World News

08.19.13

My Life as a Jihadist

How does a Western-educated engineer end up fighting for an al Qaeda–affiliated group in Syria? Anna Therese Day has a rare interview.

It’s been a hectic year for Ahmed, a Western-educated jihadist, fighting in Syria. An engineer from Saudi Arabia, the 29-year-old joined the Syrian resistance last fall, and in less than a year, has sustained three gunshot wounds and a head injury from the shrapnel of an explosion.

Last month, I spoke with Ahmed (not his real name) in a hospital just across the border in Turkey where he was undergoing treatment for his most recent injury—a sniper bullet to his left arm—and taking a break from the fighting, though he was eager to get back to the front lines during Ramadan so that he could “die for jihad,” he said. “Our determination has never been stronger.”

I first met Ahmed, a fighter for the al Qaeda–affiliated militia Jabhat al-Nusra nearly a year ago through his friend, a fellow Saudi jihadist, Mahmoud, who had recruited eight young men to join his fundamentalist militia in Aleppo. Ahmed, one in the group of eight, had gotten to know Mahmoud in Saudi Arabia through a friend and jumped at the opportunity to go and fight in Syria. He wanted, he told me, to leave his “boring” but “comfortable” life with “no opportunity for true fulfillment.” The two communicated through Facebook, arranging how Ahmed and another young Saudi man could cross the Syrian-Turkish border and get to Aleppo.

The U.S. has designated al-Nusra a terrorist organization because their attacks have killed civilians and they have a stated loyalty to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Reportedly, the group has also been involved in the kidnapping and detention of foreigners, and, recently, a British rights group accused the group of the extrajudicial murder of 51 Syrian soldiers.

After a tense first meeting, Ahmed later friended me on Facebook.

When I asked Ahmed about being affiliated with a designated terror group, he scoffed. “To be called a terrorist by the most terrorist nation in the world? I will take that as a compliment!” he said, citing America’s invasion of Iraq and drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.

“I said this to you before: I went to school in Canada, Anna, so I know what you think of us in the West,” he hissed, in a reversal from his usually polite tone. “You think we’re crazy, but we don’t think much of you either ... It’s now more than 100,000 Syrians slaughtered, and you did nothing. You think we’re crazy? Well, we think you’re cruel.”

Ahmed said that it was the American invasion of Iraq that made him want to join the “global jihad.” As he told me one evening: “You see, I have seen your world; I have seen both sides. And I choose this. I choose to defend the innocent.”

After a tense first meeting, Ahmed later friended me on Facebook and seemed delighted by my surprise at his profile page.

“It was another life—I know better now, thanks be to God,” he said with a laugh, when I asked him about the Facebook photos that showed him at parties with beer cans in the background. In another photograph, he was standing in Times Square, smiling at the camera, giving two thumbs up.

For security reasons, Ahmed has since deactivated his Facebook page. In part he feared that Western intelligence agencies could track him and in part he was concerned what his fundamentalist friends might think.  “It’s not that I fear [them]. They are my brothers, and they are creating Islamic justice,” he said. “But they have very serious concerns about spies, and I wouldn’t want them to get the wrong idea from something stupid like Facebook … I have to be careful. We can never know with the CIA or the Israelis, you know?”

In recent weeks, the Syrian rebels—a loose collection of more than 1,200 opposition groups—have made some inroads in their fight against Bashar al-Assad, among other things, securing the Menagh Air Base in Syria’s north. On Wednesday, there were reports of attacks on Assad’s residence in Damascus and on the Iranian and Russian embassies in the capital.

Since his arrival in Syria in September 2012, Ahmed has fought for three different groups, including the notorious Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, or ISIS, a group now associated with many of the recent kidnappings. Along with his younger brother, who recently arrived, he is one of the roughly 6,000 foreigners currently fighting in Syria, and he speaks glowingly of al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, a “hero like Osama [bin Laden]” whom he hopes to meet so that he might invite him to his “home to share a meal some day.”