TEL RIFAT, Syria – Battle-hardened Al Qaeda-linked fighters helping insurgents in Syria are winning over their fellow warriors with a newfound discipline that could make them even more formidable in the war for the hearts and minds of civilians caught in the crossfire of a bloody civil war.
Syrian fighters seeking to topple strongman Bashar Assad told FoxNews.com the jihadists from the Al Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra are ferocious in battle, but then share their spoils with suffering villagers while other insurgents line their own pockets with loot. The new approach by the terror group, infamous for killing civilians with suicide bombings and videotaping grisly beheadings, threatens to broaden its appeal to beleaguered citizens of the war-torn nation.
“They don’t push their ideology at us,” Hassan, a driver and 37-year-old father of three, said as he ate mutton stew by candlelight with four other fighters and a reporter in the northern Syria village of Tel Rifat. “They aren’t corrupt like the others. What they capture from government bases they distribute. They are proper, very correct.”
Al-Nusra, made up largely of Al Qaeda-linked fighters from Iraq, has been in the forefront of many military gains won by rebels -- and the group’s fighters have been staunch in trying to repel an Assad counter-offensive, notably in battles for control of Qusair, a strategic town near the border with Lebanon.
But al-Nusra’s fighting prowess is nothing new. What is new is the discernible trend across the Middle East of Al Qaeda-linked bands that combine jihad with social welfare and relief work, adopting the model used for years by the militant Lebanese movement Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas.
In Tunis, the Salafists are doing much the same as al-Nusra, although in their case jihad is pursued overseas rather than at home. Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan militia implicated in the assault last September on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others dead, also engages in social welfare work.
Analysts say this is a distinct break from the tactics pursued by Al Qaeda in Iraq during the last decade, where suicide bombings, targeting of collaborators and beheadings of hostages were standard tactics. One of the group’s religious advisers, Abu Anas al-Shami, often defended such brutality by saying Allah ordered the faithful to “cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them.”
But the violent and indiscriminate attacks, including bombings of Shia mosques that left hundreds dead, ultimately damaged the group’s image and helped prompt the so-called “Awakening,” which saw Sunni militants who had fought with the jihadists defecting to work with American forces.
Not that the al-Nusra forces who have surfaced in Syria are forgiving or merciful toward their foes. Since announcing its formation in Syria in early 2012, al-Nusra has launched dozens of bombing attacks, often using suicide bombers. But the targets have mainly been government or military buildings, and al-Nusra, unlike Al Qaeda in Iraq, has engaged in relief work.
Slogans scrawled across al-Nusra bases in villages in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib focus less on religious themes and more on social ones, proclaiming an emphasis on helping orphans, feeding the poor and fighting corruption.
Hassan says he’s like most people in the hardscrabble agricultural town of Tel Rifat, an observant Muslim but not especially religious. People, he acknowledges, have become more religious as the civil war has continued, but he says al-Nusra is popular for its trustworthiness more than for its ideology.
With widespread looting, rampant crime and infighting in rebel-held towns, al-Nusra stands out as being more reliable than many of the Free Syrian Army units, Hassan said. In the eastern Syrian city of Raqaa, al-Nusra has set up a complaints department for locals, part of an effort to maintain order. Leaders posted a public notice saying that they were open to receiving complaints and would promise to ensure justice through Sharia courts.
"We promise that we will ensure accountability for anyone committing violations and they will be sent to the Sharia court,” the notice says. "Anyone who might have a complaint against any element of the Islamic state, whether the Emir or an ordinary soldier, can come and submit their complaint in any headquarters building of the Islamic state."
Store owner Mohammed, a father of two young children in the neighboring town of Marea, an FSA stronghold, agrees.
“Local people were not very religious, but that’s changing, and now more people are, and al-Nusra makes even more sense to them. But the main thing people notice is how well-organized they are.”
In the city of Aleppo, a competition is taking place between organizing and relief work run by moderates and those organized by radical Islamists, such as al-Nusra, according to German filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen.
“You see streets being cleaned by al-Nusra and schools organized by al-Nusra and also more moderate groups cleaning streets and operating schools. There is a rivalry going on.
“Most civilians are saying [al-Nusra] may be quite radical, but at least they are helping and doing things, and the strategy is working,” he added.