Life under Isis: Story of a former jihadi - why I deserted the 'Islamic State' rather than take part in executions, beheadings and rape
Inside the 'Islamic State' - part two: Continuing his landmark series on life inside the Islamic State, Patrick Cockburn hears the story of a former Isis fighter who chose to desert rather than take part in the barbarity visited on the jihadis’ enemies
Hamza is a 33-year-old from Fallujah, a city ruled by Islamic State 40 miles west of Baghdad, who became an Isis fighter last year after being attracted by its appeal to his religious feelings.
Two months ago, however, he defected, after being asked to help execute people he knew – and being appalled by invitations to join in what amounted to rape of captured Yazidi women.
In an interview given in the safety of another country, he gives a vivid account of why he joined Isis, what it was like to be a member of the jihadist group, and why he left. He reveals extraordinary details about how the army of Isis operates, the elaborate training that its fighters receive in Iraq and Syria and the way in which taking part in executions is an initiation rite, proof of the commitment and loyalty of fighters.
An intelligent, idealistic, well-educated, and religious man, Hamza defected from Isis after six months as a trainee and a fighter because he was deeply upset by the executions, some of them of people he knew in Fallujah. He became conscious that if he stayed in Isis he would soon have to carry out an execution himself. “I don’t like Shia but when it comes to killing them I was shocked,” he says.
He refused to execute some Sunni accused of working with Iraq’s mostly Shia government “or what they [Isis] call ‘the pagan government’,” he said. Surprisingly, he was not punished for this, but was told by his commander that he would be asked to carry out an execution later and, in the meantime, foreign jihadis would do the job.
Hamza gives a fascinating insight into the lives led by Isis fighters. “I was paid 400,000 Iraqi dinars (£231) a month in addition to many privileges, including food, fuel, and more recently, access to the internet,” he says.
His disillusionment stemmed not only from his future role as an executioner but the offer of sex with captured Yazidi women, something he considered the equivalent of rape. “It was in the first week of December 2014 when they brought about 13 Yazidi girls,” he said. “The commander tried to tempt us by saying that this is Halal [lawful] for you, a gift from Allah that we are allowed to satisfy ourselves without even marrying them because they are pagans.
“On the other hand, there were some Tunisian Muslim girls who came from Syria. Those Muslim girls were sleeping with some commanders under a marriage contract for a week only and then they were divorced and married to another one. I asked one of them how she had come to be in Syria and she answered that she had travelled first to Turkey and then across the Turkish-Syrian border.” The three British schoolgirls who likewise crossed into Syria may well find that they are similarly treated by Isis.
Hamza does not want his real name or location disclosed, though he believes that for the moment he is safe. He asked for certain details about his escape in January be concealed, but otherwise is open about how he came to join Isis forces and what he did. In many cases what he says can be confirmed by other witnesses from Fallujah, though none of these were fighters.
“It’s a complicated story,” he says, when asked how he came to join Isis. Last year, the group captured Fallujah, where Hamza and his family were living. “They were kind to people in general and did not force them to join their military service,” he recalls. “They had many ways of gaining people’s goodwill and support: for example, they would go house to house, asking those living there if they needed anything and offering services such as education, saying ‘We will enlighten your children, so don’t send them to the government’s schools.’
“In addition, they were giving small lectures and sermons after prayers. Most of the lecture topics were about how to reform and improve society, using the Koran and Hadith [traditional Islamic teachings] to support their arguments.
“This was like some kind of brainwashing but it happened slowly over six months. I was attending many of those lectures and, after a time, I was preparing in advance the Koranic verses and Hadith texts relevant to the topics. There were weekly competitions between groups of youths. I won two competitions on these religious topics and each time I received 300,000 Iraqi Dinars.”
Last July, his family left Fallujah for Baghdad, but he remained behind. “After winning two prizes, I felt I liked their system,” he says. “When my family left, my father asked me not to stay and told me not to be too influenced by the prizes I had won. He said the situation would get worse. He was not very opposed to Isis, but he is so old and cannot cope with the hard life in Fallujah after conditions deteriorated – in terms of work, electricity, water, food, and the militarisation of life.”
Hamza told his family that he would follow them to Baghdad within a few days, but had decided at this moment, July 2014, to join Isis. His motive was primarily religious and idealistic. He says that he “decided to join them willingly because I was convinced that the Islamic State is the ideal state to serve, and to work for, Allah and the after life, which is the surest part of life”.
He was accepted immediately by Isis, his preacher recommending him to a military commander, though he was not at first sent to a military unit. The details Hamza gives of his induction and training by Isis are significant because they help explain how it has created such a formidable military machine.
First, he was told to do exercises to get him into good physical shape. “The exercises I did in July and August 2014 were physical activity exercises, fitness training, and abdominal exercises,” he says. “After that, I was transferred to a military unit outside Fallujah for a month and then I was sent for a month and a half to Raqqa [in Syria] where I was taught military skills through intensive training courses.
“In Fallujah, I had learned to shoot using Kalashnikov rifles and how to throw grenades. It was a more advanced level of training in Raqqa where I, together with a group of volunteers, learned to use RPG [Rocket Propelled Grenade] launchers and different kinds of machine guns.”
Asked why Isis had taken him and other volunteers to Raqqa for military training, Hamza has an interesting response. “The reason wasn’t because training is not available in Iraq. All kinds of training, equipment and facilities are available in Fallujah, but we were taken to Raqqa to increase our sense of what is called ‘patriotism towards the caliphate lands’ and to introduce us to a new experience and a new revolution.
“When they took us to Raqqa, all the fighters became convinced that the boundary between Syria and Iraq is fake and we are all united under the rule of the Caliphate. Psychologically speaking, I was so relaxed and happy to go there because it was a nice feeling to destroy the borders between two governments and pass through them. This was really a great achievement.”
Executions play an important role in the life of the Isis, not only as a means of intimidating enemies but as an initiation rite and proof of faith by new fighters. Hamza says that in Raqqa trainees like him were sent to watch public executions: “I attended three executions in Raqqa and others in Fallujah. One was of a man believed to be working with the Syrian regime; he was just shot.”
In Fallujah, captured Shia soldiers of the Iraqi Army were executed. “This was the first time that I witnessed a beheading,” he said. “I had been shown some videos made with impressive visual and audio skill. After watching many of these, we were being taken to attend public executions.”
Asked if he had carried out any executions himself, Hamza said that he had not and explained why. “I was not ordered to do so because according to Isis rules, the trainee needs more than six months to be ready to carry out an execution. But this is not the only criterion. The trainee should also show additional skills in his religious education and military tactics as well as many other tests.
“However, the problem was that I was a little bit shaken after attending those executions. I don’t like Shia but when it came to killing them, I was shocked. Although they were showing us videos of Shia militias killing Sunni people, we were troubled when we attended real executions. In November, a large number of Sunni men were taken prisoner on the grounds that they were working with the government...
“In the fourth week of November there were some executions to be carried out. One of our commanders asked me and my fellow fighters to bring our guns to be used in an execution the following day. But the victims were Sunnis, some of whom I knew.
“I couldn’t endure what we were going to do. I tried to explain that, if they were Shia I would do it immediately. The commander said: ‘I will give you another chance later. For now we have Mujahideen [jihadis] to carry out the killing.’”
It may also have been that Hamza had not served the full six months normally required in Isis before becoming a fully fledged executioner.
It was shortly after he had refused to execute Sunni prisoners that Hamza and other Isis volunteers were offered the 13 Yazidi girls for sex. He says that the two events together shattered his idealistic enthusiasm for Isis and created doubts in his mind. He gives a compelling description of his mental turmoil at this time, thinking of “the executions, or more horribly the beheadings, as well as the raping of the non-Muslim girls. These scenes terrified me. I imagined myself being caught up in these shootings, executions, beheadings and raping, if I stayed where I was.”
Now he started to plan his escape, but he knew that this would be difficult and dangerous. He says one Isis fighter had tried to run away but was caught and executed for treason. “The problem is that no one was trustworthy, not even close friends,” he says. Nevertheless, he managed to make arrangements with a friend outside the Caliphate to help him using the instant messaging service Viber, taking advantage of the satellite internet connection that was available to fighters in Fallujah for three hours at a time, three days a week.
Mobile phones evidently worked in at least part of Fallujah (though Isis has blown up mobile masts elsewhere as a security measure), but only some particularly trusted fighters were allowed to have them. “I told my commander that I needed a mobile to talk to my family and he agreed, saying that I will be given more privileges as I prove my loyalty and courage,” Hamza says.
This enabled him to arrange his escape, through friends and smugglers whom he paid to help him. He made his move one early January night when he was put on guard duty on the outskirts of Fallujah, enabling him to slip away easily. It took him five days to reach a place of safety. He has given details of his itinerary, but publication of these might compromise his security. He is not sure if Isis will pursue him actively and says that he has held back some information about the group because he fears their reaction.
He admits that there are also limits to what he does know: “For example, we, the fighters, were not able to enter what they call the operation rooms, which have many computers and foreign experts, though sometimes my comrades would use the internet nearby and get the Wi-Fi passwords through giving money to the technicians,” he said.
As a recently recruited fighter, he did not meet any senior members of Isis or lieutenants of its leader, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi. “No, they were always moving from one place to another,” he says. “And they keep talking about al-Baghdadi, saying that he is still living. I am sure and have been told that they [the Isis leadership] are Iraqis only.”
Asked if he thinks Isis will be defeated, he says that this will not be easy, even though coalition air strikes mean “they cannot advance now”.
Hamza says he is now entirely disillusioned with Isis. “At the beginning I thought they were fighting for Allah, but later I discovered they are far from the principles of Islam. I know that some fighters were taking hallucinatory drugs; others were obsessed with sex. As for the raping, and the way different men marry by turn the same woman over a period of time, this is not humane.
“I left them because I was afraid and deeply troubled by this horrible situation. The justice they were calling for when they first arrived in Fallujah turned out to be only words.”