-AYN, Syria (AP) — A leader of an al-Qaida-inspired militant group fighting the regime in Syria said his men do not fear death and they are determined to form an Islamic state.
Jabhat al-Nusra — Arabic for "the Support Front" — has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings and other attacks on regime targets across the country. The group has raised fears of a growing Islamic militant element among the forces seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
"Thanks to our strong faith we do not fear death, because we think that if you are killed by the hands of this regime, then we will be martyrs and we will go to paradise," said Sheik Abu Ahmed, 41, a regional military commander for al-Nusra in the northern Hasaka region.
"We want Sharia (Islamic law) to be applied because it's the right path for all humanity," he added. "All these constitutional laws couldn't realize the people's happiness."
Abu Ahmed did not give his real name in an interview this week with The Associated Press or explain why he was using a nom de guerre. He and his fighters were reluctant to reveal much personal information or say what they did before the civil war.
Syria's conflict started 20 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.
Assad blames the revolt on a conspiracy to destroy Syria, saying the uprising is being driven by foreign terrorists, not Syrians seeking change.
Analysts say most of those fighting Assad's regime are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, disenchanted with the authoritarian government. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines. The rebels try to play down the Islamists' influence for fear of alienating Western support.
It's difficult to gauge how much power Jabhat al-Nusra has in the uprising. Although Abu Ahmed says only a tiny fraction of the group's fighters are foreign, others have estimated that its fighters come from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Balkans and elsewhere. Many are veterans of previous wars who came to Syria for what they consider a new "jihad," or holy war, against Assad.
Jabhat al-Nusra has become notorious for numerous suicide bombings targeting regime and military facilities. Syria's rebels have tried to disassociate themselves from the bombings for fear their uprising will be tainted with the al-Qaida brand.
The fear of Islamic extremism resonates deeply in Syria, a country with many ethnic and religious minorities. The Assad dynasty has long tried to promote a secular identity in Syria, largely because it has relied heavily on its own Alawite base in the military and security forces in an overwhelmingly Sunni country.
But Abu Ahmed said he believes Syrians want an Islamic state.
"We think more and more people will follow us," he said. "We think we are on the right path."