Mousab al-Hamadee, an activist with the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, was recently awarded a fellowship to study at Syracuse University as well as an internship with the International Peace and Security Institute in Washington, D.C. He has in the past authored several Syria Witness reports describing his life as an activist in Syria’s Hama governorate. Before returning to his work in Syria, Mousab wrote about a seven-hour ordeal he and an American journalist encountered as captives of Jabhat al-Nusra, a radical Islamist militant group affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq.
Middle East Voices’ “Syria Witness” features personal accounts by citizen-journalists inside Syria about the grim challenges of survival in a war zone. These activists are often the only available street-level information source about life in a country whose government restricts independent reporting.
Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and, for their personal safety, some contributors do not use their real names. Accounts may be edited for reasons of clarity and style, but no changes to content are made.
Mousab al-Hamadee, May 2013
We have made many mistakes during our prolonged revolution. Some of them are normal and of the kind that inevitably occur; others are stupid and irresponsible acts. One of the stupid mistakes was when as activists we named one of our Friday demonstrations “We All Are al-Nusra Front” in solidarity with that rebel group. That was only a few days after the United States declared Jabhat al-Nusra to be al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, and as a result was classified as a terrorist group.
We were not smart at all at that time. We were furious that the United States dared to name that bunch of nice guys who came from different Arab and Islamic countries to defend us against the cruelty of our government as terrorists belonging to al-Qaida. Our revolution is for liberty, dignity and democracy – concepts that have nothing to do with al-Qaida ideology.
To our surprise then, this jihadi group announced itself as a branch of al-Qaida recognizing its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as their high prince and perfect example. It was a two-fold shock for us.
First, we were so sad and angry that these guys revealed something dangerous they were hiding and implying that they have a project that would extend beyond Syria’s borders.
Second, we felt ashamed that we named that Friday in their honor. I remember how my friends and looked into one another’s faces, laughing bitterly and telling each other with a big dose of irony: Congratulations! We all are al-Qaida! Cheers to the help we will be getting from the Friends of Syria!
But then we comprehended that we have to absorb the shock and proceed to deal with the situation wisely. And luckily we saw encouraging signs; many Syrian volunteers who were recruited by al-Nusra began to abandon its ranks. Tensions deepened between locals and these scattered groups, and we documented events when in Kirkat and in other communities in Hama province many villagers expelled al-Nusra fighters from their land.
But for me particularly, I must not be that surprised at all because I am one of the few activists who faced the real terrorist threat of this group in an early stage when some of my friends and I were kidnapped. We were dealt with in a very cruel way by these extremists who, it turned out, have a very non-Syrian agenda.
Captured by al-Nusra fighters
Two months before they declared their true colors, I had an encounter with al-Nusra guys that made me question their real identity and agenda.
As a member of the Local Coordination Committees with a good command of English, I worked with some of the reporters who despite the regime’s ban on foreign journalists were able to slip into Syria and report from within its liberated territories.
In March, 2013, I escorted David Enders, Syria bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, through the countryside of Hama and Idlib.
“We had our rifles and we could have confronted them, but for what purpose? We knew they were rebels like us …” – Mousab al-Hamadee
David decided that he will write a story about al-Nusra and asked me to find someone in charge to talk to. I had followed his earlier reporting on the Internet and liked his way of being sincere about what he sees in Syria. So, I introduced him to a close friend from my home town who is an emir of al-Nusra in Hama province. My friend welcomed David and encouraged him to go ahead with his work, but said he was unwilling to talk to the media.
The next day, I rode with David and two Free Syrian Army friends to meet another al-Nusra leader, Abu Hassan, in the mountain town of Albara. The two Syrians and I were armed with Kalashnikov rifles, the norm for rebels even in liberated territories where danger still lurks at every corner.
Caught at a checkpoint
A brother-in-arms of Abu Hassan’s said he was not at his base but offered us coffee. Later, as we drove through a narrow mountain pass on the way home we were stopped by two cars, each with bearded armed men I had seen back in a courtyard in Albara.
They stood by their cars at a checkpoint in the road and stopped us in a very impolite way. We had our rifles and we could have confronted them, but for what purpose? We knew they were rebels like us, and certainly we thought there must have been some kind of misunderstanding we should be able to resolve.
As soon as we surrendered to them, they started behaving erratically and started shooting into the air, intimidating other Syrians who passed us on the road. They ordered us into their cars, covered our heads with black scarves, ordered us to be silent and drove away recklessly.
I was afraid because I thought that perhaps these men were not ordinary rebels. I even suspected that they could be supporters of the Assad regime who had infiltrated liberated territories to kidnap David and us.
About 10 minutes later, we stood before a big chicken barn. A number of jihadis emerged and took us to a very dark and humid room. They ordered us to take off our shoes, then tied our hands behind our backs very tightly, to the point of inflicting a great amount of pain. They checked us out as professionals would further fueling my suspicion that we were dealing with operatives of the regime’s intelligence branch, a suspicion that would soon prove unfounded.
Morbid reckonings and a soft voice
Our captors spoke very little, but Jabbar, one of my two Syrian friends, shouted out: “Why are you doing that with us? We are members of the Free Syrian Army.”
Their reply shocked us: “You say it that easy! You will pay dearly for that!”
Two hours later, they took David away and forced the three of us to lie down on the cold floor of the barn and covered us with heavy blankets.
Our situation was dire, and I started to imagine how these foreign jihadis would slaughter us. I was especially worried about David, knowing that they could probably find more reasons to kill him than us. I remember overhearing a conversation amongst our captors about how a jihadi by the name of Ahmad once mutilated shabiha (government thugs) and threw their bodies into an old Roman well in Hama. One of the men, an Alawite (Syria’s ruling sect to which Bashar al-Assad belongs), according to the conversation, was thrown into the well while still alive.
Psychologically, these morbid reckonings were pushing my limits.
After about five hours, we heard someone enter the area in which we were held. The person spoke with a soft voice suggesting he was a religious man.
He apologized for what he called a misunderstanding and said that we were free to go. He helped us get up, but kept our heads covered and hands tied behind our backs.
Our captors gave us some food and then led us outdoors. I was able to see a little bit from under my hood as our captors had placed it on my head loosely, to accommodate my glasses. I saw our car as David was being put into it.
Our captors then put the rest of us in the car and the religious man drove us to a main road followed by a truck full of militants.
When the cars came to a stop, our captors uncovered our heads and untied our hands. Before they released us, the religious man recommended I read some books about Islamic jurisprudence that would explain to me the dangers of having close contacts with people like David who they considered to be enemies of Allah.
This is what I recall. David has since published his own account of our kidnapping.
NOTE: To become a Syria Witness and tell your own inside-Syria story, contact David Arnold, coordinator of our Syria Witness project at syriawitness(at)gmail.com. For safety reasons, we strongly urge you to use a browser-based e-mail (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail) and be sure “https” appears in the URL. You can also invite Arnold to Skype at davidarnold70.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.