(This article originally appeared as a four-part series in the Daily Beast from which I previously posted four extracts.)
Michael Weiss writes: It took some convincing, but the man we’ll call Abu Khaled finally came to tell his story. Weeks of discussion over Skype and WhatsApp had established enough of his biography since last we’d encountered each other, in the early, more hopeful days of the Syrian revolution. He had since joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State and served with its “state security” branch, the Amn al-Dawla, training jihadist infantry and foreign operatives. Now, he said, he had left ISIS as a defector — making him a marked man. But he did not want to leave Syria, and The Daily Beast was not about to send me there to the kidnap and decapitation capital of the world. I had met him often enough in Syria’s war zones in the past, before the rise of ISIS, to think I might trust him. But not that much. “Lucky for you, the Americans don’t pay ransoms,” he ventured, after the two of us began to grow more relaxed around each other and the question of ISIS hostage-taking inevitably came up. He said he was joking.
I knew from our digital parlays that, if he were telling the truth, he had extraordinary, granular information about the way ISIS operates: who is really in charge, how they come and go, what divisions there are in the ranks of the fighters and the population. Abu Khaled saw firsthand, he said, what amounted to the colonial arrogance of Iraqi and other foreign elites in the ISIS leadership occupying large swaths of his Syrian homeland. He was in a position to explain the banality of the bureaucracy in a would-be state, and the extraordinary savagery of the multiple security services ISIS has created to watch the people, and to watch each other. He could also tell me why so many remain beholden to a totalitarian cult which, far from shrinking from its atrocities and acts of ultra-violence, glories in them.
Abu Khaled had worked with hundreds of foreign recruits to the ISIS banner, some of whom had already traveled back to their home countries as part of the group’s effort to sow clandestine agents among its enemies.
But Abu Khaled didn’t want to leave his wife and an apartment he’d just acquired in the suburbs of embattled Aleppo. He didn’t want to risk the long journey to this Turkish port city. Since he’d bailed out of ISIS, he said, he’d been busy building his own 78-man katiba, or battalion, to fight his former jihadist comrades.
All very interesting, I answered, but still we would have to meet face to face, even if that meant both of us taking calculated risks.
The worst terrorist bombing in modern Turkish history had just been carried out by ISIS operatives in the streets of Ankara, killing over 100 people in a NATO country, reinforcing yet again one of the core ideological conceits of the putative caliphate: Borders are obsolete, and ISIS can get to you anywhere, as it wants everyone to know. There was at least a possibility Abu Khaled was still a spy for ISIS, and that he was part of an operation to collect new hostages. [Continue reading…]