Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa write: Abu Ahmad never hesitated in his embrace of the Syrian uprising. Born in a northern Syrian city to a conservative and religious Sunni Arab family, he was a student when the revolt began in March 2011, and joined the protests against President Bashar al-Assad from day one.
“With excitement in our hearts we saw [the uprising in] Egypt happening, followed by the revolution in Libya,” he said. “We hoped the wind of change would not pass our country.”
When the uprising became a full-fledged civil war by mid-2012, Abu Ahmad decided to take up arms and fight. He joined a jihadi-leaning rebel group, whose members were mostly Syrians but also included some foreign fighters from Europe and Central Asia. The composition of the brigades was in flux then — every couple of months, Abu Ahmad’s group would either change its name or unite with other jihadi rebels. But then the groups began to consolidate: In Spring 2013, Abu Ahmad chose to side with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant when it officially expanded into Syria, as tensions escalated between the jihadi group and the Nusra Front. The group would go on to proclaim itself a worldwide caliphate in June 2014, assuming the name “Islamic State” to reflect its global ambitions. To this day, Abu Ahmad is a serving member in the organization, with unique insight into the group’s behavior and its history.
Over the course of our more than 15 meetings with Abu Ahmad, we questioned him intensively about his knowledge of the jihadi group and his bona fides as one of the “soldiers of the caliphate.” Over a period of 10 months, we spent more than 100 hours with him. He patiently answered our questions on everything from how he ended up with the Islamic State, how the organization is organized, and the identity of the European foreign fighters within the group. Our interviews would go on for six hours a day, in week-long stretches.
Abu Ahmad took a great personal risk in talking to us. Because he is still with the Islamic State, we had to deliberately obscure some details about his life to protect his identity.
Abu Ahmad agreed to speak to us, he explained, for several reasons. Although he is still with the Islamic State, he doesn’t agree with everything the outfit does. He is attracted to the organization because he views it as the strongest Sunni group in the region. However, he is disappointed that it “has become too extreme,” blaming it for doing such things as crucifying, burning, and drowning its opponents and those who violate its rules.
For example, Abu Ahmad objected to a punishment that the Islamic State implemented in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, where it put a cage in the middle of the city center, known as Freedom Square, to punish Syrian civilians guilty of minor crimes, such as selling cigarettes. The group, Abu Ahmad said, imprisoned Syrians in the cage for three days at a time, hanging a sign around their neck stating the crime that they had committed.
“Now the square is known as the Punishment Square,” he said. “I think this kind of harsh punishment is bad for us. It is making ISIS more feared than liked by Sunnis, which is not good at all.”
In the past, Abu Ahmad said, he had hoped the Islamic State would become “jihadi unifiers,” capable of bringing Sunni jihadis together under one banner. He admired the foreign fighters whom he knew, mainly young men from Belgium and the Netherlands who had traveled to Syria to fight jihad. They had all lived in rich and peaceful countries, and while tens of thousands of Syrians had paid large sums of money to be smuggled to Europe to escape the war, these jihadis voluntarily traveled in the exact opposite direction.
“These foreigners left their families, their houses, their lands and traveled all the way to help us here in Syria,” Abu Ahmad said. “So to support us they are truly sacrificing everything they have.”
But Abu Ahmad would soon sour on aspects of the jihadi group. First, the Islamic State has not brought jihadis together; on the contrary, tensions have risen with other groups, and he worried that “the rise of ISIS led to the breakup with the Nusra Front and the weakening of unified jihadi forces in Syria.”
Secondly, while some of the foreign fighters were men who led truly religious lives in Europe, he discovered another group that he took to thinking of as the “crazies.” These were mostly young Belgian and Dutch criminals of Moroccan descent, unemployed and from broken homes, who lived marginal lives in marginal suburbs of marginal cities. Most of these crazies had no idea about religion, and hardly any of them ever read the Quran. To them, fighting in Syria was either an adventure or a way to repent for their “sinful lives” in Europe’s bars and discos. [Continue reading…]