A French Recruit Tells ‘Why I Left ISIS’
As the so-called Islamic State continues to lose territory in Iraq and Syria, its many internal divisions and contradictions are ever more apparent.
“As-salāmu ʿalaykum. Je m’appelle Abu Omar al-Firansi.”
Our new age of sacred terror is multilingual, and yet I was still surprised to click on the video showing a young man covered with a mustard-colored scarf, only his eyes and forehead visible, delivering his confession. “I advise you not to come here,” he concludes after a lengthy disquisition. “Never in my entire life have I experienced such humiliation, injustice, and segregation as I have had to endure here.” Abu Omar al-Firansi, a French national, has just deserted from the so-called Islamic State.
His recounting of his time as an ISIS jihadist was apparently filmed in northern Aleppo around six weeks ago in a safe house belonging to an unnamed smuggler he paid to transport him out of Syria and into Turkey. The footage, which apart from al-Firansi’s shrouded face features only a nondescript tile wall background, was shared exclusively and for the first time with The Daily Beast and was shot by a member of Ibn Awa, a new and as-yet-unpublicized anti-ISIS activist collective, with what appears to be a broad network in the Syrian eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.
Arabic for “Son of the Jackal,” Ibn Awa aims to expose the grim reality of ISIS rule, as suffered by the native population still under its yoke in eastern Syria, by compiling leaked documents and conducting on-camera interviews with ex-jihadists on the lam.
According to Abu Abdo, one of the founders of Ibn Awa, the organization doesn’t yet have a website or active Twitter or Facebook accounts, although these are supposed to be forthcoming in a matter of weeks.
“Some of us work within rebel groups, and some of us are living in Daesh areas,” he says, using the defamatory Arabic acronym for ISIS. He is also cautious about giving too much away about the provenance or backing of Ibn Awa.
Abu Abdo also did not want to share too much detail about Ibn Awa’s personnel or strength of numbers, fearing that his embryonic movement might suffer the same sort of retaliations that have lately been visited upon another, separate grassroots corps of Syrian activists, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, whose representatives have been executed in ISIS snuff videos in Syria or tracked and assassinated by ISIS operatives in southern Turkey. “We aspire to be more careful,” he says.
Why “Son of the Jackal?” “Because this animal is associated with meanness and aggression,” Abu Abdo answers, inviting me to listen to Abu Omar’s testimony to prove that this adequately encapsulates ISIS’s true, as opposed to advertised, nature. The fleeing jihadist’s message, obviously, is aimed not at lay or Western audiences already duly horrified by ISIS, but at fellow Muslims abroad who are still drawn to the prospect of making hijrah, or emigrating, to what the minions of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi consider the only true Islamic state.
The video, as viewed by two other ISIS experts, including a specialist on its Francophone European network, does not appear staged or fraudulent or coerced. However, The Daily Beast cannot fully verify the claims Abu Omar makes, or his identity.
His whereabouts as of now, according to Abu Abdo, are unknown; he may well have made it to Turkey, he may still be stuck in Syria, or he may be dead. But his revelations about ISIS conform to what many other defectors and deserters have said about the internal workings of an organization that is premised on Islamic purity and discipline but in reality offers little more than a goons’ rodeo of religious wannabes, ex-Saddamists, hypocrites, rapists, and extortionists—with plenty of overlap between and among those categories.
The 28-year-old Abu Omar, who speaks throughout in well-educated French (aside from the occasional hosannas in Arabic) claims to have been born in North Africa but to have grown up and studied in France before emigrating to join the Islamic State in July 2014, shortly after the establishment of “the caliphate” was announced officially.
Abu Omar’s last name in the video, al-Firansi, means nothing more than that he’s French—and there are quite a few of these al-Firansis around. According to a March study put out by the New York-based intelligence firm the Soufan Group, France has produced around 1,700 jihadists for ISIS, of whom 250 are thought to have returned to French soil (PDF).
Infamously, a consortium of French and Belgian ISIS operatives managed to perpetrate two of the grisliest terror attacks Europe has experienced since the London tube-and-bus and Madrid train bombings more than a decade ago. Much of the planning for those attacks was said to have been done by a man called Abu Suleyman al-Firansi, who, at least until his rumored arrest by the Turkish military several months ago, headed ISIS’s amn al-kharjee, or foreign intelligence branch, and was responsible for its European operations. Abu Suleyman, is also of Francophone North African ancestry.
Abu Omar claims to have joined the army of terror because everything about his adopted homeland was ugly to him. “Like all young people our age who are living in Europe, I think that what made me come here is a spiritual quest that I felt in myself,” he explains. “I wanted to go beyond my limits while still searching for my Lord through things other than simply a prayer that had no flavor or a fasting that had no flavor either,” he says. “I also wanted to escape this French government, which was segregationist, racist and all that.”
When he reached ISIS-held territory—most likely Raqqa, its de facto capital and intake center for aspiring muhajireen, although he doesn’t specify—he was installed in a madhafa, or safe house, much like the one from which he delivered this interview. He was distinctly unimpressed: “It is total anarchy there, of course, no organization. I stayed for two weeks… After that I did two weeks of a legal training to upgrade my knowledge in religion, belief, and dogma. After that, two weeks of military training, a pseudo military training, of course, because this is not a real military training.”
Such a schedule of indoctrination and martial preparation roughly conforms to what other former ISIS members have told The Daily Beast.
Abu Omar said he did not just fight in Syria, he also fought in borderlands of Iraq, having taken part in the battles of Zumar, Gwer, and Rabia, all against the Kurdish Peshmerga.
In Zumar, by far the fiercest of the battles (the town was only fully captured three months after the operation to liberate it was launched), French warplanes joined American and British ones in bombing ISIS targets; although Abu Omar doesn’t acknowledge the fact, he was therefore likely dodging missiles fired at him by his own government.
On ISIS’s side of the battlefield, he continues, one is “nothing else but a soldier” and there is little that resembles an “Islamic organization.” The rank-and-file “claim to be Muslims,” but institutions and practices are wholly foreign to the faith. “It is rather the ways of the former Baathists,” he says, commenting on ISIS’s now (mostly liquidated) senior command echelon composed of several former spies and military officers of Saddam’s regime. The former state actors may be gone, but their Baathist ethos remains, he insists. “That is the way you are treated. You are treated like a dog. You only are a soldier, you are just supposed to obey. You have pledged allegiance and you are supposed to say nothing.”
ISIS militants are ill-equipped and ill-trained. He briefly discusses the siege of Zumar, which started in August 2014, and which ISIS managed to withstand, albeit only after losing “150 brothers.” The Peshmerga retreated. But the following month, the Western bombers arrived and ISIS was no match for them; the jihadists retreated from this “Kurdish zone” deeming it expendable to their sole ambition of conquering areas peopled by their ethnic kin.
“They are only interested in Sunni regions,” Abu Omar says. “It was the same thing with Gwer, it was the same thing with Rabia. Anything that is not Arab or Sunni is of no interest to them. They are completely focused on nationalistic issues, none of the things we came here for. So, in fact, we die for nothing.”
Abu Omar touches upon another unacknowledged motivation underlying the jihadist project. For all its propagandistic window-dressing about ushering in the apocalypse and enveloping the word in the black flag—propaganda now reportedly much reduced thanks to continued battlefield losses and the elimination of its top media gurus—many of ISIS’s ambitions are more proximate and political. It pursues a strategy of Arab Sunni revanchism or restorationism, with the ultimate goal of reclaiming Baghdad for Iraq’s minority sect. The old guard of Saddam Hussein lost it when the U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003 and empowered the Iraqi (and Iranian) Shia.
In 2014, it could be argued, ISIS bit off far more than it could chew by advancing well beyond the Sunni Arab heartlands of eastern Syria and western and central Iraq, where it could more effectively superimpose itself on a centuries-old tribal system that it understood only too well.
Indeed, al-Firansi decries ISIS’s true foundation as a “tribal Iraqi business” based on local feuds and rivalries over turf, money, and spoils. “These people are into this for themselves. It is like in Afghanistan. It is exactly the same thing. It is copy-paste. Just like the Afghans were into this for themselves, their tribes, their traditions and at the end [foreign recruits] ended up being thrown under the bus.”
Uninterested in being a pawn in another nation’s clan warfare, Abu Omar claims he left Iraq and returned to Syria, which he found slightly more “relaxed” before it, too, devolved into the same petty administration and personal viciousness he’d found on the other side of a now supposedly erased border.
He joined the hisbah, or ISIS police force, which was meant to be a professional and impartial investigatory body whose remit was uncovering crimes against the caliphate—and God. Instead, he said, it was a “showcase,” and a fraud. Rather than exercise autonomy to investigate alleged offenses, the hisbah was merely a foil of the amniyat, or intelligence branches of ISIS, which would issue diktats, perhaps in order to meet quotas or settle scores or just for the sake of it.
“The secret services of ISIS would inform us that such and such were involved in drug trafficking or cigarette smuggling, or in I don’t know what. We had to arrest him. There was not the slightest investigation, no administrative or paper work. Nothing. There is no actual police and even less an Islamic one. Because those with whom I used to work were doing exactly the things they forbade to others.”
Nor did takfirinomics fare well during Abu Omar’s time in Syria. Given the straitened economic circumstances imposed by the war, shop owners are allowed to raise the prices for bread because of food shortages. ISIS leaders also forbid buying or selling cheaper oil outside of their dominion. And an entire generation is being intellectually beggared. Parents now refuse to send their children to school either because the schools will be destroyed in airstrikes or because the curriculum is thoroughly ideologized. “In the short term, there is absolutely no policy that is being implemented. Life is not livable here.”
Yet there is a sort of caste system or hierarchy of privilege. First, Iraqis are esteemed above all others, in contravention of the ostensibly anti-nationalist orientation of the caliphate. Next come the appointed regional emirs, who run the show. Next are ordinary men, followed by ordinary women. Finally, Muslims as a broad category outrank all “slaves.” Although where femininity begins and bondage ends is often difficult to discern, because women meant to be classed as virtuous and protected are actually treated otherwise. “ISIS preys on your wives even as you are still alive,” Abu Omar says. “They do not wait until you die. You have to know that in case you die, there is a law according to which your wife has to remain locked away in a madafah for one year. After one year, she is forced to get married, which is in fact a form of legalized rape.”
Disillusioned with his role as a sham cop in a sham state, Abu Omar tried to leave. It wasn’t easy. He plotted his escape for a year and half, he says, but the coalition’s escalating war made it difficult because ISIS shut the borders.
“People such as myself are of course meant as cannon fodder. As for the civilians, they are meant as shields since without them, it is much easier for the planes. What’s more they even close some roads and force people to take the very roads that they themselves use so that the planes do not bomb. Originally we were supposed to have come to protect the Syrian people but we started using them as shields. Personally, I wash my hands of the whole thing.”