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‘I Am Only Looking Up to Paradise’
The French government doesn't have to worry about Abu Mariam coming home from the jihad in Syria. He wants to go to heaven.
KASSAB, Syria — The path from Abu Mariam’s childhood home in Tolouse, France, to this mansion-turned-jihadist-safe house in northwestern Syria has been surprisingly quick. As an adolescent, he drank, took drugs, and had sex. To escape the pressures of the rough neighborhood where he grew up, he converted to Islam at age 19. Five years later, he carries an AK-47 and patrols the mountains on behalf of the Islamic State (IS).
We interviewed in French the man who goes by the nom de guerre "Abu Mariam" at the house he shares with a 28-year-old Saudi jihadist overlooking the Kassab mountains, in an Armenian town not far from the Alawite stronghold of Latakia. When we talked to Abu Mariam, in June, the jihadists were trying to take control of the strategically important territory — it sits between the Mediterranean, government-controlled territory, and Turkey — from the government’s forces.
The 24-year-old, French-born construction engineer sported the typical jihadist uniform: camouflage pants, a long shirt, a beard down to his chest. He says he is popular with the local population because he took on the dangerous job of patrolling the village’s perimeter. When he’s not on patrol or praying, he’s in shooting practice. He says he’s never been happier.
Abu Mariam is only one of the estimated 3,000 European fighters in Syria and Iraq right now — up to 500 of them from France. He isn’t only working with the Islamic State, though. He has also fought alongside the Nusra Front. He’s a low-level fighter but is trusted by his commanders, thanks to his zealotry. He sometimes works as an unofficial ambassador for the Islamic State, making contact and trying to build bridges with other jihadist groups.
Moving to Syria has been a dream come true for him. "Now I am leading the best life, and I am so satisfied with it. Life is all about dignity and pride, which is something I am doing now," he said.
"In the beginning of 2013, the Syrian crisis started, and I had already heard that the Levant is a holy place, recommended for protection by the Prophet (may prayer and peace be upon him). It was then that I flew to Turkey and then on into Syria," Abu Mariam says. With nothing but a few family photos and about 250 euros, he went to the Syrian border pretending to be an aid worker. He refuses to talk about how he linked up with the jihadist militants once he arrived in Syria.
For Abu Mariam, the Syrian conflict is not a war, but a test of his faith and devotion to Islam. Jihad is the ultimate, purifying expression of faith, culminating in martyrdom and heavenly rewards. "I am but a contribution to the conquest of Islam," Abu Mariam says, "and I also look forward to reach[ing] paradise via jihad for the cause of Allah. We [Muslims] are all promised paradise because we listened to the words of Allah. Islam is a really great religion. It includes all aspects of life. It gives meaning to human life."
Abu Mariam’s voice cracks when he discusses his religion. "I have devoted my entire life to jihad," he says. He claims that he is wounded, though his body doesn’t show any signs of it. "I am only looking up to paradise; is there anything better than this?"
"We believe in the afterlife," Abu Mariam explains. "A blissful life in the vicinity of Allah. Martyrdom is probably the shortest way to paradise, which is not something I was told. I did witness my martyred friends, noticing contentment on their faces and the smell of musk coming out of their corpses, unlike those of the dead disbelievers, the enemies of Allah, whose faces only exhibit ugliness, and whose corpses smell worse than pigs."
"I’ll give you the example of my friend, Abu Ahmed al-Maghrabi, who was martyred by my side," he says. "From night till morning, his face still wore a bright smile and his corpse smelled pleasantly. How can we ever cast doubt? The only thing left for us to go through in order to reach paradise is death. We are praying Allah for victory and then martyrdom. We will conquer them, God willing, and we will liberate Syria from oppression. God willing, one day, Muslims will gain possession of this land."
We asked if the deaths of his friends upset him. "I am not at all sad. I am rather extremely happy, a happiness that will double up once I get martyred and meet my friends. Thirty-seven of my friends have been martyred in 10 days, and I swear that I did not see anyone of them dying without a smile on his face!"
When Abu Mariam was 20, he moved to Morocco to learn Arabic and study the Quran. That’s where he met his first wife. (He married a second last year in Syria.) His first wife still lives in Morocco with his daughter. He misses them, but they don’t keep in touch. He doesn’t allow his wife in Morocco to use the Internet because he fears that somebody could hack into her computer and see her. (He does talk to his mother in France on Skype, though.)
Still, he has no plans to return home. Even if he survives the Syrian conflict, he worries he is now on a terrorist watch list in several Western countries. He says he tried to sell his French passport in Syria, but couldn’t find a buyer. Abu Mariam believes that if he returns to France or Morocco he’ll be arrested. But that doesn’t concern him. "How could I leave such a glorious life and return to the animalistic one? Never!" he says.
Life back in France didn’t satisfy him, anyway. "I do not live at my own pace in the Western countries because they are racist and they do not believe in religious freedom," he says. "They intervene in my affairs and even prevent me from exercising my religious rights."
"[Europeans] sin for 24 hours and seven days a week, but they deprive me of a five-minute prayer. For example, in France, women are not allowed to wear niqab, which is one of the Islamic dictations. Every single woman caught wearing it is fined 150 euros, whereas if you decide to go out naked, nobody will utter a word about this, claiming it to be ‘freedom.’ It has turned into a war with Islam; they have a problem with it. It even became a war between Muslims and non-Muslims. All we want is religious freedom."
His mind turns to his family. "My family and my wives are able to afford life after I am dead. Allah will never give up on us because he answers our needs, not me. I do not want my wife to work; I don’t want her to experience any exhaustion. She is a queen; every Muslim wife is a queen! And my wives will get married after my death, God willing. They have the right to, if they ever consider doing it. It is something that Islam grants them. The wife is a human being, not an angel, and she needs a man to protect her and love her for the rest of her life."
"But you never know," Abu Mariam adds. "Allah may grant me the chance to return to them and die in my house."
Vera Mironova is a visiting fellow at Harvard University. Twitter: @vera_mironov