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Syrian rebel beheaded in apparent case of mistaken identity

BEIRUT — Mohammad Fares was euphoric in victory, boasting in recorded Web comments that his Syrian rebel comrades would soon “destroy the mountains of Qardaha,” referring to the ancestral hometown of President Bashar Assad's clan.

The same face, this time with a frozen and vacant expression, appears in a ghoulish Internet video tableau: A black-clad rebel fighter with a knife in his left hand hoists what appears to be Fares’ severed head in the palm of his right hand, displaying the macabre, bearded trophy in the manner of a waiter balancing a tray with the evening’s roast.

“An Iraqi Shiite in the army of Bashar!” declares the swaggering knife-wielder, apparently keen to let everyone in the fervent crowd of onlookers know that this noble deed was his handiwork.

Several spectators held up their mobile phones to capture the moment this week in a public street in the northern city of Aleppo. The proud knife-wielder’s sidekick, donning a black tunic with a rifle slung across his shoulder, rants on about “infidels” and “rape,” concluding: “I ask Allah to make us victorious over them!”

Mohammad Fares, it turns out, was not an adversary of these black-garbed holy warriors. He was their ally — a rebel like them, fighting with the expansive Ahrar al-Sham brigade, putting his young life on the line to overthrow Assad’s government.

Fares lost his life in an appalling case of mistaken identity, according to various opposition accounts circulating on the Internet, where the case has caused a minor sensation.

Fares' execution provides a disturbing snapshot of how the 32-month-old Syrian conflict has evolved since the days of unarmed street protesters facing down tanks and troops.

His executioners, Sunni Muslim rebels, apparently mistook Fares for a rival Shiite fighting on the side of Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. For hard-line Sunni Islamists who are a major force in the disparate rebel ranks, the Syrian conflict has become an all-out sectarian blood feud between Islam’s two major branches.

Beheadings of “infidels” have apparently become commonplace in rebel-held areas of Syria, at least judging by the many gruesome videos proliferating on the Web. Perpetrators inevitably invoke the name of God.

This time, though, the killers — or at least one of their representatives, who uses the name Omar Qahtaani — expressed remorse. They got the wrong man, explains a somewhat contrite Qahtaani, a member of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS], a powerful rebel faction that is a magnet for jihadists from dozens of nations.

According to Qahtaani’s version, Fares was wounded in a battle and taken to a rebel field clinic. But the injured and disoriented man assumed he had been captured. “He thought he had fallen into the hands of the Shiites,” Qahtaani explained in a series of more than 20 messages on Twitter.

In an apparent bid to conceal his identity and save his life, the ISIS man explained, Fares resorted to “trickery,” calling out to Zaynab and Hussein, a pair of Shiite saints. Other Sunni rebels heard the desperate entreaties. They fingered Fares as a fifth columnist in their midst.

“So the brothers took him and killed him thinking that he was an infidel,” explains Qahtaani, summarizing the incident as a kind of fog of war blunder that is lamentable but comprehensible. “Oh good brothers, I remind you that this mistake often happens in the battlefields of war and the places of jihad.”

He asks that God “accept our brother Mohammad Fares and forgive his brothers for their actions in which they wanted to defeat the enemy of Allah and their enemy.”

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Twitter: @mcdneville

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Special correspondent Bulos reported from Philadelphia.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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