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There may be some consolation that most jihadists in Syria don't call themselves al-Qaeda; the brand has become a stinker. But it's really cosmetic. The banner over a rebel checkpoint in the countryside of Idlib looks very much like the flag of Osama bin Laden's army. The colors and logo are just different enough for a local to insist, "We don't have al-Qaeda here." Nevertheless, Syria's militants are steeped in the same Sunni fundamentalism and reinforced by volunteers from around the Muslim world. The ranks of one indigenous militant force with a presence in a half-dozen towns in Idlib and other areas of Syria include jihadists from Kuwait, Libya and Kazakhstan, according to a foot soldier named Ibrahim, who discounts any hint of bin Ladenism. "We are just people who follow our religion," he says. "I'm a mujahid but not al-Qaeda. Jihad is not al-Qaeda." It can be similarly lethal, however. His group's specialty "in the killing and chemical branch" is improvised explosive devices, including copper-lined shaped charges that penetrate armor.
As in Iraq, the Islamists face resistance from a local population resistant to their severe views. "There are some people who are afraid of us," says Abu Zayd, a fighter with another Islamist army. "We need to explain the reality of who we are, that we are not scary." Scary is what's happening in Iraq, where al-Qaeda has found new energy in Syria's turmoil--which may yet make its name. If so, it will join the forces arrayed against Assad that will not disappear just because he does.