URFA, Turkey – In most ways, Abu Khadija, a 39-year-old Syrian, is not remarkable. He used to making a living as a salesman in a men’s clothing shop in the capital, Damascus. He has four children – two boys and two girls – and a wife he loves dearly. The unremarkable man of medium build with a light beard and kind, unassuming eyes, looks like many of the shopkeepers in the capital’s renowned Hamidiyah marketplace.
But in one way Abu Khadija is very remarkable indeed. He is among the few former fighters of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) who managed to leave the group alive. The radical extremist group is famous for executing fighters who try to desert or leave as a warning to others.
This is his story.
Like many Syrians, Abu Khadija – who asked us not to use his real name for security reasons – was enthralled by the protests that erupted in the country on the tail end of the Arab Spring and decided to return to his hometown of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria to join the demonstrators calling for an end to the autocratic rule of Bashar al-Assad.
When the government cracked down brutally on the demonstrators, Abu Khadija said he came to the conclusion that peaceful protests were no match for the regime. Along with two of his brothers, Abu Abdullah and Abu Abdul Malik, Abu Khadija joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group consisting mostly of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers intent on bringing down the Assad regime, as soon as it was formed in 2011.
“When the security forces fired on the demonstrators, we had no other choice but to defend ourselves,” he said. “At that point, the revolutionary work turned from chanting against the regime to defending ourselves. The only response we had was to fight back. It might have been the wrong answer, but it was the only one that helped us survive their bullets and keep the revolution alive.”
In battles with the government, his brother Abu Abdul Malik was killed. He said he continued to fight for the FSA to seek revenge for the death of his older brother.
Abu Khadija fought with the FSA, he said, until ISIS took over most of Deir Ezzor province in the summer of 2013. The group gave the local fighters a choice – join us or die. He and his surviving brother Abu Abdullah pledged their allegiance to ISIS and took up arms for the group.
“All we wanted was to bring the regime down,” he said. “When ISIS took control of the area, my remaining brother and I decided to pledge allegiance and fight with them because we did not want to leave the area, so that we could take revenge for our brother. We had heard that the fighters of ISIS were very fierce, and we believed that they would be able to defeat the Syrian regime.”
Abu Khadija and his younger brother were put through a “repentance” program. They had to declare their non-recognition of all Syria’s other armed factions, admit to apostasy and embrace Islam all over again.
When their repentance was accepted, they went through a “rehabilitation” program centered on ISIS’s “principles of Islam” and Islamic Sharia law and on the necessity of fighting and jihad. Those who passed the repentance program but did not join the rehabilitation program were called “the public.”
“My brother and I met the [ISIS’s] general ruler of Deir Ezzor, Abu Dhar the Iraqi, and pledged our allegiance,” Abu Khadija said. “We then attended a 21-day repentance program in a closed camp in the city of al-Mayadeen, followed by a one-month Sharia program.”
He said the “rehabilitation” program consisted of the study of Islamic scholars from the religion’s Salafi branch, a highly conservative, fundamentalist strain of Islam, such as the 14th-century thinker Ibn Taymiyyah, who once issued a fatwa declaring jihad, or holy war, against Mongols who had claimed to have converted to Islam but did not follow strict Sharia law.
After completing the Sharia program, the men were given the choice to either return to their normal lives and be part of “the public” or enroll in military training. “The military training prepares the participants to fight – to undertake jihad – in any territory in the world. In addition to fitness training, fighters learn how to use weapons and choose a particular specialization,” Abu Khadija said.
Still believing they would help topple the Assad regime, the brothers chose to fight. They went through 60 days of military training in a camp next to al-Shadadi city, about halfway along the road between Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh to the north. The pair quickly became group leaders, training heavily with Kalashnikov rifles and other light weapons.
Abu Khadija said life improved for his family after he joined ISIS.
“Those who pledged allegiance to ISIS were granted discounts on food and other goods,” said Um Khadija, Abu Khadija’s wife, saying they paid only 60 Syrian pounds [$0.25] for a loaf of bread, while others paid 105 pounds [$0.48]. “We also got free electricity service, while the ‘the public’ had to pay around 8,000 Syrian pounds [$36] per month to get generator service.”
However, as ISIS tightened its grip on Deir Ezzor, it began executing people it accused of apostasy or communicating with the FSA. It also executed military leaders deemed to be a potential future threat, although most of them had already pledged allegiance to ISIS.
A short time later ISIS accused Abu Khadija’s surviving brother, Abu Abdullah, of still being connected with the FSA and executed him. Abu Khadija also said ISIS may have viewed his brother, whom he said was a fierce fighter, as a threat to their leadership.
“When I heard over the walkie-talkie that my brother had been killed, I ran to the field hospital. At the beginning, the nurses prevented me from seeing him, but I didn’t listen. I stormed my way in to see his body. I realized then that ISIS had killed him: He was shot in the back of his head – the way many other former Free Syrian Army fighters have been killed. My brother was killed because he was courageous and strong. When they killed my brother, I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.
Abu Khadija soon began to fear for his own life, worried he would face the same fate as Abu Abdullah.
He told ISIS that he could not return to his post at the military airport because he was still in mourning for his brother and spent some time in the nearby cities of Abu Kamal and al-Mayadeen, where he witnessed daily executions and the cutting off of hands.
Abu Khadija decided secretly to leave as soon as possible.
“I saw what happened in al-Mayadeen and Abu Kamal. Not one of their punishments was just. One guy was executed simply because someone said that he had fought against ISIS, even though his relatives swore he had never held a weapon. The guy who accused him belonged to a family that was fighting with the other guy’s family,” he said.
Fifteen days after his brother’s death, Abu Khadija, his wife and children packed up and left. The family took a car to Raqqa, in northern Syria, and from there headed west toward the city of al-Bab in Aleppo.
As soon as they passed the last ISIS checkpoint, Abu Khadija shaved off his beard.
Now, he is wracked with guilt.
He believes his decision to stay in Deir Ezzor and pledge allegiance to ISIS to take revenge on the Assad regime for his older brother’s death cost his younger brother his life.
The death of his surviving younger brother was even harder to take. He said he had trusted the men who killed him. He believed they were on his side, fighting to do away with Assad.
“I still don’t know why they killed him, but I know they did, and I am sure that they would have killed me if I’d stayed,” Abu Khadija said. “These people are so far away from Islam.”