Three former ISIS fighters now undergoing “anti-extremism” courses at a center north of Aleppo tell our reporter the Assad regime’s brutality and slick video propaganda were among the top reasons they joined the world’s most reviled jihadist organization.
[Editor’s note: The below article was produced as part of Al-Jumhuriya’s 2017 Fellowship for Young Writers. It was originally published in Arabic on 1 February, 2018.]
At the end of 2014, the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (ISIS) managed to impose itself as a military force to be reckoned with on the ground, dominating a larger combined area of Syria and Iraq than any other party to the conflicts in the two countries. Certainly, the factors that led to the organization’s sudden and rapid rise were many, but the power of attraction and ever-renewable human resources were undoubtedly among the most prominent.
The organization’s ability to attract and and recruit a constant stream of new operatives into its ranks has for many been baffling, even incomprehensible, and a subject of persistent wonder, not least given the willingness of such vast numbers of the group’s members to tear apart their own bodies at the push of a button in order that it may “remain and expand.”1
I heard about the opening of the Syrian Center for Anti-Extremist Ideology at the start of last November. The center’s purpose should be clear from its name. What attracted me to it specifically was the fact that real former members of ISIS were receiving lessons and lectures therein. It was an opportunity not to be missed; the ideal place to understand ISIS up close. What were the circumstances that led to its birth? How was it able to attract supporters and soldiers from all over the world? And how does it maintain their loyalty?
The newly-founded center is located in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo. It is an independent civilian entity, says its director, Hussein Nasser, who adds there are ongoing efforts to team up with both local and international human rights organizations to oversee its work.
Currently, the center houses twenty-four former ISIS members. Some came voluntarily, while others were sent by opposition factions or courts after being captured. At the center they receive lectures in law, thought, and the Islamic shari’a to facilitate their reintegration into society in the event they’re released at a later date by a decision of the opposition courts. They stay in the center itself, playing chess, watching movies, attending lectures, praying, and smoking, in violation of the strict rules they once enforced on their subjects, whom they flogged for smoking and punished for selling cigarettes.
I asked the center’s administration to meet three of the residents: a Syrian, a “muhajir” (lit. “emigrant,” used in reference to foreign fighters), and a child. To try to put them at ease during the interviews, I asked to see each of them separately and alone, without the presence of guards or anyone from the administration.
Despite my efforts to remove tension and break barriers, the reality remains that these three individuals were not free, and their testimonies may not be entirely authentic or adequate, given their emphasis on displaying remorse and disavowing their pasts. To them, I was not merely a journalist seeking to understand and convey the truth. This is an important point. At the end of the day, they were prisoners, and to them I was “the authority,” or at least its representative, no matter how much I tried to establish that I wasn’t affiliated with the center’s administration.
In any case, I began by meeting As’ad, a 24-year-old from Da’el, north of Daraa. A young man with a thick beard, coarse eyebrows, and large black eyes, he seems both intelligent and fiery, sharing his story at great length and without hesitation. I present his narrative here as it was told by him, without my intervention, and putting my views of ISIS aside.
“Mine is a small, typical family. My father is a pharmacist and my mother is a foreigner of British descent. I have a brother and a sister. My life [before 2011] was sports and studying, trying to build myself a future. I reached a good place in my studies, and I was about to start electrical engineering in Damascus when the revolution began.”
In his first days at Damascus University, As’ad had only three weeks before the postponement of his mandatory military service under the regime would expire. On his way back from Damascus, he was detained at a checkpoint and held for a week before being released. After that, he decided to stay in his hometown, for fear of being arrested again.
“Here, in the beginning, there was very little use of weapons. There were only four or five rifles in the village. The young men affiliated with the armed movement were staying in my neighbor’s house, and I used to pass by there frequently.
“After I got out of prison and returned to my home town, I went along with them [the armed men] and joined the armed movement, leaving my studies without my family knowing. I’m a young guy, you know, and my blood boiled when I saw the crimes of the regime, and how it humiliated detainees; of course I wanted to join these guys. We started advancing and liberating towns. On 28 March, 2013, I got my first injury, a bullet in my left leg.”
I interrupt to ask why he joined the rebels. “I have a grudge against the regime; a big one, not a small one,” he says. “I have first cousins in Saydnaya prison, I have an uncle who underwent the worst possible torture, and is still detained. We no longer hear news of him. I joined to protect us from the barbarism and brutality of the regime.
“It was in 2014 that I became prominent. My new brigade [Al-Karama Brigade] was observing my work and started promoting me. Then I became a field commander for the Southern Front [...] around that time I developed an abnormal infatuation with ISIS.”
Back then, the “Islamic State” was at the start of its rise, and it charmed As’ad to the extent of “infatuation.” At the same time, however, he now uses the term “Da’esh” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS, considered pejorative by the organization) to describe it. He wants to convey that he has changed now, that he is not who he used to be.
The secret to this former infatuation was, in short, the isdarat (video releases)2. “I was following all the isdarat: jihad, battles, intimidation, killing [...] You stumble upon a video where a regime soldier is being slaughtered, and you say to yourself, ‘All right, I need to side with these people.’ You see another one of an innocent person being slaughtered and you say, ‘Those people are wrong!’
“The first isdar I saw was the Raqqa one, shot at [al-Tabqa] airbase3. I saw the slaughter and killing and what not. At first I didn’t like it, to be honest. I watched and said to myself, ‘This is Islam? This is not Islam! These are the first people we need to fight. They’re bad people, to the extent they're playing football with human heads and burning people alive.
“Later, I started following their propagandist isdarat about preaching, calling for jihad, for [establishing the rule of] religion. They use a Qur’an verse here, a Hadith there, so the organization’s ideology started rolling around my head.” He moves his finger in a circular way, and then asks, “Is it possible they’re right? And the whole world is fighting them?
“In my mind they were split into two sides: a bad, distorting side, and a genuinely good side, which wants to spread Islam and strengthen the Muslims. So how can I be sure? I need to be with them, on the ground.”
What As’ad said merits contemplation. “At first,” he didn’t like the scenes of slaughter and mass murder, implying he later accepted them, such as when he saw regime soldiers being killed.
The extreme cruelty demonstrated in ISIS propaganda quenches As’ad’s and other Syrians’ thirst for vengeance and retribution against the regime. “The State,” as ISIS is often called, has the requisite strength and counter-criminality enabling it to take revenge and protect against the crimes of the regime.
On the other hand, the “Islamic State” is the only one to have openly declared itself a caliphate; abolishing borders, and appointing itself the protector of Sunni Muslims from their many enemies.
This is not only an element of ISIS’ attraction, but also a key reason for As’ad’s (and “the State’s”) extreme hostility towards Jabhat al-Nusra, the former official Syrian al-Qaeda subsidiary4. The latter competes with “the State” over one of its most attractive descriptors: “defender of the Sunnis."
“The State has more military activity, more force, more organization, stronger media. Its media message stirs the mind; excites a young man’s feelings. You know young men, their blood is boiling. Moreover, the opposition has many downsides, whether it’s the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or Nusra or whoever, there are a lot of negatives. Why should I let America or the MOC [Military Operations Center] control me?”
It’s true that As’ad took up arms with the rebels early on, and became an FSA commander, but he felt a constant sense that it was “temporary.” As he put it, “I didn’t feel my place was with them. You know the FSA is full of abuses, but they were my only option for fighting the regime. I was waiting for ‘the State’ to reach Daraa, or else I’d join them where they were.”
As’ad continues his story, gesturing with his hands and fixing his gaze on me. “Many people knew I was loyal to ‘the State,’ so I started having problems with Nusra’s security officials. They tried to get rid of me every way they could.”
At that time, prior to February 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham were the only two factions fighting against “the State” and pursuing its loyalists in Daraa. The FSA, on the other hand, remained neutral, in contrast to what was happening in northern Syria.
The threats against As’ad from Jabhat al-Nusra increased until, he says, “It was leaked to me that al-Nusra was planning an arrest campaign against people suspected of affiliation with Da’esh, so I fled to seek protection in the areas controlled by the [ISIS-linked] Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade."5
Joining the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade in February 2016, As’ad pledged allegiance to “the Islamic State” and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. According to him, he participated as a “driver of reinforcement cars” in three battles against the opposition.
He says he was trying to avoid fighting opposition factions, but the brigade leadership placed him on the frontlines due to insufficient numbers. He was hit by a bullet in his foot during a joint attack by the FSA and al-Nusra.
"I didn’t open fire. First of all, I was wounded and unable to move. Second, I didn’t want to fight my own countrymen and former brothers-in-arms. I was trapped for about an hour, then one of the guys pulled me out, and I was rushed to Tasil Hospital.
“I didn’t like the situation there, so I was trying to get relocated to ‘the State’s’ territories in the north, thinking the north was better. At that time I isolated myself from everyone. I found a house to stay in and sold my rifle. I was looking for a way to escape.
“During this period, the isdarat from Iraq were affecting me the most: Biji, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul. I had a psychological complex about Mosul! Which was being fought by the rawafid [derogatory term for Shia Muslims].”
A few months later, after a friend of his defected, As’ad too deserted the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, and returned to his hometown of Da’el. He was treated well by the FSA. “I stayed with my family in Da’el, but the people of my town, around twenty or thirty of them, came out and tried to kill me. We went to the Dar al-Adl [“House of Justice”] court, and I was acquitted. After I helped them get some people out of the Yarmouk Martyrs’ territory, they let me go.
“After that, I went back to being a civilian in my home, with no affiliations with anyone. I’d had enough, I wanted to settle down, start a family, return to normal life. I reconciled with everyone, and disproved the allegations that I had killed people. But Nusra’s security people continued to watch me, trying to pay one of my friends to kill me.”
So far, As’ad had been speaking freely, without hesitation, and with a fixed gaze. But he began to falter when he started talking about his transition from Daraa to Turkey. “In the space of one hour, I decided I would leave [Daraa], and that’s what I did. I left through al-Lajat road, which passes near the regime-held airport of al-Tha’la. We paid the Druze shabbiha6 $50 or $100 to take us to the ‘the State’s’ territories. I had promised my parents I would never carry arms again. After we got to ISIS territory, I travelled to Azaz and then to Turkey.
“I stayed in Malatya [240km northeast of Gaziantep] for three months, but I didn’t like it there, in a country I didn’t know, with a foreign language. I decided to go back to my family in Da’el.”
It was as simple as that. As’ad just decided to return home, despite the fact his life there was “good and financially comfortable.” Nor did he provide a convincing story of how he managed to enter and exit Turkey at a time the borders were heavily secured, coinciding with the “Euphrates Shield” operation.
“How did you return to Syria?” I asked him. He stammered, replying: “From the crossing of Bab… ah, Jarablus [a crossing closed at that time]. I entered on November 9, 2016, and while on my way to the city of al-Bab [under ISIS control], the FSA caught me at the Arshaf checkpoint and brought me to the center here.”
My only concern while talking to As’ad was that he felt comfortable, in order for me to understand his perspective on ISIS with greater veracity and depth. To that end, I repeatedly stressed that his story would be published under a pseudonym, despite his insistence that I use his actual name. Without doubt, he regarded me as an investigator, or an interrogator, believing the information he offered would affect his trial. Perhaps in an effort to improve his situation, he displayed an exaggerated disavowal of his past.
Regardless of the dubious information he gave at the end of his story, he offered sincere motives for enlisting with ISIS. In addition to the reasons offered by As’ad, other factors driving Syrians or Iraqis to join ISIS in their specific cities or villages include the power “the State” gives its operatives and commanders, and the money, at a time when many have lost their livelihoods and are unable to work in their local areas. Others found that “the State” was the only available option for the protection of their land and villages against the threats of the Syrian regime, or the Iraqi “Popular Mobilization Forces” militia. To many, the brutal rule of Da’esh is preferable to displacement or death.
The foreign fighters who travel to join ISIS certainly have a deep faith in the organization, its ideology, and its goals. Not only have they have left their jobs and families, they’ve also endured the trouble and risks associated with getting to “the State’s” territories. This is not easy compared to the enlistment process for a Syrian or Iraqi person. The latter simply wake up and find themselves within the State’s territories.
The second person I met was Abu Mu’adh al-Tunisi, as I was asked to call him. Abu Mu’adh is a 23-year-old from the al-Karam neighborhood of Carthage, Tunisia. His family consists of five members who are all self-employed. None of them has a high-school diploma, but their financial situation is “more than enough.” Abu Mu’adh worked in the fish trade, and he enjoyed it.
He sat in front of me, beard not fully grown, a smile never leaving his face. He was a simple, humble man, wearing a flaccid wool hat on his head, not drinking his coffee until I urge him to, saying, “Please, drink.”
He described life in his country before the Tunisian revolution as follows: “In the [former President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali era, the regime was very harsh, especially in matters of religion. People were completely pushed away. In the mosque, only the elderly would pray. On Fridays, the Imam would only give sermons written by the secret police. A beard meant jail. The niqab was banned. The hijab was banned [in public]. If a policeman saw a woman in a hijab, he would pull it off her head. What were the women supposed to do? They wore large hats. This was before the revolution; after the revolution, things changed.”
The Tunisian revolution produced an atmosphere of freedom in the country, after freedom had been in short supply during the reign of Ben Ali (1987-2011); a reign known for unemployment, the incarceration of opponents, and ever-worsening corruption.
Abu Mu’adh spoke rapidly, in a Tunisian dialect full of French words. I had to continuously ask him to repeat himself, understanding him only with difficulty.
“After Ben Ali, the regime changed a lot. Political prisoners from Ennahda, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and other parties were released. The mosques remained open all the time; even at night, they never closed. And what did they do? They organized preaching tents.
“Would I be lying to you if I said I used to pray in Tunisia? We didn’t pray. In Tunisia, we were religiously cut-off. There was corruption [here meaning disobedience of Islam’s teachings]. After the revolution, preaching tents erected by Salafi-jihadists spread throughout the country. So I went to some of the tents of Ansar al-Sharia7. They came out of prison bearded. This was something I had never witnessed before, something new. I started attending these tents, where they gave out leaflets on how to pray and perform ablutions, and urged us to wage jihad.”
At the same time as political prisoners were being released and Salafi-jihadism was spreading in Tunisia, the revolution in Syria had also begun. The Assad regime had sent the army into cities and towns, and social media sites teemed with scenes of humiliation and torture carried out by the Syrian army.
“This was the time we started seeing the Bashar [al-Assad] clips, where they were burning and torturing people, all while cursing God. They would tell people to say, ‘There is no god but Bashar,’ but they would say, ‘There is no god but Allah,’ so they would kill them. People were saying we should go help the Syrians. We saw many women and children [in the videos] saying, ‘Muslims, get up and support your brothers.’ This was the starting point that brought us here.”
Abu Mu’adh was in the prime of his youth (twenty years old) when he was filled up with the Salafi-jihadist ideology he’d been exposed to in Ansar al-Sharia’s “preaching tents” in Tunis. The persecution of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq at that time, as well as the huge propaganda efforts that accompanied it, stirred his conscience towards the duty of defense, and of “assisting the people of the Levant.”
At the time, ISIS was at the height of its progress and expansion. Its slogans, which called for “the caliphate, jihad, and the defense of Muslims,” fit the goals and ambitions Abu Mu’adh had acquired from Ansar al-Sharia.
“When I was in Tunisia, I did not know or speak to people from the [Islamic] State. The people I told you about [Ansar al-Sharia] are the ones who sent me to the State, but they are really not like Dawa’ish [derogatory Arabic plural of ISIS member; he means they were less extreme and excommunicatory]. They sent us to Da’esh thinking they were helping the people of the Levant. This is what we know, and God knows best.
“I entered Syria in mid-2015. After landing in the Istanbul airport I spoke with the coordinator who brought us [Abu Mu’adh and other muhajirun] to Syria through Jarablus.”
Abu Mu’adh arrived to Syria and pledged allegiance to “the State.” After a short shari’a and military training course, he was deployed to the city of Hasakah, where in June 2015 the organization launched a large-scale offensive against both the regime and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Abu Mu’adh describes this battle as a “trap," speaking of how the planes of the US-led Coalition took the lives of thousands of ISIS fighters. “We were there not knowing what Hasakah was, or what was happening in Hasakah. Hasakah was the province of liquidation; those they didn’t want were sent there and tossed into battles. I spent a year in Hasakah, then I got injured and rested.
“We were thrown into Hasakah from three starting-points. The attack was well-prepared and well-equipped. More than 3,500 people were killed within a month and a half of fighting. This is the least of it.” I interrupt to ask him how they were killed. “By planes,” he says. “For example, we bring 800 reinforcements to a base. A plane comes along and bombs, boof boof, and they’re all gone.”
“It was planes. If you’re one among ten and a plane wants to hit you, it will. Very severe planes. I’m telling you, thousands were killed.”
While recovering from his injury, Abu Mu’adh says he became aware, through conversations with a Moroccan, of theological errors and violations against the Islamic shari’a perpetrated by the organization. This led him to coordinate his escape.
"The soldiers [on the frontlines] are removed from the reality [i.e. totally engrossed in fighting and military matters]. I get deployed for three months, then I get a three-day leave and return. Internet is only available in cafes. Phones are forbidden on the frontlines due to air raids. You see what I’m saying? All they gave us were the isdarat in the media stations [cinema-like settings with seats and a screen for watching ISIS productions], so I was completely uninformed. But when I was injured, I sat back and I saw catastrophic things.
“The Dawa’ish follow the Pharaonic rule: “I only show you what I see” [from Quran 40:29]. If you disagree you’re an infidel. A Tunisian person with me was disposed of. Because of this, and many other reasons, I decided to leave Da’esh. Even if you disagree about simple matters, they call you an infidel, they tell you you’re rebelling against the Caliph, you’re a Kharijite [early Islamic renegade], you’re an apostate, and they kill you.”
Abu Mu’adh sheds light on an important point: how does ISIS maintain the ideological loyalty of its militants? Attraction alone is not enough. Constant mental nourishment and the elimination of opposing opinions is also an important step.
This is done through two overlapping approaches. The first is internal: the pledge of allegiance by the State’s militants to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi means a promise of absolute obedience. The soldier does not dispute anything with his commander; he obeys his every order. Anyone who disobeys is punished, with penalties ranging from prison to execution for “apostasy.” All clerics in ISIS-held territories must be supporters of the State, and its publications and productions are the only media available to the people therein, “subjects” and soldiers alike. The possession of satellite dishes is forbidden and use of the Internet is restricted.
The second approach, which is no less important, is external; an open war against all Muslim scholars and sheikhs not affiliated with the State. ISIS’ militants cannot obey them in anything because they are “apostates” and “scholars of the powers that be."
Two separate isdars were published by the organization on this topic, one titled “Agents, Not Clerics,” and the other “Fight the Imams of Disbelief.” In these, ISIS openly called on its supporters to kill clerics and preachers who oppose it, such as the Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Al al-Sheikh; the Saudi clerics Mohammed al-Arifi, Salman al-Odah, and A’id al-Qarni; the Egyptian cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi; the former Egyptian Grand Mufti Dr. Ali Gomaa; the current Egyptian Sheikh of al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayeb; the Iraqi cleric Ahmad al-Kubaisi; and many more.
To return to Abu Mu’adh, he made up his mind to escape ISIS at a time when the organization was suffering repeated losses in its Syrian capital, Raqqa. He did this by traversing the Euphrates, reaching SDF-controlled territory with the help of smugglers. Here, the change in Abu Mu’adh’s accent blows me away; he starts talking in fluent Iraqi as though he were a Mosul native. He tells me how he managed to deceive the SDF by pretending to be an Iraqi student with a counterfeit university ID he made using Photoshop. From Ain Issa camp, he obtained a permit to depart, and made it to areas held by the FSA in northern Aleppo. There he turned himself in, ending up here, at this center.
Young people and children make up a salient part of ISIS’ overall human power. It is as easy to deceive them with religious slogans and indoctrinate their young minds with extremist ideology as it is difficult for their beliefs and ideas to be changed later on.
The third person I met with at the center was Khalil, one of two children under the age of 18 housed in the center. He’s from a village in the northern Aleppo countryside. Born in 2003, he joined ISIS when he was 13 years old, staying in “the State” for a few months before deserting.
Khalil has a bright white face, which blushes red when he’s embarrassed, his eyes between black and dark brown. He behaves politely, stammering constantly, hesitating, missing many letters in words, and saying only the minimum required to answer the question.
He comes from a working-class family, in which education wasn’t a priority. He is the youngest of five, with two brothers and two sisters. He worked helping his father in the diesel trade ever since ISIS took over his town in August 2014.
"I studied until eighth grade and then dropped out. There was no ninth grade [after ISIS took control of the town], everyone was in their first or second year of middle school, and the books were all the same. Everyone in my class was younger than me. It was a school only in name, they were pushing us towards jihad, and showing us video clips. They—I mean the Dawa’ish—would also come, and give salaries to the teachers. The schools were closed so that the planes wouldn’t strike, so we studied in the mosque.”
In addition to the media machine and educational institutions to which ISIS paid great attention, there were other reasons that drove Khalil to join the State. “Two of my brothers were killed fighting for Da’esh, that was the thing that let me go [and join them]. One was 23 years old, the other 20. They were with the FSA, in the Tawhid Brigade. Then Da’esh took over the village, and said everyone with FSA had to undergo repentance8. From there, they pledged allegiance and got brainwashed.
“One of them was killed here, in the northern countryside, and the other in Ayn al-Arab [a.k.a. Kobane].” I interrupt to ask: “Do you feel you joined in order to avenge your brothers?” He replies, “Partly because of that yes, but part of it is also about jihad, the wish to fight jihad, I mean.
“It’s also about the videos they showed us, and even the shari’a courses. They held lessons every afternoon, day after day. After those I had it in my head that they were in the right and the whole world was in the wrong.” I ask him, “Why are they in the right?” He responds, “In terms of governance, they’re applying the shari’a. And because whoever pushes the button [i.e. blows themselves up] goes to heaven, and we get a reward. They even made us think the FSA were all infidels and apostates, loyal to America and Turkey.”
I ask if he was persuaded by what they said. “Yes, of course,” he replies. What did his parents think? “At first, I told my father I wanted to go [and join ISIS], and he didn’t let me. Later on I readied myself and went to the enrollment office. They examined my eyes and blood, and I was in.”
Khalil joined ISIS in the final months of 2016, fighting against the FSA in the city of al-Bab, and against the regime in the town of Maskana. His belief in the organization was so great that he wanted to blow himself up with a car bomb.
“I intended to sign up [for it], but I didn’t. It wasn’t meant to be, thank God.”
How did you get here? Were you captured? “No, no, I’m a coordinator, and I defected. My father told me to leave, and if he hadn’t persuaded me to, I’d still be with them right now, or maybe I’d be killed, God knows. I left at night, leaving my gun behind. We rode in a car and went down to the water [the Euphrates], paid whatever it was [meaning he gave money to smugglers] and made it to the Kurds. From there we went on to my village. I spent the night there and then gave myself up, and was brought here.”
Despite everything Khalil saw and experienced, he still behaves like a child, saying things like, “Uncle9, when will I get out of here? I miss my mother so much. Can’t you convince them to release me?”
Khalil’s words affected me, and I hugged him. He is without doubt a victim of the group’s extremist ideology. His place is in school, not imprisoned between these walls. I left him when an image of him entered my imagination; one of a Da’esh soldier carving a knife across my neck without hesitation on the commander’s orders: Slay this “apostate” and enter Paradise!
At the end of 2014, ISIS was a force to be reckoned with. Today, the equation has changed, and it appears “the State” has been defeated; having lost its territory in all but a few besieged areas here and there, in the Iraqi desert, in southern Deir al-Zor, northern Hama, and southwestern Daraa.
And yet, with all the attention and emphasis placed on fighting and defeating Da’esh militarily, there has been a manifest absence of efforts to treat the root causes and circumstances that led to its emergence and rise. Looking around the region and the wider world today, it would seem most of those remain as they were.
- 1. A reference to one of the group’s slogans, “Remaining and Expanding.”
- 2. Isdarat (sing. isdar): Videos released by ISIS media organizations after important battles or events. The videos are usually long (more than twenty minutes), and contain clips and speeches urging people to join the organization and threatening its enemies with death.
- 3. The Tabqa Airbase isdar was titled “Drive Away Those Behind Them With Them" (from Qur’an 8:57), and contained anthems chock-full of jihadist zeal. It showed the battle that took place before ISIS seized control of the airbase, as well as scenes of around 250 regime soldiers being herded around in their underwear, before being executed en masse by firing squad.
- 4. A Salafist-Jihadist group led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. It was initially affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq. However, with the announcement by the latter’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, of the establishment of “the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (ISIS, or ISIL), a dispute broke out regarding allegiance to the mother organization, al-Qaeda. This led many Nusra militants to defect to “the State,” which had been declared a caliphate. The two groups remain at odds to this day.
- 5. An ISIS-affiliated faction. It merged with the Islamic Muthanna Movement in May 2016, forming the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, which at the time of writing controlled about 15 towns south-west of Daraa, and also bordered the occupied Golan Heights and Jordan.
- 6. Pejorative term for regime loyalists.
- 7. An organization founded in Tunisia in April 2011, about three months after the Tunisian revolution. The relationship between the Ennahda Party government which formed the following year and Ansar al-Sharia was notably tense. Seifallah Ben Hassine, nicknamed Abu Ayyad, who is the founder of this organization—in which thousands of recruits have been enrolled as Salafist jihadists—is a former prisoner of the Ben Ali regime who also fought in Afghanistan.
- 8. A procedure often used by ISIS with pre-existing fighters in newly-acquired territories, whereby they are called en masse to publicly declare their “repentance” for their “sinful” past activities, and then pledge allegiance to the ISIS “caliph.” As Khalil indicates, it is an obligatory process; refusal to comply would invite grave punishment, and probably death.
- 9. Said metaphorically by younger people to an older man as an affectionate address.