We had arranged to meet members of Jabhat al-Nusra in a small town in Jabal al-Zawiyah.
They expected to fully take Taftanaz air base later in the day and had agreed to escort us to meet the fighters who were leading the attack.
This was a risk. Journalists and TV crews were increasingly being abducted in this area. We were trusting that this group valued our coverage more than our currency as hostages.
I had sat in a small room the night before , under the black Jabhat al-Nusra sign, drinking tea and discussing the battle with one of their leaders. He had not looked me in the face. He was clearly uncomfortable in a woman’s presence. But the arrangement had still been made.
So the next morning we pulled into Taftanaz and were driven straight to the group’s base. It was a hive of activity. The fight was over and the clear-up had begun.
Well-dressed, well-armed fighters were hastily loading box upon box of ammunition into trucks and an ambulance with English number plates.
They waved their black flags and copies of the Quran. The atmosphere was jubilant. At least until a MIG flew low overhead causing everyone to flee for cover.
My local fixer asked Abou al-Hasan, their leader, if we could film. He agreed. But another fighter, wearing a black balaclava, started shouting at me and gesturing at me to get out. I was wearing a headscarf. Perhaps a strand of hair was showing. Or perhaps he just was not prepared to let a woman into the camp. More negotiation and pleading and I was allowed to stay.
The leader had agreed to be interviewed but not by me. So I stood behind my fixer and fed him the questions.
Their leader talked about the operation to take the base, how they were determined to stop the air attacks from aircraft taking off from Taftanaz, Syria’s largest helicopter base, that were killing their children, destroying their homes and ruining their country. I asked if they would now hand Taftanaz over to Free Syrian Army control.
This had been their practice in other areas, to rid positions of government forces and move on leaving the FSA to hold the newly won ground. Not this time. Abou al-Hasan said the land the air base had been built on had originally belonged to the local people. Maybe now it should be handed back to the local peasants and farmers.
As we listened to their voices it was clear the majority of these fighters were Syrian but not all. One man said he was North African, others from Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. Just who this group is funded by, who it is affiliated to, is one of the West’s preoccupations.
The US State Department designated the group a foreign terrorist organisation just last month. The fighters are certainly more devout than the regular FSA. So I put it to Abou al-Hasan straight. Was Jabhat al-Nasra part of al-Qaeda?
His response was to ask why the West constantly criticises al-Qaeda. This group fights for its rights and against injustice. They had waited for the Arab League and the US to step in to stop the conflict in Syria.
“Have you seen them accomplish anything?” he asked. “If it’s in the US interests they will say we are not terrorists and if not they will say we are terrorists. We are against injustice and anyone who commits injustice. So if justice is al-Qaeda, then we are with al-Qaeda. And if al-Qaeda is injustice, we are against al-Qaeda. If the US is acting for justice, then we are with America. And if America is for injustice, we are against them.”
Independent groups like Jabhat al-Nusra are generally better organised, better equipped and fiercer fighters than other rebel forces. And they’re at the front of the major battle grounds in Idlib Province. Mustafa, their spokesman, puts this down to their willingness to die in this conflict – the honour of martyrdom. He said before they stormed Taftanaz air base their leader asked his fighters who is willing to die? Sixty fighters stepped forward.