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17/9/2015

Why Isis fights | Martin Chulov | World news | The Guardian

Why Isis fights


Jihadi fighters in Iraq and Syria reveal the apocalyptic motivations of the militant movement that has
hijacked the Syrian uprising and transformed the Middle East
Martin Chulov
Thursday 17 September 2015 06.00BST

or more than a century, Dabiq was one of northern Syrias forsaken villages, a speck on
a vast agricultural plain between the Turkish border and the deserts of Iraq, which
hardly seemed likely to shape the fate of nations. A weathered sign at its entrance said
4,000 people lived there, most of whom appeared to have left by 2013, driven out over time
by a lack of work and lately by insurrection. For the first three years of Syrias civil war,
the arrival of a strange car would lure bored children to the towns otherwise empty streets,
scattering cats and chickens as they scampered after it. Little else moved.
Dabiqs few remaining men worked on the odd building project: a half-finished mosque, a
humble house for one local who had just returned after 10 years labouring in Lebanon, or a
fence for the shrine that was the towns only showpiece the tomb of Sulayman ibn Abd alMalik. The Ummayad caliph was buried under a mound of earth in 717, which over many
centuries had somehow grown into a small hill. The war was happening elsewhere, it
seemed.
That was until the jihadists of Islamic State (Isis) arrived in early 2014, an event that the
Dabiq elders had feared from the moment the war began and which the new arrivals had
anticipated for much longer. To the foreigners, and the leaders of the new militant
juggernaut who were beckoning them, the war had by then entered a new phase that would
transform the tussle for power in Syria into something far more grand and important. For
them, the conflict that was slicing the country apart was not merely, as the Syrian
opposition had seen it, a modern struggle between a ruthless state and a restive underclass.
The jihadis instead saw themselves at the vanguard of a war that many among them
believed had been preordained in the formative days of Islam.
One of the earliest sayings of the Prophet Muhammad a hadith mentions Dabiq as the
location of a fateful showdown between Christians and Muslims which will be a precursor
to the apocalypse. According to another prophecy, this confrontation will come after a
period of truce between Muslims and Christians, during which Muslims and only
puritanical Sunnis fit the definition would fight an undefined enemy, which in northern
Syria today is deemed to be Persians.
The Hour will not be established until the Romans [Christians] land at Dabiq, the hadith
says. Then an army from Medina of the best people on the earth at that time will leave for
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them So they will fight them. Then one third of [the fighters] will flee; Allah will never
forgive them. One third will be killed; they will be the best martyrs with Allah. And one third
will conquer them; they will never be afflicted with sorrow. Then they will conquer
Constantinople.
Now, close to 1,500 years later, have come waves of fighters who paid strict heed to these
prophecies and see the rise of Islamic State as a crucial turning point in a centuries-long
battle of civilisations. For their purposes, the Persians today are not simply Iran, but also
the Alawite regime that controls Syria and the Shia militias from around the region who
have come to its defence.
The jihadis started to arrive in the summer of 2012, more than one year into Syrias war,
which had by then started to tip in favour of a ramshackle opposition that was locked into
ousting Bashar al-Assad at all costs. Over the following six months, the foreigners came
from all points of the globe, gradually asserting their will over opposition groups that were
failing to press home their early gains on the battlefield and offered no convincing plan for
the type of society that would eventually emerge from Syrias ruins.
One man in Dabiq recalled to me the day that the war for the north was lost to the jihadis.
They came in a column of trucks one day early last year. They said nothing. They just set
themselves up at the mosque, he said in May 2014. Now everyone knows where Dabiq is.
We are why they are destroying the whole region.
We know about the prophecy, of course we do, another Dabiq local told me, sitting on the
concrete floor of his home in late 2013. But we are hoping that it is just legend. God willing
they will leave us alone. The mans faith was misplaced. Within three months, Isis had set
up a command post among rows of concrete homes, and was sending hundreds of its
fighters and their families to relocate there.
Dabiq, which has been essentially inaccessible to journalists since that conversation, is now
one of three main focal points of the war the group is waging on the region. Raqqa in
eastern Syria is Isiss strategic hub, and Mosul in Iraq is its greatest conquest. But Dabiq is
the place that allows the group to underpin its rampage with theology. In the eyes of Isis,
the reference to the town in Islamic teachings gives the groups rampage an incontestable
mandate a powerful thing to table when youre trying to impose a new world order. And it
appears to be working. To the estimated 20,000 foreigners who have travelled to join the
so-called Islamic caliphate, declared last June by the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the
symbolism of Dabiq is one of the jihadis most alluring calling cards. The group has even
named its online magazine in the towns honour.
Many of Dabiqs new residents have taken prominent roles in the legions of Arab and
western Muslims who have helped turn Isis into the potent and terrifying ideological force
that it now represents. Theyve moved into our homes, said a fighter from the Islamic
Front, a conservative grouping of the armed Syrian opposition that is opposed to Isis. Like
all other Dabiq locals, he feared the jihadis in their midst and would only speak openly with
the protection of a nom de guerre. They have threatened my father, seized my house,
killed our animals and stolen our war, he said. Our fight with them is as big as it is with
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the regime.
By mid-2015, Dabiq itself was draped in the groups iconography, black flags flying above
all its mosques and civic buildings. Many of its homes have been painted with the familiar
black backdrop and white Islamic creed that Isis uses as its calling card. Columns of fighters
come and go from the town, the population of which has more than doubled since Isis took
over. Nearly all the locals have left, however, surrendering their vegetable farms to the
marauders, who dress in ankle-length gelabiyas and eschew most of the trappings of
modern life. Many wear ammunition belts around their chests. Most carry weapons. The
tomb of Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik has been destroyed, as have all other graves not
considered modest enough. Save for the utility trucks, generators and modern weapons,
everything else in town now has the feel of 7th-century frugality.

***
This is the story of why men from all over the world have chosen to fight in a brutal and
apocalyptic war; of what drew them to the battlefields of Iraq and Syria; and of what has
kept many of them there as Europe and the west have scrambled to stem the flow, first of
their own nationals fleeing to join Isis and now of millions of refugees fleeing the other way.
It is told largely by five men with whom I have spoken, at some length, over the past four
years, inside Syria and Iraq. Their motivations are similar, but in some cases they are
diverse and contradictory. All of them draw at least some inspiration from the prophecy of
an epochal confrontation in Dabiq; they see themselves as underdogs, fired by a sense of
divine mission. Individually, each man painted a distinct portrait of his reasons for joining a
movement that is fast causing the collapse of an order that has bound the region together
for centuries, and posing a direct challenge to all the Middle Easts current forms of
governance, threatening autocracies, monarchies and quasi-democracies alike.
All of these men believed that by travelling to fight for the caliphate, they were standardbearers of their faith. They also felt sure they were acting to restore Islam to its lost glories
and had a sense of privilege and pride that their generation was the one that had been
chosen to right the wrongs of the past. These sentiments are shared by many others I have
met: two senior Isis members who have been captured by Iraqi forces and are now facing
death sentences; a Syria-based Tunisian fighter who believes his duty is to obey the orders
of his superiors with unswerving servility; and even one former member of a mainstream
rebel militia, who joined the ranks of his jihadi foes when he realised the battle was turning
in their favour.
But they also had myriad other reasons for joining the terror group that had little to do with
their understanding of Islamic scripture or any sense of holy war. Some saw themselves as
victims of oppression, others as sons of dispossessed families. Another thought of himself
as a cultural warrior, not a holy warrior: he argued that joining the jihad was an entirely
practical obligation, necessary to restore the caliphate and bring on the prophecy of the end
times.
Few were untouched by a yearning for the collective memory of the early centuries of
Islam, alongside contemporary grievances about a humiliating loss of power at the hands of
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the west in recent years. By late 2014, they were all fighting under the banner of the most
radical and dangerous jihadi group to have formed in the past 30 years. And Dabiq was now
ground zero for their struggle.

***
In February 2013, I was a few miles from the Turkish border, standing on a road outside a
government office that rebel fighters had just commandeered as a base, and inspecting the
ruins of a Syrian army tank that had been destroyed in a battle a few days earlier. The rebels
who had taken the office warned me that the building next door had been occupied by
foreigners who had crossed the border to fight in Syria. Isis had not yet formed, but the men
I could see inside that building, darting between the windows and the stairwells, would join
the group when it raised its colours several months later.
By early 2013, foreign fighters from around the world were converging in the rolling hills of
the Jebel al-Akrad region of north-western Syria, 200 miles west of Dabiq. The men had
commandeered homes of Alawite families who had been forced to flee from their path. The
jihadis had taken refuge among elements of the Free Syrian Army, who in the weeks prior
had pushed the Syrian army south towards the regime stronghold of Latakia. As I looked at
the tank, one of these foreigners walked down a small hill towards where I stood on the
road, with a Kalashnikov strapped across his chest and menace in his stride. He asked for
my identification, which he refused to return. I asked him what had caused him to leave his
life and travel to Syria.
Omar and Ali is that your question? came his enigmatic reply. Omar is traditionally a
Sunni name; Ali is identified with Shia Islam. The fighter, who called himself Abu
Muhammad, had immediately made the sectarian nature of his cause clear, and I soon
learned that he and the other jihadis occupying the formerly Alawite houses nearby had
erased any signs of iconography from their walls, painting them over with graffiti touting
the superiority of Sunni Islam.
A 30-year-old Lebanese national, Abu Muhammad had four wives, 10 children and an
American education, and he was now trying to detain me on suspicion of being a spy.
There are reasons for us fighting now, he said in perfect English. All of this was destined
to happen.
After an uneasy standoff on the road, where we were soon joined by armed members of the
rebel group that was hosting me, Abu Muhammad calculated that taking me hostage would
perhaps be unwise. So he invited me for tea instead, and we settled into plastic chairs under
the house his group was using as a base. We talked more about his belief that those who
lived in a western economy, earned a wage, paid taxes and took part in a community life
that was not Islamic were just as deviant as those who had renounced their faith. For him,
there was no room for compromise on what made a person worthy of an afterlife, or eternal
damnation.
This will be a war against a powerful enemy, he said. And the Muslims will win. You are
here on a humanitarian mission, so you can leave. But dont stay long. I did not, but over
the next 18 months, in five more trips to northern Syria, I witnessed the relentless rise of
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the jihadis in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. They steadily captured swaths of land in both
provinces, particularly in the countryside, imposing their will with an increasing
ruthlessness and defying the writ of the other rebel units, who had their guns trained on
Assads army, and wanted a new nation-state to rise from whatever was left of Syria. The
jihadis saw Assad as part of the problem, but they had a bigger goal and that meant
subjugating the rebel cause. Wherever they were able, they were transforming the battle for
Syrias destiny from a fight against one type of tyranny into nihilistic chaos.
By the time another young jihadi, Abu Issa, was freed from Aleppos central prison in late
2011, the Trojan horse act that was Isis was well under way fuelled by Turkeys porous
borders, the savagery of the Syrian regime, feckless attempts to organise opposition fighters
into a cohesive force, and the release of militant prisoners like himself. A Syrian with
historical links to the groups earliest incarnation, al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Issa was released
along with dozens of men like him as part of an amnesty given by Assad to Islamist
detainees, which was touted by the regime as a reconciliation with men who had long
fought against them.
Most of the accused al-Qaida men had been in the infamous Syrian prison system for many
years before the uprising against Assad began. We were in the worst dungeons in Syria,
said Abu Issa, who was a member of the various forerunners of Isis, and fought against the
US army in 2004 and 2005 before fleeing Baghdad in 2006. If you were charged with our
crimes, you were sent to Political Security prison, Saydnaya in Damascus or Air Force
Intelligence in Aleppo. You could not even speak to the guards there. It was just brutality
and fear.
But several months before Abu Issa was released, he and a large group of other jihadis were
moved from their isolation cells elsewhere in the country and flown to Aleppos main
prison, where they enjoyed a more communal and comfortable life. It was like a hotel, he
said. We couldnt believe it. There were cigarettes, blankets, anything you wanted. You
could even get girls. Soon the detainees were puzzled by another prison oddity, the arrival
of university students who had been arrested in Aleppo for protesting against the Assad
regime.
They were kids with posters and they were being sent to prison with the jihadis, he said.
One of them was a communist and he talked about his views to everyone. There was a guy
from al-Qaida in the prison and he was usually very polite but he got angry with this guy. He
said if he saw him again he would kill him. Abu Issa and the other Islamist detainees soon
formed the view that they had been moved to the Aleppo prison for a reason to instil a
harder ideological line into the university students, who back then were at the vanguard of
the uprising in Syrias largest city.
On the same day that Abu Issa and many of his friends were released, the Lebanese
government, which is supported by Damascus, also freed more than 70 jihadis, many of
whom had been convicted of terrorism offences and were serving lengthy terms. The
release puzzled western officials in Beirut who had been monitoring the fates of many of
the accused jihadis in Lebanons jails for more than four years. Some had been directly
linked to a deadly jihadi uprising in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in July
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2007, which led to 190 Lebanese soldiers being killed in battle and much of the camp
destroyed. The claim that the Syrian regime aided the rise of extremism to splinter the
opposition and reaffirm its own narrative that the war was all about terrorism in the first
place has been widely repeated throughout the past five years. It is a central grievance of
the mainstream opposition in Syrias north, which says it lost more than 1,500 of its men
ousting Isis from Idlib and Aleppo in early 2014. At the same time as the opposition was
fighting the jihadis, the Syrian regime, which did not intervene, was able to advance around
the city for the first time in the war. There was no other reason for Salafi jihadis to be in
that jail, and for the students to be with us, said Abu Issa, who now lives in exile in Turkey.
They wanted them to be radicalised. If this stayed as a street protest, it would have
toppled [the regime] within months, and they knew it.
Among the jihadis, there was initially no talk about why they were being freed, Abu Issa
said. Just relief to have somehow made it out of a system that had swallowed other accused
terrorists for decades. Nobody wanted to acknowledge it, at first, he said. But in time
everyone knew what was happening. There were some very important terrorists freed that
day. They did what was expected of them and went straight to join the fight against the
regime. That was the first moment when the war stopped being about civil rights.

***
By early 2013, the jihadis had also set up boot camps just inside the Syrian border; several
of which were within two miles of the main crossings from Turkey. A Saudi fighter named
Gosowan ran the camps from the nearby town of Azaz. New recruits were given 30 days
basic training and intensive Quranic lessons, then sent to the front lines. A huge Turkish
flag, around the size of a two-storey building, flew over the nearby border post.
It was around this time that I met an Iraqi jihadi named Abu Ismael, who was not shy about
his own past. I was a member of the al-Qaida organisation from 2005-11, he said, his
black eyes set in an unflinching stare. I joined them with my father when I was 16, and
apart from one and a half months in prison, I was very active in every way. Now 23, he had
made his way to al-Bab in Aleppo province in the second half of 2012 and been accepted as
an auxiliary fighter by a local opposition unit, Liwa al-Tawheed. We dont trust al-Qaida,
the groups leader, Sheikh Omar Othman, said at the time. They dont want what we want,
but as Muslims we must accept wayfarers, especially if they come to help.
Abu Ismael said he was one of many Iraqis who had travelled to Syria. For him, and others
like him, the civil war was an extension of the same fault line over which Iraq had been torn
in two between 2005 and 2007 a power struggle between vanquished Sunnis and
ascendant Shias. Though the battle lines were drawn on a very modern political rivalry, Abu
Ismael told me he believed they were rooted in the historical split between the sects that
had taken place in Mesopotamia more than a thousand years earlier. There are around 50
Iraqis in each area of northern Syria. Perhaps more, he said. It was not difficult to get here
and it is not hard to find other mujahideen. We can fight where we want to and when we
want to. And God willing we will prevail.
In early 2012, I met another man, called Abu Ahmed, who had also come through the
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furnace of the Iraqi insurgency, similarly drawn into militancy by the belief that Sunnis had
suffered a devastating loss of power in the wake of the American invasion. He had been
affiliated with the group from its earliest days and described to me how they had
organised themselves during the US occupation of Iraq, using the Camp Bucca prison as an
incubator for the decade of terror that was to follow. By 2010, [the insurgency in Iraq]
wasnt working out, he said. But then we became energised again.
It was the second half of 2012 in Syria, when Iraqis like Abu Ismael came to join the fight,
that had been critical for Isis, Abu Ahmed later told me: these were the months that pulled
together all that the forerunners of the group had tried, and failed, to achieve in the prior 10
years. There were some who had lost hope, others who had drifted away, he said. But
now it was coming together. People that had scattered were now being drawn back in.
Some Iraqi veterans had been fighting with regular opposition units in Syria, others were in
Syrian prisons. Yet more had grown up and moved on. And others, like Abu Ahmed, had
disavowed much of the dogma associated with Isis and dreaded the inevitable call from the
men who led the now revitalised group. The reunion was a match of competing
motivations, much like the arrival of the new crop of fighters.
By April 2013, the number of Iraqis fighting in Syria had reached at least 5,000 and was
growing daily. Iraqi veterans of the fight against the US occupation, and the sectarian war
against the Shias, had crossed the border and were taking leadership positions in a new
group that would soon subsume the most organised and capable jihadi outfit in Syria,
Jabhat al-Nusra. Throughout that year, newcomers in jihadi battle dress were regular
features, both in the war zones along the Turkish border, and on flights from Istanbul to
Gaziantep or Antakya, the two main staging posts for fighters wanting to cross into Syria.
On every flight I took on one of the two routes from May 2012 to May 2014, there were at
least five jihadis on board, clearly on their way to join the fight. Most refused to sit near
women; some had Quranic recitations as ringtones; and none were shy about where they
were going. They got on and off the plane with no trouble and, according to drivers who
were sent to meet them, usually headed straight from the airport to the border. I took four
guys one week and two the next, Suleiman Cenar, a taxi driver based in Antakya, told me
in September 2013. They knew the GPS coordinates of where they wanted to go. I dropped
them by the side of the road and they walked through the forest with their belongings.
Central to its growth was the arrival some months earlier of an elderly man with a grey
beard who set up home in the nondescript northern Syrian town of Tal Rifaat. The
newcomers name was Samer al-Khlifawi. He arrived with a wife and a blueprint for how to
run a security state that he had learned from his days as a colonel in Saddam Husseins air
force. Khlifawi, like every other member of Saddams armed forces, lost his job, his pension,
and any chance of meaningful employment after US viceroy Paul Bremer disbanded the
Iraqi military and outlawed the Baath party, to which many of its members especially its
senior officers belonged.
In the years immediately following his sacking, Khlifawi, along with dozens of other
Baathists, steadily got organising. Some joined the anti-US insurgency, which at that point
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was forming more or less along Islamic lines. Others, like him, formed their own networks
and established bonds with Baathists in Syria, who offered refuge and helped with supply
lines. By about 2007 the Islamist groups, among them Salafist jihadi outfits such as al-Qaida
in Iraq (AQI), had allied with some of the Baathists an alliance that would never have been
possible under Saddam, who saw organised jihadis as one of the biggest threats to his rule.
The bond gave the jihadis a tactical guile and the Baathists a military muscle that neither
could have boasted without the other. As AQI, then the Islamic State of Iraq, and now Isis
evolved, this bond has been central to nearly all of their achievements. And Khlifawi, who
had managed to stay underground for nearly a decade after the fall of Baghdad, was
increasingly front and centre.
As soon as Khlifawi arrived in Tal Rifaat, he started laying down roots for Isis. His goal was
to establish systems and structures that would help Isis eventually take over the
communities in which people like him had arrived. Around 50 Iraqis, most trusted veterans
of the insurgency like Khlifawi, or in some cases their sons, were soon dispatched to Syria
and given the job of infiltrating the tribal and community life of their adopted homes.
Khlifawi drew up documents, which were later revealed by Christoph Reuter in Der Spiegel,
that showed how he planned, with clinical efficiency, to subvert the communities of the
north. He encouraged the young Iraqis to set up charities that would be used as fronts, to
identify the most powerful tribes and clans and to try to marry into them. Rival power bases
were also to be pointed out a precursor to them being eliminated when the time was right.
The communities who had accepted the strangers as wayfarers wanting to help them did
not see it coming.
One day in January, they just raised a black flag, said Abu Abdullah, an opposition fighter
from Tal Rifaat. Nobody knew what to do.
Within months, the pieces were sufficiently in place for Baghdadi to start his move. He
announced in April that Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida-aligned jihadi group, would be
subsumed by the newly named Isis. That same afternoon, Baghdadis men, most of them
Iraqis like Abu Ismael, rode into central Aleppo and kicked al-Nusra members out of their
main base in the citys eye hospital. They then painted it black and took it over.
Across northern Syria, the scene was repeated with ruthless efficiency. It was the first of
two bold forays that demonstrated to the Syrian opposition and to the region that Isis had
become an organisation that matched its words with deeds. That was a very important
time for us, I was told by another Isis member, Abu Saleh. Now based in Falluja, he had
grown up in Muslim Brotherhood circles in Baghdad, and joined dozens of his friends in the
west of the capital as the anti-US insurgency grew after 2003. Once a street-smart and risktaking youth, he had become a true believer in what Isis was fighting for though he freely
admitted to me that his affection for western trappings like cars, technology and weapons
was sometimes difficult to reconcile with the frugal ways his leaders demanded of him. But
he too had been energised by the struggle spilling across the border. Things had not always
gone well in Iraq, he said. There had been mistakes. And we had to be patient. But now
Syria had helped us revive ourselves. It would also revive the caliphate.
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***
Shortly after Isis ousted Jabhat al-Nusra in April 2013, Abu Muhammad, the Lebanese
fighter who had tried to detain me in northern Syria, was killed while participating in an
attack on a regime air base near the Turkish border. He had foreshadowed his own death
during our long conversation two months earlier. I want this more than you want life, he
had said. This is our destiny.
Abu Ahmed, with whom I remain in regular contact, became more involved with Isis from
mid-2013. He remains disaffected with the group, which he believes has strayed well
beyond its original remit of fighting the US army and defending Sunnis against their
marginalisation in post-Saddam Iraq. But even with his reluctance, he still believes that he
too is helping to restore lost glories of both ancient Islamic civilisation and a more recent
era of Sunni power by fighting against Iran and the Assad regime. This is just a reality,
he said. The Americans are working with Iran against the Sunnis. This is not a conspiracy
theory.
Abu Ismael is now an emir in eastern Syria, having perhaps unwittingly played a key role
in the subjugation by Isis of much of the north. His remit has taken him to Hama and to
Palmyra, north-west of Damascus, where Isis fighters have systematically destroyed one of
the most important archaeological sites in the world, in their bid to revert the region to an
Islamic year zero.
In Falluja, Abu Saleh, the young jihadi from Baghdad, remains on the front lines, committed
to a cause that he insists is righteous. All of this, the Iranian invasion, the Americans
coming, the fall of Baghdad and the rise of Dabiq, was predicted. We will not stop until we
win in the name of Allah.
Abu Issa, meanwhile, is trying to make a living in Turkey. Many friends from his younger
days in the jihadi movement are still in regular contact with him, as are the men he spent
prison time with an amalgam of Muslim Brotherhood types, men who dabbled with alQaida, others who were drawn to fight by perceptions of injustice, and many more who,
when they started protesting in 2011, saw no other cause except having a voice in an
inclusive government.
Some of them became jihadis, just like the regime wanted, Abu Issa told me. But most
faded away and lost hope. Its mostly the jihadis who have hope now. They have lots of
themes to believe in. And they choose which one suits them.
Additional reporting by Saalim Rizk
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