by Giorgio Cafiero
During May and June 2018, I met an incarcerated ex-fighter for the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) from North Africa in a Turkish “deportation center.” He had fought in major battles in Syria and Iraq beginning in 2014. This former member of IS, whom I will call Milad, came from a Maghrebi country that I agreed not to specify. Yet this article will relay his story as he told me. It is for the reader to judge whether the information that he provided was truthful.
I first met Milad, a tall, heavy man drenched in sweat, jogging around the walled-in ‘yard’ of the deportation center, to which inmates had access for one to two hours a day. He was extremely candid about his reasons for being locked up at the center, which was a de facto high security prison facility. He had come from his home country to Syria to be, as he put it, an “Islamic Che Guevera” who would fight for IS to defend Muslims being killed, tortured, and raped by the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He told me that over the course of his several years in Syria, he began to deeply regret his decision and ultimately concluded that IS was guilty of many of the same crimes also committed by the Assad regime. Thus, in Milad’s eyes, the group was not truly Islamic.
I wanted to understand what Milad’s endgame plan had been from the beginning. There was no way that this man expected to return home to the Maghreb after fighting for IS and continue his life as before. In fact, since IS ideology fully rejects the concept of citizenship, all foreign fighters who made it to Iraq or Syria to join IS ranks were required to throw their passports into a fire pit, a ritual that serves an obvious symbolic purpose, as well as a practical one too. The destruction of their passports makes it nearly impossible for members to escape and return home without major problems.
Milad explained that he believed that the Assad regime’s fall and the ascendancy of IS were inevitable. According to his early expectations, IS was going to become a permanent fixture in the Levant. He planned on spending the rest of his life living in this “Islamic utopia,” receiving a pension and residing in a beautiful house as a reward for his service.
Milad attributed his radicalization to a violent upbringing. “My father always beat me and my mother,” he told me. “My brother and I used to always fight, viciously. I also fought non-stop with the boy who lived next door.” Not an uneducated man, Milad was a professional engineer before joining IS, and he spoke Arabic, English, and French fluently, along with basic Italian. Yet, despite his education, Milad, like many North Africans, had always struggled to make a living, especially after he had his own children. He saw Islam as a solution to many problems and began to interpret the Quran literally. Milad believed that every action belonged in one of two categories: halal (permissible) and haram (forbidden). For him, there was no moral grey area.
The Syrian Spark
After Syria’s Arab Spring turned violent, Milad tuned in each day to the latest deadly incidents in Aleppo, Baniyas, Deraa, Hama, Homs, and the suburbs of Damascus. Thanks to the Internet, he saw extremely graphic footage of the Syrians who perished as the Syrian Arab Army brutally suppressed what originally had been a peaceful uprising. Footage of maimed children and veiled women’s corpses strewn about the streets enraged Milad. He decided that he could not remain in his home town as fellow Muslims were being slaughtered by a regime that he considered led by non-Muslims. (Bashar al-Assad is an Alawi Muslim, which, according to Salafist-jihadist ideology, makes him a non-Muslim).
“It didn’t matter if Muslims were being killed in Pakistan, Syria, or America,” Milad said. “At that time, I would have travelled anywhere to defend them. I always admired Che Guevara and I wanted to be an Islamic Che Guevara who’d go to Syria to do what was right.”
Milad, refusing to heed his mother’s advice to stay out of Syria, went to Aleppo in 2014. He travelled to Tripoli, flew to Istanbul, and then to Hatay Province, situated in southern Turkey, several dozen miles from Aleppo. The Istanbul-Hatay flight was filled with bearded men who had clean-shaven upper lips and wore ankle-high trousers, all traits of the Salafists who try to imitate the habits of the first Muslims. Everyone, including the Turkish police, flight crew, and airport security officials, knew that these mainly non-Turkish Salafist-jihadists were travelling to Hatay to enter Syria. At that time, Turkey’s authorities were lax about the border and supported the influx of foreign jihadists into Syria via Turkey from both North Africa and Europe. After all, such forces were determined to fight both the Assad regime and Kurdish nationalist militias that had gained greater autonomy in Syria during the crisis, highlighting an alignment of interests between Ankara and dangerous non-state actors in Syria.
From Hatay, Milad made it to Aleppo, where his IS training began. He had never picked up a gun. Over the course of one month he received tactical training. “There were people from all over the world at this camp,” he reported. “Many Tunisians and other North Africans were there. Also, many Arabs from the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, were at this camp along with Muslims from European countries and Southeast Asia.”
From 2014 to early 2018, Milad fought for IS. He was involved in major battles for Aleppo, Mosul, Palmyra, and Raqqa. When I asked, “Whom did you fight in Syria – the Syrian Arab Army?” Milad laughed. “Giorgio, the so-called Syrian Arab Army isn’t Syrian, Arab, or an army anymore. It’s a ragtag coalition of Shia jihadists from many countries.” He explained that in Palmyra he fought Afghan Shia fighters who waved yellow flags during the battle. This specific militia, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, takes orders from Iran’s Supreme Leader and belongs to what a former Iranian general hailed as a “Shia Liberation Army.”
“I wanted to go to Kobani to fight the PKK,” he continued. “At that time, I was fired up about fighting and I desperately wanted to be in that battle against the Kurds. But I was stationed elsewhere in Syria.”
He recalled being with his fellow IS soldiers when they learned about how IS had burned to death Moath al-Kasasbeh, a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot captured in Syria. They were sitting around and pulled up the propaganda video that IS had put together of the barbaric killing. Some flipped out and could not believe that even IS would carry out such an act. One of the fighters remarked that the burning of the Jordanian pilot was un-Islamic, and a few others sternly admonished him to keep that thought to himself. If a superior were to hear that comment, the punishment would be swift, severe, possibly fatal. Quickly Milad and others began uttering over and over, “Almadallah [praise be to Allah]! This is indeed most Islamic. Allahu akbar [Allah is greatest]!” Meanwhile, hands shaking, they exchanged nervous glances.
Concerns about punishment for dissent or criticism from within the group were valid. Milad recalled that an Egyptian member had found some IS activities to be un-Islamic. That member was punished with hard labor, then sent to a prison and not heard from again. Others who were out of line were executed in front of everyone else.
Milad told me that he, too, quickly began to regret joining the group and found its actions to be morally abhorrent. “I came here to kill members of the Syrian military who were oppressing Muslims. I didn’t come here to kill innocent Muslims, which IS was doing non-stop.” He explained that it was too difficult for him to talk about some of the events he had witnessed, such as IS members raping girls as young as eight years old. “IS was acting like the Assad regime and I realized that after I was in the group.” Milad explained that the IS experience had been presented in the cyber world as a pious one, yet, in practice, the group was filled with drug addicts and thugs whom Milad did not consider Islamic.
After the battle for Kobani, the commanders of IS appeared emotionless after the loss of 800 foreign fighters. That their deaths had no impact on these commanders disturbed Milad, who lost many friends during the battle.
The day came when Milad realized that he fully regretted joining IS and wanted out. Milad made his escape in early 2018, risking his life doing so. One day he traveled north to the Turkish border. By the time he approached the heavily militarized frontier, he placed his gun down, knelt down, and raised both arms in the air. Turkish soldiers came to him, patted him down, and took him into custody. Milad decided to be honest with the authorities and explained that he had joined IS but wanted to leave and would cooperate fully. He stated that he was prepared to spend his life in a Turkish prison and that such an outcome would be more faithful to Islamic values than remaining in IS. For a few months, he was imprisoned in Kilis, situated near the Turkish-Syrian border, before being “freed” by a judge and later transferred to the deportation center where we met.
One day I saw Milad walking down the corridor, carrying a packed bag, with a look of fear on his face.
“Milad, where are you going?” I asked.
“I have no idea,” he replied. “They just told me to pack up. I might be deported to my home country where I’ll surely get tortured and probably executed.”
I felt sad. Over the course of many conversations, I’d come to understand the circumstances that prompted this young man to leave his old life behind and join an extremist force in Syria despite strongly opposing his decision to do so. It was odd to feel a connection with a man who had surely killed many and who had been loyal to such an intolerant and hateful worldview for many years of his adult life. Later I learned from other inmates, who had spoken with authorities, that Milad received a six-year prison sentence in Turkey as his punishment, which he began serving in June 2018.
Throughout my conversations with this ex-IS soldier, I maintained some skepticism. Could such an educated man really have been so naïve as to buy into all the IS cyber propaganda? Or did Milad tell himself what he wanted to believe while deep down inside having doubts about the genuine piety of this group? Why did Milad leave IS so late? Did he really take advantage of the first safe opportunity to escape, and did he truly leave because of moral objections to other IS members’ conduct? Or was the tide turning against IS and he figured that he’d be safer in a Turkish jail as opposed to a Syrian regime or PKK prison?
The global terrorists who fled North Africa’s post-Arab Spring environment to fight for IS on Iraqi and Syrian soil pose a major threat that North Africa and Europe’s policymakers must spend years, if not decades, addressing. Understanding Milad’s motivations, in other words, is not just a question of individual psychology. It goes to the heart of the dilemma of whether ex-IS members ever be rehabilitated into society in a safe and healthy way.