One Fighter’s Recruitment – And Escape – From ISIS

How a former fighter lost both his brothers: one to Bashar Al-Assad's forces and the other to the Islamic State

ISIS fighters train in Raqqa in November
ISIS fighters train in Raqqa in November
Yasser Allawi and Jalal Zein al-Deen

In most ways, Abu Khadija, a 39-year-old Syrian, is not remarkable. He used to making a living as a salesman in a men’s clothing shop in Damascus. He has four children â€" two boys and two girls â€" and a wife he loves dearly. The unremarkable man of medium build with a light beard and kind, unassuming eyes, looks like many of the shopkeepers in the capital’s renowned Hamidiyah marketplace.

But in one way Abu Khadija is quite remarkable indeed. He is among the few former fighters of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) who managed to leave the group alive. The radical extremist group is famous for executing fighters who try to leave, as a warning to others.

This is his story.

Like many Syrians, Abu Khadija â€" who asked us not to use his real name for security reasons â€" was enthralled by the protests that erupted in the country on the tail end of the Arab Spring and decided to return to his hometown of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria to join the demonstrators calling for an end to the autocratic rule of Bashar al-Assad.

When the government brutally cracked down on the demonstrators, Abu Khadija said he came to the conclusion that peaceful protests were no match for the regime. Along with two of his brothers, Abu Abdullah and Abu Abdul Malik, Abu Khadija joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group consisting mostly of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers intent on bringing down the Assad regime, as soon as it was formed in 2011.

“When the security forces fired on the demonstrators, we had no other choice but to defend ourselves,” he said. “At that point, the revolutionary work turned from chanting against the regime to defending ourselves. The only response we had was to fight back. It might have been the wrong answer, but it was the only one that helped us survive their bullets and keep the revolution alive.”

In battles with the government, his brother Abu Abdul Malik was killed. He said he continued to fight for the FSA to seek revenge for the death of his older brother.

Abu Khadija fought with the FSA, he said, until ISIS took over most of Deir Ezzor province in the summer of 2013. The group gave the local fighters a choice â€" join us or die. He and his surviving brother Abu Abdullah pledged their allegiance to ISIS and took up arms for the group.

“All we wanted was to bring the regime down,” he said. “When ISIS took control of the area, my remaining brother and I decided to pledge allegiance and fight with them because we did not want to leave the area, so that we could take revenge for our brother. We had heard that the fighters of ISIS were very fierce, and we believed that they would be able to defeat the Syrian regime.”

Abu Khadija and his younger brother were put through a “repentance” program. They had to declare their non-recognition of all Syria’s other armed factions, admit to apostasy and embrace Islam all over again.

When their repentance was accepted, they went through a “rehabilitation” program centered on ISIS’s “principles of Islam” and Islamic Sharia law and on the necessity of fighting and jihad. Those who passed the repentance program but did not join the rehabilitation program were called “the public.”

“My brother and I met the ISIS’s general ruler of Deir Ezzor, Abu Dhar the Iraqi, and pledged our allegiance,” Abu Khadija said. “We then attended a 21-­day repentance program in a closed camp in the city of al­-Mayadeen, followed by a one-month Sharia program.”

He said the “rehabilitation” program consisted of the study of Islamic scholars from the religion’s Salafi branch, a highly conservative, fundamentalist strain of Islam, such as the 14th-century thinker Ibn Taymiyyah, who once issued a fatwa declaring jihad, or holy war, against Mongols who had claimed to have converted to Islam but did not follow strict Sharia law.

After completing the Sharia program, the men were given the choice to either return to their normal lives and be part of “the public” or enroll in military training. “The military training prepares the participants to fight â€" to undertake jihad â€" in any territory in the world. In addition to fitness training, fighters learn how to use weapons and choose a particular specialization,” Abu Khadija said.

Still believing they would help topple the Assad regime, the brothers chose to fight. They went through 60 days of military training in a camp next to al­-Shadadi city, about halfway along the road between Deir Ezzor and Hassakeh to the north. The pair quickly became group leaders, training heavily with Kalashnikov rifles and other light weapons.

Abu Khadija said life improved for his family after he joined ISIS.

“Those who pledged allegiance to ISIS were granted discounts on food and other goods,” said Um Khadija, Abu Khadija’s wife, saying they paid only 60 Syrian pounds $0.25 for a loaf of bread, while others paid 105 pounds $0.48. “We also got free electricity service, while the ‘the public’ had to pay around 8,000 Syrian pounds $36 per month to get generator service.”

However, as ISIS tightened its grip on Deir Ezzor, it began executing people it accused of apostasy or communicating with the FSA. It also executed military leaders deemed to be a potential future threat, although most of them had already pledged allegiance to ISIS.

A short time later ISIS accused Abu Khadija’s surviving brother, Abu Abdullah, of still being connected with the FSA and executed him. Abu Khadija also said ISIS may have viewed his brother, whom he said was a fierce fighter, as a threat to their leadership.

“When I heard over the walkie-­talkie that my brother had been killed, I ran to the field hospital. At the beginning, the nurses prevented me from seeing him, but I didn’t listen. I stormed my way in to see his body. I realized then that ISIS had killed him: He was shot in the back of his head â€" the way many other former Free Syrian Army fighters have been killed. My brother was killed because he was courageous and strong. When they killed my brother, I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.

Abu Khadija soon began to fear for his own life, worried he would face the same fate as Abu Abdullah.

He told ISIS that he could not return to his post at the military airport because he was still in mourning for his brother and spent some time in the nearby cities of Abu Kamal and al­-Mayadeen, where he witnessed daily executions and the cutting off of hands.

Abu Khadija decided secretly to leave as soon as possible.

“I saw what happened in al-­Mayadeen and Abu Kamal. Not one of their punishments was just. One guy was executed simply because someone said that he had fought against ISIS, even though his relatives swore he had never held a weapon. The guy who accused him belonged to a family that was fighting with the other guy’s family,” he said.

Fifteen days after his brother’s death, Abu Khadija, his wife and children packed up and left. The family took a car to Raqqa, in northern Syria, and from there headed west toward the city of al­-Bab in Aleppo.

As soon as they passed the last ISIS checkpoint, Abu Khadija shaved off his beard.

Now, he is wracked with guilt.

He believes his decision to stay in Deir Ezzor and pledge allegiance to ISIS to take revenge on the Assad regime for his older brother’s death cost his younger brother his life.

The death of his surviving younger brother was even harder to take. He said he had trusted the men who killed him. He believed they were on his side, fighting to do away with Assad.

“I still don’t know why they killed him, but I know they did, and I am sure that they would have killed me if I’d stayed,” Abu Khadija said. “These people are so far away from Islam.”

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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