RAQQA OF AGES
Inside the Head of an ISIS True Believer
The group vows to endure and expand. But under relentless pressure, it’s shrinking. How do its partisans think they can endure? Here’s what one says.
With rare exception, active members of ISIS are notoriously shy about talking to Western reporters. The reason ISIS has invested so heavily in elaborate media and propaganda arms is that its mantra—“Hear from us, not about us”—is designed to demonstrate to fellow travelers and would-be enlistees that what the Crusader-Zionist press says is all lies. The higher metaphysical truth of the “Islamic State” can only be grasped by joining it or listening to what the mujahidin have to say.
For some weeks, I have been in contact via an intermediary with a man I will call Abu Jihad, trying to persuade him to talk to an American reporter. He agreed reluctantly, but as part of the deal, Abu Jihad asked that I not disclose his true identity or current role in the organization, apart from noting that it is by no means senior or even mid-level. He is both a citizen and employee of the caliphate and, importantly, lives in its de facto capital of Raqqa.
Mainly I was interested in probing the captive mind of a true believer. What does he think of his own sodality now that it is losing city after city, and township after township, across Syria and Iraq? I’ve interviewed several ISIS defectors who presented an unvarnished—perhaps selective—view of their erstwhile comrades long after saying goodbye to all that. But what motivates someone to hang in there and remain a loyal subject of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi even in these trying times?
I promised Abu Jihad to record his answers to my questions in full. Where what he says is in obvious contradiction to provable facts, I have added my own commentary in italics.
The Daily Beast: What do you do for ISIS?
Abu Jihad: I have occupied different positions and it’s really not important what your position is during a time of war. You will see judges, scientists, doctors, nurses, all in the same trench fighting Allah’s enemy.
TDB: OK, so what did you do before the Syrian revolution, and when you did arrive in the country?
AJ: I am from Gaza but I was born and raised in Kuwait. We [my family] had to leave during the First Gulf War and so we went to Egypt. I went to school there and graduated from college in Egypt. I went to Syria in early 2012.
TDB: How committed are you to the ISIS ideology and worldview? Did you join the organization right away or did you defect from another rebel or jihadist group?
AJ: I joined Jabhat al Nusra [the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] and during the fight between al Nusra and ISIS [in early 2014] I joined ISIS because I knew it was on the verge of declaring the birth of the Islamic State. Al Nusra didn’t have any clear vision.
TDB: What is it like living in Raqqa now? What are the effects of the coalition war on morale and discipline?
AJ: Thanks to God who gave us the opportunity in our lifetime to see the formation of the Islamic State. Raqqa is the capital of the Islamic State and will always be. We have a good Islamic life here. It is true that we have a few airstrikes once in a while, but we are Muslims, we knew it would not be easy for us to establish our state. We knew that we would struggle and would have hardships along the way.
If you look to the establishment of any nation in the past, it has had to go through what we are going through. The United States, for example, had a civil war for many years before it takes the shape that it has today. France, too, went through a revolution for 30 years. We just declared our Islamic State two years ago and now, as you see, the whole world is against us and yet we are expanding our territory and we are all over the globe.
[In reality, ISIS has lost as much as half the terrain it controlled in July 2014 in Iraq, and about a fifth of that it controlled in Syria at that time. That said, it has established “wilayats” or provinces in the Sinai Peninsula, Libya (where it is also on the backfoot now), Afghanistan, Russia, and beyond. Its spate of terror attacks in the West and Asia and other countries of the Middle East has been the subject of international headlines all throughout 2015 and 2016.]
TDB: How do you see internal support for ISIS among Raqqans?
AJ: Raqqans are the inhabitants of the capital of the Islamic State and they like the way they they live, in peace and safety. Some of them left, but most of them won’t trade their city for the world.
[There hasn’t been a popular grassroots “Sahwa,” or “Awakening” to oppose ISIS in Raqqa, although there are notable pockets of anti-ISIS resistance, particularly the activist organizations Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently and Eye on Raqqa, members of which have been caught by the jihadists and murdered, either in Syria or in southern Turkey. The true extent of Raqqan support for ISIS is not really knowable and won’t be until the terror army is expelled from the city.]
TDB: ISIS has lost a lot of senior leaders in the last two years including Abu Ali al-Anbari, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, and now Abu Omar al-Shishani. Who are they being replaced with and do you believe that their killings will affect ISIS’s fortunes?
AJ: Killing high-profile ISIS leader and emirs will have no effect on us. People and names are not so important; the most important thing is the ideology. In 2006, they [the Americans] killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi [the founder of ISIS’s predecessor al Qaeda in Iraq] and many others and that didn’t stop the progress of the establishment of the Islamic State. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is just a man. He is the one who declared the birth of the Islamic State but he just kept working on what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and [Aleppo-born al Qaeda jihadist and theoretician] Abu Musab al-Suri, and many others were working to do. The Prophet Mohammed died 1,400 years ago. Can we say Islam is over? There always will be men who dedicate their lives for the sake of God. They can kill people but the ideology won’t die.
[Here, Abu Jihad has a point: ISIS has over 13 years to be an adaptable and resilient guerrilla insurgency that has survived and even improved upon the loss of successive leaders. With each new anointment of an “emir” or now “caliph,” it transforms itself, usually according to composition at the upper echelons (foreign fighters give way to ex-Saddamists who now appear to be giving way, in some capacities, to Europeans). Abu Jihad’s reference to the current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “just a man” is interesting. Although subject to the same sharia jurisprudence as every other inhabitant of the caliphate, al-Baghdadi is the one to whom all must pledge a blood oath of fealty in order to join the organization: Indeed, he is the “Caliph.” This remark may betray a quiet recognition on the part of Abu Jihad that ISIS is already planning for its post-Baghdadist period in the event that the caliph is killed or captured.]
TBD: Do you think ISIS will lose Raqqa and Mosul this year? What are jihadists saying internally about the loss of Manbij?
AJ: We didn’t lose Manbij. We had to retreat because of the safety of civilians. We had hundreds of airstrikes every day and losing a battle doesn’t mean losing the war.
[This is clearly nonsense. ISIS was using Manbij refugees as human shields to evacuate their own fighters and materiel as they faced defeat by a Kurdish-led ground force and U.S.-led air power. Photographs of these convoys in retreat, which the coalition could not bomb, given their heavy noncombatant quotient, have been published widely. Nor is there much of a credible case to be made that Manbij was tactically sacrificed to corral resources; the city was an important gateway for smuggling foreign fighters and weapons and money into and out of Turkey, which has now just led or co-led an operation that took another ISIS prize in Aleppo, the city of Jarablus. That campaign lasted fewer than nine hours.]
I can’t truly deny that we lost some parts of the Islamic State territory. But we will surprise the world. As we did when we invaded Iraq two years ago.
Also, we need to make the whole world understand that the Islamic State has no borders or map. We will expand until we occupy the world. As you see already, we are everywhere and the brothers are working all over the world. As I said, we may lose one or two rounds but war is not over yet. No matter how many weapons you have and how many airplanes are bombing us, we will win this war. We are fighting for the sake of God. But you have no cause to fight for.
TDB: What are ISIS’s plans for attacking the West outside of Syria and Iraq? We have seen what it has done in France, Belgium, Turkey, Lebanon and elsewhere.
AJ: Our brothers in Europe and the USA and all parts of the world are preparing surprises. What we did before will look like a joke compared to what is coming.
[ISIS’s European network, mostly made up of operatives trained up in Syria or Iraq and dispatched back to the Continent even before ISIS suffered major territorial losses, is by now well-reported. In the United States, the number of actual ISIS-controlled operatives is unknown, although undoubtedly far smaller.]