One slipped away, the other killed his way out of ISIS after witnessing too much brutality from the jihadist group. But as they tell their dramatic stories, sharp differences emerge.
SANLIURFA — They used to be good ISIS soldiers, devoid of emotions, ready to fight "for the Syrian people," both against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and the secular rebels or rival Islamists. The also fought "for the caliphate," for the reign of their absolutist vision of Islam on earth as declared by the leaders of the group that calls itself Islamic State.
But all that has changed.
Ahmed and Maher — whom we met separately and in secret across the border in Turkey — both quit ISIS for the same reason. The two Syrian fighters did not fight in the same unit and they do not know each other, although they come from the same region, near the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor. They both decided to flee after living through the same experience: the execution of Syrian civilians taken prisoner after a battle.
Ahmed, 28, served in ISIS for a year and a half, after having begun fighting with the al-Nusra front, al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, at the beginning of the rebellion in 2011, before his emir swore allegiance to ISIS. That man used to be the imam in his home village, he had known him all his life. He wants to keep his name secret.
"My emir, a salafist who had fought in Iraq, secretly taught us religion when we were kids. When the Syrian revolution started, that was the opportunity for us to make our dream a reality: the caliphate. For us, revolution and Jihad went hand in hand," Ahmed says. "So we joined the al-Nusra front. Al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and ISIS were obviously together, as far as we knew. When problems began between al-Nusra and ISIS, my emir changed allegiance to ISIS and, together with 130 other men, I followed him."
Foreigners and Syrians
A devout Muslim, married with two children, Ahmed fled from ISIS for "three reasons," he says. "First of all, because some emirs committed too many mistakes, killing civilians after battles. Second, because the recruiting isn’t done by recommendation, like it used to be, and we now accept really bad people who commit crimes. And finally, because of the foreign jihadists, who often are a lot more conservative than Syrians and have no respect for our tribe leaders."
These foreign fighters are a real plague for Syrians, he explains as he fiddles with his coffee mug. "I remember one time when an Egyptian and a Jordanian tried to oppose the killing of civilians, women and children included, by a group of Caucasians, French and Tunisians. The slaughter did take place, and the Egyptian and the Jordanian were found dead the next day. We, the Syrians, tried to prevent these massacres from taking place but recently it’s become impossible to stop them. It’s a disaster."
Ahmed only remembers with sympathy one Frenchman who spoke Arabic well and who used to ask a lot of questions about local populations. "Like most of us Syrians, he refused to kill innocents."
Maher, 24, has just fled from ISIS for the same reasons. "After a battle in the Deir ez-Zor region, a group of fighters killed almost 300 innocent civilians. I told the emir that it wasn’t fair. I told him: "If we kill these civilians, what’s the difference between us and the regime?" He retorted that these families of soldiers from the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army were responsible for not preventing them from fighting us, and so had to be executed."
Maher then did something unimaginable: He shouted at his emir, a Saudi jihadist, Abu Hafs al-Jazrawi, who immediately ordered his arrest. The incident triggered a frenzied and bloody escape through the Syrian countryside.
"The emir left me in a house with two guards. One had a stick to beat me up. I managed to get hold of it and I beat him until he passed out, then I beat the one standing outside the door."
Maher ran through the deserted village until he reached the road, and while still in the ISIS black uniform, clambered into a civilian car with a Syrian family.
"We arrived at an ISIS checkpoint where two guys knew me. They asked me why I didn’t have any weapons with me. I told them I had been sent by my emir on a mission to Raqqa." Suspicious, the two wanted to double check his story and try to contact the emir by walkie-talkie.
No choice but to shoot
"I took the Glock pistol one was carrying and I grabbed him around the waist. The other one turned and raised his kalashnikov. I had no choice but to shoot him. One bullet in the chest, another in the stomach." The other guard struggled free and pushed Maher backwards, and ran to grab his dead friend’s kalashnikov. "I fired two shots. The first hit his ammo pack," Maher recalled. "The second went through his neck."
He then decided to let the terrified civilian family go and, on foot, reached the farm of a old school friend of his who lived not far from there. "This friend is a moderate who doesn’t like ISIS. It’s only when I told him that I had escaped, killed two men and that I needed his help that he was willing to hide me."
After resting for two days, the two childhood friends dressed as peasants and headed north across the fields in a tractor. They drove to one of the farmer’s brothers-in-law, who had a car and knew well the Syrian border town of Tell Abyad, located opposite Akcakale on the Turkish side, and its networks of traffickers.
The pair were stopped at another ISIS checkpoint, and Maher was again forced to kill two guards in a shootout. Finally, leaving his old friend behind and paying smugglers $600, Maher headed across the border to Turkey. The first attempt failed. The Turkish military fired in the air when they saw Syrians trying to cross the border illegally. "We succeeded on the fourth attempt," Maher explains. "At 5 in the morning, I went to wash myself in a park in Akcakale, then I went to a hotel and slept. The smuggler bought me clean clothes and I left to hide at a friend’s in Sanliurfa." Located north of Akcakale, the town is currently the jihadists’ main entry gate into Syria.
Ahmed and Maher, who left ISIS for similar reasons, today have very different stories to tell. One of them left Syria smoothly, without telling anybody about it, while the other had a violent break from his emir and killed four jihadists along the way. One dreams of returning to his country, while the other wants to get as far away as possible. Because in the end, it’s mostly in their ideas that the two men are different from one another.
Ahmed still believes in jihad and in the caliphate. "The caliphate is my dream, my great dream. I'm talking to you today so that the leaders of ISIS, to whom I don’t have access otherwise, read your article and correct their mistakes," he says with a smile that can only be described as naive. "I want to convey a message to them."
Ahmed can't wait to go back to Syria. "If ISIS changes, I’ll be ready to join their ranks. Otherwise I’ll go back to the al-Nusra Front, maybe."
Stopping the fight is not even a question for him. "We must expand the caliphate. If the war stopped in Syria because it was successful, I would then go to fight in other Muslim countries. It’s my duty as a Muslim."
Apart from their different approach regarding the Syrian population, Ahmed sees another difference between him and the foreign jihadists in ISIS. "I have no reason to go and attack Christians and Jews in their countries if they don’t attack me. For me, the caliphate is limited to Muslim countries. Of course, these foreign fighters dream to go back to free their own countries and install a caliphate there."
When speaking about the Western intervention, Ahmed seems torn between fear and duty. "ISIS prepared us for this war. The emirs used to say all the time that one day, the West would come and fight us."
Like a disease
The runaway jihadist claims that the Syrians he has met are divided. "A lot of them are scared of airstrikes and want to leave the country, or at least the regions where there are too many jihadists. Others, on the contrary, join ISIS to enroll against the American devil."
Maher, instead, sees things very differently now. In the past week, his whole value system, everything he used to believe in, came crashing down. "I believed in the idea of the caliphate because when you listen to the ISIS guys, you find they’re right. But then when you see what they do to people, that’s something else." What Maher witnessed in his region of Deir ez-Zor is "an invasion, like a disease that’s eating Syria away and that hurts Islam."
In the room in Sanliurfa where’s he has been hiding for a few days, Maher says he spent hours staring at the ceiling, without sleeping, going over and over "the film" of his escape and of his life with ISIS. "In this war, I was standing on the wrong side, and then I killed people to escape. I feel guilty," he says.
Despite his nervousness, Maher stares with intensity at the person speaking to him, as if to make sure he understands the demons eating away at him. "Today I feel bad for having believed for so long that a caliphate was the only solution. I spend my days reading religious texts on the Internet, I question my beliefs and I realize that you don’t need the caliphate to be a good Muslim."
Maher wants "everybody to know that these foreign fighters, even though some of them are good Muslims, are taking part in a lie." He knows Syrians and other Arabs who have already left ISIS. He thinks however that for Caucasians and Western Europeans, whom he accuses of the worst crimes, it will be more difficult to backtrack.
Maher knows he will "not return to Syria as long as ISIS is there." He thinks that even in Turkey, his life is in danger. "In Sanliurfa, I walked passed two fighters I knew from Raqqa. They recognized me. Anybody who has a problem with ISIS is not safe in Turkey."
He hopes to reach Istanbul and melt into the city’s crowds, where there will be fewer Syrians and Arabs likely to identify him. "I’m going to try and start a new life," he says. "I want to earn money and go abroad. I would like to resume my IT studies."