In From The Cold
Confessions of an ISIS Spy
He joined the so-called Islamic State, trained jihadist infantry, and groomed foreign operatives—including two Frenchmen. Now Abu Khaled says he’s ready to talk.
For all the attention paid to ISIS, relatively little is known about its inner workings. But a man claiming to be a member of the so-called Islamic State’s security services has stepped forward to provide that inside view. This series is based on days of interviews with this ISIS spy. Read part two here, part three here, and part four here.
Part One: An Appointment in Istanbul
ISTANBUL — 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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Tomorrow: Spies Like ISIS