, we shook hands.
Two of them were still trying to convert me, asking me, with a smile, to say the Shahada ‘La ilaha il Allah’ – there is no God but Allah.
Men like this scare Syria’s Christians, Allawites, Shia, Druze, and Kurds, indeed they frighten many of the countries Sunnis, but the war here is now so steeped in blood that compromise seems almost impossible to achieve, and there are now people on both sides who reject compromise out of hand.