Number of extremist rebels difficult to determine in Syria

(CBS News) DAMASCUS - In the midst of civil war, Syria is anxious to convince the world that the fighters they're battling are al Qaeda-linked terrorists.

On Thursday, we were invited to meet some of those fighters by Khaled Mahjoub, a Syrian-American businessman with close ties to the Assad government.

We drove through Damascus to a military jail, where prison officials told us 50 percent of the opposition terrorists were foreign religious extremists.

Prison officials say about half of the rebels in a military jail are linked to foreign religious extremists. But the three men (shown here) brought in were all Syrians. CBS News

But when the men were brought in, we discovered they were all Syrians: a builder, a metal worker and a farmer.

All three claimed they were fighters whose units had been recently taken over by Islamic fundamentalists, who then made them commit atrocities.

Shadi Idriss told me they videotaped him murdering villagers to post on Facebook. With a room full of government and military observers, who knows what the truth is.

Al-Qaeda-linked rebels assault Syrian Christian village
Putin calls Kerry a liar on Syria
Syrian opposition says Assad regime prepping chemical attacks
More coverage: The crisis in Syria

But we could find no trace of any such video.

And when we asked the men -- all accused of violent acts against the Syrian army -- how they were managing in Syria's notorious prison system, they took off their shirts and said "very well."

The men may not be real al-Qaeda-linked extremists. But no one disputes they're out there.

Their official websites proudly post video of breathtaking cruelty. In one instance, three truck drivers transporting fruit and vegetables are shot summarily at a rebel checkpoint for being from the wrong religious group.

The last thing the U.S. wants is to empower men like this.

The critical question is how many of these extremist fighters are there. It's hard to tell. Best estimates suggest between 15,000 and 20,000 of a total fighting force of say 100,000. But they are extremely effective more than their numbers suggest because they're so much better trained and equipped.

  • Elizabeth Palmer
    Elizabeth Palmer

    Elizabeth Palmer has been a CBS News correspondent since August 2000. She has been based in London since late 2003, after having been based in Moscow (2000-03). Palmer reports primarily for the "CBS Evening News."