ISIS (I): Present at the Creation

Foreign Policy, 16.08.2016
Harald Doornbos (periodista holandés) y Jenan Moussa (reportero de Al Aan TV de Dubai)
  • The never-told-before story of the meeting that led to the creation of ISIS, as explained by an Islamic State insider.

Since its creation, we have learned about the Islami State from its enemies. Its story has largely been told by those fighting the group in Iraq and Syria, traumatized civilians who have escaped its brutal rule, and the occasional defector. That is about to change. This is the story of Abu Ahmad, a Syrian operative for the Islamic State who witnessed the group’s lightning expansion firsthand and spent months among its most notorious foreign fighters.

In this series of three articles, he provides unique insight into how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s political scheming paved the way for the Islamic State’s expansion into Syria, al Qaeda’s efforts to stem the group’s rise, and the terrifying weapons in the arsenal of the self-proclaimed “caliphate.” Some names and details have been omitted to protect Abu Ahmad.

Abu Ahmad never hesitated in his embrace of the Syrian uprising. Born in a northern Syrian city to a conservative and religious Sunni Arab family, he was a student when the revolt began in March 2011, and joined the protests against President Bashar al-Assad from day one.

“With excitement in our hearts we saw [the uprising in] Egypt happening, followed by the revolution in Libya,” he said. “We hoped the wind of change would not pass our country.”

When the uprising became a full-fledged civil war by mid-2012, Abu Ahmad decided to take up arms and fight. He joined a jihadi-leaning rebel group, whose members were mostly Syrians but also included some foreign fighters from Europe and Central Asia. The composition of the brigades was in flux then — every couple of months, Abu Ahmad’s group would either change its name or unite with other jihadi rebels. But then the groups began to consolidate: In Spring 2013, Abu Ahmad chose to side with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant when it officially expanded into Syria, as tensions escalated between the jihadi group and the Nusra Front. The group would go on to proclaim itself a worldwide caliphate in June 2014, assuming the name “Islamic State” to reflect its global ambitions. To this day, Abu Ahmad is a serving member in the organization, with unique insight into the group’s behavior and its history.

Over the course of our more than 15 meetings with Abu Ahmad, we questioned him intensively about his knowledge of the jihadi group and his bona fides as one of the “soldiers of the caliphate.” Over a period of 10 months, we spent more than 100 hours with him. He patiently answered our questions on everything from how he ended up with the Islamic State, how the organization is organized, and the identity of the European foreign fighters within the group. Our interviews would go on for six hours a day, in week-long stretches.

Abu Ahmad took a great personal risk in talking to us. Because he is still with the Islamic State, we had to deliberately obscure some details about his life to protect his identity.

Abu Ahmad agreed to speak to us, he explained, for several reasons. Although he is still with the Islamic State, he doesn’t agree with everything the outfit does. He is attracted to the organization because he views it as the strongest Sunni group in the region. However, he is disappointed that it “has become too extreme,” blaming it for doing such things as crucifying, burning, and drowning its opponents and those who violate its rules.

For example, Abu Ahmad objected to a punishment that the Islamic State implemented in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, where it put a cage in the middle of the city center, known as Freedom Square, to punish Syrian civilians guilty of minor crimes, such as selling cigarettes. The group, Abu Ahmad said, imprisoned Syrians in the cage for three days at a time, hanging a sign around their neck stating the crime that they had committed.

“Now the square is known as the Punishment Square,” he said. “I think this kind of harsh punishment is bad for us. It is making ISIS more feared than liked by Sunnis, which is not good at all.”

In the past, Abu Ahmad said, he had hoped the Islamic State would become “jihadi unifiers,” capable of bringing Sunni jihadis together under one banner. He admired the foreign fighters whom he knew, mainly young men from Belgium and the Netherlands who had traveled to Syria to fight jihad. They had all lived in rich and peaceful countries, and while tens of thousands of Syrians had paid large sums of money to be smuggled to Europe to escape the war, these jihadis voluntarily traveled in the exact opposite direction.

“These foreigners left their families, their houses, their lands and traveled all the way to help us here in Syria,” Abu Ahmad said. “So to support us they are truly sacrificing everything they have.”

But Abu Ahmad would soon sour on aspects of the jihadi group. First, the Islamic State has not brought jihadis together; on the contrary, tensions have risen with other groups, and he worried that “the rise of ISIS led to the breakup with the Nusra Front and the weakening of unified jihadi forces in Syria.”

Secondly, while some of the foreign fighters were men who led truly religious lives in Europe, he discovered another group that he took to thinking of as the “crazies.” These were mostly young Belgian and Dutch criminals of Moroccan descent, unemployed and from broken homes, who lived marginal lives in marginal suburbs of marginal cities. Most of these crazies had no idea about religion, and hardly any of them ever read the Quran. To them, fighting in Syria was either an adventure or a way to repent for their “sinful lives” in Europe’s bars and discos.

There was Abu Sayyaf, a jihadi from Belgium, who often talked about beheadings. He once asked his emir, Abu al-Atheer al Absi, if he could slaughter somebody. “I just want to carry a head,” Abu Sayyaf said. Locally he was known as al-thabah, or “the slayer.”

In war, the first victim is often the truth. The stories Abu Ahmad told us were so incredible, and so close to the seat of the Islamic State’s power, that we were determined to put his assertions to the test.

In order to do so, we set up a quiz for Abu Ahmad. He said that he knew many of the Dutch and Belgian fighters who had joined the Islamic State, so we prepared a list with roughly 50 photographs of jihadis from those countries who are known to have left for Syria. During a meeting with Abu Ahmad, we asked him to identify the men in the pictures.

Abu Ahmad’s answers confirmed that he had extensive knowledge about the European jihadis fighting for the Islamic State. In front of us — without access to the internet and with no outside help — Abu Ahmad went through the images, and correctly identified roughly 30 of the jihadis by name. In most cases, he would add some anecdotes about the fighter. For the other pictures, he said that he had not seen the people and did not know their names.

A behind-the-scenes photograph supplied by Abu Ahmad showing an Islamic State execution in the city of Palmyra.

A behind-the-scenes photograph supplied by Abu Ahmad showing an Islamic State execution in the city of Palmyra.

Abu Ahmad showed us private photos and videos on his laptop of some Dutch, Belgian, and Central Asian fighters in Syria, which are not posted online. The only way that he could have had these images was through deep, personal experience within the jihadi community.

Abu Ahmad also proved that he had behind-the-scenes access to some of the Islamic State’s most spectacular acts of violence. After the jihadi group captured Palmyra in 2015, Abu Ahmad paid a visit to the desert city to witness a Game of Thrones-like setting for executions of the group’s opponents. One day in July 2015, two Islamic State members from Austria and Germany executed two people who they claimed were Syrian Army soldiers on the ancient city’s great colonnade. This was one of many executions in Palmyra; on July 4, the Islamic State released a video showing the bloody spectacle of teenage fighters executing 25 alleged Syrian soldiers in the city’s amphitheater. 

Weeks before the official Islamic State video of the gruesome executions by the German and Austrian fighters went online, Abu Ahmad supplied us with a picture of the execution. The photograph not only shows the two prisoners moments before they are killed, but also shows two members of the Islamic State’s media unit capturing the horror scene. Never has the group published such a “behind-the-scenes” picture of one of its executions; it is not available online. The picture supplied by Abu Ahmad is truly unique — secretly taken by an insider.

Remarkably, one of the two cameramen in the photograph is Harry Sarfo, a German citizen who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. He said he subsequently became disillusioned with the group and fled back to Germany, where he is currently imprisoned. The New York Times profile of Sarfo claims that Islamic State members told Sarfo “to hold the group’s black flag and to walk again and again in front of the camera” as they filmed a propaganda video. The photograph supplied by Abu Ahmad, however, contradicts the narrative that Sarfo played a passive role in this production: While the video only shows him holding the black flag, the photograph shows that he was one of the two cameramen filming the killers who are about to execute the two Syrians.

Abu Ahmad has not just watched the growing war between Syria’s jihadis from afar — he witnessed its beginning up close. The split between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was one of the most epochal events of the Syrian war; it resulted in a massive divide within the anti-Assad ranks and signaled the rise of a new jihadi force, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that has come to overshadow al Qaeda.

Abu Ahmad had a front-row seat to how the jihadi world’s biggest divorce unfolded.

The caravan of the caliphate

In mid-April 2013, Abu Ahmad noticed a dark red-brown car pull up in front of the headquarters of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen (MSM), a Syrian jihadi group led by Abu al-Atheer, in the northern Syrian town of Kafr Hamra.

One of Abu Ahmad’s friends, a jihadi commander, walked up to him and whispered in his ear: “Look carefully inside the vehicle.”

The car was nothing special: not new enough to attract attention but not a jalopy, either. It wasn’t armored and it did not have a license plate.

Inside the vehicle sat four men. Abu Ahmad recognized none of them. The man sitting behind the driver wore a folded black balaclava like a cap. On top of it was a black shawl, falling over his shoulders. He had a long beard. Except for the driver, all occupants held small machine guns on their laps.

Abu Ahmad could see that there was no extra security at the gate of the headquarters. As usual, just two armed fighters stood guard in front of the entrance. The internet connection at the headquarters was working normally. To him, there didn’t seem to be any sign that today was different from any other day.

But after the four men got out of the car and disappeared into the headquarters, the same jihadi commander walked up to him again and whispered “You have just seen Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.”

Since 2010, Baghdadi had been the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al Qaeda’s affiliate in that war-torn country. According to Baghdadi’s own account, he sent Abu Muhammad al-Jolani as his representative to Syria in 2011, instructing him to set up the Nusra Front to wage jihad there. Until the beginning of 2013, ISI and Nusra worked together. But Baghdadi wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to combine al Qaeda’s Iraqi and Syrian affiliates to create one outfit that stretched across both countries — with him, of course, as the leader.

Every morning, for five days in a row, the red-brown car dropped off Baghdadi and his deputy, Haji Bakr, at the headquarters of MSM in Kafr Hamra. Before sunset, the same car with the same driver would pick them up from the headquarters and take Baghdadi to a secret location for the night. The next morning, the car would come back to drop off Baghdadi and Bakr.

Over the course of those five days, inside the headquarters of MSM, Baghdadi talked extensively to a group of important jihadi leaders in Syria. These were some of the world’s most wanted men, all gathered in one room, sitting on mattresses and pillows on the ground. They were served breakfast and lunch: roasted or grilled chicken and french fries, tea, and soft drinks to wash it down. Baghdadi, the most wanted man in the world, drank either Pepsi or Mirinda, an orange-flavored soda.

In addition to Baghdadi, the participants included Abu al-Atheer, the emir of MSM; Abu Mesaab al-Masri, an Egyptian jihadi commander; Omar al Shishani, a leading Chechen jihadi who had come to Syria from Georgia; Abu al-Waleed al-Libi, a jihadi leader from Libya who had come to Syria; Abed al-Libi, an emir in the Libyan Katibat al-Battar group; two Nusra intelligence chiefs; and Haji Bakr, Baghdadi’s second in command.

Abu Ahmad was fascinated by the congregation of so many senior commanders. During breaks in the talks, he would walk around the headquarters, speaking to people who attended the meeting. Abu Ahmad was full of questions: Why did Baghdadi come from Iraq to Syria? Why did all these commanders and emirs meet with him? And what was so important that Baghdadi himself discussed for days on end?

The answer to Abu Ahmad’s questions could be found in a speech made by Baghdadi, shortly before the Kafr Hamra meeting. On April 8, 2013, Baghdadi announced that his organization had expanded into Syria. All jihadi factions there — including Nusra — had to submit to his control. “So we declare while relying on Allah: The cancellation of the name Islamic State of Iraq and the cancellation of the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and gathering them under one name, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham,” he intoned.

“The sheikh is here to convince everybody to abandon Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Jolani,” one of the participants in the talks told Abu Ahmad. “Instead, everybody should join him and unite under the banner of ISIS, which soon will become a state.”

The Islamic State's fighters in Syria (from left to right): Abu al-Atheer, Abu Ahmad’s “emir”; Abu Shishan al-Belgiki, a Belgian citizen of Chechen origin; Abu Tamima, a French jihadist; and Omar al-Shishani, an infamous Chechen jihadist who rose to be one of the top commanders in the organization.

The al Qaeda allegiance lie

Baghdadi, however, faced one big problem in realizing his goal. The assembled emirs explained to the ISI chief that most of them had sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s chosen successor and the leader of al Qaeda. How could they suddenly abandon Zawahiri and al Qaeda and switch to Baghdadi?

According to Abu Ahmad, they asked Baghdadi during the meeting: Have you pledged allegiance to Zawahiri?

Baghdadi told them that he had indeed pledged allegiance, but hadn’t declared it publicly, per Zawahiri’s request. But Baghdadi assured the men that he was acting under the command of the al Qaeda leader.

The jihadi leaders had no way to check if this claim was true. Zawahiri was perhaps the most difficult person in the world to contact — he had not been seen in public in years, and is still in hiding, most probably somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

With Zawahiri unable to mediate the dispute himself, the jihadi leaders had to make up their own minds. If Baghdadi acted on behalf of Zawahiri, there was no doubt they had to follow the order to join ISIS. But if Baghdadi was freelancing, his plan to take over Nusra and other groups was an act of mutiny. It would divide al Qaeda and create fitna, or strife, between all the jihadi armies.

So the commanders gave Baghdadi a conditional allegiance. “They said to him: ‘If it is true what you are saying, then we will support you,’” Abu Ahmad told us.

Baghdadi also spoke about the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. It was important, he said, because Muslims needed to have a dawla, or state. Baghdadi wanted Muslims to have their own territory, from where they could work and eventually conquer the world.

The participants differed greatly about the idea of creating a state in Syria. Throughout its existence, al Qaeda had worked in the shadows as a nonstate actor. It did not openly control any territory, instead committing acts of violence from undisclosed locations. Remaining a clandestine organization had a huge advantage: It was very difficult for the enemy to find, attack, or destroy them. But by creating a state, the jihadi leaders argued during the meeting, it would be extremely easy for the enemy to find and attack them. A state with a defined territory and institutions was a sitting duck.

Abu al-Atheer, the MSM emir, had already told his fighters before the arrival of Baghdadi that he was very much against declaring a state. “Some people are talking about this unwise idea,” Atheer told his men. “What kind of madman declares a state during this time of war?!”

Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the Chechen jihadis, was equally hesitant about the idea of creating a state, said Abu Ahmad. There was a reason why Osama bin Laden had been hiding all these years — to avoid getting killed by the Americans. Declaring a state would be an open invitation to the enemy to attack them.

Despite the hesitation of many, Baghdadi persisted. Creating and running a state was of paramount importance to him. Up to this point, jihadis ran around without controlling their own territory. Baghdadi argued for borders, a citizenry, institutions, and a functioning bureaucracy. Abu Ahmad summed up Baghdadi’s pitch: “If such an Islamic state could survive its initial phase, it was there to stay forever.”

Baghdadi had another persuasive argument: A state would offer a home to Muslims from all over the world. Because al Qaeda had always lurked in the shadows, it was difficult for ordinary Muslims to sign up. But an Islamic state, Baghdadi argued, could attract thousands, even millions, of like-minded jihadis. It would be a magnet. “Baghdadi and other jihadi leaders,” said Abu Ahmad, “would compare this to Prophet Muhammad’s migration, or hijrah, from Mecca to Medina to escape prosecution.”

The assembled jihadi leaders extensively discussed how a state would function, how it would deal with its population, what its aim would be, and its stance toward religious minorities.

After days of talking, every participant — including initial skeptics Atheer, Shishani, and the two Nusra Front intelligence officials — agreed with Baghdadi’s plan. The only condition they wanted from him was this: The newly created state must be declared in full cooperation with Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, another jihadi rebel group. Baghdadi agreed to these terms.

The next step was, on the spot, to pledge allegiance.

One by one they stood in front of Baghdadi, shaking his hand and repeating the following words: “I pledge my allegiance to the Emir of the Faithful, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Qurashi, for compliance and obedience, in vigor and impulsion, abjectness and abundance, and in favoring his preference to mine, and not contending the orders of his trustees, unless I witness manifest disbelief.”

Then Baghdadi asked each commander to bring in some of his fighters. Abu al-Atheer, the MSM commander, invited Belgian, Dutch, and French fighters who were under his command to the occasion. Among the foreigners who personally met Baghdadi and pledged allegiance were Abu Sayyaf, known as “the slayer”; Abu Zubair, a Belgian jihadi; Abu Tameema al-Fransi, a French jihadi killed in July 2014; and Abu Shishan-al-Belgiki, a handsome blond jihadi with a Chechen background wanted in Belgium, his home country, for possible participation in beheadings.

Later that day, the Europeans — who until recently mostly had been small-time criminals in Amsterdam, Brussels, or Paris — enthusiastically told everybody how they pledged bayah to Baghdadi.

Many others followed suit. Our narrator, Abu Ahmad, would offer bayah two days later to Abu al-Atheer.

The switch from ISI to ISIS meant that all groups or factions who had joined ISIS would cease to exist in name. For the Nusra Front and its leader, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, this development was a potential disaster; it could mean the end of their influence in the world’s most important jihadi battleground. Jolani ordered Nusra fighters not to join ISIS but wait until al-Zawahiri published a ruling on who should lead the jihad in Syria.

A large majority of Nusra commanders and fighters in Syria didn’t listen. When Abu Ahmad visited Aleppo only weeks later, some 90 percent of the Nusra fighters in the city had already joined ISIS.

Baghdadi’s new soldiers ordered the few remaining Nusra Front loyalists out of the al-Oyoun Hospital, which had been until then the main Nusra base in the city. “You must leave; we are from al-dawla [the state] and we hold a clear majority among the fighters,” they told the Nusra men, according to Abu Ahmad. “So this headquarters now belongs to us.”

Everywhere in northern Syria, ISIS seized Nusra headquarters, ammunition caches, and weapons stores. Amazingly, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria was suddenly fighting for its existence. A new age had begun — the age of the Islamic State.

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