Jailed ISIS suspects recall path to jihad in Iraq

Sunday 04/12/2016
Hazem Saleh, who is suspected of fighting for the Islamic State, speaks during an interview in a Kurdish security compound in Erbil, Iraq, on November 28th. (Reuters)

Erbil - When Kurdish forces began firing rock­ets at a suspected Islamic State (ISIS) hideout in northern Iraq, one of those inside, former bakery worker Walid Ismail, said he tried to persuade the others to sur­render.
Some wanted to hold hand gre­nades to their throats and pull the pins. In the end, a Tunisian militant among them detonated a suicide bomb, hoping to wipe out their at­tackers.
Instead he killed five of the group and injured the rest. Ismail said the others were killed by the Kurds and he only made it out by shouting that he had no bombs.
An online video shows him look­ing terrified as he emerged from the house in the town of Bashiqa near Mosul with an injured hand, to be arrested by Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
Today, the 20-year-old sits with his ankles shackled in a security compound in Erbil, capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region, which is fighting alongside Baghdad to drive ISIS from its stronghold in Mosul and nearby towns.
ISIS suspects are rarely allowed to speak to media but the Kurdistan Regional Security Council allowed Reuters to interview Ismail and an­other prisoner in the presence of an official.
They described how ISIS trans­formed them from ordinary Mo­sul citizens into jihadists through promises and threats and said un­just treatment of their Sunni com­munity by the Shia-led government and armed forces played a major role.
Their accounts, which could not be verified, show how vital it will be to manage sectarian tensions after any victory over ISIS to avoid a repeat of what has been the sec­ond wave of Sunni militants since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.
Ismail said ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had wide appeal when he walked into a Mosul mosque in broad daylight two years ago and declared large parts of Iraq and Syria a caliphate, six years after al- Qaeda was driven underground.
“I believed him,” he said, soft-spoken and wearing a grey track suit. “We loved them because they relieved us of the oppression of the Shias.”
Like other members of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, Ismail alleged many innocent Sunnis had been branded terrorists by the army, which put up little resistance when about 800 ISIS fighters swept into northern Iraq in pick-up trucks in 2014.
“They said ‘whoever goes to the mosque is safe’. They said ‘we are your Muslim brothers. We aim to rid you of the Shias and no one will oppress you’,” said Ismail.
“We will give you food and mon­ey. Whatever you want.”
In a separate interview, another prisoner suspected of fighting for ISIS, Hazem Saleh, seethed when he recalled how the Iraqi Army had treated his three brothers in the months before ISIS appeared on the scene.
“They were labourers. They de­tained them for about a month and a half. They beat them. They hung them upside down. They dislocated their shoulders,” said the former Mosul blacksmith.
The Iraqi military and govern­ment, now under new leadership, deny such allegations and say they only went after terrorists.
Ismail’s account of the Tunisian’s role tallies with what Kurdish and Iraqi officials say is the tendency of foreign fighters to fully embrace ISIS’s ruthless tactics and hard-line ideology viewing opponents as infi­dels deserving death.
Some of the Iraqis, on the other hand, are described as criminal gangs that make money through kidnappings for ransom. Others sign up for practical reasons.
Ismail said he was struggling to support six younger siblings when ISIS disabled the bakery that em­ployed him by cutting off gas sup­plies, leaving him with few options.
“Daesh gave me 500,000 dinars ($400) per month to hold a machine gun and stand guard on a street,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
Like Ismail, Saleh said ISIS ap­plied financial pressure, forcing his shop to pay heavy taxes and then of­fering a handsome salary to entice him to take up the cause.
“I have seven children; the youngest is 2 (years old). They need to live,” he said. “There was a lack of work and poverty so most people joined because of that.”
For him, there was something else, he said. “They threatened to make my 14-year-old son wage holy war to pressure me… So I said good­bye to my family and left.”
Initiation was simple. Ismail was handed a uniform — an outfit simi­lar to those worn by the Taliban in Afghanistan — and told to watch for suspicious activities.
He said ISIS was highly secretive and obsessed with protecting its leaders, especially from capture or air strikes. “We did not know who the leader of our army was. They would never allow us near strategic areas,” Ismail said.
There did not seem to be any mer­it system. “They would just come along and say ‘you are an emir and you won’t be.’” He said eventually he became disillusioned but did not dare criticise. That would mean jail or maybe far worse.
“You can’t speak out,” he said, citing a time when fighters caught his father violating an ISIS ban on smoking and warned him that next time he would be whipped.
Saleh, who also surrendered in Bashiqa, appeared for the interview in military fatigues and with a hood over his head initially.
He said he inspected vehicles at ISIS checkpoints, where any Iraqi soldiers or Kurdish fighters were ar­rested and anyone not living in the area was viewed with suspicion.
Later he said he worked prepar­ing rice, meat and lentil meals for the fighters, who had one cook for each group of 12.
He said he received 25 days of four-hour training sessions on how to handle an AK-47 assault rifle but did not fight for ISIS or condone violence.
Ismail, reflecting on his decision to join the group, was at a loss for words and close to tears. He went out of his way to praise his Kurdish captors, as the official looked on.
He said he lost touch with his family as he moved from Mosul to Bashiqa, where he ended up encir­cled by Kurds in that house, wait­ing for ISIS to deliver on promises to send reinforcements that never came.
The two men face an uncertain future. With the battle for Mosul still going on, the security com­pound is home for people the Kurds in charge of the area consider a ma­jor threat.
If sufficient evidence is gathered, the men are likely to face trial.
Asked what he would like to tell his relatives, Ismail said: “Please be patient. If God is willing, I will re­turn.”