It's easy to be against the "Islamic State," but we wanted to understand what drives young people to fight for the group. A written conversation with a man who claims to be an "IS" fighter in Syria.
An AP photo taken from a militant website said to be showing an "Islamic State"group fighter in Raqqa, Syria.
For #readytofight, Life Links spoke to a former US Marine joining the Kurdish forces fighting against the "Islamic State", to women from the peshmerga forces, to an imam who works in a prison to de-radicalize young Muslims and to a former Salafist engaging against extremism.
But as this is Life Links, we wanted to change the perspective. To provide the full picture, we wanted to get in contact with someone who is not #readytofight against, but for "Islamic State". Someone who is willing to share his motivations, feelings, beliefs, and possibly also his doubts.
We basically turned the social networks inside out and finally found someone who claims to be a fighter for "IS" in Syria. He claims to be originally from the United States. In the social networks he answers several questions revolving around "IS."
You might argue that one shouldn't give a terrorist a platform to explain his views. But we wanted to know how a person of our age, with a similar educational background to us, can have such a fundamentally different worldview. We were deliberately open, to try to understand - although we might disagree with the other's beliefs.
Although we did not really get an answer to the initial question, our whole team found the responses so interesting that they read right to the end - so we decided not to withhold it from you.
"IS" people are said to be very eloquent and effective in communicating - this interview can be most likely be seen as an example of that.
There wasn't any way to prove that he really is who he claims to be - however, we have no reason to suspect that he isn't. However, we've asked an expert on comparative religious studies for his assessment on the interview to see whether there are cues to verify or falsify the interviewee's claims. You can read the assessment here.
According to your social media profile you are in Syria - how long have you been there fighting for "IS"?
I've been here almost 6 months.
Was there something that happened that made you decide to leave your former life behind and go there? Or was it a more gradual process?
I've been studying Islamic law and history for many years, so I gradually came to the conclusion that the Mujahideen were doing something right, or even obligatory. And I realized that, over the course of Islamic history, the absence of an Islamic state or caliphate was always viewed as something absurd in the eyes of Islamic scholars - if at some point the caliphate disappeared, it was the opinion of the vast majority of scholars for the first millennium of Islam that the caliphate must be reestablished (these opinions were based on the most stringent of Islamic sources). After the Syrian Civil War began, I kept my eye on the various jihadist movements that were forming in the region. The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham was definitely on a better path than most, since it was focused purely on using Islamic law (the Shari'ah) in its formation of a polity. But it was ultimately their declaration of a caliphate that pushed me to join them.
You write that you must live and fight for the "Islamic State" - how often have you been involved in fighting yourself? What is your specific role as an "IS" fighter?
I had no previous experience fighting before coming to the Islamic State. All of my training was done here. I am currently a stationed fighter in a battalion in Syria on one of our frontiers, in which I would normally be part of the first response to an enemy advancement.
What kind of training was that? It would be great if you could go into more detail here, like: who trained you? What "fighting methods", so to speak, did you learn?
You also write that you would "normally" be part of the first response team - so are you no longer part of it?
I cannot go into too much detail, but I was trained under a front-line unit, so we were trained in how to use assault rifles and various heavy weapons. We were also taught how to mobilize as a group, and how to use certain battle tactics to obtain an overall strategy. My unit was trained by those with previous military experience, mainly from Russia and Chechnya.
Although I am technically still a part of my battalion, I am currently being moved to another area where I may be of better assistance. That is all I can say.
Have you ever had to kill someone?
No, since my battalion was only permitted to fire if the enemy crossed a certain boundary. That never happened while I was on duty.
What does it feel like to be there, knowing an "enemy" is approaching - don't you feel scared sometimes?
Everyone has fear, especially when there are bullets being fired at you. There was a point where there were explosive bullets flying right over our heads, and an enemy tank was firing rounds near us. Airstrikes/drone-strikes have also increased significantly over the past few months, so being scared or anxious has become a normal feeling for those in the field. But the reason we continue to fight is because we channel our fear towards the fear of our Creator - we believe that Allah is in control of everything, so if He has willed you to be hit, you will be hit without a doubt, and if He has willed you to be saved, then nothing can harm you.
But why would your God want the possibility of you being killed? What is it that makes your belief so strong, stronger even than the fundamental human-survival instinct?
Well let's look at it from a different perspective. If a perfect being exists, one that has knowledge of everything, and has power over everything, then both your life and your death must be caused by this being. So it is not as if we have the ability to discern why God "wants" us to be killed or "wants" us to live - only He has knowledge of that, and He has already determined everything. It is simply up to us to decide if we accept that idea or not, and if we will act upon it by obeying His commands, no matter the cost. And this is the exact reason why our belief in God is stronger than that of any other Muslim, or any follower of any other religion for that matter. It all comes down to how sincere you are, and if you are willing to admit the truth even when it's uncomfortable or painful. We have accepted that the Qur'an is the truth, and if that means we have to sacrifice everything and put ourselves on the front line for the sake of Allah, then so be it. There are so many people who have given up their wealth, family, status, and power just to come to the Islamic State, and this demonstrates their belief in God.
Do you never have doubts? Are you fully convinced from the very first moment that you wake up in the morning until you fall asleep at night?
I never have doubts with regard to my beliefs. However, I do have doubts at times regarding certain policies in the Islamic State, or certain actions that some people support here that I and many others may see as having no basis in Islamic sources or practicality. But everyone here is entitled to freely discuss their ideas and misgivings about what we do in the Islamic State, provided we come with evidence and a good argument.
What kind of policies and actions are they, that you might sometimes have doubts about - could you give some examples?
I don't want to go into specifics, but generally speaking, these issues revolve around legal rulings, the structure of the state, and how we deal with our fighters and the general population. But the Islamic State has improved significantly with regard to many of these issues, so our leadership is clearly listening to our concerns.
I've also been looking into our previous strategies with regard to areas like Ayn al-Islam (Kobani), and so have others, and we've noticed certain mistakes that the people in command have repeatedly made. But it seems these mistakes have been analyzed and understood by our leaders and fighters, so we're improving our tactics and overall strategy concerning such areas.
It's a pity that you don't want to go into specifics. It would be really interesting and helpful to understand, as from the outside, "IS" does not seem very open-minded organization that is open to criticism. But I understand that it might be difficult for you.
In one of the social media posts, you say that you are originally from the United States of America? Could you tell us a bit about how the recruiting process worked?
Yes I am originally from America. There is no standard "recruiting" process. People who want to join the Islamic State tend to find their own way in, or get help from people who are already in the State. I happened to get in contact with a fighter already in IS, and he led me through the process.
Can you describe what steps of the process were, for you specifically?
There are certain countries around IS where we have a presence (I'm sure you already know this), and the the supporters/fighters in these countries spend much of their time trying to bring people here. So the process mainly involves getting to one of these countries, contacting an IS supporter, and moving city to city until you are able to reach the border. Then IS will usually have a system in place to get you across.
Do you sometimes miss friends or families or routines and habits from your old life?
Of course. But what people outside IS don't realize is that most of us are able to maintain a certain quality of life here reminiscent of what we had before. It's actually pretty easy to bring your family here, and you don't have to worry about food and housing since the state provides a lot for you. And we're still buying and using smartphones and laptops, getting apartments and cars, using the Internet frequently, sending our kids to school, and going to work, whether that consists of fighting in the field or working for the state.
What habits do you still maintain from your old life? And did you bring your family with you as well?
I think the biggest thing would have to be the amount of time I spend reading and writing online. I'm obviously still using social media, and I continue to use other social media platforms as well. I also try to watch as many informative videos and lectures as I can, and I'm still able to study what interests me. I came with some of my family.
Did some of your family and friends know about your plans to go to Syria and try to prevent you from going there?
All of my family knew, and none of my friends. My family was completely supportive of me.
The family members that accompanied you - what are they doing in Syria? Can you go into detail about what a typical day in your life looks like?
My family members are either fighters as well, or are working and living here. Right now my day revolves around doing work for the state. I also have some more free time at the moment, which is why I am able to answer questions on social media. The rest of the time I'm usually hanging out with family, friends, or studying on my own.
You mentioned earlier that you were working for "Islamic State" - what kind of work were you doing for them?
I can't go into that right now.
I assume it's not a matter of time, but of security reasons. If you can do so at a later point, it would be great to know. Another question: In some posts, you have written that among the fighters you also do "normal" things like watching films and eating hot pockets and chicken nuggets. Do you understand that it feels bizarre to think of jihadists doing all the things peaceful people do as well - while at the same time being involved in all this fighting, cruel slaughter and beheadings?
It was strange at first (and still does feel strange), because before coming here everyone thought that, since the Islamic State is basically a war-zone, we would probably be starving to death and would likely have little contact with the outside world. And that's what we prepared for. But after moving here, we found out that life here is the complete opposite. All thanks to God, we have so much here, and we're able to have some enjoyment while fighting for the sake of our Creator.
What makes you laugh?
Disembodied heads, the oppression of women, and the repression of free speech. Oh, and sarcasm.
Honestly, anything that most people will laugh at, I will laugh at. I've watched too many comedians and "fail" videos for my own good.
How old are you?
What is your personal take on sharing so many things with people of our age, but having so fundamentally different worldviews?
I think it's the natural state of the world. This is the way it's always been, where people have differing views on politics, society, morality, and the way the world should be. But what matters most is if you are sincere and are willing fight for what you believe in, even if you pay for it with your life.
It's easy to support democracy and liberalism in the comfort of your own home, but if you were to ask 90 percent of the world's population to physically defend such a notion, I believe most would run away.
We totally agree on that: people always have had differing views on politics, society, morality, and the way the world should be. But if you agree that people can disagree on these things, how can you judge right what "IS" is doing? Because they impose their worldview in things such as society and morality on all the people who live in the area "IS" has conquered…
Realizing that people disagree on moral issues is different than accepting that it's OK that people disagree on these issues. Just think of it from a moral perspective - if I find some act to be moral, and someone else finds that same act to be immoral, then although we understand that we disagree, we cannot be fine with the fact that we disagree, because one person is doing something immoral in the other's eyes (and vice versa).
So today, liberalism has its own ideas on what is moral, and so does Islam. When comparing the two, although there may be points of agreement, the areas where we disagree will ultimately lead to conflict. For instance, Islamic law requires women to be covered in public, and considers it immoral for women to do otherwise. Liberalism allows women to wear what they want in public, and considers it immoral to force women to adhere to certain dress requirements.
But in both cases, the particular system in place will end up imposing its worldview upon the population it rules over. People today like to use the fact that the Islamic State forces the Shari'ah upon its citizens, but what they don't realize is that all moral ideologies and political systems do the exact same thing.
You cannot have any law without force, otherwise everyone would simply break the law. So liberalism is actually forced upon its population, whether one likes it or not (and coming from the U.S., I can testify to this fact).
I do realize that whatever moral in place is imposed on the population living within that system. But I'd say that's exactly where the difference is: People in "IS"-ruled regions already lived in a system before "IS" took over, one they more or less deliberately chose to live in. Now, they don't have that choice anymore, or have they?
Actually, a lot of people outside IS, especially those who were simply born and raised in a particular country, didn't choose to live under the system of their country. For instance, right now Tunisia and Algeria are notorious for cracking down on Muslims simply for going to the mosque or growing a beard, and these are supposedly "Muslim" countries. Syria and Iraq had similar conditions before the war (and the areas outside IS still do).
Living in a particular place does not mean you agree with the system, but you will end up obeying the system since, as we've agreed, it is imposed on the population. But what you've said about people living under IS can be said for people who were born in the West and want to live in the Islamic State - a lot of people have been arrested, imprisoned, or tortured simply for wanting to come here. I know of too many people who have lost their children and families to the hands of their government just for saying they supported the Islamic State.
But it's not surprising, and I fully expected such a reaction, since these countries view their actions as moral and ours as immoral. But we need to be honest here - people outside the Islamic State want to believe that everything we do is bad. I mean, how many good things have you heard about us. No one talks about the fact that we:
1. Provide free food for people living here (regardless of whether you are a fighter or not), as well as free water and electricity
2. Give the poor the exact same amount of money per month that fighters get
3. Allow people to conduct their businesses even when they refuse to deal with IS fighters
4. Eliminated drug use
5. Allow people to do what they want in their own homes (even if we smell cigarette smoke - we aren't permitted to do anything if it's in their house)
6. Subject everyone to our laws, even our leaders and commanders. Yes, there are people who used to be in command positions who are now in prison because they treated people unjustly
7. Treat women with the utmost respect
8. Give the people an education (even in the secular sciences) when they haven't had one under the Assad regime
9. Allow people to go about their lives.
So there are things that you will clearly disagree with us about when it comes to law and military policy, but there are too many things that people are ignoring when it comes to IS.
What you describe here sounds as if the "Islamic State" is a good place where no cruel beheadings happen and where at least 24,000 people have not been injured or killed. But what legitimizes the "IS" so that it is "allowed" to impose its rules on the people living in the region?
Like I said, there are going to be things you don't like or find immoral about us, and vice versa. My main issue is that only one aspect of IS is delivered to the masses without addressing all the other aspects of our society, to the extent that severe lies are attributed to us. The same cannot be said of us because we know exactly what happens outside of IS, all the good and the bad, since we were born and raised there. But on the question of legitimacy, that's completely relative, and is based on your beliefs, experiences, and the society you've been raised in. If you support liberalism and democratic principles, then of course you will view us as illegitimate. But if you accept Islam and the superiority of the Shari'ah, then you will see us as a legitimate polity.
If what you say here and what you've described previously was true, why do you think so many people - many who are also Muslim - oppose "IS"?
With regard to non-Muslims, it's pretty obvious that people don't like the fact that we kill people who don't accept our authority, or that we have certain laws that they would find harsh or unethical. I mean, we're not stupid - we know exactly how the rest of the world views us, and why they view us that way.
But when talking about the Muslim world, the vast majority of Muslims today know very little about their religion, let alone what a caliphate is or why it existed. And they are completely ignorant of history. Many have accepted Western principles of liberalism, so it's only natural they would oppose us.
And when discussing the way many Islamic "scholars" criticize us, most of the time it's either because they have also accepted more liberal ideas, or because they have become too comfortable in their position to admit that they need to come here. There are many cases like this, where scholars before the jihad in Syria began were calling people to go and fight in Syria and establish the Shari'ah. But after we did, they ended up turning their backs on us. Of course, we expected such a reaction, since talk is cheap.
Talk might be cheap, but what certainly is not cheap is what you described previously in your list - like free food, water and electricity, educating people and giving poor people a salary - just like the salary you get. It sounds like the glorification of a terrorist group. How do you finance all these services?
I'm sure you've done your research, so you probably know that our money comes from different sources, such as oil, ransoming off captives, and the large amount of income brought in by foreign fighters.
Where do you see yourself in three or five years from now? Can you imagine returning to the US at some point?
I don't see myself ever returning to the United States. I see myself either married with kids while continuing to fight/work for the state, or martyred (God willing).
To verify where he is, our interviewee sent this picture among several others holding signs with our information in front of this building, the former Armenian Martyrs' Church, in Raqqua, Syria