LONDON—Last week, a document entitled “Interview with a Prisoner From al Baghdadi’s Group: Part I” was circulated by a Twitter user who goes by the name al Mundhir al Ḥussaini and describes himself as a “Da’esh [ISIS] dissident” in Misrata, Libya.
As the title suggests, the document is an Arabic language report on what is alleged to be a conversation between a captive ISIS supporter in Sirte and those guarding him, who remain anonymous.
While it is impossible to verify the authenticity of the interrogation, it nevertheless makes an intriguing read, and if it is indeed a valid document it provides important insights into the way the so-called Islamic State and the organizations that have pledged fealty to it go about indoctrinating their recruits. Rarely do we hear the firsthand account of an ISIS supporter’s path to the caliphate, a process about which man assumptions are made but deeper understanding is severely lacking.
The captured supporter in question, Mahmud, is interrogated on a range of topics. We learn of his background, how it was that he signed up to the cause of the putative caliphate, what it is that he learns in ISIS school and, perhaps most intriguingly, what his opinions are on various jihadist ideologues, from ISIS’s Turki al Binali to the long-absent al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.
After identifying himself as a 17-year-old from Az Zahir in Sirte, we learn that Mahmud is not actually a fighter with ISIS. Rather, he describes his position “as a transporter of weapons” for the organization’s Libyan franchise. Somewhat surprisingly, he is allowed to fulfill such a role without being a sworn member of the group. He says openly that he has “not pledged allegiance to the Caliph Ibrahim Awad” (the new name ISIS leader al Baghdadi gave himself last year). When asked why, he claims it is because he is still “going through the rehabilitation and education phase” at the ISIS indoctrination centre behind Sirte’s medical clinic complex, al Manarah al Shariah.
It is common among such groups to make the recruits go through stages of indoctrination and action to prove they are “worthy” of membership.
The topic of “rehabilitation and education” is clearly of interest to the interrogator, who goes on to ask more about the process. “Sheikh Muhammad teaches me, but there are other classes, too,” says Mahmud. That is all we learn about “Muhammad,” though. “They don’t tell us because they are worried about being captured,” says Mahmud.
This being the case, the interrogator moves on to the subjects being taught. “Above all else,” Mahmud claims, they are taught about “tawhid,” the unity of God. They “get explanations” of works by the likes of Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb, the founder of Saudi Arabia’s deep-rooted religious-political movement, Wahhabism, and works by a pre-eminent ISIS detractor, the Jordanian jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi.
About the latter, there has clearly been some confusion, either in the teaching or in Mahmud’s head. He seems to be under the impression that al Maqdisi “issued a fatwa on the necessity of pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi,” something which is categorically untrue. Indeed, Mahmud’s naivety about the jihadist movement he is joining and about those who lead it is extreme; later on in the discussion he is asked about the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri. “Who is al Zawahiri?” he responds.
At this stage, the interviewer switches topic slightly, probing Mahmud on why he joined ISIS in Libya. The answer is “power—it has the power to prevail over the American Crusaders”; Mahmud wanted to fight against “the murtaddūn who fight for Mahmud Jibrīl and for the tyrannical, apostate congress [the GNC].”
When asked how he joined, Mahmud says the idea was recommended to him by a “colleague” of his, after which he goes on to give revealing details about the recruitment process: “Initially, you go to al Manarah and you ask to join the lessons and they ask you to return after one week, when they inform you as you whether you have been accepted or rejected.”
If this is true, then it seems ISIS is slightly more discerning in choosing it new members than one might think.
Having gotten to grips with this side of Mahmud’s story, the interrogator returns to ISIS’s activities in Sirte: “What is it doing there, what is its function?” We are given a blinkered response: “The implementation of the hudud”—the limitations on conduct defined as crimes against God—“and the establishment of a state of Islam.”
Naturally, this answer is not deemed sufficient by the interrogator. After all, he asks, “Is it not one of the responsibilities of the caliph and the state to provide the essentials for people, before implementing the hudud?”
The above is an accusation regularly leveled at ISIS, that its caliphate was founded before the conditions were appropriate and that it is therefore illegitimate. Mahmud’s predictable response leaves much to be desired: “The state is providing the people their essentials.” In his opinion, material things like “salaries, fuel, electricity, gas [and] medicine and food” are of arbitrary importance, as long as ISIS “implements the hudud—cuts off the hand of the thief and flogs those who drink. This,” he argues, “is something that the apostate Libyan state cannot do.”
At that, the dialogue comes to a close. Supposedly there is more to come, “if God permits it.”
Whether or not we ever hear from Mahmud again, the interview serves as a very effective tool with which to challenge the ISIS narrative of religious and ideological supremacy. After all, here is a new recruit who, if he is telling the truth, has been led to believe in ludicrous falsities like al Maqdisi’s pro-ISIS fatwa; furthermore, he claims to not even have heard of al Zawahiri.
If teaching poorly formulated, easily disproved untruths is at the heart of ISIS’s indoctrination strategy, the “counter-narrative” side of the war against ISIS suddenly looks a lot easier to develop.