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'No salvation in war,' says returning IS fighter

Hundreds of fighters from the Balkan states are in Syria at the moment. DW's Lindita Arapi met up with one of the Albanian fighters who's returned from the war and finds out about the brutal realities of jihad.

In Germany, those who return from fighting for "Islamic State" end up in court for supporting a terrorist organization. Fundamentally speaking, this should happen in Albania, too. Yet, contrary to the trials in Germany, there has not been a single case taken up there against a jihadi who returned from Syria, even though, according to Albanian law, the participation in an armed conflict outside of the country is punishable by years in jail.

Sander Lleshi, a security consultant to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, said that "because most of the returnees are afraid of punishment," they go underground when they return. "Our organizations are aware of this. But I also have to say that today it's rare that a fighter would leave the country and head to Syria, thanks to the good coordination of our officers."

Sander Lleshi

Security consultant Sander Lleshi

One returning fighter who has been living an inconspicuous life is Ebu Zaid (pictured at top). Zaid belongs to the hundreds of mostly young men from Albania and Kosovo that security officials there estimate to have gone to Syria to fight. Ebu is not an Albanian name, but it is the name the 28-year-old uses with DW when we meet in a Muslim restaurant in Tirana to get his story of jihad.

For 80 euros, Syria-bound

He describes himself as a "wild child." Someone not foreign to weapons and fistfights before he allowed Islam to control his life. "It was my savior," said the young believer.

Just as in many Muslim families in Albania, there were few religious relatives in his family. Yet he dove head-first into the Salafist teachings, learned Arabic, married young - "as Muslims should do," said Ebu.

He followed the war in Syria via the internet. "The videos from the war, everything I saw, the pain I witnessed, that hit me hard as a believer. I wanted to help my Muslim brothers. I decided to travel to Syria and wasn't afraid but felt like a hero, someone doing something good: I was helping to topple Bashar al-Assad."

In 2014, Ebu Zaid traveled to Syria along with two other Albanians. He told his parents that he would be going to Saudi Arabia for religious studies. "It was easy: the bus trip from Tirana to Istanbul cost just 40 euros and from there it was another 40 euros to get to the Syrian border. There were no border controls," he recalls.

The young Albanian was met on the other side of the border and brought to Aleppo to fight alongside the Al-Nusra Front. "Everything was well-organized, from the weapons and uniforms to the food. I met a lot of young people from France, Denmark and Germany while there. Because I can speak Arabic very well, I made good contact with everyone. The best was befriending an old man from Bosnia with whom I always spoke."

'IS was better organized'

In Aleppo, there weren't just conversations about Islam. Ebu Zaid says that thanks to his early experiences with weapons he was considered "useful." Aleppo and its surroundings, including Bab and Arafat, became stations for the young volunteers who were taking part in the fighting around Aleppo after a month in Syria. Asked if he killed anyone, Ebu Zaid shies away from answering directly.

"We didn't have any question: we were opposing enemies, soldiers of Bashar al-Assad and there was no mercy for what they had done," said Zaid, who lived with death and suffering every day, he added.

It didn't take long before he caught on to the internal power struggles within the Al-Nusra Front brigade and became aware of the "Islamic State." He was impressed by the propaganda of "Islamic State" more and so in the final months of his time in Syria, he affiliated himself with "IS."

"IS was better organized and stronger. They had more weapons and were better financed. I don't know from where."

Yet this reality that the young fighter considered stronger is something else. One thing really opened his eyes. "After an hours-long battle near Aleppo, we finally went out to bury our dead yet there were also dead soldiers from Assad's troops. One of the Egyptians in our group went over and cut off a dead soldier's ear. The desecration of corpses is a big sin in Islam, though."

He grew disenchanted with the other IS jihadis. "They don't have a religious education, they don't really understand the Koran, which is where this extremism comes from. If they discover you with a cigarette, you'd be warned off. If you listened to music, they would destroy your computer. Many are just following blindly.

'IS' returnee In Germany was sentenced to three years in prison

This 'IS' returnee in Germany was sentenced to three years in prison. So far, there have been no such trials in Albania

Ebu Zaid sees himself as 'deceived believer'

ln Syria, Zaid met many young Europeans who wanted to go home. "They asked me if it would be acceptable according to Islam to leave and I said yes. But then they'd asked another person who would tell them, no you can't go back. That is not the country of Islam."

In 2015, after both of his Albanian friends died, he became one of those who didn't want to be a part of it anymore. "It wasn't just the disappointment of what I saw there. It was the faces of my children, the tears of my mother when we telephoned via Skype that moved me." That's how he explained his return home.

"Today, I would say I was deceived; that I am a deceived believer. War is war and it's never pretty, there is no salvation in war."

To escape, he told the IS commander in Syria that he needed permission to go to Turkey to gather his wife and children. Since his return to Albania, Ebu Zaid has been steering clear of officials. "Who knows what would come out of it," he said quietly. He lives in Tirana still, an unobtrusive life of a simple worker. His close friends have congratulated him for coming home.

"Today I have more sympathy for other people, I'm more thoughtful," he said.

But for the security officials in Albania, "IS" returnees are unequivocally a group of people who pose a potential threat - regardless of whether or not they refer to themselves as "deceived" and show remorse.

Security consultant Sander Lleshi said that these people "first need to be held responsible before the law. Only then, can other measures, like reintegration, take place." If the arm of the law in Albania reaches as far as "IS" returnees is, however, still questionable.

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