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 One
here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.
Part Four: Escaping the Islamic State
ISTANBUL — Abu Khaled looked at me across the outdoor hookah café table in the touristy Laleli district of Istanbul. Across the street cars nearly careened into each other every other second in a busy interaction, semi-subterranean shops, their windows half-buried by the pavement, advertised everything from cellphones to toothpaste to the latest designer women’s fashions—or, at any rate, cheap knockoffs for those who didn’t know the difference or much care. Amid the din of an international city at rush hour was the scheduled call of the muezzin, leading the call to prayer, and an unremitting stream of awful European pop music being pumped through the café’s loudspeakers, which we’d asked in vain to have turned down.
Even though ISIS terror had struck inside Turkey the week before, the organization calling itself the Islamic State, al-Dawla al-Islamiya, felt very far away. Truly, Abu Khaled told me, the people who run it want their subjects to live as if in a world of their own, captive minds in a closed society. But the real world is a small place, and this defector from the ISIS intelligence services said he was not the only one who had grown restive.
“People started feeling bad about all the lying,” he said. “If you read the news…There’s no TV, just an ISIS newspaper, Akhbar Dawli Islamiya. It says we’re still in Kobani,” a Kurdish city retaken from ISIS with the help of U.S.-led bombing raids last year.
The pervasive mendacity in the caliphate competes with a climate of ceaseless recrimination and denunciation: Two Minutes of Hate directed every day, at everyone. And typically the accusers are not Syrians but the muhajireen, the foreign fighters, who haven’t spent 1 percent of the time most residents of al-Bab have spent in Syria. They are an arrogant and unruly gang, increasingly seen, according to Abu Khaled, as colonial occupiers.
They see themselves as superior—holier than thou in the proper definition. “First of all, to most ISIS fighters—especially the foreigners—everybody in al-Bab, everybody in Syria, is kafir. Period. They treat people in this way, which is wrong. Even by ISIS’s standards, that’s clearly wrong. They are Muslims, they have to be treated as Muslims.”
“Foreigners are telling Syrians how to dress, how to live, how to eat, how to work, how to cut their hair. Maybe the only place in the world where there is no barbershop is al-Bab. They’re all closed. Because you can’t cut your hair. You have either long hair, or you must wear it the same exact length everywhere. Because even you”—Abu Khaled gestured to your hirsute correspondent—“like your beard. You would do 30 days in prison. It’s too short. You can’t cut your beard, you can’t trim it. You have to let it grow.”
And just like under Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, ISIS has presided over an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, where the errant joke or critical observation can land you in the cage, or worse. Abu Khaled has a big mouth and is amazed he wasn’t killed before he managed to flee. “One time, a guy was telling me: ‘You see this victory against the FSA?…It’s because God is fighting with us!’ So I told him: ‘So why God and the angels didn’t fight with us when we fought the Kurds in Kobani?’”
Abu Khaled was told that if he kept talking like that, he’d lose his head.
Nor was his sense of irony directed merely at the braggadocio of the muhajireen. He had been present at the battle for Kobani, the Kurdish border town in northern Syria besieged for months by ISIS and eventually liberated, thanks largely to U.S. airpower. Abu Khaled had witnessed firsthand just how poorly ISIS’s soldiers fought: more like F Troop than Delta Force.
“The first time I realized that ISIS fighters are not well trained was the last day of Ramadan, this year.” Abu Khaled was leading a charge against Kobani, and he and his men bivouacked in Sarrin, one of the nearby towns ISIS controls in the Aleppo countryside. He decided to attack a series of villages held by Kurdish forces.
Abu Khaled was commanding three ISIS units. One of them was dispatched to Khalat Hadid; another to the village of Nour al-Ali; a third to the small village of Ras al-Ayn. The assault began at 1 o’clock in the morning and involved missiles, mortars, and tanks.
“We took Khalat Hadid within 45 minutes,” Abu Khaled said. “Then my guys ran away.” They ran away? That’s right. “‘It’s free,’ they told me,” that is, liberated. Apparently they mistook the fall of a village for the permanent seizure of one. Meanwhile, the other two units refused to enter their designated villages. “They said, ‘Ah, it’s too late, blah, blah,’” Abu Khaled recalled, in disgust. So they returned to Sarrin not so much in defeat as in indifference. Then the coalition started hitting the ISIS locations at 4 in the morning. Warplanes killed 23 of Abu Khaled’s men within a few minutes.