For all the attention paid to ISIS, relatively little is known about its inner workings. But a man claiming to be a member of the so-called Islamic State’s security services has stepped forward to provide that inside view. This series is based on days of interviews with this ISIS spy. Read Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.
Part Four: Escaping the Islamic State
ISTANBUL — Abu Khaled looked at me across the outdoor hookah café table in the touristy Laleli district of Istanbul. Across the street cars nearly careened into each other every other second in a busy interaction, semi-subterranean shops, their windows half-buried by the pavement, advertised everything from cellphones to toothpaste to the latest designer women’s fashions—or, at any rate, cheap knockoffs for those who didn’t know the difference or much care. Amid the din of an international city at rush hour was the scheduled call of the muezzin, leading the call to prayer, and an unremitting stream of awful European pop music being pumped through the café’s loudspeakers, which we’d asked in vain to have turned down.
Even though ISIS terror had struck inside Turkey the week before, the organization calling itself the Islamic State, al-Dawla al-Islamiya, felt very far away. Truly, Abu Khaled told me, the people who run it want their subjects to live as if in a world of their own, captive minds in a closed society. But the real world is a small place, and this defector from the ISIS intelligence services said he was not the only one who had grown restive.
“People started feeling bad about all the lying,” he said. “If you read the news…There’s no TV, just an ISIS newspaper, Akhbar Dawli Islamiya. It says we’re still in Kobani,” a Kurdish city retaken from ISIS with the help of U.S.-led bombing raids last year.
The pervasive mendacity in the caliphate competes with a climate of ceaseless recrimination and denunciation: Two Minutes of Hate directed every day, at everyone. And typically the accusers are not Syrians but the muhajireen, the foreign fighters, who haven’t spent 1 percent of the time most residents of al-Bab have spent in Syria. They are an arrogant and unruly gang, increasingly seen, according to Abu Khaled, as colonial occupiers.
They see themselves as superior—holier than thou in the proper definition. “First of all, to most ISIS fighters—especially the foreigners—everybody in al-Bab, everybody in Syria, is kafir. Period. They treat people in this way, which is wrong. Even by ISIS’s standards, that’s clearly wrong. They are Muslims, they have to be treated as Muslims.”
“Foreigners are telling Syrians how to dress, how to live, how to eat, how to work, how to cut their hair. Maybe the only place in the world where there is no barbershop is al-Bab. They’re all closed. Because you can’t cut your hair. You have either long hair, or you must wear it the same exact length everywhere. Because even you”—Abu Khaled gestured to your hirsute correspondent—“like your beard. You would do 30 days in prison. It’s too short. You can’t cut your beard, you can’t trim it. You have to let it grow.”
And just like under Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, ISIS has presided over an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, where the errant joke or critical observation can land you in the cage, or worse. Abu Khaled has a big mouth and is amazed he wasn’t killed before he managed to flee. “One time, a guy was telling me: ‘You see this victory against the FSA?… It’s because God is fighting with us!’ So I told him: ‘So why God and the angels didn’t fight with us when we fought the Kurds in Kobani?’”
Abu Khaled was told that if he kept talking like that, he’d lose his head.
Nor was his sense of irony directed merely at the braggadocio of the muhajireen. He had been present at the battle for Kobani, the Kurdish border town in northern Syria besieged for months by ISIS and eventually liberated, thanks largely to U.S. airpower. Abu Khaled had witnessed firsthand just how poorly ISIS’s soldiers fought: more like F Troop than Delta Force.
“The first time I realized that ISIS fighters are not well trained was the last day of Ramadan, this year.” Abu Khaled was leading a charge against Kobani, and he and his men bivouacked in Sarrin, one of the nearby towns ISIS controls in the Aleppo countryside. He decided to attack a series of villages held by Kurdish forces.
Abu Khaled was commanding three ISIS units. One of them was dispatched to Khalat Hadid; another to the village of Nour al-Ali; a third to the small village of Ras al-Ayn. The assault began at 1 o’clock in the morning and involved missiles, mortars, and tanks.
“We took Khalat Hadid within 45 minutes,” Abu Khaled said. “Then my guys ran away.” They ran away? That’s right. “‘It’s free,’ they told me,” that is, liberated. Apparently they mistook the fall of a village for the permanent seizure of one. Meanwhile, the other two units refused to enter their designated villages. “They said, ‘Ah, it’s too late, blah, blah,’” Abu Khaled recalled, in disgust. So they returned to Sarrin not so much in defeat as in indifference. Then the coalition started hitting the ISIS locations at 4 a.m. Warplanes killed 23 of Abu Khaled’s men within a few minutes.
Abu Khaled interrogated his soldiers to find out why they had not fought that night. “‘Why didn’t you go?’” he asked some of those who’d gone AWOL. “‘I mean, we were three groups. One of you attacked, the others didn’t.’”
Their response: They were tired of being sent to certain death.
“We had pickup trucks, machine guns. And the Americans were flying all over us. When we left the town, we got bombed. But when we went back to the town, we were fine. The town had never been hit. Then the Kurds besieged it. So we fled, and destroyed all our cars, vehicles, weapons. I destroyed my own car.”
Abu Khaled estimates that ISIS lost up to 5,000 men in the vain attempt to capture Kobani. They went like lemmings over a cliff, without any strategic forethought as to how best to fight both the world’s most powerful air force and one of Syria’s most accomplished militias.
“Everybody I know at that time is dead,” Abu Khaled said. “I trained a Turkish battalion, like 110 people. We had to stop the training after two weeks because they had to go to Kobani. All of them got killed except three. And those three aren’t fighting anymore. I saw one a few days before I defected. He said, ‘I’m not going back.’”
Abu Khaled illustrated just how incompetent he found the ISIS infantry. He used silverware. “Here’s Kobani,” he said, putting a fork on the café table. “Here’s open land, five kilometers of it until the first ISIS position”—a spoon. “When we sent the fighters to Kobani, we sent them one by one. Walking. The logistics for them—weapons, food—came on a bike. Most of the time, the bike couldn’t make it. It’d get hit by an airstrike. So the ones who made it, they entered houses.”
They were instructed to stay inside the house and not do anything. They remained for a day or two. Then, inevitably, one of them stuck his head out a window. Abu Khaled banged the table. “And then the house would get bombed and they’d all get killed!” He let out a mirthless laugh. “People started to think there was an ISIS conspiracy to kill everybody.”He also found it remarkable that, for all the many months of the siege of Kobani, ISIS fighters came and went as they pleased across the Syrian-Turkish border. The second-largest army in NATO stationed soldiers, tanks, and armored personnel carriers was within spitting distance of one of the most intense war zones of the Syria conflict and did virtually nothing, apart from sometimes firing water cannons at Kurds trying to flee into Turkey.“I don’t know the relationship between ISIS and Turkey,” Abu Khaled said. “During the Kobani war, shipments of weapons arrived to ISIS from Turkey. Until now, the gravely wounded go to Turkey, shave their beards, cut their hair, and go to the hospital. Somebody showed me pictures in Kobani. You see ISIS guys eating McDonald’s french fries and hamburgers. Where did they get it? In Turkey.”Abu Khaled has spent plenty of time in southern Turkey and says ISIS sympathizers don’t even try to hide their proselytizing efforts there. In Kilis, a border town, there are two important mosques, he said. “This one [is] for the Islamic State. You go there, everybody says, ‘You want to go to Syria?’ They arrange your travel back and forth. And the other mosque is for Jabhat al-Nusra,” the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.During the June 2014 invasion of Mosul, ISIS took 49 hostages, including diplomats, soldiers, and children, by raiding the Turkish consulate there. Their release, three months later, went largely unexplained by either party, fueling suspicion that Ankara had either paid a ransom or brokered a prisoner swap with ISIS. Abu Khaled said he knows for certain that the exchange took place because he met two of the jihadists who were swapped for the 49 captives.“They were prisoners of the FSA,” he said, “held for seven or eight months. Right after ISIS captured the Turks, within 24 hours, these guys told me… ‘We were transferred to the custody of Turkish intelligence, which took us on a plane to Istanbul.’” The ISIS detainees weren’t kept in a prison, Abu Khaled says his informants told him, but in “a nice building” with a round-the-clock guard. “They were well taken care of. Then they were exchanged.”
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Eventually, the brutality and the incompetence and the lies became too much for Abu Khaled to take. But he served as an agent of Amn al-Dawla, the caliphate’s state security. So he couldn’t simply run away from ISIS; he had to plan and prepare his escape and hope that he wasn’t caught and undone in the planning and preparation.
“When you’re in the secret service,” Abu Khaled said, “everything is controlled. You can’t just leave Islamic State territory. It was especially hard for me because all the border is controlled by the state intelligence. And I trained these guys! Most of them knew me. I was very well known in al-Bab. So this was also how I got out.”
Abu Khaled’s defection was a very near thing. It started with a friend he had in al-Bab who ran an illegal business printing fake IDs, the kind still issued by the Assad regime. The way ISIS border control works is that if you’re a mere civilian, you can more or less come and go as you please, provided you have identification. Abu Khaled’s passport was still with “Human Resources” in Raqqa. So he needed papers and they had to be a ringer for authentic ones. He showed me the ID he had made for $20. It bore a photograph of him looking much as he sat before me in Istanbul: clean-shaven. It was taken, he said, at a time before his enlistment in ISIS. He stressed that this bore not even a ghost of a resemblance to the appearance he’d adopted for almost a year as a jihadist.
He decided to make his move in early September. And he went solo, at least at first. “When I left, I didn’t tell my wife. I told her only that I wanted to go to Raqqa. ‘I have something to do in Raqqa.’ I left my gun at home—my AK. I had a handgun with me. If you belong to ISIS, you have to have a weapon on you when you are on the street. I had my uniform. I left home at 7 in the morning. I went to my friend’s house, the same one who made the ID. I changed my clothes, I left my weapon at his place. He gave me the new ID. I cut my beard, not completely off, because I didn’t want to get arrested for having no beard. But I looked closer to the ID photo.”
Abu Khaled hopped a motorcycle from al-Bab and drove to Minbij. From there, he hired a minibus, which took him to Aleppo. He says he could have actually hired a bus in al-Bab but for the fact that in every terminal, ISIS had amniyeen, members of the security forces, standing guard to survey the passengers. He was sure he’d be recognized in al-Bab. But the agents in Minbij had no idea who he was. “I gave them the fake ID.” They let him board the bus.
When Abu Khaled arrived in Aleppo—territory held by rebels, not ISIS—he immediately called his wife. “I told her, ‘In one hour, you have to leave.’ I told her to gather her stuff, some clothes to wear, in a small bag, and take a cab. Within 45 minutes, she was on her way, with her mother, brother, and sister. Two, three hours later, they were all there.”
Today, Abu Khaled has built himself a new fighting force—this one to battle ISIS, and the Assad regime as well. The Islamist super-brigade Ahrar al-Sham has evidently helped him finance his startup army, although he says his katiba remains independent. “They gave us 10,000 lira. So it’s like $20 per soldier.” This is the minimum monthly salary to keep a small militia in Syria.
“There are two ISIS brigades in northern Aleppo fighting us,” he said, “and I know the emirs for both of them. One is from Morocco, the other is from Libya. I know how they think and how they fight.”
I asked Abu Khaled again why he’s still in Syria, given the target painted on his back—and on his wife’s and her family’s.
If he made it to Istanbul unmolested, Abu Khaled allows, his wife could probably do so, too. I asked him again: Doesn’t he want a bit of respite, after everything he’s been through? He shook his head no, and said, “I’m not scared of dying.”
Abu Khaled and I walked from Laleli to the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. He asked to see the Blue Mosque, the celebrated Ottoman complex. It might be the last time he ever got to see it, so I obliged. Female visitors, as signs everywhere instruct, are supposed to wear headscarves out of respect. But as we passed through the courtyard of Sultan Ahmet Camii, we spotted a woman in her twenties. She walked up the steps uncovered. But no one stopped her. Abu Khaled looked at her, as if he’d had an important revelation. “Syria will be like this again one day,” he said.
We wandered around the courtyard of the Blue Mosque briefly before exiting out onto the Hippodrome. Then Abu Khaled stopped for a second and looked up. Not a week earlier, he explained, a Russian warplane had bombed not far from his new home in Aleppo. The walls of his house shook. “Bashar has taught every Syrian to stare at the sky,” he said. “There are no planes here.”