The Greater Enemy
The Fourth War: My Lunch with a Jihadi
As a Marine Captain in Iraq, Elliot Ackerman lost men fighting jihadis, but then he found himself breaking bread with a former adversary in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey.
The night before, Abed and I had agreed. When I met Abu Hassar, we’d lie and tell him I’d been a journalist.
We drove out of Gaziantep early that morning, stopping on the outskirts of town to pick up a twenty-piece box of baklava, Abu Hassar’s favorite. Then we took the autobahn, a newly completed feat of Turkish engineering, past the city of Urfa and to the refugee camp in Akçakale, a town less than a mile from the border where Syrian artillery rounds occasionally landed.
“It’s going to make talking about Iraq a bit awkward,” I said, looking at Abed as he drove.
As we struggled to break 130 kph, he glanced at me and our black Peugeot shook like a shuttle on reentry. His eyes shifted quickly back to the road. “Tell him you covered the war,” Abed said, his Damascene accent mixing with an English one, the result of time spent in London and a job he’d once had in the British Consulate’s cultural section.
I knew Abed was right. Abu Hassar and I were veterans of the Iraq War, albeit different sides of that war. Even in the abstract, I felt a bond to Abu Hassar but the idea that he’d feel the same towards me could, justifiably, be considered naïve and a bit delusional. From 2005 to 2008, he’d run guns and fighters across the Syrian border into Iraq, right under the nose of Assad’s secret police, the Mukhabarat. Then, in 2008, Assad’s Mukhabarat had thrown Abu Hassar in jail for three years. He’d only been released when, in the wake of the Revolution begun by democratic activists like Abed, Assad emptied the prisons of jihadists in 2011. Assad had hoped the jihadists would fight against him. A regime under siege by radical jihadists is more likely to garner international support than a regime under siege by democratic activists.
To Assad’s credit, it worked. Now many of Abu Hassar’s old jihadi friends were members of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most hardline and controversial groups in the current Syrian Civil War. And Abed, my friend the democratic activist, wasn’t an activist anymore. He was a journalist, or, like me, he was calling himself one.
After two hours, we exited the autobahn onto an old and broken road. Abed slowed our Peugeot down, dodging potholes, driving carefully in the morning rain. My mind churned over the questions I’d ask Abu Hassar. To settle my thoughts, I looked out the window. The road was straight and flat. In the distance were the wet hills of Syria’s Ar-Raqqah Governorate. Between the hills and us, soggy fires burned the bare cotton stalks of an early winter harvest. Bales were stacked in the fields among clods of wet earth. Fleks of cotton rose in the hot air and made little blazes here and there. They looked liked fireflies in the day.
One of our windshield wipers was broken. It stuttered across the glass. Fortunately it was the one in front of me and Abed could still see well enough to drive. He pointed ahead of us. I leaned my head over the gearshift to get a look. Like a dirty lake seen from far off, Akçakale refugee camp sat low and gray in the distance. The closer we came to it, the more it took shape. Its tents were hung like pavilions behind a thin barbed wire fence. The pattern reminded me of an empty egg carton expanding for kilometers on end. Soon I could make out dark figures wandering between the camp and the road’s shoulder. Here people drew rainwater from a ditch.
We pulled over, near a cement blockhouse. I moved the box of baklava we’d bought for Abu Hassar off the back seat and held it my lap. Gaziantep is famous for its baklava and this batch of twenty was expensive. It’d even come with its own wood handled carrying case.
Abu Hassar didn’t have a cell phone, a precautionary habit from his jihadi days, so Abed called Abu Hassar’s brother, Abu Ali. He ran a shop out of the blockhouse we’d parked in front of, but Abed seemed in no hurry to walk inside and start asking after either of the brothers.
Abu Ali wasn’t picking up.
In front of us, just beyond our windshield, an old man and woman crouched around a trash fire in the rain. Its flame would barely fill a teacup. Just behind them, a tarp was pulled across a now flooded ditch. This was their home.
The heat in our car was too strong. I turned it down and fiddled with the baklava’s wooden toggles. Abed redialed Abu Hassar’s brother. He noticed my restless hands and assured me: “He is a good guy and excited to meet you.”
I watched the old couple, the woman poking the dying fire, the man turning circles, looking for more trash to burn. Now and then both their eyes wandered over to the refugee camp that, for whatever reason, they hadn’t been admitted to. They seemed lost as two orphaned children. For a moment, the idea that Abu Hassar would be a ‘no show’ left me relieved. I’d give this old couple my expensive baklava and go home. My good deed done for the day.
The Peugeot rocked on its axle. Abu Hassar barreled into the back seat, scaring the crap out of us. He knocked loose the olive-green keffiyeh he wore over his black curls. He tightened the keffiyeh back down and grabbed Abed by the shoulders, laughing at how badly he’d surprised us.
Abed leaned forward, searching between his seat and the gearshift. He’d dropped his phone. The two began to speak quickly and in Arabic. Abed smiled, but it was one of those smiles were I could tell Abu Hassar had really shaken him and he was a little pissed off about it.
We pulled onto the road. Just a few minutes away, in the town of Akçakale, there was a café where we’d drink some tea, eat our baklava and talk. From behind the steering wheel, Abed introduced me as a journalist. Abu Hassar nodded and took a small vial of perfume from his Adidas sweatshirt. He squirted some into his thick and well creased hands. He reached up to the front seat, took my hand by the wrist and rubbed the perfume from his palm to mine. “The Prophet says there are three things one must never refuse: a good pillow, good yogurt, and good perfume.” Abu Hassar pressed the perfume into Abed’s palm in the same way. I liked the part about the perfume and the pillow. I wasn’t so big on the yogurt: a bad experience in western Afghanistan had once left me bedridden and on an intravenous Sipro drip for almost a week.
“Abu Ali didn’t answer the phone. Is he all right?” asked Abed, inquiring after Abu Hassar’s brother.
Behind me, Abu Hassar began to laugh again. “He is fine. I was taking noon prayers just behind his shop when you pulled up. I told him not to answer. I wanted to surprise you.”
Abed said nothing.
The car became quiet, the silence awkward. I made a little small talk: “Is your whole family in the camp?” I asked Abu Hassar.
Abed translated, his eyes fixed on the road.
“Yes and yours?”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean they’re back home.”
I asked more about his family, did he have children? Two boys and a girl, he told me. The boys were nine and five. His youngest son was born while he was in prison, a topic I knew we’d get to. He didn’t tell me how old his little girl was, the age of a man’s daughter being a sensitive topic. He asked about my children. I told him about my son and daughter.
“You are blessed,” he said. “How old?”
I took out my iPhone and showed him a picture of Ethan. “He’s one and half,” I said, stopping myself from scrolling to the next photo of my daughter.
“A handsome boy,” said Abu Hassar. “He looks nothing like you!”
We laughed. I was grateful for it. I felt reassured that no band of Islamist thugs was waiting at an impromptu checkpoint to kidnap and smuggle Abed and me across the border to star in our own YouTube video.
Soon we were in Akçakale, a crowded town with a single main road. Along that road were a few cafés. The one we parked in front of had an Astroturf lawn and white picket fence. As cold as it was, the outside seating on the Astroturf was filled. Men lazed, drinking tea, smoking Gauloise cigarettes and speaking slushy Arabic. Exiting the car, Abed and Abu Hassar chatted and I followed behind, carrying the stupid box of baklava by its wooden handles. Inside the café was warm and a large man ordered the waiters around in Turkish. He seemed to be the owner and he came over to offer us a seat. As he headed our way, I tucked the box of baklava in my coat, not certain if we’d be allowed to bring it inside. Abu Hassar saw what I was doing. He stepped in front of me so the owner wouldn’t get a good look at my now bulging coat. Abu Hassar then gave me a nod and a sly grin, seasoned smuggler that he was.
Abed greeted the owner in Turkish, asking for a quiet seat. We were taken up a narrow stairway. Here, in the back of the café, there was a picnic style table. The owner left. Awkwardly we took our seats, not sure who should go where. I wound up sitting next to Abu Hassar, the two of us on the same bench.
Taking off my coat, I placed the baklava on the table. Abed opened the box. As he was about to offer some to Abu Hassar, our waiter came over. The waiter was young, maybe sixteen. He had long black hair, almost to his shoulders. His mouth was framed with a wispy goatee. He said nothing about the baklava, but stood at the end of our table, his eyes resting on me, as if I should order.
“Chai,” I said.
“Francais?” our waiter asked me.
Before I could answer, Abu Hassar interrupted, “La, Amerikee. Ithnan chai.”
Abed added, “Thalatha chai.”
A pink tulip sat in a glass of water on the table. Abu Hassar began to twirl it between his index finger and thumb. Abed filled his mouth with a piece of the baklava, I needed to get our conversation going. “Abed’s told me about your time in Iraq.”
Abu Hassar nodded.
“I was there, too,” I said and added, “but as a journalist.”
Abu Hassar held the tulip up to his nose, still saying nothing.
“I hoped we could talk about the war,” I said. Abu Hassar gave me a blank look. I wasn’t getting anywhere. “There is a story I’ve always liked. It’s one from the First World War. The first Christmas of that War.” Immediately I thought, Shit Christmas stories? Dumb move Ackerman. But I went on: “The day of the Holiday, it snowed. In the cold, the German and British soldiers climbed out of their trenches at a place called Mons. They met in no-mans-land and spent the day swapping small gifts and playing soccer. This Christmas Truce became very famous in the West.”
Abu Hassar looked at Abed and said something I couldn’t understand in Arabic, but that I assumed to be: “Is this true?”
“What did they do the next day?” Abu Hassar asked me.
“Went back in their trenches and killed each other for another four years.”
Abu Hassar laughed. The waiter returned with our tea. I offered Abu Hassar some of the baklava we’d brought him. He smiled and took a piece. “I don’t know how good I’ll be for your story,” he said.
“The story is our conversation,” I told him. “Two Iraq veterans talk about their War and what’s going on in Syria right now.”
“I’m not as active in the jihad as I used to be,” said Abu Hassar.
“Neither am I,” I answered.
Abu Hassar laughed again. Then his face turned serious. “The war we fight in Syria is the worst kind, much worse than Iraq.” Abu Hassar held his slender glass teacup by the tips of his thick fingers. He took a slurp and turned towards me on the bench, holding my eyes with his. “If you lose your money, you can make a new business. If you lose your love, you can find another. Even if you lose your child, you can go to your wife’s bed again. But if you lose your country, what can you do? How can you make another country?”
It seemed a strange comment coming from Abu Hassar. His friends, both those who fought with Al-Qaeda in Iraq and those who now fought with Jabhat Al-Nusra and the ISIS were dedicated to dissolving the current Syrian State. From it, they’d committed to building a Caliphate spanning from Iraq through Syria and all the way to the Mediterranean. It seemed to me that they were the ones bent on destroying his home as it once was.
He looked at me, waiting for a response.
“Do you mind if I take notes?” It was all I could think to say.
He shrugged and took another piece of the baklava, considering it in his fingers for a moment. “When I was first in the jihad, I was like a starving man feasting on the action. When I got older, I learned to eat more slowly, to be more patient. Even Al-Qaeda’s best men became too aggressive in Iraq. When they began to kill Christians and Jews who weren’t actively against the jihad, this was a mistake. In the Qu’ran it says not to do this. In the Bukhari, it is even written that the Prophet once left his armor in the possession of a Jew so it would be protected!” After making this last point, Abu Hassar grinned from ear-to-ear as though he’d said something mildly outrageous. I nodded back, but wondered if he’d think it was outrageous to be having tea with a half-Jewish once-upon-a-time Marine. “For years, I ate like this with Al-Qaeda. Now my stomach hurts.” It was my turn to say something but before I could, Abu Hassar added: “Still, as much as my stomach hurts, we won and your country became mired in the Islamic swamp.”
“Bush imagined Iraq as if it were France in the Second World War,” I said. “As if the Iraqis were just waiting to be liberated. That’s what many Americans thought.”
“You were wrong,” said Abu Hassar. There was no satisfaction in his voice. He simply stated the miscalculation that had defined much of his life and mine. “I regret none of the War,” he said. “When I fought for Al-Qaeda, we sent weapons and fighters from Der ez-Sour into Iraq. Assad left the roads and border open. In Jordan, in Kuwait, in Turkey, not even a dog could wander into Iraq, but from Der ez-Sour we went where we wanted. Our job was easy. No one asked about our activities. Fighting in the jihad was my true happiness, but Assad proved a greater enemy to you than me.”
Abed translated this last point and he smirked a bit, as though there were something tragically sentimental in Abu Hassar’s love of jihad. I think Abu Hassar caught on because he added: “I trained men to fight in explosives, marksmanship, and hand-to-hand combat. I would send them across the border on their missions. They were like the point of the spear. I was like its handle, directing them in the fight. There is nothing closer than those types of friendships. If you were one of my men and you asked me for the last of my water, I would give it to you. If you asked for the last of my food, it would be yours. And if you asked for my life … it is something that can’t be understood.”
The smirk on Abed’s face from before disappeared as he translated this for me. Then Abed added in English: “This is also how it was among us activists, in the Revolution’s early days.”
I said nothing. For a moment we sat, three veterans from three different sides of a war that had no end in sight. Not the Syrian Civil War, or the Iraq War, but a larger regional conflict. Amidst all this, Abu Hassar had hit on a unifying thread between us: friendships borne out of conflict, the strongest we’d ever had. I think that’s why I’d sought out Abu Hassar, to see if that thread existed among two people who’d fought against each other. And, for the first time, I wondered why Abu Hassar had agreed to meet with me, a so-called journalist he knew nothing about, except that I was American and had spent some time in Iraq. Maybe he, like me, had become tired of learning the ways we were different. Maybe he wished to learn some of the ways we were the same.
“I think you can tell him,” said Abed, softly in English.
“You sure?” I asked.
“I think it would be better.”
I agreed and Abed began to explain to Abu Hassar that I’d been a Captain in the Marines and had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. I watched them intently, not understanding their quick Arabic. Abu Hassar began to slowly nod and his gaze moved from Abed to me. Then, once Abed was done, he picked up the water that had been set on the table. He poured a full glass in front of him, emptying his bottle. He handed it to me.
“A Captain,” he said. “So we were both like the handles of the spear.”
I nodded and drank the last of his water.
“Why did you fight?” asked Abu Hassar. “Did you think the war was a good idea?”
“No,” I said. “I thought it was a bad idea.”
“Still you fought?”
“When you are a young man and your country goes to war, you’re presented with a choice: you either fight or you don’t. And you’ll always remember what you chose. I don’t regret my choice, but maybe I regret being asked choose. And you? Why did you fight in Iraq? It wasn’t your country.”
“This isn’t true,” said Abu Hassar. “My decision was like yours. I am an Arab and a Muslim. That is my country. America invaded Iraq. As a Muslim man, it was my duty to fight.” Abed translated, but having worked at the British Consulate during the height of the Iraq War, this last bit of logic seemed to choke in his throat.
Abu Hassar explained how in 2005 he’d gotten involved with Al-Qaeda. Before this, he described himself as, “the type of Muslim who didn’t fast or pray.” Finding Islam late in life, he wanted to be a holy man, but he felt he needed to catch up. He “thirsted for paradise” and was taught in God’s eyes the straightest road there was jihad. He told me: “A friend gave me books on Islam to study. He also introduced me to some of the jihadists who were in Der ez-Sour on their way to Iraq. These men had come from far away. They were from places like Yemen, Saudi Arabia and even as far as Mauritania. Some of them showed me their passports. Each one was thick with stamps and each stamp was like some medal of the jihad. Seeing how far they had traveled to fight, I felt blessed. It was all right there for me. Being from Der ez-Sour, I was like a man who does no work for his harvest.”
Abu Hassar then explained the types of operations he was involved in: ambushes, IEDs, raids on checkpoints. He described a certain attack, one near Al-Qaim, a town in western-Iraq where I’d been deployed. Abu Hassar’s group of fighters had struck an Iraqi Army Checkpoint there. “We dressed in their uniforms and were able to get very close to them before we opened fire. We destroyed the checkpoint and withdrew with none of us getting hurt.”
“Sounds like a good mission,” I replied.
“Yes, very successful.” He grinned broadly.
“Fun too, right?”
“We never got to do anything like that,” I said. “Being in the Marines, most of our missions involved walking around on patrol, waiting to get blown up by you and your friends. We were almost always on the defense.”
“Yes, fighting you, we knew this. It was your nature, but it wasn’t ours. Jihadists are as keen for death as Americans are for life. In my first year fighting, many of the men I smuggled across the border never returned. These were educated and good men. Later on, when a doctor or a lawyer would arrive in Der ez-Sour for jihad, I would tell him: ‘For you to fight is a waste. If you are a doctor tend to the wounded fighters. If you are a lawyer advise the commanders about Sharia Law. It is your skills that make you most valuable to the jihad.’ But these men were eager for paradise. They rarely listened to me.”
For a moment, Abu Hassar became quiet. He looked across the room, at something that seemed just out of view. Abed waved our waiter over. Without asking either Abu Hassar or I what we wanted, he ordered lunch for the three of us.
“It’s not like that with all jihad?” I asked.
“Like what?” replied Abu Hassar.
“I fought in Afghanistan, too. The fighters there weren’t as eager for death. They would attack and quickly withdraw back up into the mountains. To them, it always seemed important to fight another day.”
Abu Hassar nodded. “Those who go to Afghanistan are different. It is more difficult to travel there. For them jihad isn’t so much a way to die but a way to live.”
“They were better fighters,” I said.
Abu Hassar shrugged. “Perhaps,” he said, “but belief is most important. An Imam I knew in Der ez-Sour used to tell a story about a Jew who came to his mosque. This man began to film prayers each day. After he did this a few times, the Imam said to him: ‘You are welcome here. It is a house of God, but what are you filming?’ The Jew told him during early morning prayers the mosque seemed empty and too large, and during Friday afternoon prayers the mosque seemed full and too small. The Imam told him: ‘This is always the way of things.’ The Jew replied, ‘Islam will only become the one message when your mosque is as filled at early morning prayers as it is at Friday afternoon prayers.’” Abu Hassar became quiet for a second. He added some sugar to his tea and stirred it slowly, holding his tiny metal spoon between his thick fingers. “Faith and strength in our ideology is everything,” he said.
“I believe that,” I replied.
“It doesn’t require your belief. It is in front of your face to see. The Prophet predicted all that has passed. Before there could be peace, he predicted this period of great wars and many killings. He even predicted what will stop the killings …”
But before Abu Hassar could finish, Abed interrupted his translating. He scoffed as Abu Hassar began to roll into this Islamist polemic. Abed turned to me, and said with his perfect British accent: “Killing for peace is like fucking for virginity.”
I laughed a little and smiled at him. Abu Hassar asked Abed something in Arabic. He replied quickly, translating the same to Abu Hassar. I watched Abu Hassar’s face contort around the idea. I worried he might take offense but, to my surprise, Abu Hassar began to laugh too.
“Who said that?” he asked Abed.
“I don’t know. Do you?” Abed asked me.
“John Lennon,” I said.
“Who’s that?” asked Abu Hassar.
“He’s an old dead rock singer,” I said. “Older than you even.” I pointed to Abu Hassar’s thick black beard, which had gone salt and pepper.
“War is enough to make you old,” answered Abu Hassar. “Assad put the gray in my beard.” Then he pointed to my sunken cheeks where a couple gray whiskers poked through. “George Bush put the gray in yours.”
“My children also put the gray in my beard,” I replied.
Abu Hassar nodded. “Yes,” he said. “It is a funny thing: what you love and what you hate both make you old. And I feel old, but am still just thirty-three.”
“I’m also thirty-three,” I said.
Abed excused himself and went to the restroom out back. Abu Hassar and I sat next to each other on the same side of the table. Without our interpreter the space between us became awkward. I opened my notebook to a clean page. I began to draw. First, I sketched out a long oscillating ribbon running from the top left to the bottom right of the page: the Euphrates. Abu Hassar quickly recognized this. He took the pencil from my hand and drew the straight borderline between Iraq and Syria, one that cut through a tabletop of hardpan desert. Along the border he’d made, I wrote a single name: Al-Qaim.
Next to that name, Abu Hassar wrote: 06.2005. I nodded back and wrote: 09.2004. I traveled farther down the Euphrates and wrote another name and another date. Our hands now chased each other’s around the map, mimicking the way we’d once chased each other around this country. Haditha: 07.2004 / 02.2005. Hit: 10.2004 / 11.2006. On it went, only the dates and place names mattered. These were a common language to us. One not even Abed could translate. Had I understood Arabic or had Abu Hassar understood English, I don’t think we would’ve spoken. The small log we made on these two notebook pages contained the truth of our experience. Soon we’d filled most of the map. Between us one thing was missing: we had many places that overlapped, nearly all of them, but we didn’t have a single date that did. Abu Hassar looked at me for a moment. I think he noticed this too. Neither of us said, or tried to say anything about it. But I think we were both grateful, or at least I was. Abed came back from the restroom. I turned my notebook to a clean page.
Before we could begin our conversation again, the waiter brought out a large silver tray with our lunch. He laid down three different types of lamb kabob, two plates of kibbeh, flatbread, and salads. Then another server came behind him carrying a pitcher of Aryan, a yogurt drink. He poured this into three ornate chalices that looked like Turkish knock-offs of the Wimbledon Cup. The cold Aryan frothed as it was poured. As I looked down my nose at it, Abu Hassar said: “Remember the Prophet’s wisdom: perfume, a good pillow and yogurt cannot be refused!” He took a tremendous drink from his cup, the froth sticking to his moustache. Abed drank too, but before he did he looked at me and smiled. I took a sip, knowing I had to, and thinking of Sipro.
We ate with our hands and Abu Hassar asked me: “When were you the most scared in Iraq?”
His question stopped me. I’d been asked what was the worst thing I’d seen in Iraq (cats eating people), I’d been asked what was the bravest thing I’d seen in Iraq (everything Marines do for wounded Marines), I’d even been asked by an elderly society lady if I’d killed anyone in Iraq, but no one had ever asked me when I was the most scared. I put down my food. It didn’t take long for me to realize the answer.
“Getting lost,” I said.
Abu Hassar gave me a confused look, so did Abed.
I explained: “As an officer, I was always leading patrols. Sometimes we’d be in the middle of nowhere, just our column of Humvees and nothing but desert. Even with a GPS, it was easy to get disoriented in a wadi, or to mistake one trail for another. Getting on the radio, telling everyone to stop and turn around because I was lost, the shame of that was my greatest fear.”
Abu Hassar and Abed both gave me sympathetic looks, as if they recognized some lost part of me in the way I told this story now. There were other things I could’ve told them: the time my platoon got cut off and surrounded in a house in Fallujah, or when a truck of Afghan soldiers was torn apart in front of me by a rocket-propelled grenade, all this had scared me. But if fear is like a disease, these incidents were like the 24-hour flu: quick, unpleasant, but passing. The great fears were chronic, never abating, threatening to wear you down. I’m still afraid of getting lost. You should see the map software in my phone.
“God put this fear into you,” said Abu Hassar. “You fought in a country that wasn’t yours. You were already lost.”
“When were you the most afraid?” I asked him.
Abu Hassar told me how at times he’d help transport Al-Qaeda in Iraq field commanders from the border to Damascus. Abu Hassar said: “Some of the commanders I knew, most I did not. Their work was dangerous, few survived long. I would receive orders from the Border Emir, the operative who was responsible for smuggling operations. On one occasion, I was given a mini-van to transport six operatives to the busy Saroujah neighborhood of Damascus. When I met these operatives at the border, I said very little to them. They were tired, and spent most of our journey sleeping in the back of the mini-van. For security purposes, I was told little about what I was doing. I would drive one leg of the journey, call the Border Emir, and receive instructions for the next. I drove most of that day and that evening, upon arriving at our destination, I called the Border Emir. He told me to collect ‘the equipment’ from the operatives. He wouldn’t say more than this. We were parked on a busy street. I went to the back of the bus and told these men that I needed to collect whatever equipment they had with them. They looked at each other, not certain what to do. Then one of them stepped from the mini-van and into the crowded street. He began to unbutton his shirt. Beneath it, he wore a suicide vest. A couple of the others stepped out of the van, too. They also began to strip off their shirts and unfasten their vests. Before I could tell them to get back in the van, the six men began to argue about whether or not they should have to give up their vests. These operatives had likely worn their vests for weeks or even months. For that long, they’d been ready to die.”
“Did they give up the vests?” I asked.
“I left them arguing in Saroujah.”
“That whole ride from the border, any one of them could’ve blown himself up and killed you,” I said.
Abu Hassar gave me a quick and confused look. “No, that’s not what I was afraid of. These were good men.”
Now I was the one with the confused look.
“What I was afraid of,” said Abu Hassar, “was getting arrested right there. When you fought, you only had to worry about living or dying. I also had to worry about disappearing into the belly of some prison. This was my greatest fear. And like all great fears, it happened.”
I thought about what Abu Hassar said, about great fears needing to happen. After five deployments, I’d never once gotten lost on patrol. But coming home, I’d learned there were other ways to get lost.
“What was prison like?” I asked.
Abu Hassar’s hands became restless. He played with a fork on the table. “There isn’t too much to tell. I spent three years there, most of it in solitary confinement.”
“Why were you arrested? I thought the Regime left you alone.”
Abu Hassar put the fork down. “They always did, but at the time I was arrested there was a great controversy in my group. Some of the commanders in Iraq had discovered that the Border Emir I worked for had been taking money from the Regime’s Mukhabarat. They wanted the Border Emir killed for this. When I took men to and from Iraq, I received messages from some of these commanders telling me I needed to kill the Border Emir. I didn’t know what to do. Then, one night, before I’d chosen to do anything, the Mukhabarat came to my house in Der ez-Sour and arrested me.”
“And your family?” I asked.
“My wife was pregnant. She was left at home with my daughter and son. No one knew where I’d been taken. A few weeks later, my brother finally went to the local police station to ask about me. When he did, the police beat him with canes. For three years I was like a ghost, I’d disappeared. They moved me from prison to prison: Sednaya, Fir’ Filastin, Adra, I spent time in each. The War in Iraq was winding down. We jihadists, once useful to the Regime, no longer were. We were arrested in greater and greater numbers. Assad wished to improve his reputation internationally. Soon the prisons were filled with men I’d fought alongside. The other prisoners were thieves and rapists, but we jihadists were treated worst of all. We were beaten and electrocuted. Torture was part of our life. Some of us died, others went crazy.”
Abu Hassar was quiet. He started playing with the fork again, pricking his thumb against its end.
“How long was your sentence?” I asked.
Abu Hassar’s forehead knotted. “There was no sentence,” he said. “I was only released because of him.” He pointed at Abed. “His Revolution freed me.”
Abed seemed at pains to translate this fact. The jihadists within Syria would never have ascended if it weren’t for the initial success of the secular and democratic-minded Revolution. As the Revolution gained momentum, Assad opened his prisons, unleashing the jihadists on himself. He wanted to create the perception abroad that he was under siege by Islamic fundamentalists. And now he was.
Abed looked at Abu Hassar, but spoke to me: “I regret the Revolution.”
Before I could reply, Abu Hassar began his story again: “When we were released, the fighters I’d known from the Iraq War did just as Assad wanted. They organized against him. My old friends formed Jabhat al-Nusra, but I refused to join.”
“Were you tired of fighting?”
“No, it wasn’t that. Assad wouldn’t release these men without ensuring his informers were in place among them. I knew how that would end for me. I have three children. I won’t go back to prison, so I came here.”
“And do you miss it? The fighting, the excitement.”
Of all the questions I asked, this was the only one Abu Hassar never answered.
“I have something to ask you,” he said, changing the subject. “With all your warplanes, and your aircraft carriers, and tanks, and your laser guided bombs, with all this—”
I interrupted him: “I think I know your question …”
Abu Hassar shook his head: “… with all these things how is it that you couldn’t win in Iraq?”
“The type of war we chose was complicated,” I said. “We’d lost before we even started fighting. For us, success meant wining. For you, the insurgents, success meant not losing. Those are two very different things.”
Abu Hassar looked at me as if I were trying to take something from him, as if my analysis robbed him of some honors of combat. “We defeated you with nothing,” he said, “with explosives in plastic jugs on the roadside and old rifles. Imagine if we’d had your tanks, or your planes.”
“The Afghan insurgents say: you Americans have the watches, but we have the time. It’s the same here. That’s why you won.”
Abu Hassar’s face tensed, his eyebrows nearly touching, as if unable to understand what I was talking about: watches and time? who has which? “Just imagine if we had weapons like yours now? Assad would be dead within a few weeks. If Obama armed the Islamists, he wouldn’t have to worry about Putin and Khamenei’s games.”
I laughed, right in his face I laughed.
“You think it’s funny, but it’s the truth,” said Abu Hassar.
It has often been said that the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in thought at the same time while still retaining the ability to function. Based on that criteria, the way most Syrian jihadists and activists thought about the U.S. made them some of the most intelligent people I’d ever met. Like most in the Arab World, they were deeply suspicious of U.S. interventions in the region—the invasion of Iraq was criminal to them. But held in opposition to this outrage, those same voices now clamored for a similar intervention in Syria.
“And why shouldn’t you arm us. You know first hand what good fighters we are,” said Abu Hassar. From ear to ear, he grinned at me.
He was egging me on, as if he’d outfoxed me at a game of checkers and wished to hustle another round. “No one would accept this idea,” I said. “It’d be rejected outright. You’re not being serious.”
“I don’t think we jihadists would have a problem receiving our weapons from the U.S.” he replied.
“It’s we Americans who would never accept it! We were just fighting each other two years ago in Iraq.”
Now it was Abu Hassar who laughed right in my face. “For your government, it’s no worse a position than the one they’re in now. We used to be friends, remember, in Afghanistan, in the ‘80s. If we went from being allies to enemies that means we can go from being enemies to allies.”
“Okay, so how does that end?” I asked. “My government arms the Islamists. Tell me how that ends?”
“You really want to know?”
“The Prophet predicted all this,” began Abu Hassar, speaking as if from some place of deep personal knowledge. “He said it begins with the boys, writing and speaking messages of a new future in the streets.” Abu Hassar stopped and looked at Abed for a moment. In that look, it seemed Abed and the democratic-activists of 2011 were the boys Abu Hassar was speaking about. “The messages spread, breeding outrage and a war fought by the men. This is what we see now. In that war, an Islamist Army rises, uniting to destroy all others. Then a tyrant is killed. This is Assad. His army will fall. Afterwards, among the Islamists, there will be many pretenders. The fighting among them will go on.”
Abu Hassar looked down at my notepad. I hadn’t been writing anything down. This seemed to bother him. “You know all this?” he asked.
“It’s all happening right now,” I said. “The infighting, the rise of the Islamists, how does that end?”
“The Syrian people thirst for an Islamic State,” said Abu Hassar. “After so much war, they want justice. After Assad falls and when there is fighting among the pretenders, a man will come. He is a common man, but he will have a vision. In that vision, God will tell him how to destroy His enemies and bring peace to all peoples. That man is the Mahdi.”
I wrote down the word: Mahdi, a heavy and dissatisfied dot above the ‘i’.
“You don’t believe me?” said Abu Hassar.
I stared back at him, saying nothing.
“You think as poorly armed as we are, we can’t defeat Assad and his backers?”
“It’s not that,” I said.
Abu Hassar continued: “Our weapons don’t matter as much as you think. Even Albert Einstein predicted what’s happening now. He said that the Third War would be a nuclear war, but that the Fourth War would be fought with sticks and stones. That’s how we beat you in Iraq, with sticks and stones. Whether we are helped or not, this is how we will create our Islamic State even with the super powers of the world against us.”
“So the plan is to wait for the Mahdi?”
“He walks among us now, a simple man of the people, the true redeemer.”
I shut my notebook. Our waiter was lurking across the room. I caught his eye and made a motion with my hand, as if I were scribbling out the bill for our lunch. He disappeared into the back of the restaurant.
“What will you do if this is true?” Abu Hassar asked me.
“If the Mahdi comes?”
“That means there will be a peaceful and just Islamic State?”
Again, he nodded.
“Then I’ll come visit you with my family.”
“And you will be welcome,” said Abu Hassar, grinning his wide ear-to-ear grin and resting his heavy hand on my shoulder.
We’d been sitting for hours, and it was early afternoon. Abu Hassar excused himself to take the day’s fourth prayer in a quite corner of the restaurant. Abed, seemingly exhausted from translating, stood stiffly and went to use the bathroom. I sat by myself, the empty plates of our lunch spread in front of me.
“Syrie?” he asked, pointing to where Abu Hassar and Abed had been sitting.
Our waiter pointed to where Abu Hassar had been sitting. He stroked his face as if he had a thick and imaginary beard, one like Abu Hassar’s. “Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said.
“Amerikee?” he asked, pointing at me, seemingly confused as to why an American would spend so much time sitting with two Syrians, especially one Islamist.
“New York,” I said.
He shook his head knowingly, as if to intone the word ‘New York,’ were to intone a universal spirit of ‘anything goes’.
I handed over the money for lunch. Abed and Abu Hassar returned and we left the restaurant. Outside the gray morning rain was now gray afternoon rain. The cafés were still full of people sitting on green Astroturf lawns, sipping tea that steamed at their lips. Nothing had changed.
We piled into the black Peugeot and returned to the road. For a while, we didn’t speak. We were tired of our own voices. There was just the noise of the broken wiper in front of me, stuttering across the windshield. Above us, the overcast sky lost its light. Below, Akçakale camp spread in all directions, as gray as a second sky. Something heavy and sad came over Abu Hassar and the heaviness of that thing came over me. He and I had spent the day somewhere else, in a different time. Now he’d go back to the camp and I’d go back to the road.
But we weren’t there yet. With about a mile left to go, Abu Hassar put his hand on my shoulder. “So you will come visit when the war is over?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “If it’s safe for someone like me.”
“It would have to be. You would never pass for a Muslim,” said Abu Hassar. He pointed at me and spoke to Abed: “He is such a Christian, he even looks like Jesus!”
I took a look at myself in the rearview mirror. I hadn’t shaved in a couple weeks. My face was a bit gaunt, my kinked hair a bit unkempt. “Maybe I look like Einstein?” I answered.
As we pulled over by his brother’s shop, Abu Hassar and I were still laughing.
“If I look like Jesus,” I said, “you look like the Prophet Muhammad.”
Abu Hassar shook his head. “No, I don’t look like the Prophet, peace be upon him.” He opened his door and a cold breeze filled our car. I could feel the rain outside hitting my neck. Abu Hassar grabbed my shoulder with his thick and powerful hands. He pushed his face close to mine. Again he was grinning.
“I look like the Mahdi.”