LIVE BY THE SWORD
‘I Was an ISIS Jihadist—Until They Arrested and Tortured Me’
A former soldier of the caliphate recounts a story equal parts ‘Midnight Express’ and ‘Darkness at Noon.’
Abu Omar says he didn’t give a damn about the apocalypse, or learning the ways of “true” Islam, or joining a world-historical movement. It was 2013 and he just wanted guns and money.
Strange as it may sound to Western ears, particularly those trained to a 24-hour news cycle three years later, this deserter from the so-called Islamic State did not expect the lunatic brutality these soi-disant soldiers of God meted out indiscriminately to women and children.
Certainly he did not expect their runaway paranoia about infiltration by foreign or double agents, an obsession that gave rise to a more discriminating form of brutality meted out to ISIS’s own rank-and-file.
Abu Omar, whose real name is known to The Daily Beast but has been changed at his request for his family’s safety, says that following the arrest and interrogation of his childhood friend, who was a rebel within the Free Syrian Army, he was accused of spying for the U.S.-led coalition.
Abu Omar swears the charges are false—neither he nor his best friend, a man he described as a “brother in blood,” were ever spies. But they were both arrested and tortured repeatedly, and his friend, as a member of a rival faction, got the worst of ISIS’s medieval treatment.
Abu Omar spent 3½ months in ISIS’s largest and most notorious prison complex, a converted municipal sports stadium in the self-declared caliphate’s de facto capital of Raqqa, before being released, due to lack of evidence, with an “apology.” His brother in blood wasn’t so lucky…
The broad contours of Abu Omar’s story were first relayed to me by Abu Khaled, another ISIS defector whom I interviewed in Istanbul last October but had met years before he joined the terror group in his various capacities as an anti-Assad activist and rebel. Abu Khaled, who is now fighting his former jihadist comrades in Aleppo, introduced me online to Abu Omar, whom he’d met in Syria, a month ago.
It is impossible to verify independently all that Abu Omar recounts. Those he says he was imprisoned with are either dead or their whereabouts are unknown to him. But another Syrian, not known to Abu Khaled, has corroborated his identity.
There is also a digital trail that confirms some of what Abu Omar has claimed about his background. Videos and photographs show him armed and clearly in charge of a rebel faction, from a time before he joined ISIS.
Perhaps most importantly, the details of Abu Omar’s story are in line with the tales of horror told by other ISIS defectors describing their time inside the world’s most notorious terrorist organization.
Now in exile in Mersin, on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, the 31-year-old Abu Omar laid out a story that was equal parts Midnight Express and Darkness at Noon.
It purports to be a first-hand account of an ISIS prison system, which is every bit as gruesome as you’d imagine it to be. His account is also a useful documentary insight into how an organization that once thrived on its shrewd guerrilla intelligence and counterintelligence tradecraft, able to spot informants, spies, and sleepers, and find agents with whom to infiltrate and vitiate rival factions, has come to resemble all totalitarianisms by devouring its own.
Originally from Kafr Zita in Hama province, which, among other things, would later be the site of a deadly chlorine and ammonia gas attack by the Assad regime, Abu Omar was a house painter by trade before the revolution began—a revolution that was supposed to be gloriously concluded by now.
Instead, the uprising is entering its sixth year as an endless series of slow-burning civil wars.
Abu Omar became a protester in 2011 after the Syrian security services and military opened fire on others carrying banners calling for economic and social reforms in the spring of 2011. Abu Omar says he even made the acquaintance of a famous American in Syria.
“I met the U.S. ambassador at Abu Hamdo’s house,” he tells me via Skype, referring to the now-former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who toured Hama, before all diplomatic ties between Washington and Damascus were terminated, to see the anti-regime demonstrations and their bloody repression up-close. Abu Hamdo was a local organizer who arranged a trip for Ford’s diplomatic delegation into the restive provincial capital. (He was later reported killed by the regime in Rastan, in the province of Homs.)
“We asked Ford, ‘Please come with us and see how the protests are 100 percent peaceful and we are getting shot at.’ We took him in a car to downtown Hama City. We welcomed him and clapped for him. He stayed for a few minutes, then went back to Abu Hamdo’s house, and then back to Damascus.”
I sent Ford a picture of Abu Omar, now more than a year out of ISIS and looking, in a neatly trimmed beard, cardigan and acid-washed jeans, more a hipster H&M model than a black-clad terrorist.
Ford couldn’t recall meeting Abu Omar, but added that that wasn’t necessarily because he hadn’t. “We were, well, overwhelmed by people wanting to shake our hands, talk to us. We easily met 70 people in that 24-hour period,” he emailed me. “While there were many conservative Sunni Muslims among them, I didn’t hear anyone who struck me as an extremist. But of course in early July 2011 the struggle hadn’t turned so ugly yet. ‘Why did he join the Islamic State?’ would be my question.”
It was mine, too, and Abu Omar answers that he isn’t an extremist and never was one, despite his poor choice of allies.
When the revolution turned violent, he became a commander of a Free Syrian Army battalion named for his brother, who was killed by shelling from a tank in Hama. (There’s a video heralding the formation of this battalion, with Abu Omar reading the announcement in front of about 30 armed men.) He fought the regime in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, but his comrades, he came to discover, were insufficiently equipped and mired in backbiting and corruption.
“There were a lot of disputes and infighting within the FSA,” he says. “The bigger FSA battalions would take over the smaller ones. Money wasn’t disbursed evenly. A lot of injustice and pressure psychologically. No one was protecting us. On the other side, a lot of our friends went to ISIS and said the situation was a lot better over there. You could get protection and support and money.”
Most of all, he says, he wanted to understand what ISIS was really about, to divorce the Western and rebel propaganda from the reality. He joined just as the coalition was beginning to bomb the jihadis in Syria. “Half of the people in the FSA ended up going there to see for themselves.”
Once accepted into the fold through his former FSA contacts, Abu Omar, with no special skill set or command of languages other than Arabic to advance him into the middle cadres of ISIS’s amniyat, or security services, was taken to the desert lands of Raqqa province and put in a house of about 30 to 50 other recruits for a month and a half. This was phase one of his training. His incarceration as an ISIS member in effect began then and there.
“We were just fed, but weren’t allowed to do anything except eat, sleep, and wait,” he says. There wasn’t any religious indoctrination or military training at this point. The experience was, he believes, an “exercise in patience.” But several recruits attempted to flee.
“Some would try to escape—break the windows. They’d be caught and brought back and questioned: ‘Why did you do this?’”
So, even those who failed the test of patience didn’t wash out but were cajoled into remaining?
“Yes,” Abu Omar replies.
Once that 45-day ordeal was over, the cadets were picked up in closed trucks and relocated to another large house in Raqqa. This was phase two. “ISIS would then split up any friends from before and move us once more to a different location where the religious indoctrination would begin.”
If he’d anticipated venerable and learned clerics of jihad in the mold of Abu Muhammed al-Maqdisi, the “spiritual guide” to ISIS’s founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, or Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s erstwhile mentor, he was sorely disappointed:
“They would bring a so-called scholar and try to explain how things are in the world and how they should be under the faith. The majority of the scholars were from Tunisia, Morocco, and some were from Syria, but they were all kids. The oldest was around 25.”
The minds being scrubbed in Raqqa were allowed to formulate questions and put them to their fresh-faced tutors, but the way these theology sessions were structured, the recruits were made to feel as if they were not yet Muslim at all.
“We were asked to go back to the basics of Islam. Who you believe as the one true God, and who are the prophets. Prior to arriving, they said, we were murtadeen,” Abu Omar says, using the word for “apostates.”
“I told them, look, ‘I’m a Muslim. I know all this already. Why do I have to do this again?’ They told me, ‘No, you’re an infidel. You must learn to be a Muslim.’ So I just sat there and zoned out. ‘OK, OK, OK,’ I’d answer. It was boring.”
Abu Omar is likely downplaying the purpose of these seminars. As a former FSA rebel, his situation was different from someone fresh to the war who wanted to join ISIS. The so-called caliphate considers the FSA to be an apostate entity and the indoctrination is geared to explain to them why this past affiliation was un-Islamic. He thus wasn’t being lectured as if he weren’t a practitioner of the faith, but as if he were a former sworn adversary of ISIS. If he was coming over to its ranks, his new masters wanted to be sure he had truly seen the light.
After another month and a half of being re-taught his own lifelong religion, Abu Omar underwent phase three of ISIS enlistment: the military component. He had served in the conscript Syrian Arab Army and his own FSA brigade and had basic combat training. But ISIS again seemed more interested in putting his devotion to its cause on trial than his physical or intellectual capability.
“We were starved to death,” he says. “Breakfast was in the morning, then nothing until the next day.”
He was once again shown things he already knew, like how to wield Russian-made firearms, principally Kalashnikovs and PKS anti-aircraft machine guns.
When training was over, Abu Omar was allowed to visit his family—his wife and three children. Initially he had to travel to see them, but then they were brought to join him in Raqqa, along with the families of the other 30 to 50 cadets.
Graduation from ISIS boot camp means entry into ISIS’s well-attested welfare state. Abu Omar and his kin were given a furnished house in Raqqa and he was now eligible for a salary. His wife and children also were subsidized.
As an infantryman, he was deployed first back to his native Hama, where he says he helped overrun a few Assad regime checkpoints, while his family continued to live in Raqqa. When his wife fell ill, he returned to the ISIS capital to see her. It was then that his problems began.
Growing up, Abu Omar had never been as close to anyone as he was to his neighbor Abu Zuhair, who lived on the same street as he in Hama. “We were like brothers in blood,” Abu Omar remembers. “We would defend each other whenever one of us got into a bad situation.”
When the revolution began, the slightly older Abu Zuhair was married with four children, but the buddies were still very close. Both were interrogated by the regime’s mukhabarat, or security services for anti-government activity, and they didn’t give each other up. Afterward, like Abu Omar, Abu Zuhair migrated from one Free Syrian Army battalion to another, as needs or caprice dictated. The two also went into hiding together. “We went from house to house,” Abu Omar recalls. “We slept in the fields, in the countryside. Then we separated to make it harder for the regime to find us.”
Just as when they were children, one came to the other’s rescue in extremity. When Abu Omar’s brother was killed by a Syrian army tank shell, Abu Zuhair carried the dying brother in his arms. “It took five to six hours for him to die,” Abu Omar remembers. “Then Abu Zuhair hid my brother’s body so the regime couldn’t find it and steal it. We were able to bury him, thanks be to God.”
In another instance, Abu Zuhair had holed up in a house in southern Hama, a house the Syrian army had encircled with three or four vehicles. He had no way out: “So he called me and I told him, ‘Stay inside the house until I get there with my men.’”
Abu Omar drove to the outskirts of his friend’s location with 25 rebel soldiers from his own FSA battalion. They opened fire on the army soldiers from behind, giving Abu Zuhair cover and time to steal away.
Unlike his boyhood friend, Abu Zuhair never made the transition from FSA rebel to ISIS militant; nor did Abu Omar ever encourage him to do so. “I never told him to join,” the latter tells me. “In fact, I told him, ‘You’re better off where you are, with the FSA.’”
This is because Abu Omar had begun to understand the suffocating nature of a movement he had joined. His enduring connection to Abu Zuhair, however, would prove pivotal to the lives of both men, and Abu Omar’s catalyst for quitting the army of terror.
In mid-2015, Abu Omar says, he returned from the front line in Hama to his home in Raqqa. He had come to visit his wife, Umm Omar, who had recently given birth to their son and had taken ill with a postpartum ailment. “She had horrible stomach cramps and a watery fluid kept coming out,” he says. He wanted to prevail upon ISIS to let him to go to Turkey to get her adequate medical care. ISIS authorities told Abu Omar that he should let his wife die in Raqqa if God willed it; it was better for her to be buried in a “Muslim country.” (Umm Omar’s condition persists to this day: over the course of our several interviews conducted over Skype, Abu Omar was almost always in hospital with her in Mersin, or en route to the hospital.)
While in Raqqa, Abu Zuhair and his wife and their four children came to visit Abu Omar, driving on a motorcycle for 17 hours via unguarded backroads so as to avoid any ISIS checkpoints. Six people on one motorcycle? I asked. Abu Omar laughed: “This is Syria.”
The entire family thus smuggled themselves into the caliphate, at great risk. “The idea was, once he got here, I was going to tell him that I planned to come back with him to Hama, taking my wife,” Abu Omar says. “Once back in Hama, I was going to figure out how to get her treatment.”
The plan fell apart owing to logistical problems. So Abu Zuhair and Abu Omar decided to travel back on their own to Hama and regroup. They left their spouses and offspring behind, so as not to raise suspicions with a large convoy of two families, one of which was not legally permitted entry into Raqqa anyway.
Leaving the caliphate capital is easier than entering it. Abu Omar and Abu Zuhair traveled without being bothered but their “official” route forced them to reach an area of Hama controlled by ISIS, not the FSA. Abu Zuhair was therefore still in enemy terrain. “Mutual friends of ours saw him with me and they asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’”
At that point, Abu Zuhair’s clandestinity was over. On the second day of their visit, he was arrested by ISIS intelligence operatives—and Abu Omar started asking questions. “Within Daesh,” he says, using the derogatory Arabic acronym for ISIS, “you cannot ask about a friend who has been arrested. This is a red flag.”
Abu Zuhair’s wife was also being interrogated back in Raqqa, over the course of two days. “They took her for four hours each time. They told her that her husband was a spy who had come to blow them up in Raqqa,” Abu Omar says. “‘How is that possible when he brought me and the children with him?’ she told them. ‘What kind of idiot FSA spy is this?’”
Abu Omar’s problems were further compounded when he was deployed by his ISIS military unit to Tadmor, or Palmyra, to help in the jihadists’ siege of that ancient city. It was May 2015, and with his best friend in custody, and both their wives and kids stranded back in Raqqa, he was about to witness the full extent of his ISIS barbarism:
“At one location in Tadmor, a Moroccan or Tunisian guy killed regime soldiers in a building. But then he brought their wives and children in front of a Syrian officers’ building and executed them all. So I started screaming at the guy. His buddy then asked me why I was questioning the murder. I verbally fought with both of them. The atrocities here were very disturbing to me. The stuff I saw with these guys, even the regime wouldn’t do.”
How many were massacred in that building?
“I don’t know,” he says.
Once Tadmor fell, within days owing to the regime’s anemic defense of the city, Abu Omar was sent back to Hama. Abu Zuhair was still in jail. He had been there, now, for 17 days.
Haunted by a captive friend and the fresh images of massacred innocents, Abu Omar continued asking meddlesome questions of his cohort. What had Abu Zuhair done that warranted his imprisonment in Hama? And the killing—by what right was someone who was not even from Syria permitted to enter a house full of Syrian women and children and murder them all?
“ISIS has spies everywhere and they filter back information to the leadership, so I’m sure they knew I was talking to people about the events in Tadmor,” Abu Omar told me.
The net came down on him.
“One night, masked gunmen came to my house and told me I am being redeployed to Raqqa. I asked why in the middle of the night? They told me to unload my weapon and take off my jacket [with rifle magazines in the pocket]. I said I won’t take them off. They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re armed. We won’t be attacked.’ So I removed everything and they put my stuff in the trunk of their car. We drove off. Then, one masked man took my hand. Then another took my other hand. Then they put the handcuffs on me.”
Abu Omar and his captors drove for 45 minutes through a warren of alleys in Hama. Then he was led into a building with a small room, approximately five or six meters underground, with a small opening in the ceiling. It was more dungeon than jail cell, and it was already occupied. Another man lay on the ground, huddled into a ball. Abu Omar wanted to know his story, so he touched the man on his back. The man screamed in terror.
“They had tortured him,” Abu Omar says. “I then saw that his back was torn to ribbons, and so I started yelling at the guards above: ‘Who are you!? You don’t represent Islam! You are murderers!’”
This bleeding wreck of a man, whose identity was unknown to Abu Omar, had been placed in his cell simply to unnerve him.
Abu Omar was taken by masked men to another location. He was threatened with the same ghoulish treatment his cellmate had received—but only threatened.
The following day, the cellmate was removed from the underground prison and Abu Omar was called in for interrogation. “‘Your friend confessed that you are helping the coalition to place these chips to pinpoint their airstrikes against us,’” he was informed. (The accusation about coalition “chips” is a common one in ISIS-land, as The Daily Beast reported in November. Those accused of dropping GPS locators for coalition warplanes to zero in on targets often face summary execution.) But Abu Omar was not sure what friend they were talking about.
Then Abu Zuhair was brought in and shown to Abu Omar. He had been beaten senseless and it was obvious that if he’d truly admitted to any provocation or act of sabotage, it was under extreme duress. The spectacle of his friend’s suffering, like that of the stranger in his cell, was meant to soften Abu Omar’s resolve, to make him confess as a traitor to ISIS.
So, under the so-called Islamic State’s pretense of jurisprudence, some evidence had to be presented, and in Abu Omar’s case there was none.
“They took my mobile phone and showed how I was communicating with the FSA,” he says. “I of course had been, because a lot of my friends were still with the FSA because they hadn’t yet joined ISIS. And it was other friends in the FSA who got me into ISIS, as these guys well knew. So I said, ‘What’s wrong with talking to my friends?’ They told me I was a spy going to do car bombings.”
He was held somewhere in Hama for 29 days, the first 20 without any corporal punishment. The masked men would simply return to his cell and ask him to confess. He refused.
On the 21st day, they started beating him with a green hose for two hours non-stop until Abu Omar couldn’t breathe. They hit him in the face and grabbed him by his beard.
“I told them that this was irreligious. ‘You can’t hit me in the face.’ They answered, ‘You are not a Muslim anymore, we can hit you where we like.’”
Worse even that his own physical suffering was that of Abu Zuhair, whose screaming could be heard, no doubt purposefully, from an adjoining room. “They tortured him so much that he said he’d confess to anything they wanted,” said Abu Omar. “They wanted the chips. So he said he’d take them to where he planted them in Hama.”
Abu Zuhair was bundled into a car and driven around per his directions. It was all a ruse to earn himself a brief respite from the beatings, which would start up again once the chips weren’t found. Abu Zuhair would alter his sham admission of guilt, too, saying at one point he intended to blow up three cars—no, six. Better make that nine. “He kept lying to buy himself more time to recover.”
Abu Zuhair was so horribly battered that he begged ISIS to kill him. He also lost his mind. “He’d scream and yell or make animal noises—mooing like a cow or barking like a dog. They had hit him so many times and so hard on the head that I am sure they caused him brain damage.”
When Abu Omar’s month in purgatory ended, his quarter-year stint in hell began. Handcuffed, his face covered by a shroud, he was taken along with the now-incompetent Abu Zuhair and a third prisoner to Raqqa. All three “collaborators” were marched—or carried, since Abu Zuhair could no longer walk—into ISIS’s main prison headquarters, the Municipal Sports Stadium. There, below ground, the various facilities such as gymnastics and ping-ping rooms were converted into cells, each housing as many as 50 inmates.
“To my surprise, the majority of the prisoners were from France, Germany, Jordan, Chechnya—maybe five or six were Syrian in each of these big rooms,” Abu Omar says. “They were around 4.5 meters wide by 7.5 meters length. We all slept on the ground with just pillows. There was one bathroom, one meter by one meter, and one sink area. Everyone would sleep next to each other because of the overcrowding. Some of the prisoners were there over a year, some less. I would hear the torture and screaming, the doors slamming and opening.”
Most of the prisoners kept here were fellow ISIS militants, now rung up on charges of attempted desertion, according to Abu Omar: “90 percent of them had tried to run away from Syria but were caught. Most were foreigners who would get hooked up by a smuggler who was actually an undercover ISIS agent. There were hundreds of these prisoners.”
Eventually, Abu Omar was confined to a separate cell that was one meter by one meter in dimension. He was handcuffed by his left arm to the ceiling and kept dangling like that for six days.
His neighbors on either side were a Russian and a Jordanian known by his nom de guerre, Khateb al-Urduni. Through the wall Abu Omar struck up a rapport with Khateb—that is, when Khateb was conscious and could talk.
“He was dangling for 11 days from the ceiling,” Abu Omar recounts. “His legs were inflamed up to his belly button. His whole body was bloated, engorged with blood. And he couldn’t move. When he was forced to go to pray, the guards had to drag him out of his cell.”
Abu Omar would see Khateb sometimes during prayer time when their guard decided that all the prisoners could worship together. “The next day, the guard would say, ‘You need to pray while standing up.’ Sometimes we were told to eat together. It was all arbitrary.”
Breakfast in Hell was the standard Syrian meal of olive oil and zatar, a spicy thyme mixture. Abu Omar says he’d sometimes take the oil and massage Khateb’s legs to ease the bloating. Modest amounts of cash were doled out to each inmate, taken from whatever money they had when arrested and processed, depending upon the guards’ discretion. Every Thursday, inmates were allowed to ask their guards to purchase additional food for them from outside the prison using this commissary fund. At the end of one’s sentence, whatever surplus was left over belonged to ISIS.
The interrogations started up again. Abu Zuhair was brought in, now in an even more miserable state, and asked if he’d confessed only because he’d been tortured. Yes, he told them. “So you lied,” the interrogators said.
“They hit him tens of times and he once more said he was a spy and had planned car bombings against ISIS. But he didn’t know where the cars were. I tried to explain that he had lost his mind and nothing he said was real anymore.”
The interrogators presented Abu Omar’s mobile phone again, only now they not only had his active WhatsApp correspondence with current FSA fighters but messages he’d deleted well over a year earlier. Their IT department had somehow managed to recall the lost data. Yet there was nothing on his phone about car bombings or GPS chips.
During the entirety of the 3½ months in the Municipal Sports Stadium, Abu Omar insists that he never changed his story and continued to deny that he’d spied for the coalition. “All my interrogators were Syrians,” he says. “They were clearly ill-educated. The entire time I was there, all the prison authorities were masked. When I was being interrogated, I had a shroud on. So at no point did I ever see anyone’s face.”
Abu Omar recalls one man—not an interrogator—who never spoke a word of any language to anyone. “He was a nice guy. He’d come at night, randomly, remove my handcuffs for half an hour to rest. Or he’d give me a blanket because it was cold.”
In their memoirs Soviet dissidents often recall how upon being taken to Lubyanka, the infamous KGB headquarters in central Moscow, their relatives would turn up at the gate inquiring as to their whereabouts, only to be given misinformation. The same was true, evidently, at this prison complex as, commingled with the cries of tortured detainees, Abu Omar could also hear wives and mothers crying over the fate of their disappeared husbands or sons. “They were almost always told, ‘He’s not with us. He was killed.’ It was all lies, of course. He was in the jail.”
When Abu Omar met the Jordanian again, it was to bid him farewell. Khateb told him that after a year of captivity he was finally being let go, provided he agreed to become a suicide bomber for his jailers. “He asked them, ‘I want to talk to my family first. They agreed to give him 30 minutes with his family prior to the bombing. He accepted. He gave me 5,000 lira [$23] and his watch as a token of friendship, and then he said goodbye.”
Abu Omar never saw Khateb again. He assumes he carried out the terms of his release.
Who decides the sentences? I ask.
“Judge Zaid,” Abu Omar answers. “He presides over the court hearings in the prison. He proclaims who is to be killed and who is to be spared. He is an emir,” or prince, a chieftain of ISIS’s administration. “All the emirs are Iraqi. Judge Zaid is Iraqi.”
Because Judge Zaid determined that Abu Zuhair was not a credible witness and that Abu Omar’s interrogators had never really dug up any incriminating evidence against him, he was sent to a small prison in Raqqa located in a residential house about 10 minutes away from the Municipal Sports Stadium. Here, 25 people were placed in each room and kept for around four days. It was a kind of processing center for the ISIS acquitted or paroled.
“They finally let me go from there because I told them that my wife was sick. I promised to remain in Syria. They agreed to release me to the custody of Abu Daoud, my emir back in Hama.”
When Abu Omar returned to his native city, Abu Daoud apologized for his arrest and reassured him that he was once again a true Muslim and a member of ISIS in good stead. “‘It was a mistake,’ he said.”
Abu Omar told Abu Daoud that he needed a break and asked for a five-day holiday to see his wife and children, who were still back in Raqqa. “They gave me a piece of paper to cross their checkpoints, so with that I went back.”
The piece of paper, essentially a transit visa, had an expiration date: he had just those five days of furlough before he was due back at the front. Nearly a month after his release from the ISIS capital’s main penitentiary, he was back in its vicinity. It was at this point that he learned that Abu Zuhair had been shot.
He’d received a video showing the execution of his friend who had been rendered witless by ISIS’s barbarism. Abu Zuhair’s brother, Hamza, shared the video with me on Facebook, after Abu Omar put me in touch with him.
A formal ISIS propaganda piece, it shows two men dressed in orange jumpsuits kneeling in the countryside somewhere; two masked, black-clad jihadists with holstered pistols stand behind either. One of the victims, with a blank stare and long hair, identifies himself by Abu Zuhair’s legal name. The camera cuts to a separate indoor location; Abu Zuhair “confesses” that he is guilty of plotting car bombings for the enemy in exchange for $500. He is asked by an unseen questioner what the punishment is for espionage. Abu Zuhair answers that it is death. The camera cuts back to the countryside scene. The executioners pull pistols and shoot Abu Zuhair and the man kneeling next to him in the backs of their heads, at point-blank range.
Two months prior to his execution, Umm Zuhair, his wife, had gone to ISIS governor of Raqqa and begged to be let out of the city with her four children. She was seven to eight months pregnant and about to be made a widow. The governor granted her request. She and her children returned to Hama.
“After I saw the video, I decided I had to leave Syria,” Abu Omar explains. He was friendly with a smuggler in Raqqa, someone he knew wasn’t an undercover deserter-catcher for ISIS. The friend quoted him a high fee for helping his flight to Turkey, a price Abu Omar couldn’t afford. But time was running out as his transit visa had by now expired.
The smuggler took pity on him and offered to help for a lower price. He cut Abu Omar’s hair and beard—the customary ISIS shag—and arranged for a disguise as the driver of a gasoline truck. Of his three children, two were from a previous marriage: a 7-year-old daughter and her 51/2-year-old sister. Abu Omar’s ex-wife, also from Hama but now in Raqqa, would only allow him to take the eldest girl with him to Turkey. Accompanying them would also be Abu Omar’s new wife and their 1 1/2-year-old son.
“I asked my ex-wife to remarry me so that she and my other daughter could join us,” he says, for a moment forcing me to remember that ISIS may frown on many temporal indulgences but polygamy isn’t one of them. “She refused.” (His ex-wife returned to Hama and, he says, faced no reprisals from ISIS because she and Abu Omar are divorced.)
Now a fake oil transporter/smuggler, Abu Omar set off at the wheel of a scrap metal truck, his wife and kids following behind in another car. “We were pretending to be en route to pick up a tanker truck, passing through each Daesh checkpoint. Luckily, the coalition were hitting many of these so they weren’t a problem for us. We just drove right through.”
At the last checkpoint, though, Abu Omar’s mini-convoy was stopped. He was told that he could not pass without papers, which he didn’t have. He says he managed to talk his way out of it, using the concocted story that he’d just found the woman and her children by the side of the road, next to a coalition-bombed convoy, and her husband had asked Abu Omar to transport his family to safety. Abu Omar was dutifully returning them back to him. The ruse worked. Abu Omar and his family made it to Free Syrian Army-held territory in Aleppo. From there, they traveled back to an area of Hama out of ISIS hands, and then on to northwest Idlib province, and then on to Turkey.
“The FSA asked me if I wanted to stay and fight with them again. I said no.”