Ex-IS fighters turn their backs, tell their stories

Ex-IS fighters turn their backs, tell their stories
Feature: Syrian fighters with the Islamic State group discuss their experiences, their training and why they eventually left.
5 min read
18 March, 2015
Thousands of foreigners have joined IS [Getty]
What lures them? Perhaps the thousands of foreigners who have joined the Islamic State group (IS) have been lured the 'five-star' jihad they see on the screens of their laptops.

The IS has been actively recruiting on the internet. It is there it disseminates its propaganda. It is there it attracts supporters. It is there it secures fighters. 

But Syrians are also joining. They have been watching the war change with their own eyes. They have not been lured by any 'virtual jihad'. What propelled them?

     I was so warmly welcomed by IS, it was a pleasure to join them.

- Mahmoud, 15
Three men sit cross-legged in a quiet room inside the base of the Free Syrian Army's Regiment 46. They all wear the faces of experience, despite their age differences. They are from the same town of al-Atareb in the northwestern part of Aleppo province, just 20 km away from the Turkish-Syrian border.

The Lion of the 'Caliphate'

He has broad shoulders and a black hat that almost covers his eyebrows. But Mahmoud is younger than he looks. It's hardly surprising: at 15, he has already experienced what it is like to be a member of the most dangerous terrorist group in the world.

The youngster was forced to join IS in 2014 by his parents. They believe the "Islamic Caliphate" is the right way of life. His father had warned him against joining the Free Syrian Army (FSA), arguing that IS cares more about Islam.

For many local children, IS rule is a kind of nightmare. They can not walk freely outside, and many of their subjects at school like biology, geography or physics are forbidden. According to the head of Ad Dana school, IS members even tore pages from the Koran that did not talk about jihad.

The IS practice of public punishments are also a frightening experience for children. Nisreen, 9, was compelled to attend one such event with her family in the Ad Dana town marketplace, a 15 minute drive from al-Atareb.

"IS called people to meet in the square; I went with my parents and saw some of my friends there. The head of an FSA commander was placed in the centre of our crowd. I was completely terrified,” Nesreen said.

From time to time IS would also invite children to their special center and ask them to repeat animal sounds. After such "fun" the children would be given toys.

But unlike most children, Mahmoud talks happily about his military training experience.

"I was so warmly welcomed by IS, it was a pleasure to join them. They trained us at Sheikhein military camp (in the west of Aleppo governorate)."

He attended the military camp along with 35 other children under 18. At first, they were taught about Sharia law and the idea of the brotherhood – "That was the main goal,” Mahmoud explained.

But it was the military training that was especially exciting. He describes it with a broad smile.

"The training was tough. We exercised with Kalashnikovs, 12.5mm machine guns, and PK (Kalashnikov machinegun). They also taught us how to produce handmade car bombs."

After five months of practice, Mahmoud finally attended his first - and only - battle against the Syrian army. "We fought in Khan Tuman near Aleppo, I stayed there for one day and used the PK against the regime. I was not afraid at all, even though it was my first experience on the frontline,” Mahmoud boasts.

A few months later, however, Mahmoud decided to leave. He witnessed the group accuse FSA battalions of apostasy and theft. He didn't agree.

He managed to run away but still fears that the group will come and "arrest me" one day.


The estimated relative strengths of the fighters on the ground. Click here for large image.

Maher, 26, was smiling while Mahmoud told his story. Maher decided to join IS when he was a member of a FSA battalion. Religion, he confessed, had little to do with his decision.

"I was with the FSA until we were targeted from all sides by the regime, jihadists, and other Islamic battalions. I joined IS because I didn't believe it would be attacked. Turned out I was right."

For eight months Maher served as an emir for IS and received a monthly salary of 200 dollars, a reasonable amount in today's Syria.

He took part in the battle for Hama with IS. It took them just one day to control the area. By contrast, FSA brigades had made several attempts to gain control of Hama but failed.

"The battle was quick, and our preparations were simple. We even had pickups to ship ammunition before we began fighting. With IS it looked like a kind of weapons delivery and the regime just withdrew. Later I asked other IS emirs why that battle was so easy. They kept saying 'because of Gold's support'."

The illusion of justice
     For eight months Maher served as an emir for IS and received a monthly salary of 200 dollars.

The third man, Mohammad, is a graduate from a commercial institute. Before joining IS, he served in the FSA until he found fighters were stealing goods.

Mohammad told the commander of the 9th division about the thefts, but was instead himself accused of stealing. He had to escape and then decoded to join IS because they controlled plenty of frontlines.

"When IS split from al-Nusra I decided to join them. At the beginning, they only fought the regime. About 60 percent of their members were foreigners from Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Azerbaijan, and the Gulf. They had some frontline experience, but not with heavy weapons like tanks."

He was trained in the same camp as young Mahmoud. He was suprised at Maher's feelings when he took part in the battle of Hama for the first time.

"We spent two weeks in the battle, but I did almost nothing as we prayed most of the time. However, when we began fighting it took us only one night to control the area,” Mohammad explained.

He joined IS soon after it began expanding. According to Mohammad, the group eagerly accepted ex-FSA fighters with a bad reputation. 'Good' members, he suggested, were not welcomed.

"They were carrying out assassinations as well. They are not clean people."

IS members, said Mohammad, insisted they would not attack 'good' battalions of the FSA. But they did. ANd that attack on Regiment 46 would porove the last battle for Mohammad for IS.

"I was at the front during that attack and then I suddenly turned against IS. I started fighting them.”

He smiles. Then shrugs.

"IS is too big to be stopped by the FSA."