Undercover video report shows Al Qaeda rule in Idlib

Fighters posing with the flags (from left to right) used by Ahrar al-Sham, the Free Syrian Army, and the al-Nusra Front (now Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham).

Reporter Jenan Moussa released a video report on Twitter from Idlib, Syria, filmed in secret by 3 undercover sources risking their lives. The footage was sent to Moussa and made into a documentary showing a province under the control of Al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria.

“My undercover sources were very scared to get caught by Nusra. Whenever they filmed something, they moved near to Turkey border,” Moussa wrote on Twitter.

Close to the border, the sources connected to a Turkish internet provider and sent the video clips to the journalist. After she received the clips, they were removed from the cell phones.

“In Idlib u can be asked at any time by Nusra to give ur cell phone. They go through pics, vids, contacts. This worried my sources most,” Moussa tweeted.

The sources travelled around Idlib province for three months while secretly filming cities and villages. In the video report, narrated by Moussa, we see walls and billboards covered with slogans in support of or signed by the Al Qaeda-affiliates. Even in the city of Kafrenbel, long considered a stronghold of more “moderate fractions”, Al Qaeda banners are waving. Only in one town, Maraat Nouman, a protest against the jihadist rule was recorded.

Although Jabahat Al-Nusra had changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the old name was still used by people and in official documents. The documentary shows a courthouse on which both names are written next to each other. Al Nusra’s sharia courts and religious police are present in most places in the province.

Idlib has only one official border crossing to the outside world, at Bab al-Hawa with Turkey. However, the team was able to film a second secret border crossing to Turkey designed for members of Islamic fundamentalist groups and their families.

To use the crossing, a permit must be obtained in a refugee camp in Turkey after which they are transported to the border where they cross into the Syrian town of Kherbet al Jouz after having been controlled by Turkish security forces.

The roads in the province had checkpoints controlled by Ahrar al-Sham, Jabahat al-Nusra, Turkestan Islamic Party, and the Free Syrian Army. Out of 38 checkpoints, 21 belonged to al-Nusra and 6 to their allies. The ‘moderate rebels’ have no power in Idlib province, Moussa concludes.

The report was filmed before Al-Nusra, which changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in July 2016, became Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in February 2017.

The sources went back after the name change and reported that the checkpoints no longer had different flags, that some Al Qaeda slogans had been covered, and that the black billboards had been replaced by more appealing colourful ones.