Al-Qaeda City was an industrial zone, a vast plain of concrete and stone factories and cattle sheds and homes 10 miles north east of Aleppo, and when Bashar al-Assad’s army crashed up the main highway from Hama, lifting the rebel siege of Aleppo and careering on towards the Turkish border, the soldiers and tank crews were suddenly confronted by the biggest and most sophisticated fortress ever built by followers of the late Osama bin Laden.
Today, Syrian 155mm guns are banging off northbound shells from the olive and walnut orchards around what had been one of the country’s economic powerhouses, today reduced to square miles of smashed factories and burned chemical plants where, according to the Syrian commanders who had to smash their way into this place of pulverised iron, rubble and ash, hundreds of Islamist suicide fighters blew themselves up en masse rather than surrender. Colonel Saleh, sunglasses wrapped round a burned, lean face, stared at one great heap of sandwiched concrete in the middle of this grey wasteland and made a rare admission of loss for an officer of the Syrian army in this dangerous place. “The terrorists all blew themselves up with suicide belts,” he said. “They brought the buildings down on top of them as we attacked. I lost 27 of my soldiers storming just this one area.”
Miles of underground tunnels still lace their way beneath what had once been the Sheikh Najjar Industrial Zone, while men from al-Qaeda, Jabel el-Nusra, Jihad Islamia, the al-Sham Brigade and remnants of the old ‘Free Syria Army’ – all struggling to overthrow Assad’s regime – spent two years mining the buildings above ground, hacking lorry-wide passageways between their walls and cutting out sniper’s nests in every street and on every floor. What had been one of Syria’s newest industrial estates was transformed into a place of death; food stores and grain mills were turned into arms storage depots, their basements into dormitories for the hundreds of rebels who lived here.
In pictures: Syria conflict
In pictures: Syria conflict
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Syrians carry children amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl on a street covered with dust following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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Syrians react as they stand amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man carries a girl amid debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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An injured Syrian man walks out from the rubble of a destroyed building following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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A Syrian woman makes her way through debris following a air strike by government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
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People stand on the rubble of collapsed buildings at a site hit by what activists said was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in the Al-Fardous neighbourhood of Aleppo
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Syrian residents stand amid the rubble of destroyed buildings
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A Syrian resident grasps a mattress amid rubble in the al-Firdous neighborhood of the northern city of Aleppo
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A bullet-riddled parking sign stands amid debris in a deserted street leading into the old city of Homs
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A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas
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A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years
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Buses carrying Free Syrian Army fighters leaving Homs. Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a cease-fire deal with government forces. The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad's rule, earning it the nickname of "capital of the revolution"
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Syrian government forces hold up a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad (L) while others raise the national flag on top of a pole in the old city of Homs
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Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad run through Aleppo's Bustan al-Qasr crossing after their release by rebels. They were freed as part of a larger deal which saw the last remaining Syrian rebels in central Homs city evacuate their positions and free captives in several locations in northern Syria
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A Syrian woman and two children walk past heavily damaged buildings in the northern city of Aleppo
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A man carries a wounded girl following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Mowasalat neighborhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A wounded man sits as he is treated at a makeshift hospital following a reported bombardment with explosive-packed "barrel bombs" by Syrian government forces in the al-Sakhour district of the northern city of Aleppo
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Debris rises in what Free Syrian Army fighters and Islamic rebels said was an operation to strike Al-Sahaba checkpoint, which is considered a gateway to Al-Dayf valley, and remove forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib province
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Men try to put out fire at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Civil Defence members try to put out fire
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Survivors react at a site hit by what activists said was an air strike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the town of Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey
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Residents queue as they wait to receive food aid distributed by the UNRWA at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, south of Damascus
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Belongings of Syrian rebels inside a chapel at Crac des Chevaliers, the world's best preserved medieval Crusader castle in Syria. The village was destroyed in fighting between the government and rebel forces while the castle, listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, also has been damaged over the past two years
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Hosen Sabah, a 16-year-old student is comforted by his mother at a hospital in Damascus. Nosen was wounded by a mortar outside his school, while 14 other students were killed and over 80 wounded
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A Free Syrian Army fighter works on a locally made launcher before firing it towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad in Mork town
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Syrian policemen and citizens inspecting the site of a car bomb at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus. According to Syria's Arab News Agency (SANA), a car bomb explosion has gone off in the countryside of Damascus and initial information say there are casualties, where a car rigged with explosions was remotely detonated at the entrance of Moadhamiyet al-Sham neighborhood in rural Damascus during engineering units it was trying to dismantled it
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Opposition fighters carrying a rocket launcher during clashes against government forces in the Sheikh Lutfi area, west of the airport in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo
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A Syrian man helps a woman to make her way through debris following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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A Syrian man reacts as he carries the body of injured boy following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 33 civilians were killed in the attack
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Syrian rescue workers carry the body of a woman following reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
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Syrians gather at the site of reported air strikes by government forces in the Halak neighbourhood in northeastern Aleppo
It should take seven minutes up the highway from Aleppo to reach this extraordinary city of ruins, but the front lines of the Islamist forces north-east of the city – at some points scarcely 700 metres from the Syrian main supply route – so encroach on the countryside that we had to drive more than 30 winding miles along earthen laneways and behind ramparts of sand and concrete blocks to reach the ruins. It was a worrying trail, criss-crossed at night by tracer fire, that snaked past broken, evil-smelling sewage farms, across weed-strewn stretches of pre-war motorways and beneath the grass-covered tracks of the old railway line to Turkey, once the final stretch of track on Agatha Christie’s famed Oriental Express to Aleppo.
But there is nothing romantic about this battlefield. Just outside the rooftop headquarters where Colonel Saleh – like all his fellow officers, he wears no badges of rank – sits, surrounded by squawking radio sets, is a blasted-out Syrian tank. Its tracks have been shorn off, the front of the tank blown apart. Captured in the early months of the war, it was used by two suicide fighters in a vain attempt to smash the vehicle -- packed with explosives -- into the huge walls of Aleppo prison. The jail, in which hundreds of inmates are reported to have died of disease, hunger and ill-treatment over two years – and which was never taken by the rebel forces surrounding it – was not breached. “There were two suiciders inside,” Colonel Saleh says coldly. “One was Syrian, the other Egyptian.”
His colleagues are eager to talk of the huge number of foreign fighters who were based in this industrial complex – Chechens, they say, and Afghans and Egyptians, Saudis, Qataris, Algerians – and only rarely do they admit to the Syrians who also fought here against the government army. It is now a familiar format: Bashar al-Assad’s army are fighting "foreign terrorists" – an identical claim to that of the Americans when their forces were being assaulted in occupied Iraq a decade ago – who are being financed and armed from Turkey. Requests to see identification papers of the dead were, as usual, initially received with enthusiasm but "The Independent" was later told that they had been taken to an intelligence archive in the city of Hama.
But this was not just a geopolitical battle for the land north of Aleppo. You only have to drive a few miles east of the ruins to find a deserted but undamaged motorway with its modern, blue-painted signposts to Raqqa, the one large Syrian city today still totally under the control of rebel forces. The heavily defended Syrian industrial complex was the western front of an Islamist war zone that stretches for hundreds of miles to the east and finds its other front line on the western outskirts of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
Colonel Saleh and his men led me through acres of crushed factories, all surrounded by deep trenches and most gouged out by shell-fire and explosives. A headquarters dormitory was constructed beneath grids below a towering cereal feed mill whose outer walls had been smashed down, apparently by air attack – although the colonel denied this. Next to it was a factory for producing ‘zaatar’ – piles of crushed grain were still lying across the floor amid cartridge cases – from which tunnels had been dug up to five metres deep beneath the surrounding buildings, shorn up by earthen sandbags made out of animal feed sacks.
There was a vast fuel depot for trucks, partly underground, and I saw factory employees’ stone villas and gardens which had been buttressed with concrete and constructed into defensive positions so that it was possible for the Islamist defenders to moves across the city, above or below ground or across rooftops, crawling through the tunnels or driving through walls and concealed courtyards. Thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft shell cases were heaped in one garden, but there was one salient fact about this grim city of death: it had been built and defended by technical men, by strategists, by experts in design and defence whose interests went deeper than Islam. Did they come from Turkey? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Or were they local men trained outside the Muslim world, perhaps originally aided by supplies from the west, initially so promiscuously dispatched to anyone fighting the Assad regime?
For young men supposedly fixated by submission to God, the hundreds of Islamists who died here were remarkably self-regarding about their own identity. “Abu Mohamed” and “Hassan of Raqqa” had spray-painted their names beside an empty sheep and cattle market. “The Heroes of Yasser” – a suburb of Damascus – had proudly painted their names next to an underground bunker. The Syrian army spoke only vaguely of survivors and there was no mention of prisons for those who may have surrendered – one must imagine that few did – and there is no final figure for the hundreds of al-Qaeda dead. Colonel Saleh’s 27 men were just a few of the Syrian soldiers who also perished here. “Our sacrifice was very great,” one of his colleagues said bleakly.
In the world of the pseudo-experts of "terrorism", this was a masterpiece of what they like to call "al-Qaeda Inc." although, of course, the Islamists’ enemies here are those who support a ruthless regime which the west has vowed to destroy – and failed to crush – on many occasions. The battle north-east of Aleppo was undoubtedly a victory for the Syrian government. But the gunfire around us and the whispering of high-flying jets told another story: that this is a war which is far from won and the fighting and dying will continue, perhaps for years.