By Ruth Sherlock, Idlib Province - 12 Jul 2012
Al-Qaeda has infiltrated into Syria and is working to establish footholds in the war-torn northern provinces.
Whilst the militant Islamic organisation's influence remains small, home-grown jihadist groups that are linked with, or sympathetic to the ideals of movement are growing.
The Daily Telegraph has seen al-Qaeda's flag flying openly in some areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces that straddle the borders with Turkey and Iraq and fighters in the rebel Free Syrian Army have told how representatives of the militant group have tried in past months to win control of towns and villages.
"An al Qaeda group led by a man who called himself Abu Saddiq took control in Der Tezzeh," said one FSA rebel speaking on condition of anonymity.
"I was a member of the Revolution Council there. Suddenly there was a new way of thinking. Abu Saddiq was installed as the 'Emir', or 'Prince' of the area for three months. I was told to put my hand on the Koran and to obey him.
"He wanted to build a religious country. He did not want democracy but a religious leader in power. He wanted to use suicide bombers as a way of fighting government troops in the area."
Opposition activists have also told of a similar events inside Idlib, a city that continues to see fierce fighting between government soldiers and rebel groups.
"Al Qaeda tried to set up an Emir there and ran bombing operations against the Syrian military. The members were all Syrian," said a medic working with the opposition.
In both cases local activists and rebel fighters reported that the groups had failed to win hearts and minds. "The local people didn't like their way of thinking. They did not like their methods," said the opposition doctor. "Now he has a small group of only around 25 people with him and they have moved to live in the surrounding mountains.
Other eyewitnesses have told how people fashioning themselves as al Qaeda are making visits to opposition groups on the Syria-Turkey border asking supporters to make the 'Bayan', a commitment to join the organisation and obey its calls.
In the small farming villages around Idlib province, the presence of al Qaeda appeared to have become an open secret. Locals nodded knowingly, all agreeing that the group had a widespread but still weak and generally ineffective presence.
Some of its members have left to fight 'jihad' against the Syrian regime with home-grown Islamic groups.
A young man, 'Mohammed' drove with the Telegraph through the Idlib countryside in his clapped out white Skoda, the steering wheel replaced by one from a racing car. His Kalashnikov lay in-between his legs. Dried blood from comrades who had been wounded or killed in fighting was streaked on the back seat, and religious verses played loudly through the cassette player.
"I was in al Qaeda and I love al Qaeda. Now I am with Ahrar al Sham group because they are stronger in Syria," he said. "I am supporting al-Qaeda's ideology because of America and Britain's actions. America does what she wants, kills as she wishes, robs as she wishes, and attacks innocents as she wishes. All she does is fight Muslims.
"We tried to explain this to US and British citizens but they didn't want to listen and they stayed with their government. That is why the London bombings were right."
For the members of Ahrar al-Sham, many of whom are conservative Salafi jihadists following a strict form of Islam, this is a religious war: a call by God to free their land and promote their religion across a country in which they have long been repressed. They are one of a plethora of groups that work independently of the Free Syrian Army, whose leadership in Turkey has a more secular orientation.
"The FSA are our brothers now. We share in operations because we both have the same goal, to make Bashar al Assad leave. But we have different visions for the future," said Mohammed.
"We would like to be under the judgment of God, under Islamic Shariah law," said the leader of the group for the area around Khan Sheikhoun, on the border between Idlib and Hama province.
As this slow war progresses there are plenty of signs of the religious aspect of the conflict. The Daily Telegraph witnessed the black flag used by al Qaeda flying high in several villages and on pick up trucks of rebel fighters. The men insist it was merely a tribute to their God and not a sign of allegiance to al Qaeda.
Nonetheless hardline groups like Ahrar al-Sham are growing in size and influence. Since they formed six months ago in Idlib it has become a formidable fighting force, commanding bases in most of the province's major population centres.
Its members showed the Daily Telegraph a government checkpoint – a wheat-processing factory that had been converted into a base, which they had attacked the week before. Bullets had effortlessly punched through the concrete breezeblocks.
Dried blood streaked the walls and lay in congealed pools in the corners where soldiers had been hiding for their lives.
"We killed thirteen men," said a fighter proudly.
At a headquarters in Saraqeb bearded men sat squatting on the floor counting piles of bullets. One man in his early twenties proudly revealed a powerful home made bomb; nuts and bolts embedded in a powerful and deadly wedge of TNT.
"Our brothers, mujahideen from Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us how to make these," he said.
"Tell Nato we can make them some if they need."