The Metamorphosis of an Islamic State Warrior

Meet Abdelaziz Kuwan, a nice young man from Bahrain who went to Syria to fight Assad. Before long he was raping girls and beheading men.

Mideast Syria Al-Qaida Divisions
FILE - This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. The past year, ISIL _ has taken over swaths of territory in Syria, particularly in the east. It has increasingly clashed with other factions, particularly an umbrella group called the Islamic Front and with Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, the group that Ayman al-Zawahri declared last year to be al-Qaida’s true representative in Syria. That fighting has accelerated the past month. (AP Photo/militant website, File)

In late 2011, Abdelaziz Kuwan approached his Syrian uncle to connect him to Riad al-Asaad, a colonel in the Syrian Air Force and one of the earliest military defectors from the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Abdelaziz, a 16-year-old teenager from Bahrain, wanted to join the armed rebellion in Syria, but his parents forbade him from going. So he defied them.

In early 2012, he flew first to Istanbul and then, as so many other foreign fighters have done, took a 13-hour bus ride to the southern Turkish border town of Reyhanli. From there, he crossed into the northern countryside of the Syrian province of Aleppo, which had by then completely fallen into the hands of the armed anti-Assad rebellion. Abdelaziz fought for moderate rebel factions for several weeks before deeming them too corrupt and ineffective. Then he migrated through various Islamist brigades, joining first Ahrar al-Sham and then Jabhat al-Nusra, which later revealed itself to be the al Qaeda franchise in Syria. Having earned a reputation as a fearless and religiously devout fighter, Abdelaziz nonetheless grew disenchanted with his Islamist comrades and faced pressure from his family to return to Bahrain. He did at the end of 2012. Once home, Abdelaziz’s mother promptly confiscated his passport.

“I walk in the streets [of Bahrain] and I feel imprisoned,” Abdelaziz told the authors a year later, still pining for his days as a holy warrior. “I feel tied up…. This world means nothing to me. I want to be free. I want to go back. People are giving their lives, that’s the honorable life.”

Abdelaziz’s statement was eerily reminiscent of that made by another man, half a world away, who also found his way to the Syrian jihad. Mohammed Emwazi, a Kuwaiti-born resident of London better known to the world as “Jihadi John,” has gained global infamy for his British-accented tirades to Western governments before executing Islamic State (IS) hostages such as James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning, and Peter Kassig. But back in 2010, British counterterrorism officials detained him and prevented him from leaving the country. “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London,” he wrote in an email at the time. “

It is men very much like Abdelaziz and Emwazi who have conquered an expanse of land in the Middle East roughly equivalent to the size of Great Britain. Roughly 1,000 of their number conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which was guarded by as many as 30,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers and policemen — and who vanished in the face of the IS advance, forfeiting tens of millions of dollars in American-made Humvees and Abrams tanks. If one hopes to understand the Islamic State, one must start by understanding the men who form the ranks of its fighters.

Abdelaziz’s family had moved to Bahrain from eastern Syria in the 1980s. His parents provided him with the means to lead a decent life. “His father raised him well,” one relative recalled. “He did not make him need anyone and wanted him to be of a high social status.” The relative added that Abdelaziz was “quiet,” “refined,” and “always behaved like a man.”

Abdelaziz stayed in Bahrain for three months before he managed to persuade his mother to give him back his passport. He left for Syria three days later. Once he arrived, Abdelaziz joined the organization then still known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which was rising in prominence as one of the most disciplined and well-organized jihadist groups in Syria. Abdelaziz later said that he made the decision to join the group after speaking with “some of the brothers” in Syria via Skype. His prior experience with other Islamist factions ideologically similar to IS was an advantage in joining one that was dominated by foreign fighters.

Abdelaziz rose through the ranks of the organization, first becoming a coordinator among local emirs and other rebel groups, then delivering messages and oral agreements on behalf of his leader. When it seized enormous swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014 — and rebranded itself as the Islamic State, unchained from the borders of either Iraq or Greater Syria — Abdelaziz was promoted to a security official overseeing three towns near the Syrian-Iraqi border town of Albu Kamal, long a portal between the two countries for men like him.

In IS, Abdelaziz discovered new things about himself. He learned that he was violent, brutal, and determined. He beheaded enemies. He kept a Yazidi girl in his house as a sabiyya, or sex slave. She was his prize for his participation in battles against the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces and other Kurdish militias in Sinjar, Iraq, near the Syrian border. According to IS’s propaganda magazine, Dabiq, one-fifth of the sex slaves taken from Sinjar was distributed to IS’s central leadership to do with as it so chose; the remainder was divided amongst the rank and file, like Abdelaziz, as the spoils of war.

Abdelaziz showed us a picture of his sabiyya. She was in her late teens. She “belonged” to Abdelaziz for about a month before she was handed off to other IS commanders.

Being a rapist didn’t seem to impinge on what Abdelaziz considered his moral obligations as a pious Muslim. One of his fellow warriors said that during news broadcasts Abdelaziz would cover the television screen to avoid seeing the faces of female presenters. He fervently quoted the Quran and hadith, the oral sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, and spoke pompously about al-Dawla — “The State” — the term IS uses to refer to its project.

Asked what he would do if his father were a member of Jabhat al-Nusra and the two met in battle, Abdelaziz replied promptly: “I would kill him. Abu Obeida [one of the companions of the Prophet] killed his father in battle. Anyone who extends his hand to harm al-Dawla will have his hand chopped off.”

Before he went off to join the jihad in Syria, Abdelaziz had been a theological novice who barely finished a year of Islamic studies at a religious academy in Saudi Arabia. He had dropped out of high school in Bahrain and traveled to the city of Medina to study sharia, Islamic law. In school, according to one of his family members, he avoided non-devout peers and mingled primarily with hardline students. Soon he started to resort to “jihadi speak,” constantly referring to the dismal conditions in which Sunni Muslims in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia live.

In Syria, his metamorphosis continued on the battlefield. He called himself Abu al-Mu’tasim, after the eighth Abbasid caliph, who is known for leading an army to avenge the insulting of a woman by Byzantine soldiers. Abdelaziz said he wanted to emulate the Abbasid caliph in supporting helpless Muslims in Syria and Iraq. Even though he was appointed as a security official, he always looked for any chance to fight on the front lines. “I cannot sit down,” he told us. “I came here seeking martyrdom, and I have chased it everywhere.”

It took the world too long to come to grips with the brutal, restless energy stirring in the foot soldiers of the Islamic State. Five months before the fall of Mosul, President Barack Obama had dismissed IS in an interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick as the “jayvee squad” of terrorists. With the capture of Mosul last summer, the junior varsity squad had razed the berm barriers separating the modern nation-states of Syria and Iraq that had been in place for almost a century. It declared that this physical and symbolic act of recombination was the end of a British-French colonial compact that had helped draw the map of the contemporary region even before the official end of World War I. There would no longer be any Western fingerprint on that map — there would only be the caliphate. Eventually, intoned IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, if Muslims were strong, the caliphate would again reach Spain and even conquer Rome.

On Oct. 23, 2014, Abdelaziz’s story finally came to an end. He was shot dead by a Syrian regime sniper in the al-Hawiqa district of Deir Ezzor. Fighters customarily write a will when they join a group, to be given to their families only after they die. Abdelaziz had addressed his to his mother: “As you know and watch on television channels, the infidels, and rafida [a bigoted term used to describe the Shia] have gone too far in their oppression, killing, torture and violations of Muslims’ honor. I, by God, cannot see my Muslim sisters and brothers being killed, while some of them appeal to Muslims and find nobody coming to their help, and I sit without doing anything…. And the most important reason is that I longed for heaven, near the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, and I wanted to ask for forgiveness for you in the afterlife.”

The stories of thousands of men like Abdelaziz, however, are poised to continue — and haunt the world for years to come.

This article is adapted from the book, ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.

AP Photo/militant website

 Twitter: @michaeldweiss

Hassan Hassan is the director of the Non-State Actors in Fragile Environments Program at the Center for Global Policy and a co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. Follow him on Twitter at: @hxhassan.

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