Meeting a Daesh jihadist in Syria
As a journalist and researcher I have been studying Daesh, also known as Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL, since it emerged in 2012. I have been fascinated by its rapid expansion and, in particular, by the number of Westerners – now estimated at well over 4000 – that choose to join the group. Hundreds are believed to be signing up in Iraq and Syria from Western and Arab countries every day. The Australian Federal Police says it has stopped more than 200 suspected Australian would-be jihadists from leaving the country. Estimates, though unreliable, put the number of foreign fighters globally at more than 20,000 on last count.
Last week, I got my first glimpse into the psychology of one of those who went.
For weeks I had trawled through social media accounts of the foreign jihadists, littered across the internet, espousing the virtues of life inside Daesh’s self-declared caliphate, across northern Syria and Iraq, and denouncing the “kuffar”, or unbelievers, of the West. I became obsessed, piecing together a picture of this world which, following the beheadings of two American journalists and three American and British aid workers, has become too dangerous for Western journalists to travel to and bear witness. After weeks of reaching out to those tweeting from inside the caliphate, I finally got a response.
I had identified and contacted an American jihadist on Kik, a popular messaging service among the foreign fighters, but had heard nothing for some time until he unexpectedly replied to the message I had sent him, using the traditional Arabic greeting “Assalaam Alaikum”, or “Peace be upon you”.
“Walaikum assalaam wa rahmatullah,” he added, his greeting appearing in a fluorescent green text bubble across my phone screen. “May the peace and mercy of Allah be with you.”
The American, who goes by the name Abu Khalid al-Amriki, left the United States some time in 2013 to join life under the caliphate. In April, he appeared in a Daesh video alongside Khalid al-Cambodi, an Australian Daesh fighter of Cambodian origin who praised the deadly Sydney Lindt Cafe siege and called on other Australian Muslims to join forces with Daesh and kill disbelievers in their home country. He is believed to have links with the gunmen behind the May shooting at a “Draw Muhammad” event in Texas and praised the attack on Twitter.
Tallying with information I had received from an intelligence source, Amriki confirmed he was an associate of the now infamous Australian Khaled Sharrouf, who attracted global headlines when he posted an image of his son holding a severed head, after travelling with his young family to Syria in 2013. Sharrouf is believed to have been killed last month in an American drone strike, along with his Australian associate Mohamed Elomar, the husband of Sharrouf’s eldest daughter, Zaynab, 14, who is possibly pregnant and believed to still be in Syria with her mother and younger siblings. Amriki refused to be drawn on the details of Sharrouf’s fate, and the condition or whereabouts of the young family.
“I can’t say much. Plz understand,” he replied, when probed about the group.
Amriki is a tall, handsome, black American with deep-set eyes. In his profile picture he appears in a black shirt and hooded black keffiyeh, nursing a kitten in one arm, a 9mm automatic gun resting on his lap. Throughout our exchange he remained polite, articulate, even friendly, in a manner disarmingly at odds with his candid description of the violence he had engaged in, including a beheading only last week. He apologised for not being able to assist with more information, and shared jokes and emojis.
“How may I be of help?” he asked when I first approached him.
I asked how life was in the caliphate. “Wonderful,” he replied. “Better than living in the West. Why do you think so many Muslims risk being placed in prison just to leave the West. Many sacrifice their wealth and all they had just to leave the West.”
He expressed awe at the prospect of building a new state.
“Trust me,” he said. “Imagine living in a drug free society. No gays. No prostitution. Where you can leave your business open and no one touches your stuff. I am so honoured to be here. Allah has truly blessed me.”
Amriki explained that he had quit America “some time ago” and that he had left his wife behind. She is now in prison on terror charges for attempting to join the Daesh.
Daesh has taken over a vast swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. It now controls more than one-third of Syria to the north and east. The group has been engaged in heavy fighting against Kurdish forces, backed by US air power along the Kurdish-dominated north-eastern border with Turkey. Only two weeks ago, Daesh was responsible for a dawn massacre of more than 200 Kurdish civilians in the Syrian city of Kobani.
While refusing to disclose his location, Amriki is understood to be in the self-declared capital of Daesh, al-Raqqa. Admitting coalition airstrikes could be “kinda scary”, he was scathing of the US campaign, and expressed enthusiasm for the heaven he believes is waiting for him.
“This is our one-way ticket to paradise,” he wrote. “Besides, the coalition is so lame. They spend billions of dollars to bomb roads and kill innocent kids. The coalition take taxpayers’ money to fund a war they can never win. Bombing roads is pretty desperate.”
Now in its 10th month, the success of the US-led coalition campaign, of which Australia is a partner, is unclear. The Pentagon says some 10,000 Daesh militants have been killed, but, lacking viable ground partners, the coalition has encountered serious setbacks, particularly in Sunni-dominated western Iraq, where Daesh is advancing. The human cost of the coalition campaign is also unclear and despite repeated denials from the US State Department, reports continue to emerge of civilian casualties.
“It’s OK for them to stay in a plane and drop bombs and kill thousands of innocents,” said Amriki. “But when we behead those responsible, we are the bad guys. Wow.”
Hypocrisy and conspiracy theories are sport in the Middle East. The uncomfortable truth is that many great injustices have been committed in the name of upholding democratic values in the war against terror. The sale of an ill-conceived war in Iraq, in which thousands of civilians were killed over the course of the US occupation, and during which torture was sanctioned under the guise of national security, ranks high on the list of unpleasant realities. Amriki’s is a world where corruption and hypocrisy are conveniently erased. We are naturally inclined towards utopian ideals, yet most recognise that a perfect society is unrealistic.
Amriki appears to have bought wholesale into the dream of Daesh, wilfully overlooking the hypocrisy of his own arguments by invoking God’s will. I resisted the urge to point out that the US campaign had only been launched in response to his group’s brutal killings of thousands of innocents themselves, including my friends and former colleagues, who had been stripped of their dignity and beheaded on camera for doing their jobs. I thought of the dozens of interviews I had done with victims of his atrocity-filled campaign, of the beheadings, the enslavement of women, the burning of people alive, the destruction of cultural heritage. His was a world of black and white, a form of escapism where the wrinkles and complexities of moral society were ironed out by justifying any action as God’s will and where death was the ultimate ambition.
He suggested I might like to visit. I told him I was fascinated by his project but that I didn’t think, as a journalist and non-Muslim, I would be welcome.
“Even Christians live in our state as long as they pay the jizya [tax],” he said. “But I guess that might be hard for you. U will probably lose your head.”
Later, he apologised: “Sorry. I don’t know you. Don’t get me wrong. We don’t just kill people for fun.”
I questioned the tactic of beheading, asking if he himself had beheaded anyone.
“Yes,” he replied, “a few days ago on the battlefield in Hassakeh.” Hassakeh is a Kurdish-dominated city to the east of Syria.
But again, he had an easy justification ready: “He was fighting against us. There are many foreigners fighting alongside the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party]. Mercenaries. English speakers.”
As we wound up our conversation I asked that we keep in touch. He agreed and, when I signed off, sent me a smiley face emoji.
“Take care,” he said.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "The mind of a jihadist". Subscribe here.