Dining with Al Qaeda
I knocked over my tea. The explosion outside the house in northern Syria startled me. But the Pakistani, the Kuwaiti, and the two Saudi fighters breaking the Ramadan fast with me seemed unperturbed. “You wouldn’t be so scared if you had Allah, Anna!” one of them said.
The four young men were members of a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams—more commonly known as ISIS. It is an organization that has close ties to Al Qaeda. One of the quandaries for Washington as it approaches greater involvement in Syria is how to try to bring down the hated Assad government, accused of using chemical weapons on its own people, without handing power—and perhaps those weapons—to radical jihadists such as ISIS. For their part, these men wanted to convince me of the righteousness of their cause.
All four of my dinner companions had left their respective countries to join the “Syrian jihad against the Shia donkeys,” as one put it; each said he was eager for his turn to become a “martyr for the global jihad.” Yet, despite our many differences, our table shared three common characteristics: we are all under 30, we are all Western-educated college graduates, and we all speak fluent English.
“I first started learning English from American cartoons, but when I got older, I really liked Boy Meets World. Do you know it?” asked 22-year-old Ayman. With his wide brown eyes and a patchy attempt-at-a-beard, he looked like a teenager next to his older brother and their stone-faced friends.
Had we not been just miles away from the battlefield of Aleppo, much of the dinner conversation would have been normal chatter among peers: the young men asked about my family, my schooling, and of course, my love life. They spoke fondly of their college days in Canada and the United Kingdom, and said they hoped to find a Syrian bride because “Syrian and Lebanese [women] are the most beautiful of the Muslims.”
Yet, paradoxically, as they talked about building a future on this earth, they also talked about a future in Paradise, as martyred suicide bombers. “It is a dream,” said Mohammed, his eyes glazing over as he spoke. The 24-year-old Kuwaiti engineering graduate explained that the selection process for suicide missions is very competitive and that “becoming a martyr” during Ramadan specifically is “like extra points with Allah.” Among its recent operations, ISIS carried out suicide attacks against the Mennagh Airbase of northern Syria, which was later seized by the rebels.
“ISIS has proven remarkably adept at spreading their military resources across large swathes of territory, joining battles at the pivotal moment, and exploiting their superior organizational structures to establish political control and influence over territory,” says Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre in London. Of the numerous armed groups in the Syrian opposition, ISIS is not one of the larger forces. Various estimates put their numbers somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters. Yet their affiliation with the decade-old Islamic State of Iraq organization, once led by the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has afforded them the international financial support and guerrilla combat experience necessary to set them apart from the local Syrian groups.
Before they joined ISIS, Ayman and his older brother, Ahmad, were part of the group called Jabhat al-Nusra. “We are like the special forces here,” brags Ahmad. They switched to ISIS when the current Islamic State of Iraq leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the merger of the two groups in April. The merger was later rejected by both Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Golani in Syria, and by the core al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri, presumed to be hiding in Pakistan. But, despite minor clashes, the two groups have coordinated operations with other opposition forces in and around the cities of Aleppo, Idlib, al-Raqqa, and Deir ez Zour.
“ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are essentially friendly rivals in that both groups represent themselves as the al-Qaeda presence in Syria,” explains Lister. “Politically, the two groups have subtly different outlooks, with Jabhat al-Nusra still stressing its Syrian nature and the limitation of its objectives to the Syrian theater. Conversely, ISIS has a more transnational look.”
That international aspect is precisely what brought Faraz, a 24-year-old Pakistani to ISIS. Faraz, who lived for seven years in the UK, spoke passionately about Western human rights abuses in the Muslim world, and said he returned to Pakistan to stand with his fellow Pakistanis against “the new era of American drone wars.” After two years in Pakistan, he moved to Syria because he realized there’s “actually a war against the entire Muslim world by the US, Israel, Europe and Iran.” (He does not consider those who practice Shia Islam, the dominant religion of Iran, to be Muslim. The Assad regime in Syria is largely composed of Alawites, who belong to another Shia-linked sect regarded as heretical by Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists.)
These young men agreed to an interview with an American publication in secret and on the conditions of anonymity, each seeing value in sharing his perspective with Western audiences. This openness is a major departure from the party lines of both ISIS and al-Nusra, both of which have been linked to the kidnapping of Western reporters and aid workers. Dozens of journalists have been taken hostage since the Syrian conflict began, with the numbers spiking in recent months. Al-Nusra and ISIS also have been accused of kidnapping members of the opposition that disagree with them.
Mohammed vehemently denied these claims. “We only detain spies—regime spies, Western spies, and spies from Iran. This is a war so we have to do what is necessary to make us strong enough to defeat the Shia,” he insisted.
“If any of the prisoners are really journalists, then I am sorry for that,” shrugged Ayman. “But a million journalists have told the Syrian story, and no story has changed the situation. So if we have to choose between our security and that the world will wake up from one article, of course we will choose our security! We are up against the E-Army [hackers who support the Syrian regime], Iran, the CIA, and the Israelis so we have to!”
Despite their animosity towards the United States and its allies, over the course of several meetings, all four men consistently called for Washington to arm the rebels with more sophisticated weaponry. In the most recent interviews, however, the tone shifted to a deeper mistrust and paranoia about Western involvement in Syria.
“Even if I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t take one from the Americans,” said Faraz, as he patted his Kalashnikov. “The Israelis would make sure it exploded in my hand. You [Americans] have your reasons to get involved now, and the reasons are not humanitarian.” He recited a long litany of U.S. military actions in the Muslim world that rarely if ever saved lives, and most often brought death and destruction.
“If the U.S. dares to ‘put boots on the ground’ here, they need to know that we will blow them out of Syria,” said Mohammed, staring intensely. “If they want another battle with us, we are ready for them like we are in Afghanistan, like we are in Iraq. If the US cared about the Syrian people, they would have done something before 100,000 Muslims [Syrians] were killed.”
With this, Faraz added: “Tell America: we will fight you where ever you kill more Muslims. We are ready when you are.”