The Jihadi Who Came in From the Cold
What one man’s journey from member of the Islamic State’s feared intelligence service to disillusioned defector tells us about the brutal extremist group.
At 22 years old, Abu Ibrahim looks like a typical university student in Europe or the United States. He is a tall and handsome, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He’s also clean-shaven, with a brand new haircut — a departure from his appearance last year, when he sported long hair and a bushy beard while serving as a security official with the Islamic State, tasked with maintaining the group’s brutal rule in Syria.
From October 2014 to May 2015, Abu Ibrahim worked in the Islamic State’s intelligence offices in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. He defected from the group after witnessing its brutal methods up close, and now lives as a refugee in a southern Turkish city near the Syrian border. His story provides a window into the qualities that the jihadi group looks for in its recruits and Abu Ibrahim’s transformation from valued operative to someone ultimately disillusioned by the Islamic State.
Abu Ibrahim is one of five children from a middle-class family living in the Raqqa countryside of northern Syria. When he was old enough, he attended university in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, where he studied computer science. He had been finishing up his first year there when the revolution began.
His father was afraid for him. “There were a lot of demonstrations in universities in Deir Ezzor, so he was worried that I would get arrested,” recalled Abu Ibrahim. His family — like many families in his village — did not support the revolution because of the Assad regime’s brutal repression of the uprising in the 1980s. They insisted he transfer to a safer place — a town with good universities but less revolutionary activity.
Abu Ibrahim himself did not have any opinion about the revolution until the regime started arresting his classmates and friends. That’s when the hate began. “One day, I saw three cars stopped near the house of our neighbor,” he said, describing his time in Deir Ezzor. “I understood that that house had a revolutionist, but when I saw them arresting the kid who is only 15 years old, things started to fire up inside [me].”
When it became impossible for Abu Ibrahim to continue his studies in Deir Ezzor, he moved back home, expecting that he’d be there just a little longer than the usual holidays. But while he was there, the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front and Free Syrian Army-affiliated units took Raqqa, and he suddenly found himself in “liberated” territory. After witnessing the violence in Deir Ezzor, Abu Ibrahim was glad his area was free from the regime.
There was not much left to do in war-wracked Raqqa, so Abu Ibrahim started spending time with some friends who had joined al-Nusra Front, discussing the glorious history of the jihadis. Most of those stories were about fighters like Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, one of al Qaeda’s founders and a mentor to Osama bin Laden, but Abu Ibrahim was most impressed by accounts of the al-Nusra Front bombings of government buildings in Damascus in 2012. It seemed to him that al-Nusra Front was making a difference. “I was seriously thinking about joining them,” he said.
But before he could join, the Islamic State took full control of Raqqa, and al-Nusra Front had to retreat. Some of his friends left with the group, but others joined the Islamic State. Abu Ibrahim also stayed and learned more about them. “Daesh friends were telling me about the difference between al-Nusra Front and Daesh, but it was not clear,” he said, using a derogatory acronym for the Islamic State. “So I started attending Daesh lectures.”
The fact that Abu Ibrahim openly referred to the group as Daesh, instead of al-dawlah, meaning “the state,” is a sign of his current bitterness toward the group. The term is used as a sign of contempt and disrespect toward the Islamic State, employed by its enemies to deny its religious and political legitimacy.
But back then, Abu Ibrahim was on his way to becoming a true believer. In his classes on Islamic belief and Islamic law, Abu Ibrahim learned that anyone who does not support the Islamic State is considered kafir — an infidel. Even members of al-Nusra Front were not Islamic enough because, according to the Islamic State, they did not care about the rules of Islam, were lenient with civilians, and were not good fighters.
“That sounded convincing enough,” Abu Ibrahim said, and in October 2014, after finishing a course of lectures, he officially joined the group. His initial months with the group, where he was stationed between Raqqa and Aleppo, went well.
Since Abu Ibrahim had not fought with any other group before joining the Islamic State, he was considered an ideal member. This was important to the jihadis leading the group: They are suspicious of fighters switching from other rebel brigades, as the fact they once fought for other groups calls into question their determination to build a truly “Islamic” state. He also had very good relations with the group’s local leaders, known as emirs, so they invited him to work in the Islamic State’s security office in Raqqa. It was the most important institution in the militant group, charged with controlling territory seized by the group and ensuring the security of the Islamic State’s institutions and leadership.
“I am not sure why they chose me,” Abu Ibrahim said, “but it did not matter — it was a good place to work.”
In addition to the power that he was able to wield working in this institution, he also received a monthly salary of $250. At first, his training in computer science landed him a job checking the computers of arrested and wanted people for deleted files, messages, and emails. But it wasn’t long before he was moved back to Deir Ezzor to work. There, he was tasked with collecting human intelligence — talking to people, listening to what residents were saying, and occasionally arresting them.
“I used to go to the barbershops in town and listen while waiting in the line,” Abu Ibrahim said. “Also, I went to the mosques after prayers and listened to what people were talking about while I pretended to be reading the Quran.”
Meanwhile, Abu Ibrahim’s involvement with the Islamic State was destroying his ties to his family. Until today, his father does not support the revolution, and none of his siblings are fighting in the war. “My father told me that he would do anything if I would leave,” Abu Ibrahim said. “He would even help me find a good girl to marry and pay for the wedding, but I did not care.”
Abu Ibrahim refused to abandon his comrades-in-arms.
“The thing I enjoyed most in Daesh was the friendship between fighters,” he said. “There were groups of Americans, French, [and] Arabs, but they really cared about each other, and there was no discrimination.”
Interestingly, the basis for that bond was not just religious belief. Although there were some very religious fighters in the Islamic State, there were many people who joined for money and, according to Abu Ibrahim, “would have converted to Christianity if it paid well.”
While the presumption is that most Islamic State fighters are religious zealots, Abu Ibrahim’s answer suggests that the reality might be more complex. Many people, he argued, joined the jihadi group not because they are true believers, but out of desperation. In some cases, Syrian members of the Islamic State fought for years with Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups — only to become disillusioned when those efforts and sacrifices failed. The Islamic State offered these men a Faustian bargain — to beat Assad, Syrians would not only need to accept financial support from the group but also its ideology. Abu Ibrahim didn’t care what banner fighters fought under, as long as they were fighting against the regime — and winning — so he joined.
But Abu Ibrahim was deeply troubled by what he saw after joining the Islamic State. He was not happy with how it treated local civilians. The group’s fighters — especially the foreigners — dealt with local people as if they were the lowest possible class. “I hated it,” Abu Ibrahim said, “and I hated that local people hated me because I was with Daesh.”
He began to realize that even though he and the Islamic State had a common enemy, he did not agree with their basic philosophy. He contended that a lot of Syrian fighters with the group share the same opinion, but cannot do anything to stop its abuses. The Syrians who joined the group, he said, frequently altered their noms de guerre to prevent civilians from remembering them “because they are afraid of what will happen to them after the war.”
Then the Islamic State arrested members of al-Nusra Front, put them in prison in Raqqa, and then executed them in al-Sa’aa Square. These were Abu Ibrahim friends — some of them whom he had known even before their lives were transformed by the war.
“I could not stand it,” Abu Ibrahim said. “And once I saw my friend from [al-Nusra Front] being beheaded, I knew I had to leave.”
But deciding to leave the Islamic State and actually leaving were two very different things. Islamic State fighters caught trying to escape were killed immediately. Abu Ibrahim realized that defecting would require a detailed plan, particularly to get through the jihadi group’s checkpoints on the way out of its territory. He eventually got himself a fake civilian identification card and was able to make the dangerous trip successfully, finally crossing the border into Turkey.
Now, Abu Ibrahim lives in the Turkish city of Urfa. He is thinking about continuing his studies — but with so many educated Syrians currently out of work, he wonders what the point of it would be. He does not keep in touch with anyone from the Islamic State anymore, but he also hasn’t made any new friends. “Here, I am not scared for my life,” he said. “I am just really bored.”
He is not scared of the Islamic State’s retaliation, and does not expect them to try to exact retribution on him for his defection, as long as he stays in Turkey. However, due to the Turkish government’s decision to deepen its coordination with the United States in the war against the Islamic State and its crackdown on jihadis in the country, he’s keeping a low profile these days.
When asked about the possibility of returning to fighting, Abu Ibrahim does not even consider it. “I am just sick of fighting,” he said. The experience with the Islamic State appears to have sapped any religiosity or political conviction from him. “I do not drink,” Abu Ibrahim says, “but I also do not pray.”
Abu Ibrahim is trying to transition back to normal life, but it’s not easy. With the Islamic State, he said, “fighting becomes your ideology.” Now, he must find something else to live for.
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Vera Mironova is a visiting scholar in the Harvard University economics department.