By Ben Hubbard
MAARET MISREEN, Syria -- A year ago, a soft-spoken sweet shop owner from this poor Syrian town got together with his little brother and eight friends to declare war on President Bashar Assad.
They didn't have enough guns to go around. Their leader, 35-year-old Mustafa Filfileh, had no real military experience and little idea how to face one of the Mideast's strongest armies. He didn't even know how to drive.
They learned fast. On Nov. 17, the brigade called "The Beloved of Allah" braced for its biggest challenge yet, making it clear how far its members had come and how far the war had brought them from their former lives.
Men who once sold real estate, laid bricks, wore suits and treated sick farm animals armed themselves with vests laden with ammunition, hand grenades and pocket-sized copies of the Quran. After a two-month siege, they planned to storm a major military base in one of the larger coordinated attacks of the uprising.
It was late 2012, the year that Syria's uprising outpaced the other Arab Spring revolts to become the longest, deadliest and most brutal, killing more than 40,000 people and chasing more than 1 million from their homes.
During the past year, scores of rebel brigades across Syria like The Beloved of Allah have evolved from hapless bands of lightly armed men into formidable fighting groups, shifting the balance against Assad's military. This progress has been marked in recent weeks, with rebels storming military bases and claiming to shoot down government aircraft with newly captured missiles. The government has continued to strike rebel areas, and activists accused it last week of blacking out Syria's Internet for two days.
As the rebels racked up successes, their leadership in exile reorganized under pressure from the West and was recently recognized as Syria's sole legitimate representative by France, Britain and several Arab states. U.S. officials say the Obama administration is moving to do the same.
However, this new leadership body has little traction with the rebels inside Syria, many of whom have evolved during 20 months of conflict from civilian protesters into hardline, Islamist fighters. The shift among rebel groups toward a more militant Islam will likely alienate them from other Syrians and from Western nations that could provide badly needed military aid.
The transformation of The Beloved of Allah, now 150 men strong, was documented in hours of interviews and days spent with the group in June and November 2012, plus dozens of videos shot by its members.
"Our only allegiance is to Allah," Filfileh told his fighters before they attacked the base. "Victory or martyrdom, God willing."
• • •
The Beloved of Allah began with 10 men, five rifles, one rickety machine gun and a few rocket-propelled grenades soon discovered to be duds. It was born in Maaret Misreen, a town where tractors and motorcycles outnumber cars in Idlib province, a center of rebel activity along Syria's northern border with Turkey.
The town first protested in April 2011, one month after the uprising began in the southern city of Daraa. Filfileh, well-liked by the young men who hung around his sweet shop, helped organize.
Filfileh, then 33, wasn't overly religious, sporting a trim beard and often missing some of the five daily Muslim prayers, his brother Mohammed said. He never cared for politics, but joined the uprising to fight a hereditary regime he felt had done little for poor Sunni Muslims like him.
Syria's Sunni majority forms the backbone of the opposition while Assad's regime is dominated by minority Alawites -- an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Through 2011, that regime resorted to increasingly brutal tactics to crush the spreading dissent. By December, Filfileh decided that protesters needed arms, a conclusion reached by many across Syria, starting what would become the Free Syrian Army.
His men pooled their cash to buy guns. They traded a rifle for a van stolen from a security officer, painted it black and adorned the back window with the Muslim declaration of faith, the shehada, a central tenet of the religion that the devout recite in prayer and before traveling, sleep and death: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."
The hood bore their new name: The Beloved of Allah Brigade. The name was inspired by a protest chant about martyrs killed fighting the enemy.
Their first operation was to blow up the house of a Muslim sheik who was arming local residents to fight the opposition. It failed, sparking a two-day clash in December 2011 that killed six people, including Filfileh's brother Ahmed.
"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.
"The first time I walked into this villa, I saw that four of its doors were worth more than my entire house," said Qadi, the veterinarian.
The place had three stories, but the fighters stayed on the ground floor, hoping the house wouldn't totally collapse if the government bombed it. The army shelled the area regularly and most of the house's windows were blown out. But the ground floor had a fireplace to keep it warm and a foosball table to fill idle days.
Militarily, the group had advanced much. Instead of wasting ammunition in frequent clashes, they put snipers in the villas overlooking the base to cover more ground with fewer bullets.
"If you can't destroy a car or shoot a solider and kill him, don't fire," Filfileh said.
One afternoon, the scraping sound of a fighter jet filled the villa. Fighters rushed in, fearing an airstrike.
"To the trucks!" Filfileh yelled.
Within minutes, trucks with anti-aircraft guns blasted at the jet. It dove and struck nearby, sending up a huge cloud of gray smoke.
The rebels downed two jets and sent another away smoking, Qadi said. He had a video of a flaming L-39 training jet falling from the sky, and another of rebels chanting over its wreckage. The videos and claims could not be independently verified.
As the siege drew on, scores of soldiers defected from the base, reporting that morale inside was low and food was short, Qadi said. The helicopters dropped packages of bread. Sometimes, the bread fell to the rebels.
• • •
When the attack on the base finally came, Filfileh called his men together.
Many had long hair and scruffy beards and laughed at how different they looked from their clean-cut selves in old ID photos. They wore camouflage uniforms and black headbands with "There is no God but Allah" embroidered on their foreheads.
Filfileh told them to look out for each other, to fight to the death and to take no prisoners. He said they were fighting for everyone who had been killed or wounded during the uprising. But he framed the fight in stark religious, not political, terms.
"We are heading out for the same goal, all of us," he said, stroking the black beard that now reached his chest. "We are not heading out to topple the regime. We are heading out to raise the banner 'There is no God but Allah.'
"If anyone is martyred, it is because God chose him," he said. "He only takes those whom He selects, the beloved of Allah."
Amid chants of "God is great!" they headed for the base. They stormed their assigned barracks and caught two government soldiers. They were questioned and "eliminated," said Akram, the former accountant.
By dawn, the rebels were clashing with soldiers in another barracks further in. Filfileh and 10 others came under fire and took cover behind a dirt mound. They lay on their chests, shooting at soldiers so close they could shout to them.
And shout they did. "Hey you dogs! Come have a cigarette!" Akram yelled, making his colleagues laugh. "Let me take you for a ride in my pickup!"
The base was falling, and the mood was buoyant. Just then, Filfileh told Akram to get him a rocket-propelled grenade.
When Akram returned, Filfileh was lying face up in the dirt, blood rushing from his forehead.
"Cover! We need cover!" Akram screamed into a walkie talkie. "Filfileh is wounded!"
The fighters carried Filfileh to a van, which raced to the Turkish border. Filfileh lay still on the floor, eyes open, with blood pooling under his head as fighters yelled his name.
At one point, he lifted his index finger in a sign of oath and mouthed the shehada: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."
"He became a martyr next to me!" a fighter wailed. "Filfileh became a martyr!"
That night, the base fell.
The next night, the Beloved of Allah collected at the old farmhouse where they once hid from the army. The place had changed little, other than the new martyr photos on the wall.
The rebels had lost about 10 men in the battle, and Filfileh was badly wounded. But some 500 rebel fighters had routed the government soldiers, taken about 50 prisoners and made off with more booty than any could recall seeing in north Syria, including tanks, rocket launchers, armored vehicles, artillery guns and truckloads of munitions.
The survivors laughed when asked about their past or future lives.
"I try to ask myself where I'll be after the revolution and I can't imagine myself anywhere but in the grave," said Qadi, the veterinarian, who had planned to become a university professor before the uprising. "I've forgotten everything that came before."
Tallal invoked religion.
"If God permits, we could reach the presidential palace or we could all be martyred in the same battle," he said. "We depend only on Allah."
Filfileh was rushed to a hospital in Turkey, where surgeons stopped the bleeding from the bullet that had blown through his skull. Now he is conscious, can speak and says he will return to fight in Syria.
His doctor says he'll be released today. Only time will tell if he'll walk without a cane.