It took some convincing, but the man we’ll call Abu Khaled finally came to tell his story. Weeks of discussion over Skype and WhatsApp had established enough of his biography since last we’d encountered each other, in the early, more hopeful days of the Syrian revolution. He had since joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State and served with its “state security” branch, the Amn al-Dawla, training jihadist infantry and foreign operatives. Now, he said, he had left ISIS as a defector—making him a marked man. But he did not want to leave Syria, and The Daily Beast was not about to send me there to the kidnap and decapitation capital of the world. I had met him often enough in Syria’s war zones in the past, before the rise of ISIS, to think I might trust him. But not that much. “Lucky for you, the Americans don’t pay ransoms,” he ventured, after the two of us began to grow more relaxed around each other and the question of ISIS hostage-taking inevitably came up. He said he was joking.
I knew from our digital parlays that, if he were telling the truth, he had extraordinary, granular information about the way ISIS operates: who is really in charge, how they come and go, what divisions there are in the ranks of the fighters and the population. Abu Khaled saw firsthand, he said, what amounted to the colonial arrogance of Iraqi and other foreign elites in the ISIS leadership occupying large swaths of his Syrian homeland. He was in a position to explain the banality of the bureaucracy in a would-be state, and the extraordinary savagery of the multiple security services ISIS has created to watch the people, and to watch each other. He could also tell me why so many remain beholden to a totalitarian cult which, far from shrinking from its atrocities and acts of ultra-violence, glories in them.
An injured man hugs an injured woman after an explosion during a peace march in Ankara, Turkey, October 10, 2015. Reuters
Abu Khaled had worked with hundreds of foreign recruits to the ISIS banner, some of whom had already traveled back to their home countries as part of the group’s effort to sow clandestine agents among its enemies.
But Abu Khaled didn’t want to leave his wife and an apartment he’d just acquired in the suburbs of embattled Aleppo. He didn’t want to risk the long journey to this Turkish port city. Since he’d bailed out of ISIS, he said, he’d been busy building his own 78-man katiba, or battalion, to fight his former jihadist comrades.
I asked Abu Khaled: Did you warn anyone about these two Frenchmen? “Yes,” he responded.
All very interesting, I answered, but still we would have to meet face to face, even if that meant both of us taking calculated risks.
The worst terrorist bombing in modern Turkish history had just been carried out by ISIS operatives in the streets of Ankara, killing over 100 people in a NATO country, reinforcing yet again one of the core ideological conceits of the putative caliphate: Borders are obsolete, and ISIS can get to you anywhere, as it wants everyone to know. There was at least a possibility Abu Khaled was still a spy for ISIS, and that he was part of an operation to collect new hostages.
For Abu Khaled, assuming he was telling me the truth, the risks were much greater. ISIS might track him all the way into the “Land of Unbelief” and deal with him there. Indeed, it did just that with two Syrian activists from Raqqa, who were beheaded in Sanliurfa at the end of October. And there were agents Abu Khaled had trained himself who had left Syria and Iraq for work “behind enemy lines.”
A fighter seen in front of a burning vehicle in Raqqa. Hamid Khatib/Reuters
“When you’re in the secret service, everything is controlled,” he told me. “You can’t just leave Islamic State territory.” It would be especially hard for him because all the border was controlled by the state security apparatus he had served. “I trained these guys! Most of them knew me.”
“I can’t go, Mike,” he said more than once as we spoke for hours, long-distance. “I’m kafir now,” an infidel, a non-believer in the view of the caliphate. “I was Muslim and now I’m kafir. You can’t go back, from Muslim to kafir, back to Muslim again.” The price you pay is death.
Given the circumstances, it seemed possible, even preferable, that he leave Syria for good, and bring his wife to Istanbul, so they could make their way eventually to Europe. But he refused even to consider such a thing. Abu Khaled told me he was prepared to die in Syria. “You have to die somewhere,” he said. “People die in bed more than people who die in wars. What if something like this happened to your country? Are you willing to die for your country, the next generation, or do you run away?”
All this sounded persuasive, but to get at what Abu Khaled knew with any confidence, I had to have the chance to question him again and again. He had to be asked about any contradictions in his account. I had to see his body language, his twitches, his tells. And that could only be done in person.
Militant Islamist fighters ride horses as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Raqqa. Reuters
Abu Khaled eventually relented. He borrowed about $1,000 to make the long, 750-mile journey by car and bus from Aleppo to Istanbul, and then back again. We met at the end of October. And so for three long days, in the cafés, restaurants, and boulevards of a cosmopolis, on the fault line between Europe and the Middle East, I watched him through the haze of smoke as he lit one cigarette after another, and sipped his bitter Turkish coffee, and looked me in the eye. And Abu Khaled sang.
“All my life, OK, I’m Muslim, but I’m not into Sharia or very religious,” he said early in our conversation. “One day, I looked in the mirror at my face. I had a long beard. I didn’t recognize myself. It was like Pink Floyd. ‘There’s somebody in my head but it’s not me.’”
Not many recovering jihadists have a word-perfect recall for “Brain Damage.” But Abu Khaled is not a fresh young fanatic anxious for martyrdom, he is a well-educated multilingual Syrian national of middle age whose talents, including his past military training, the ISIS leadership had found useful.
In his novel Money, Martin Amis describes a character’s face as having “areas of waste and fatigue, the moonspots and boneshadow you’re bound to get if you hang out in the twentieth century.” Abu Khaled’s face, now shorn of the long beard he’d been made to grow, bore all the signs of someone who’d already hung out too long in the 21st. He looked haggard and beaten.
Like many of his compatriots, he’d spent a large part of a war that has gone on for half a decade based in southern Turkey. He joined ISIS on Oct. 19, 2014, he said, about a month after the U.S.-led coalition’s Operation Inherent Resolve expanded its aerial bombardment campaign to Raqqa, the eastern province where ISIS keeps its “capital.”
Abu Khaled felt compelled to sign up because he believed America was an accomplice to global conspiracy, led by Iran and Russia, to keep the tyrant Bashar al-Assad in power. How else could it be explained that the U.S. was waging war only against Sunnis, and leaving an Alawite-run regime guilty of mass murder by almost every means and its Iranian Shia armies untouched?
Also, Abu Khaled was curious. “I went there practically as an adventure,” he said. “I wanted to see what kind of people were there. Honestly, I don’t regret it. I wanted to know them. Now they are my enemy—and I know them very well.”
The procedure that took him into ISIS ranks was thoroughly organized. He approached a checkpoint at the Turkish-Syrian border town of Tal Abyad when it was in ISIS’s hands. “They asked me, ‘Where are you going?’ I said: ‘Raqqa.’ They asked me why. I told them I wanted to join ISIS. They checked my luggage.”
Once in Raqqa he had to go to the “Homs embassy,” the name for the ISIS administrative building where all Syrians had to apply. He spent two days there, after which he was transferred to what was called the “Border Administration Department.” All this in his own country, which ISIS informed him no longer existed.
“They considered me an immigrant because I had been living outside the caliphate.” So Abu Khaled had to be “naturalized” first, and had to pass a citizenship interview conducted by an Iraqi named Abu Jaber.
“Why do you want to become a holy warrior?” he was asked. He said something perfunctory about fighting the crusader-infidels, he recalls. Apparently it passed Abu Jaber’s smell test.
A man holds up a knife as he rides on the back of a motorcycle touring the streets of Tabqa city with others in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa. Reuters
The next stage was indoctrination: “I went to Sharia court for two weeks. You have to go take classes. They teach you how to hate people.” Abu Khaled laughed. He was taught the ISIS version of Islam—that non-Muslims have to be killed because they are the enemy of the Islamic community. “It’s brainwashing,” he said.
The clerics responsible for this indoctrination were know-nothing striplings from foreign countries. “There was one guy I remember from Libya, maybe he was in his mid-twenties.” What kind of Islamic authority could someone so young have, Abu Khaled wondered. And where were all the Syrians?
“They asked me, ‘Where are you going?’ I said: ‘Raqqa.’ They asked me why. I told them I wanted to join ISIS. They checked my luggage.”
In his first weeks with ISIS, Abu Khaled met Germans, Dutchmen, Frenchmen, Venezuelans, Trinidadians, Americans, and Russians—all freshly arrived to “remain and expand,” as the ISIS mantra goes, and to be custodians of the one true faith.
As might be expected, new additions to this jihadist internationale don’t have even conversational Arabic, so a polyglot volunteer, such as Abu Khaled, is particularly valued. He has fluent Arabic, English, and French, and was therefore seized upon right away as an interpreter. “I had two groups,” he said. “On the left I had the French and was translating from Arabic to French; on the right I had the Americans, translating from Arabic into English.”
As part of its agitprop, ISIS often shows its muhajireen, or foreign fighters, setting their passports ablaze in a ritual designed to demonstrate that there’s no going back. Whether from Bruges or Baton Rouge, they have all repudiated their nationality in Dar al-Harb, the land of war and depravity and godlessness, in order to become inhabitants of Dar al-Islam, the land of faith and peace (once it finishes fighting wars). But this is mostly for show. Previously, most new arrivals either kept their passports or “handed them over.” To whom? “Human Resources,” said Abu Khaled.
But that relatively relaxed personnel policy has changed in recent days. ISIS is increasingly restrictive and controlling as it has begun to lose battles, some of them at tremendous cost.
Smoke and flames rise following an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobani on October 20, 2014. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty
Before the fight for the Kurdish town of Kobani last year, the caliphate had an aura of invincibility, and people from around the world were rushing to envelop themselves in the black flag of messianic victory. But in that battle, which lasted for months, Kurdish paramilitaries backed by U.S. airpower fought well, while ISIS—at least as far as Abu Khaled characterizes it—needlessly sent thousands to their slaughter, without any tactical, much less strategic, forethought. The jihadist army had lost between 4,000 and 5,000 fighters, most of them non-Syrians.
“Double this number are wounded and can’t fight anymore,” Abu Khaled told me. “They lost a leg or a hand.” Immigrants, then, are requisitioned as cannon fodder? He nodded. In September of last year, at the apogee of ISIS’s foreign recruitment surge, he says the influx of foreigners amazed even those welcoming them in. “We had like 3,000 foreign fighters who arrived every day to join ISIS. I mean, every day. And now we don’t have even like 50 or 60.”
This sudden shortfall has led to a careful rethinking by ISIS high command of how inhabitants outside of Syria and Iraq can best serve the cause. “The most important thing,” Abu Khaled said, “is that they are trying to make sleeper cells all over the world.” The ISIS leadership has “asked people to stay in their countries and fight there, kill citizens, blow up buildings, whatever they can do. You don’t have to come.”
Some of the jihadists under Abu Khaled’s tutelage have already left al-Dawla, the state, as he puts it, and gone back to their nations of origin. He mentioned two Frenchmen in their early 30s. What were their names? Abu Khaled claimed not to know. “We don’t ask these kinds of questions. We are all ‘Abu Something.’ Once you start asking about personal histories, this is the ultimate red flag.”
Following the Paris terrorist attacks on Nov. 13, which occurred almost a month after our meeting in Turkey, I contacted Abu Khaled. Now back in Aleppo, he told me that he was fairly certain that one or both of these French nationals were involved in some way in the coordinated assault, the worst atrocity to befall France since World War II, which has killed at least 132 and left almost as many critically wounded. He says he’s now waiting to see their photographs published in the international press.
In the meantime, he volunteered their physical descriptions. The first was a North African, possibly from Algeria or Morocco, bald, of average height and weight. The other was a short, blond-haired, blue-eyed Frenchman, very likely a convert to Islam, who had a wife and a 7-year-old son.
It seemed like the kind of information that those looking to counter ISIS would find useful. So I asked Abu Khaled: Did you warn anyone about these two? “Yes,” he responded, and left it at that.
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast
“Suicide bomber is a choice,” said the man we’ll call Abu Khaled, stubbing out a Marlboro Red and lighting a new one. “When you join ISIS, during the clerical classes, they ask: ‘Who will be a martyr?’ People raise their hands, and they go off to a separate group.”
The number of recruits is declining, the former ISIS intelligence officer and trainer had told me here, on the shores of the Bosporus. But, at least in those indoctrination classes, there’s no want of young men looking for a quick trip to Paradise. “They keep volunteering,” said Abu Khaled.
In the wide world outside al-Dawla al-Islamiya, the Islamic State, we have caught occasional glimpses of these incendiary young zealots. There was, for instance, Jake Bilardi, a disaffected Australian 18-year-old, who, judging by the blog he left while still in Melbourne, made a rather seamless transition from Chomskyism to takfirism, before detonating himself at a checkpoint in Iraq.
Abu Abdullah al-Australi, as he went to his death in Ramadi, was convinced that he was carrying out a noble act of self-sacrifice, turning kamikaze for the caliphate. For him, jihad began at home. “The turning point in my ideological development,” he’d written, coincided with the “beginning of my complete hatred and opposition to the entire system Australia and the majority of the world was based upon. It was also the moment I realised that violent global revolution was necessary to eliminate this system of governance and that I would likely be killed in this struggle.” He was right about that last part, if not quite about how his fellow revolutionaries determined his use-value.
For pragmatic reasons, ISIS has encouraged homogeneity within the ranks of its katibas, or military battalions, much as the republicans did with their international brigades during the Spanish Civil War. One of the best-trained and best-equipped katibas, or battalions, is named for Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born al Qaeda cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. “Everything is in English for this katiba,” Abu Khaled said. “And we have another one with a lot of Americans called Abu Mohammed al-Amiriki. It’s named for a guy from New Jersey. He got killed in Kobani. This katiba also has a lot of foreigners.”
Lately, however, ethnically or linguistically delimited katibas are being dissolved and reconstituted into mixed ones, owing to the unintended consequence of having too many people from one place, or with one language, assembled together. Al-Battar, one of the strongest battalions in the ISIS army, was made up of 750 Libyans. Its men, ISIS found, were more loyal to their emir than they were to the organization. So al-Battar was disbanded.
Not long after joining ISIS, Abu Khaled had intended to found a Francophone katiba of around 70 to 80 fighters who didn’t speak any Arabic. The men drew up a petition and signed it, and Abu Khaled took it to ISIS headquarters in Raqqa. The petition was denied. Why? “They told me, ‘We had a problem before with the Libyans. We don’t want the French in one katiba.’”
Russian speakers, too, are considered rogue troublemakers in al-Dawla. All fighters from the Caucasus or former Soviet republics tend to be referred to by the catch-all word “Chechens.” And while Abu Omar al-Shishani, an ethnic Chechen from Georgia, is one of the most recognized (and overhyped) battlefield commanders in ISIS, “Chechens” are running their own outfits with very little supervision or command-and-control from Raqqa. This has caused heightened vigilance among the Arab or regional jihadists. “I was in Raqqa once, and there was five or six Chechens. They were mad about something. So they came to see the emir of Raqqa. He was so afraid, he ordered ISIS to deploy snipers to the roofs of buildings. He thought the Chechens would attack. The snipers stayed there for two hours.”
ISIS’s heralded end of the artificial borders imposed by European imperial powers has led to the unintended consequence of jihadist imperialism. The ISIS leadership, after all, is mainly Iraqi, and if there is a political, as opposed to religious, objective underlying all its activity, it is the restoration of Sunni power in Baghdad. Indeed, the franchise in Mesopotamia can be considered more “nationalist” in orientation than the one in the Levant, where muhajireen drunk on the “end of Sykes-Picot” seem not to realize they’re being exploited by the former henchmen of Saddam Hussein.
There’s no want of young men looking for a quick trip to Paradise. “They keep volunteering.”
Structured rather like the regional mukhabarat, or intelligence agencies, of the traditional Arab tyrants ISIS supposedly wants to extirpate, ISIS’s amniyat, or security services, consists of four separate agencies or branches, each with its own role.
There is Amn al-Dakhili, which is tantamount to ISIS’s interior ministry. It’s charged with maintaining security for each city.
Then there is Amn al-Askari, or ISIS military intelligence, its reconnaissance men and anatomists of enemy positions and fighting capabilities.
Amn al-Kharji is ISIS foreign intelligence, whose operatives are sent behind “enemy lines” to conduct espionage or plot and perpetrate terrorist operations. But “enemy lines” doesn’t just refer to countries and cities of the West; any areas in Syria controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the Assad regime, and thus not technically within the boundaries of the caliphate, require foreign assets to penetrate.
This is crucial for how the organization “expands” in Syria and Iraq—by dispatching sleepers to recruit agents and informants, or gather information about rival groups, be they other militias or state armies. Abu Khaled emphasized repeatedly that tradecraft rather than martial puissance is what makes ISIS so formidable at seizing and keeping terrain.
Members loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) wave ISIL flags as they drive around Raqqa June 29, 2014. The offshoot of al Qaeda which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic "Caliphate" and called on factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance, a statement posted on jihadist websites said on Sunday.
Members loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) wave ISIL flags as they drive around Raqqa June 29, 2014. Reuters
Others agree. A few months ago, Der Spiegel’s Christoph Reuter published an exposé based on captured internal ISIS documents showing the careful compartmentalization of the amniyat.
In other words: Not all of America’s supposed allies in Syria are what they seem. Some of them, according to Abu Khaled, are being manipulated by people secretly working for ISIS instead.
“The agents were supposed to function as seismic signal waves,” Reuter wrote, “sent out to track down the tiniest cracks, as well as age-old faults within the deep layers of society—in short, any information that could be used to divide and subjugate the local population.” Who were the elite families? How did they make their money? Were any of their sons secretly gay? What could be used to blackmail them into submission or compliance?
The entire apparatus was honeycombed with semi-autonomous fiefs, often tasked with keeping track of what the others were up to. “A general intelligence department reported to the ‘security emir’ for a region who was in charge of deputy emirs for individual districts. A head of secret spy cells and an ‘intelligence service and information manager’ for the district reported to each of these deputy emirs. The spy cells at the local level reported to the district emir’s deputy. The goal was to have everyone keeping an eye on everyone else.”
This naturally puts one in mind of the KGB or Stasi—hardly a coincidence given that many of the top-ranking ISIS officials are former members of Saddam Hussein’s mukhabarat and therefore past pupils of Warsaw Pact security organs. In fact, the man who constructed the ISIS franchise in Syria, the now-deceased Haji Bakr, had once been a colonel in Saddam’s Air Defense Intelligence Service.
Abu Khaled told me that the ministry of fear Haji Bakr built has only thrived since.
“A week before I defected, I was sitting with the chief of Amn al-Kharji, Abu Abd Rahman al-Tunisi. They know the weak point of the FSA. Al-Tunisi told me: ‘We are going to train guys we know, recruiters, Syrians… Take them, train them, and send them back to where they came from. We’ll give them $200,000 to $300,000. And because they have money, the FSA will put them in top positions.’”
“This is how ISIS took over Syria,” said Abu Khaled. “It has plants in the villages and areas run by the FSA, and its people are in the FSA.”
In other words: Not all of America’s supposed allies in Syria are what they seem. Some of them, according to Abu Khaled, are being manipulated by people secretly working for ISIS instead.
Abu Khaled was made a member of Amn al-Dawla, or ISIS state security. This is its Shin Bet or FBI, responsible for running counterintelligence operations (weeding out foreign spies from the FSA, the Assad regime, or Western or regional services), intercepting communications internally (such as phone calls or unauthorized Internet connections), and maintaining the organization’s notorious detention program. The British-born Mohammed Emwazi, whom the media nicknamed “Jihadi John” after his recorded decapitations of Western hostages and who was very likely killed by a U.S. drone strike on Nov. 13, was also a member of Amn al-Dawla.
“When anyone from any of these four branches is at work,” Abu Khaled explained, “they are masked.” But sometimes ISIS’s fondness for media attention gets the better of it. Emwazi’s identity, Abu Khaled said, was only confirmed because an informant for a regional government obtained unedited footage of the Briton running around Raqqa without his mask and delivered it to London.
Men carry a body, believed to be one of the detainees held and executed by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), after it was discovered in a hospital in Aleppo that had been an ISIL stronghold before it was captured by rival rebel forces January 8, 2014. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
While the agents for each branch are typically Syrian, their chiefs are not. For some reason Abu Khaled can’t explain, the chiefs of the amniyeen tend to be Palestinians from Gaza.
Like any state bureaucracies, territoriality gives rise to factionalism and infighting. “We have the military and the amniyeen,” Abu Khaled said. “They don’t like each other. When I used to train the amniyeen, my friends from the military used to tell me, ‘So now you are working for the kufar?’” He smiled. The infidels.
Abu Khaled’s main role was in training the frontline local security for al-Bab. This took place in a camp about five kilometers north of the city and the daily protocol was intense. Reveille was at 5:30 in the morning. The jihadists would all gather for a one-hour workout. Abu Khaled got on site at 7 and gave lessons until noon. He taught battlefield tactics and operational awareness: how to secure a perimeter or launch a sortie.
The fighters were then allowed to rest for two hours before training commenced again. At 5:30 in the evening, they were relieved, but not to a camp barracks. “The guys would go back to the places where they slept because it wasn’t safe to stay over in the camp,” he said.
They stayed at the residence of Aleppo-born Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the second-most powerful man in this terror army. He was once the confidant of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s original incarnation.
Adnani, a senior member of ISIS’s Shura Council—its main decision-making body—is responsible for appointing the wali, or governor, for each of four wilayat, or provinces.
Adnani also names the chiefs of all four branches of the security services as well as the chief of staff for the ISIS military administration. He is very mercurial. “I don’t even think he consults with the khalifa [the caliph] for replacing people or firing people,” Abu Khaled said. (This seemed exaggerated: The Shura Council, headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, likely does authorize—or at least rubber-stamps—the selection and deselection of walis.) “Every visit, he puts people in jail, he fires people. Before I came to al-Bab, Adnani appointed a new wali from Iraq, a new chief of security from Iraq. Now in Syria we don’t have any Syrians as walis. Foreigners from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Iraq—but not Syrians. Tunisia should really open its embassy in Raqqa, not Damascus. That’s where its people are.”
Adnani divides his time between Raqqa and al-Bab, where Abu Khaled claims to know all of his residences, including the one used by the soldiers that Abu Khaled trained. Adnani is largely inconspicuous, always traveling in “an old car” and with a security detail that tends not to advertise its presence.
The ISIS leaders, according to Abu Khaled, conduct regular tours of their caliphate virtually incognito as they check on whether the “state” is functioning as it should. And if they’re not, then heads will roll in both the literal and figurative sense.
Abu Khaled says he once shared a frontline position with Baghdadi himself. “One time, we were around Kweris airport,” he said, an isolated and—until recently—besieged regime outpost in ISIS country near Aleppo. “And al-Baghdadi came there. We didn’t know at the time, only after he left. Some people saw him but didn’t realize it was him. When Islamic State leaders travel, they don’t come with high-profile bodyguards. You don’t even know they’re there.”
Perhaps the foregoing story is true, or perhaps it’s part of a carefully tended personality cult, without which no absolutism can survive and self-perpetuate.
The tales about these secret visits are reminiscent of those told about Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph of Baghdad when it was at its height in the eighth century. Although al-Rashid was real, his rendering by posterity was more informed by his recurring, fictionalized role in The Thousand and One Nights.
At times, Abu Khaled seemed an unwitting Scheherazade, trafficking more in third-hand rumors and gossip—caliphate cock-and-bull—than in what he’d witnessed himself. Yet even these stories were illuminating insofar as they demonstrate the care with which ISIS sells its own legend internally.
Another anecdote about Baghdadi, for instance, is almost surely a fabrication by clever political technologists for intentional dissemination through the jihadist grapevine.
Once, it is said, Baghdadi traveled to Minbij, the other main city ISIS controls in Aleppo, whereupon he got into a car accident. The man whose car he dinged was incensed and started shouting at the caliph, whose identity he didn’t know, right there on the street, in front of passersby.
“I’m going to take you to the court!” the man screamed at Baghdadi. “Let’s go,” Baghdadi answered him. And off the two went, to the Sharia court in Minbij. In front of a clerical magistrate who knew the defendant’s identity even if the plaintiff did not, Baghdadi admitted that the smashup was indeed his fault. The judge ordered the caliph to pay a fine.
“They hold themselves to account, like everybody else,” Abu Khaled told me. “This kind of thing, believe me, they are very good at.”
Abu Khaled credits this notion of “equality before the law” as one of the main pillars of ISIS’s populist political program. And he said he experienced it firsthand.
His personal computer, he said, was at one point confiscated by Amn al-Dawla so that it could be checked for any sign of disloyalty or treason. The machine was lost, a casualty of the jihadist bureaucracy. “So I had to take them to court. I swear to God, the judge, he picked up the phone: ‘OK, guys, you have 24 hours. I need his computer. Or you have to compensate him for the computer. Otherwise, I’m going to put you in the square and thrash you in front of everybody.’ You can be a nobody and still seek justice. This is one reason people who hate ISIS still respect them.”
But, of course, ISIS doesn’t just enforce its will through respect, he noted. When that appeal falls short, ISIS turns to a complementary method of controlling its population: fear. Then Abu Khaled told me about the cage.
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast
“They have a cage in this square,” Abu Khaled said, describing the place where ISIS justice is meted out in al-Bab, the Syrian town in which, until recently, he’d served with the state security apparatus of the so-called Islamic State. This is the same place where beheadings take place from time to time. But the cage is always there, and there’s almost always someone inside.
“They put people in it for three days. And they say why he is there,” the man we’ll call Abu Khaled told me at one of our meetings over three days in Istanbul last month. “One time, a man went to the court as a witness and he lied. They put him in the cage for three days. One guy was hanging out with girls; they weren’t his relatives and not married. He spent three days. For cigarettes, you spend like one day, two days, three days. It depends.”
Abu Khaled was describing a place I’d been. I was in al-Bab during Ramadan 2012, in the relatively early days of the revolt against the Assad regime, when the town was still controlled by local rebel forces, and I saw how that same square came alive at night when activists, rebels, or local civilians transformed themselves into ad hoc cleanup crews—the Free Syrian Street Sweepers—picking up detritus and rubble left over from regime shelling, or manning field hospitals in the basement of the local mosque, because the real hospital in al-Bab had been targeted and badly damaged by the Syrian military.
There was even an all-night café in those days where you could watch international news, drink smoothies, smoke shisha, and talk endlessly about everything and anything, without the fear that Assad’s mukhabarat would be listening in. All that is gone now, Abu Khaled assured me. The café is closed. No one comes out at night anymore because there’s an ISIS-enforced curfew. And the locals have to worry about everything they say, and to whom.
As with Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, so with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISIS is absolutely paranoid about infiltration, and its wild dragnets for capturing fifth columnists and foreign agents seem premised on preemption rather than exposure. Fear must be maintained to keep people from so much as thinking of resistance. And in the frenzy, inevitably, ISIS devours some of its own. “One time they beheaded a Kuwaiti guy they said was working for MI6. They wrote on his body that he was a British spy—and he was the chief of the amniyat in al-Bab.”
Abu Khaled, deadpan, took a long drag on his Marlboro and sipped some tea in the Istanbul café where we were talking.
Fighters from Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) hold their weapons as they stand on confiscated cigarettes before setting them on fire in the city of Raqqa April 2, 2014. © Stringer . / Reuters
The ISIS defector argues that the paranoia is well-founded. ISIS, he believes, is absolutely run through with spies and informants of all persuasions. A Russian in Raqqa, he says, was found to be working for Vladimir Putin’s services. “They had video, he admitted to it. I don’t know if it was under pressure, but he confessed.” Another man, a Palestinian, was accused of working for Mossad. Both were executed.
Abu Khaled listed the crimes of high treason: “Working with the FSA [the “Free Syrian Army,” an allegedly moderate collection of rebel groups], that’s capital punishment. Working with the mukhabarat, CIA, or foreigners—capital punishment.”
There was one example that was especially vivid in his mind. “One time, they executed a guy, he was throwing SIM cards around places ISIS keeps its government services.” SIM cards? Abu Khaled kept calling them that. It soon became apparent that he was referring to tracking devices—possibly GPS-based, possibly a variation of RFID, or radio frequency identification chips, with signals that can be picked up by coalition drones and jets. “These were for the coalition airplanes to spot targets,” said Abu Khaled. “They arrested the guy. They cut off his head and left his body and head to rot in the square for three days. His head was on a stick.”
“They arrested the guy. They cut off his head and left his body and head to rot in the square for three days. His head was on a stick.”
ISIS, like many other theocratic kingdoms or dictatorships, employs morality police to uphold Sharia norms. They are called al-Hisbah.
Don’t like the pita at your local restaurant? Call the Hisbah. Think the joint is unsanitary or infested with vermin? Call the Hisbah. “They are severe. If your restaurant is found to be unclean, they’ll shut you down for 15 days until you comply.”
What you consume in the caliphate is of course heavily regulated. Alcohol is haram, and if you’re found to be drinking, you’re likely to receive 80 lashes there in al-Bab’s central square as punishment.
The Hisbah “drive around inspecting what everybody is doing,” Abu Khaled said. “In al-Bab, there [are] maybe 15 to 20 of them. Not a lot, but you see them all over. They have a van with a speaker and they shout: ‘It’s prayer time! Go to mosque! Hurry up! Shut your business. You, woman, cover your face!’”
“Women are living in fear in al-Bab,” said Abu Khaled. “You see a woman walking in the street, sometimes she can’t see at nighttime because of the niqab,” the veil covering her face entirely. “It’s very hard to see out of the niqab during the day, much less in the dark. Then you hear: ‘Cover your head! Go home!’”
But ISIS cannot rely entirely on fear to rule, and it has to bring in new recruits all the time, so indoctrination is a major part of its program. It accepts volunteers from the hated Free Syrian Army, from various Islamist militias, or Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda franchise in Syria from which ISIS broke away in 2014. But it makes the barrier for entry very high and limits their choices of assignment. Someone joining after having served in a rival group has to attend a Maoist-like re-education camp for three months and “repent.” And there are lifelong limitations on what you can do from then on, and where you can go.
A Syrian man walks through a damaged street in Al-Bab, 35 kms (20 miles) northeast of Syria's commercial capital Aleppo, on September 15, 2012. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty
“You can’t stay or go back to your home city. Let’s say I’m from al-Bab and was with the FSA. Now I want to join ISIS. OK, I have to go to the camp for three months, and then after three months they will send me somewhere for one year, and I have no right to go back to al-Bab.”
A few days later, the farmer told Abu Khaled he had something to show him. “All over the farm, the olive trees—there were bodies everywhere.”
And because the caliphate wants to create future generations of willing executioners, it is very careful about educating the young, as well.
Former teachers in Syria have been invited back to teach students in ISIS-held cities, but they have to take classes for three months and repent for having worked with the regime. Home schooling is haram because the curriculum can’t be controlled. Abu Khaled knew an English teacher who was arrested for teaching students out of his house.
There are also distinct perks and dispensations for those having a bit of power in al-Dawla, the nomenklatura of the Islamic State.
Abu Khaled, like other ISIS members, was paid $100 per month, in U.S. greenbacks, not Syrian lira, despite the latter being the coin of the realm in al-Bab. Currency exchange houses exist in the city where ISIS employees can take their salaries for conversion, although they scarcely need to, given the freebies that come with ISIS employment.
“I rented a house, which was paid for by ISIS,” Abu Khaled told me. “It cost $50 per month. They paid for the house, the electricity. Plus, I was married, so I got an additional $50 per month for my wife. If you have kids, you get $35 for each. If you have parents, they pay $50 for each parent. This is a welfare state.”
“This is why a lot of people are joining,” said Abu Khaled. “I knew a mason who worked construction. He used to get 1,000 lira per day. That’s nothing. Now he’s joined ISIS and gets 35,000 lira—$100 for himself, $50 for his wife, $35 for his kids. He makes $600 to $700 per month. He gave up masonry. He’s just a fighter now, but he joined for the income.”
ISIS likes a tidy state and maintains one courtesy of the Diwan al-Khadamat, or Office of Services, which Abu Khaled likened to City Hall. Here, too, the bureaucracy is impressive. Diwan al-Khadamat includes a sanitation department, a parks department, a building licensing department, and an electric utility. It also runs an agriculture department to cultivate the farmland ISIS has either purchased or, as is more often the case, confiscated from enemies of the state.
Anyone wanted by ISIS who runs away will have all his property and assets seized. “Land, houses, stores, everything. The building I used to live in in al-Bab belonged to a guy they accused of working for the regime,” Abu Khaled told me. “So they seized the whole building. They came with a notice of eviction for everybody living there. ‘You have 24 hours to leave the building,’ it said.”
All businesses have to pay taxes—there’s a collection every month, orchestrated by Jibaya, the ISIS IRS, whom you’d be foolish to evade or try to cheat. The Hisbah, too, perform patrols like mob enforcers to inspect all local businesses and make sure they’re charging the proper prices for goods and services, and keeping accurate ledgers. “You have to pay a percentage, like 2.5 percent you have to pay from your gross sales to ISIS.” Do the Hisbah skim off the top? “Yes,” Abu Khaled said.
ISIS charges whatever rates it chooses for the scarce electricity. “And you have to pay for the water. You have to pay for the city. For the cleaning, the garbage. Plus, when you bring any stuff from outside the Islamic State, you have to pay taxes. Vegetables or fruit—anything from Turkey or FSA areas, you have to pay taxes.” ISIS also levies fines for all manner of civil infractions, especially cigarette smoking or smuggling.
This is a sore subject for Abu Khaled, a hopeless chain smoker, but he recognizes it’s a huge source of revenue for the caliphate. Cigarettes are forbidden because they’re harmful for the body, like alcohol. Yet because virtually every Syrian wants to smoke, ISIS realizes that it can make a windfall from the inevitable contraband. “A Saudi came to see my neighbor,” Abu Khaled said. “He knocked on my neighbor’s door and then on my door. I had an air freshener for the cigarettes. He asked, ‘Where is my neighbor?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Then he said: ‘You have something nice-smelling in your house. Man, I know you have cigarettes—please, can I come in and have a smoke?’”
A Syrian man shows the waste of pressed olives mixed with water and left to dry in the sun in a field near the battled Syrian city of al-Bab on September 16, 2012. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty
Quranic obscurantism meets economic pragmatism throughout the ISIS administration. In dealing with antiquities, for instance, many of which in Syria and Iraq date back to the days of the biblical prophets, ISIS declares that any pre-Islamic art that once was “worshipped” is supposed to be marked for destruction, whereas anything else—such as Babylonian or Roman coins—is eligible for sale on the international black market, which doesn’t lack for eager buyers. No doubt it helps ISIS’s archaeological logic that smaller artifacts tend not to be idolatrous, and in practice it’s the enormous monuments or statues that can’t be quietly ferreted out to Turkey or Iraqi Kurdistan that are targeted for destruction.
Many compromises and corner-cuttings have to take place to keep al-Dawla, the State, in clover. Abu Khaled offered two important examples of ISIS bartering with, and extorting, its avowed enemies.
Oil, naturally, is a big source of revenue. ISIS controls of all of Syria’s eastern oil fields, making it the premier energy supplier for the country and a racketeer for fuel. The Bab al-Salameh crossing, which is now ISIS’s only means of entry into northern Syria, is responsible for feeding the entire caliphate, from Aleppo to Fallujah. “So imagine how many trucks are crossing every day,” Abu Khaled said.
Yet Bab al-Salameh is controlled on the Syrian side by the non-ISIS rebels, and of course on the Turkish side by the government in Ankara. Why can’t either simply shut down the crossing and deprive ISIS of its revenue stream?
“Because there is no choice. ISIS has the diesel, the oil. Last time, a little bit before Ramadan, the rebels closed ISIS’s crossing.” ISIS responded by turning off the tap. “The price of oil in Syria went up. The bakeries stopped because there was no diesel. The cars, the hospitals, everything shut down.”
There’s a knock-on effect to the ISIS energy racket. Abu Khaled says that everything in Syria works on generators now. “I have a huge generator, I can fuel a small area, and people pay me for the power.” And because he could purchase his diesel fuel at cut-rate prices owing to his ISIS membership—one-sixth the cost to civilians—he became a minor energy baron in his own right.
ISIS also, famously, sells Assad’s oil back to him. “In Aleppo, people have electricity for maybe three or four hours per day. The electricity station is in Asfireh, ISIS-controlled territory, near Kweris airport. So the regime pays for the fuel to run the station. It pays the salaries for the workers because they’re specialized and can’t be replaced. And ISIS takes 52 percent of the electricity and the regime takes 48 percent. That’s the deal they have with Assad.”
Syrian members of the Committee for Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vice stand guard at their headquarters in al-Bab, northern Syria, on November 21, 2012. Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty
For all its means of self-enrichment, ISIS hasn’t forgotten about the little guy. It has constructed a social safety net for those it rules in its Islamic welfare state, a linchpin of which is Baghdadi’s own Affordable Care Act.
“One guy was hanging out with girls; they weren’t his relatives and not married. He spent three days in the cage. For cigarettes, you spend like one day.”
ISIS members are entitled to free medical treatment and pharmaceuticals, and anyone living in the caliphate can apply for free health care, provided need can be established. “You can go to the doctor or hospital for no money,” Abu Khaled said. “If you can’t go to the doctor or hospital in Islamic State territory, if you have to go abroad, they pay you. No matter what the amount. If you have cancer and you need chemotherapy in Turkey, they will pay for everything, including your hotel. Even if it’s tens of thousands of dollars.”
And doctors in al-Bab hardly complain about losses because medicine is one of the most profitable careers one can have in al-Dawla. Physicians are paid between $4,000 and $5,000 a month to keep them from running off to Turkey.
For these reasons, Abu Khaled said, Syria is the “five-star jihad,” at least compared to Iraq. “Over there is nothing, but you come to al-Bab, there are coffee shops, there are nice things. You can have a decent life.”
So why would he, or anyone, for that matter, want to leave? “Because of what I saw at the farm,” he answered.
“I know one guy, he has a farm. Every day, every weekend when he went to the farm, he found bodies underground. These were people who’d been killed and ISIS threw their corpses into his farm.” The more the farmer tilled the earth, as in an Aleppine Verdun, the more he kept bringing up the bodies. “The farmer would dig and he’d uncover a hand or foot.”
For all its means of self-enrichment, ISIS hasn’t forgotten about the little guy. It has constructed a social safety net for those it rules in its Islamic welfare state, a linchpin of which is Baghdadi’s own Affordable Care Act.
Abu Khaled, at the request of the farmer, went to see the emir of al-Bab to complain of the human disposal problem. The emir told him that he’d investigate and get back to Abu Khaled in due course. “A few days later, I saw the emir in the street. I asked, ‘What happened?’ He said, ‘That’s not us. We don’t know who’s dumping these bodies.’” Did Abu Khaled believe the emir? Of course not. “But you can’t call the emir a liar.”
A few days later, the farmer told Abu Khaled he had something to show him. He said that whereas before ISIS had at least dug shallow graves for its prey, now it was just dumping the corpses on the topsoil. “All over the farm, the olive trees—there were bodies everywhere.”
So Abu Khaled went back to see the emir and told him that he must come and see for himself. The emir agreed. He told Abu Khaled to get in his car—his BMW X5, to be exact—and he drove them both to the agrarian mausoleum.
Members of the Committee for Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vice stand guard ontop of a building with a freshly painted wall with the name of the committee in Arabic at their headquarters in al-Bab, northern Syria. Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty
The emir of al-Bab drives a BMW? I asked.
“Yes,” Abu Khaled said. “I told him, ‘Man, you have a nice car.’” He answered me: ‘Alhamdulillah, the Islamic State is very rich!’”
Abu Khaled found the bodies at once. But the emir was adamant: ISIS, he said, wasn’t responsible for these deaths. By now, however, Abu Khaled had proof that this was a falsehood. The same man who had been caught and beheaded for depositing “SIM cards” around strategic sites in al-Bab, presumably for coalition spotters, was one of the corpses. “I knew it was him,” Abu Khaled said, “because he was wearing a black-and-white Adidas tracksuit. I told the emir, I said, ‘Come on, man. That’s yours.’”
Twenty-four hours later, the emir called Abu Khaled and told him, “We’re going to buy the farm. Ask the farmer how much he wants for it.”
Part Four: Escape From the Islamic State
Abu Khaled looked at me across the outdoor hookah café table in the touristy Laleli district of Istanbul. Across the street cars nearly careened into each other every other second in a busy interaction, semi-subterranean shops, their windows half-buried by the pavement, advertised everything from cellphones to toothpaste to the latest designer women’s fashions—or, at any rate, cheap knockoffs for those who didn’t know the difference or much care. Amid the din of an international city at rush hour was the scheduled call of the muezzin, leading the call to prayer, and an unremitting stream of awful European pop music being pumped through the café’s loudspeakers, which we’d asked in vain to have turned down.
Even though ISIS terror had struck inside Turkey the week before, the organization calling itself the Islamic State, al-Dawla al-Islamiya, felt very far away. Truly, Abu Khaled told me, the people who run it want their subjects to live as if in a world of their own, captive minds in a closed society. But the real world is a small place, and this defector from the ISIS intelligence services said he was not the only one who had grown restive.
“People started feeling bad about all the lying,” he said. “If you read the news…There’s no TV, just an ISIS newspaper, Akhbar Dawli Islamiya. It says we’re still in Kobani,” a Kurdish city retaken from ISIS with the help of U.S.-led bombing raids last year.
The pervasive mendacity in the caliphate competes with a climate of ceaseless recrimination and denunciation: Two Minutes of Hate directed every day, at everyone. And typically the accusers are not Syrians but the muhajireen, the foreign fighters, who haven’t spent 1 percent of the time most residents of al-Bab have spent in Syria. They are an arrogant and unruly gang, increasingly seen, according to Abu Khaled, as colonial occupiers.
They see themselves as superior—holier than thou in the proper definition. “First of all, to most ISIS fighters—especially the foreigners—everybody in al-Bab, everybody in Syria, is kafir. Period. They treat people in this way, which is wrong. Even by ISIS’s standards, that’s clearly wrong. They are Muslims, they have to be treated as Muslims.”
“Foreigners are telling Syrians how to dress, how to live, how to eat, how to work, how to cut their hair. Maybe the only place in the world where there is no barbershop is al-Bab. They’re all closed. Because you can’t cut your hair. You have either long hair, or you must wear it the same exact length everywhere. Because even you”—Abu Khaled gestured to your hirsute correspondent—“like your beard. You would do 30 days in prison. It’s too short. You can’t cut your beard, you can’t trim it. You have to let it grow.”
And just like under Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, ISIS has presided over an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, where the errant joke or critical observation can land you in the cage, or worse. Abu Khaled has a big mouth and is amazed he wasn’t killed before he managed to flee. “One time, a guy was telling me: ‘You see this victory against the FSA?… It’s because God is fighting with us!’ So I told him: ‘So why God and the angels didn’t fight with us when we fought the Kurds in Kobani?’”
Abu Khaled was told that if he kept talking like that, he’d lose his head.
A Syrian rebel takes cover from enemy fire near the Abu Baker brigade in Albab, 30 kilometres from the northeastern Syrian city of Aleppo, on January 16, 2013. Edouard Elias/AFP/Getty
Nor was his sense of irony directed merely at the braggadocio of the muhajireen. He had been present at the battle for Kobani, the Kurdish border town in northern Syria besieged for months by ISIS and eventually liberated, thanks largely to U.S. airpower. Abu Khaled had witnessed firsthand just how poorly ISIS’s soldiers fought: more like F Troop than Delta Force.
“When you’re in the secret service,” Abu Khaled said, “everything is controlled. You can’t just leave.”
“The first time I realized that ISIS fighters are not well trained was the last day of Ramadan, this year.” Abu Khaled was leading a charge against Kobani, and he and his men bivouacked in Sarrin, one of the nearby towns ISIS controls in the Aleppo countryside. He decided to attack a series of villages held by Kurdish forces.
Abu Khaled was commanding three ISIS units. One of them was dispatched to Khalat Hadid; another to the village of Nour al-Ali; a third to the small village of Ras al-Ayn. The assault began at 1 o’clock in the morning and involved missiles, mortars, and tanks.
“We took Khalat Hadid within 45 minutes,” Abu Khaled said. “Then my guys ran away.” They ran away? That’s right. “‘It’s free,’ they told me,” that is, liberated. Apparently they mistook the fall of a village for the permanent seizure of one. Meanwhile, the other two units refused to enter their designated villages. “They said, ‘Ah, it’s too late, blah, blah,’” Abu Khaled recalled, in disgust. So they returned to Sarrin not so much in defeat as in indifference. Then the coalition started hitting the ISIS locations at 4 a.m. Warplanes killed 23 of Abu Khaled’s men within a few minutes.
Abu Khaled interrogated his soldiers to find out why they had not fought that night. “‘Why didn’t you go?’” he asked some of those who’d gone AWOL. “‘I mean, we were three groups. One of you attacked, the others didn’t.’”
Their response: They were tired of being sent to certain death.
“We had pickup trucks, machine guns. And the Americans were flying all over us. When we left the town, we got bombed. But when we went back to the town, we were fine. The town had never been hit. Then the Kurds besieged it. So we fled, and destroyed all our cars, vehicles, weapons. I destroyed my own car.”
Abu Khaled’s interlocutor didn’t appreciate the reference. He told Abu Khaled that if he kept talking like that, he’d lose his head.
Abu Khaled estimates that ISIS lost up to 5,000 men in the vain attempt to capture Kobani. They went like lemmings over a cliff, without any strategic forethought as to how best to fight both the world’s most powerful air force and one of Syria’s most accomplished militias.
“Everybody I know at that time is dead,” Abu Khaled said. “I trained a Turkish battalion, like 110 people. We had to stop the training after two weeks because they had to go to Kobani. All of them got killed except three. And those three aren’t fighting anymore. I saw one a few days before I defected. He said, ‘I’m not going back.’”
Abu Khaled illustrated just how incompetent he found the ISIS infantry. He used silverware. “Here’s Kobani,” he said, putting a fork on the café table. “Here’s open land, five kilometers of it until the first ISIS position”—a spoon. “When we sent the fighters to Kobani, we sent them one by one. Walking. The logistics for them—weapons, food—came on a bike. Most of the time, the bike couldn’t make it. It’d get hit by an airstrike. So the ones who made it, they entered houses.”
They were instructed to stay inside the house and not do anything. They remained for a day or two. Then, inevitably, one of them stuck his head out a window. Abu Khaled banged the table. “And then the house would get bombed and they’d all get killed!” He let out a mirthless laugh. “People started to think there was an ISIS conspiracy to kill everybody.”
He also found it remarkable that, for all the many months of the siege of Kobani, ISIS fighters came and went as they pleased across the Syrian-Turkish border. The second-largest army in NATO stationed soldiers, tanks, and armored personnel carriers was within spitting distance of one of the most intense war zones of the Syria conflict and did virtually nothing, apart from sometimes firing water cannons at Kurds trying to flee into Turkey.
“I don’t know the relationship between ISIS and Turkey,” Abu Khaled said. “During the Kobani war, shipments of weapons arrived to ISIS from Turkey. Until now, the gravely wounded go to Turkey, shave their beards, cut their hair, and go to the hospital. Somebody showed me pictures in Kobani. You see ISIS guys eating McDonald’s french fries and hamburgers. Where did they get it? In Turkey.”
Abu Khaled has spent plenty of time in southern Turkey and says ISIS sympathizers don’t even try to hide their proselytizing efforts there. In Kilis, a border town, there are two important mosques, he said. “This one [is] for the Islamic State. You go there, everybody says, ‘You want to go to Syria?’ They arrange your travel back and forth. And the other mosque is for Jabhat al-Nusra,” the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
During the June 2014 invasion of Mosul, ISIS took 49 hostages, including diplomats, soldiers, and children, by raiding the Turkish consulate there. Their release, three months later, went largely unexplained by either party, fueling suspicion that Ankara had either paid a ransom or brokered a prisoner swap with ISIS. Abu Khaled said he knows for certain that the exchange took place because he met two of the jihadists who were swapped for the 49 captives.
“They were prisoners of the FSA,” he said, “held for seven or eight months. Right after ISIS captured the Turks, within 24 hours, these guys told me… ‘We were transferred to the custody of Turkish intelligence, which took us on a plane to Istanbul.’” The ISIS detainees weren’t kept in a prison, Abu Khaled says his informants told him, but in “a nice building” with a round-the-clock guard. “They were well taken care of. Then they were exchanged.”
Smoke rises over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, October 18, 2014. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Eventually, the brutality and the incompetence and the lies became too much for Abu Khaled to take. But he served as an agent of Amn al-Dawla, the caliphate’s state security. So he couldn’t simply run away from ISIS; he had to plan and prepare his escape and hope that he wasn’t caught and undone in the planning and preparation.
“I told her, ‘In one hour, you have to leave.’ I told her to gather her stuff, some clothes to wear, in a small bag, and take a cab. Within 45 minutes, she was on her way.”
“When you’re in the secret service,” Abu Khaled said, “everything is controlled. You can’t just leave Islamic State territory. It was especially hard for me because all the border is controlled by the state intelligence. And I trained these guys! Most of them knew me. I was very well known in al-Bab. So this was also how I got out.”
Abu Khaled’s defection was a very near thing. It started with a friend he had in al-Bab who ran an illegal business printing fake IDs, the kind still issued by the Assad regime. The way ISIS border control works is that if you’re a mere civilian, you can more or less come and go as you please, provided you have identification. Abu Khaled’s passport was still with “Human Resources” in Raqqa. So he needed papers and they had to be a ringer for authentic ones. He showed me the ID he had made for $20. It bore a photograph of him looking much as he sat before me in Istanbul: clean-shaven. It was taken, he said, at a time before his enlistment in ISIS. He stressed that this bore not even a ghost of a resemblance to the appearance he’d adopted for almost a year as a jihadist.
He decided to make his move in early September. And he went solo, at least at first. “When I left, I didn’t tell my wife. I told her only that I wanted to go to Raqqa. ‘I have something to do in Raqqa.’ I left my gun at home—my AK. I had a handgun with me. If you belong to ISIS, you have to have a weapon on you when you are on the street. I had my uniform. I left home at 7 in the morning. I went to my friend’s house, the same one who made the ID. I changed my clothes, I left my weapon at his place. He gave me the new ID. I cut my beard, not completely off, because I didn’t want to get arrested for having no beard. But I looked closer to the ID photo.”
Abu Khaled hopped a motorcycle from al-Bab and drove to Minbij. From there, he hired a minibus, which took him to Aleppo. He says he could have actually hired a bus in al-Bab but for the fact that in every terminal, ISIS had amniyeen, members of the security forces, standing guard to survey the passengers. He was sure he’d be recognized in al-Bab. But the agents in Minbij had no idea who he was. “I gave them the fake ID.” They let him board the bus.
When Abu Khaled arrived in Aleppo—territory held by rebels, not ISIS—he immediately called his wife. “I told her, ‘In one hour, you have to leave.’ I told her to gather her stuff, some clothes to wear, in a small bag, and take a cab. Within 45 minutes, she was on her way, with her mother, brother, and sister. Two, three hours later, they were all there.”
Today, Abu Khaled has built himself a new fighting force—this one to battle ISIS, and the Assad regime as well. The Islamist super-brigade Ahrar al-Sham has evidently helped him finance his startup army, although he says his katiba remains independent. “They gave us 10,000 lira. So it’s like $20 per soldier.” This is the minimum monthly salary to keep a small militia in Syria.
“There are two ISIS brigades in northern Aleppo fighting us,” he said, “and I know the emirs for both of them. One is from Morocco, the other is from Libya. I know how they think and how they fight.”
I asked Abu Khaled again why he’s still in Syria, given the target painted on his back—and on his wife’s and her family’s.
If he made it to Istanbul unmolested, Abu Khaled allows, his wife could probably do so, too. I asked him again: Doesn’t he want a bit of respite, after everything he’s been through? He shook his head no, and said, “I’m not scared of dying.”
Abu Khaled and I walked from Laleli to the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. He asked to see the Blue Mosque, the celebrated Ottoman complex. It might be the last time he ever got to see it, so I obliged. Female visitors, as signs everywhere instruct, are supposed to wear headscarves out of respect. But as we passed through the courtyard of Sultan Ahmet Camii, we spotted a woman in her twenties. She walked up the steps uncovered. But no one stopped her. Abu Khaled looked at her, as if he’d had an important revelation. “Syria will be like this again one day,” he said.
We wandered around the courtyard of the Blue Mosque briefly before exiting out onto the Hippodrome. Then Abu Khaled stopped for a second and looked up. Not a week earlier, he explained, a Russian warplane had bombed not far from his new home in Aleppo. The walls of his house shook. “Bashar has taught every Syrian to stare at the sky,” he said. “There are no planes here.”