Leaving ISIS

For The Boston Review:

-Sanliurfa, Turkey: This time, Hammad did not expect to escape alive. He knelt on the side of a desert highway leading from Raqqa to Aleppo, fingers intertwined behind his head, where an ISIS fighter pointed a machine gun. “They told me I had committed a crime against Islam, against God,” he recalled of the five men who abducted him. We talked in Sanliurfa, Turkey, about fifty kilometers north of the Syrian border. A thin, wiry twenty-two-year-old with a penchant for chain smoking Kents, Hammad hasn’t been home in more than four months. (Hammad’s name has been changed for his protection. —Ed.)

He had not seen this coming. When ISIS swept into power in northeastern Syria in the fall of 2013, it won the admiration of thousands of rebels, Hammad among them. By the time ISIS arrived, he was a seasoned fighter, having joined the Al Muntasir Billah Brigade when the revolution began. An organ of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Brigade scored a major victory in March 2013 when it took control of Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to the rebels.

At that time, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who would become ISIS’s self-styled caliph, was a leader in Jabhat al Nusra, which answered to al Qaeda head Ayman al Zawahiri and had joined the FSA in taking Raqqa. But a power struggle was raging within al Nusra, and soon factions loyal to Baghdadi and Zawahiri were openly fighting each other. By the fall of 2013, Baghdadi had officially broken away from al Nusra.

“From the beginning, we saw the difference between ISIS and Jabhat Nusra,” Zaid al Faris, a university student in Raqqa, told me. “ISIS made a point to target activists,” he said—himself included. He was forced to leave eight months ago, after ISIS fighters threatened to kill him.

In August 2013 ISIS bombed the headquarters of Raqqa’s FSA brigade, forcing the group to leave the city. ISIS also fought the FSA in Hammad’s hometown of Deir Ezzor. “At first, ISIS was working with the FSA,” Abu Hanif, an FSA commander in Deir Ezzor, explained. “But then they started fighting us. We had to fight on two fronts, against ISIS, and against Assad, and we lost ground.”

Not everyone saw Baghdadi as a divisive force, though. Hammad was impressed by ISIS’s ambition and military prowess. In September 2013, he and others from his brigade joined ISIS. They were paid little, only 10,000 Syrian pounds a month. “After rent, I couldn’t even buy cigarettes,” Hammad said, “but I stayed because I loved fighting for God’s sake.”

ISIS set up special camps for recruits: physicians, pharmacists, lawyers, and fighters all attended months of Islamic law training. Hammad spent four months studying under a rotating cadre of foreign Arab fighters. “They taught us how to pray correctly, how to be trustworthy Muslims, how other Muslims had a flawed belief in God,” he said, pausing for a moment in thought. “At the end, you were ready to blow yourself up for them.”

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