Khaled walked into an ISIS recruiting office and volunteered to fight -- for $30 a month. Now he's a refugee in Turkey. Here's how he got from there to here.
SANLIURFA — Khaled survived hell. Only he doesn't seem to realize it. When asked if he has nightmares at night, the teenage boy laughs with a smile, revealing his white teeth. Scared? No, he wasn't scared. Not even when the bullet went through his neck and came out a few centimeters of flesh further away.
"It was war," he says. "We were used to it."
After several months in one of the most violent organizations of the Middle East, Khaled still has his childhood naivety. A slender body, long, dark and disheveled hair, a peach fuzz for a mustache, he looks around him with a surprised look while drinking red berry cocktail with a straw. At the other end of the room, a musician hums in Turkish while plucking the strings of his oud. Khaled sits at an isolated table in the café. A refugee in Sanliurfa, in southeastern Turkey, he is discreet.
Legend has it that this holy city, near the Syrian border, was the birthplace of Abraham. Now it serves as a stop-over for foreign volunteers with the Islamic State (ISIS), a group Khaled joined at 13 years old, before escaping with the help of his family in mid-December. For his former leaders, he's a deserter.
"I liked their appearance"
Khaled "enlisted" in September 2014. At the time, he lived in Al-Tayana, a hamlet perched above a bend of the Euphrates, just on the edge of Syria. One morning, with a cousin, he went to Mayadin, the closest urban area to the village, located on the opposite river bank. Their families were completely unaware of their plans. The two boys headed to the local ISIS headquarters.
Outside the building his cousin, 14, panicked and left. Khaled went in alone and offered his services to the Wali, the representative of the "caliphate." Like many "senior members" of the organization, the man, nicknamed Abu Khair al-Iraqi, was from Iraq. "I wanted to go with them," Khaled says. Why? "I felt attracted to them," he says. "I liked their appearance and I wanted to fight Bashar al-Assad's army."
And what else could he do? Since the men dressed in black conquered the province, in July 2013, all the schools have been closed. The jihadists talk about starting new school programs but have already banned most subjects: chemistry, physics, sport, political science, math, philosophy. They've also forbidden all but a few television channels. Only stations such as Quran Channel, Al-Rissala and Iqraa are allowed.
In town, the Hisbah, the "religious police," go through cellphones to check the content, hunt down smokers — they risk a beating and four weeks in prison — and stop women who break the dress code. "If they wear a skirt they consider too close-fitting, the Hisbah force them to buy a looser "abaya" in their own shop," says Omar Mohamed, a temporary teacher from a neighboring village who also recently retreated to Sanliurfa. The people implementing sharia law are often foreigners. "The worst are the Tunisians," the teacher adds. "They hit everyone who doesn't obey the orders, even elderly people."
Khaled's father, a carpenter, died years ago. Most of his brothers left to work on construction sites in Saudi Arabia. Khaled was left to his own devices. He didn't go further than grade school and, for the past three years, has only known gunpowder. Bombings by the regime, rebel groups fighting each other over oil fields around Deir ez-Zor, and, more recently, U.S. airstrikes on oil wells and refineries held by the jihadists.
ISIS offered him 7,000 Syrian pounds per month ($30), far less than the $400 foreign fighters earn but still a substantial sum in a country devastated by war.
Trial by fire
Khaled disappeared without even telling his mother. His new bosses sent him further north, to a former military base in Tibni. The site is well known by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which investigated the base a few years ago on suspicions that it was used to store nuclear waste.
The teenager found himself in the middle of the desert with 300 other recruits. A good half of them were foreigners. Approximately 30 were roughly Khaled's age. They were all dressed in sand-colored "kamis," long Pakistani-type shirts, and pants cut at the calves.
The routine was always the same. Days began at 4 a.m. for the dawn prayer. Afterwards the recruits jogged, did obstacles courses and practiced martial arts until 10 a.m. The person guiding the exhausting exercises was a Frenchman called Abu Moussab al-Faransi. "A tall guy, like a muscleman," says Khaled.
After the break, the group attended two hours of sharia classes given by an imam, a Tunisian. "We were in a warehouse," Khaled recalls. "He told us we had to kill all the apostates, that it was our duty."
After the lunchtime prayer, an Iraqi commander taught them to shoot with a Kalashnikov and handle explosives. The recruits then sat through another sharia law class, followed by guard duty and evening prayer. At 9 p.m. it was lights out.
Another teenage recruit, a 17-year-old recently interview by The Wall Street Journal, said he and other boys, some as young as eight, were taught how to behead people. "It was like learning to cut onions," he told the journalist.
Khaled says that in his case the training was very succinct and that he didn't witness or take part in any executions. He says he didn't have time.
After 15 days, Khaled's superiors sent him to the frontline with his companions, near Triff, a hamlet to the southeast of Raqqa. It was a bloodbath. Without the slightest combat experience, most of the recruits were killed during their first engagement. He himself opened fire at random. On his second day out he was shot in the neck but somehow survived.
Khaled says he's not scared of death but doesn't "seek martyrdom" either. He was simply playing war. "We didn't even know who we were fighting. They told us it was a group of armed thieves."
He later discovered that his enemies barricaded in the village were part of Ahrar ash-Sham (Free Men of the Levant), another rebel Islamist faction that is very close to Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front), which is itself affiliated to al-Qaeda.
"When I learned who our enemies were I was in a state of shock," says Khaled. "I asked lots of questions. They told me they were bad Muslims, they quoted the Prophet, various Hadiths, verses from the Holy Quran."
When he left hospital, his leaders, because of his wounds, didn't send him back to the frontline. Instead they assigned him to one of the many roadblocks that are spread across the desolate ancient Mesopotamia territory. Long watch hours, in the middle of nowhere, looking out for cars. Inspections, searches, interrogations, trick questions on Islam asked to drivers in order to catch the "miscreants."
The teenager who dreamt of fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime had turned into a police officer. The enthusiasm of the early days was starting to fade away.
Release and escape to Turkey
Khaled's mother went looking for him. Through the cousin who went with him to Mayadin, she learned about his enrollment in Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s army. She begged the ISIS leaders to return her son. “Impossible!” she was told. "We need fighters."
But they did allow her to see Khaled. The meeting took place at the entrance of the Tibni base, in a house occupied by a general, Abu Hamza al-Askari. She implored him to let her son go. The officer, who would be killed a few weeks later in the Kurdish city of Kobane, also refused.
The mother refused to give up. She returned 15 days later, this time accompanied by one of her other sons, a mechanic, and again asked that Khaled be released. This time her efforts paid off. "After a two-hour discussion, Abu Hamza agreed to grant me a leave," says Khaled. "I left my weapon, my uniform and I went back home. I was happy. After three months of absence, I missed my family, but I still thought I’d go back fighting.”
Back home, he learned from his brother and his uncle that several members of his family had been killed by ISIS while fighting in the ranks of other rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army. "They spent several days trying to convince me," he recalls. "At the end, I was angry and I decided to leave ISIS.”
In Syria, though, the frontlines keep moving, as do alliances. Jabhat al-Nusra launched an attack against his village and took him as a prisoner. "They kept me in the headquarters. They didn't beat or torture me. They only questioned me on the Tibni base," he says. His captors released Khaled after 12 days.
The Al-Tayana locality fell back under the control of ISIS. He risked being arrested again, by his side this time, and being executed for deserting. The teenager had no choice but to run. One of his parents made him fake identification papers to get passed the checkpoints. To go unnoticed, he traveled with a woman from the village and her children. "I said I was part of their family."
After a long journey, he arrived in Turkey. He now hopes to join his brothers in Saudi Arabia and is awaiting a visa. Looking back, does he think it's normal to send a 13-year-old boy to the frontline?
“No, it's dangerous," he says. "But ISIS doesn't care and we're easy to convince."