‘‘After the battle with the sheik, the whole town rose up and gave up on peaceful means,’’ said Mohammed Tallal, an early member. ‘‘It was as if the protesters were tricking themselves.’’
Young men flocked to the group, leaving their old lives behind. Mohammed Akram, 24, abandoned the suits he wore as an accountant at a brick factory. Abdullah Qadi, 25, dropped his dream to be a professor of veterinary medicine. Abdullah Biram, 23, quit his university business degree. His mother, a teacher, bought him a rifle.
The group’s oldest fighter, Mohammed Ibrahim, 41, nursed a grievance. When he was a boy, security forces broke into his home to arrest his father, whom they suspected of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
‘‘I woke up, saw them and wet myself,’’ he said. ‘‘Since then, I've hated the state.’’
They started small.
‘‘At first we couldn’t attack checkpoints, so we did what God gave us the power to do,’’ Tallal said.
They ambushed security officers to steal their cars, sometimes kidnapping them until they promised to leave the regime. Filfileh learned to drive, rushing wounded people to the Turkish border in his black van and ferrying back guns when he could find them. He rarely visited his wife and five children, but argued with his brother Mohammed when he tried to join the group, Mohammed said. Filfileh felt one of them had to stay alive to support the family.
The Beloved of Allah remained weak.
By June, they were hiding from the army in an unfinished, one-room farmhouse. One wall displayed seven of the group’s dead, their faces imposed over a photo of the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
Most days, they'd sleep in, then while away the afternoon drinking tea, smoking and complaining about their lack of ammunition. On hot days, they'd don shorts and swim in the farm’s irrigation tank.
They had little idea how to get better arms or challenge Assad’s tanks.
Through mid-2012, rebel power grew and Assad’s army ramped up its response.
Relentless government shelling leveled neighborhoods and killed hundreds. Regular reports emerged of mass killings by the regime or thugs loyal to it, pushing more Syrians toward armed struggle. The government, which often calls the opposition terrorist gangs backed by foreign powers, denied any role, and does not respond to requests for comment on its military. The rebels, too, were accused of atrocities.
Fueling the rebel advances were breakthroughs in arms and organization. Rebels seized a large swath of territory along the Turkish border, and different brigades and groups came together to carry out bigger attacks and solicit funding.
The Beloved of Allah rode this current. In August, Filfileh coordinated with other rebel groups to attack an army convoy heading to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, hauling off machine guns, rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and more ammunition than they'd ever had. He also associated his group with the Farouq Brigades of Aleppo, an umbrella group.
Farouq bought regular supplies of ammunition from arms dealers in Turkey and Iraq with aid from abroad. In return, the Beloved filmed its victories against the regime and claimed them for Farouq to solicit further aid.
All the while, the war was growing more sectarian, with the Sunni Muslims who led the revolt becoming increasingly dominated by Islamists. Extremist groups also waded in, terrifying Syria’s Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other minorities.
As the war dragged on and the rebels lost more friends and family members, Filfileh and his men, all Sunnis, increasingly sought motivation and solace in the only ideology with any traction in their patch of rural Syria: Islam. Filfileh grew out his beard, spiced his speech with increasingly religious rhetoric and wore black, Afghan-style outfits, adopting the image of a fighter in jihad, or holy war.
In September, The Beloved coordinated with a half dozen other groups to besiege the 46th Regiment of the Syrian army, near Aleppo. The group had never worked so closely with so many other fighters or tried to take a major military base. They hoped its fall would provide them with valuable booty.
After one failed raid, they realized they didn’t have the firepower to take the base. So they divvied up the territory, cut the supply lines and braced for a long wait.
The Beloved of Allah held a section near a gated community of luxury villas they assumed belonged to rich businessmen and government officials. They settled into a stately, white villa with a columned entryway, a grassy, tree-lined yard and a swimming pool half full of green water and trash.Continued...