‘The whole experience of being with Daesh was terrifying’ – a Syrian defector’s story

Part One: “We needed the caliphate, a strong entity.”

Demonstrations in Aleppo, credit: Freedom House

As any other young man attending university and spending his time with people of the same age, the beginning of MD’s story appears to be that of an ordinary young man. The first steps of his path toward joining Daesh had less to do with religion than with a rapid sequence of events. MD sees himself as “religious but not overly religious or extremist.” As he attempts to make sense of his past, he is clear about the crucial crossroad that brought him towards Daesh: the perceived lack of an alternative to an armed struggle within the context of the Syrian civil war.

“The regime didn’t give any space to anyone. There was no option but to get weapons.”

MD attended the University of Aleppo, where he established relationships and sympathised with political and religious causes. As he got to meet students subscribing to the Salafist ideology, he became “convinced” about the righteousness of this vision of Islam and developed strong bonds with members of the local Salafi scene. It is during this period that he met Abu al-Abbas, a young man that would later prove to be a determining figure in his life as a jihadist.

When the revolution in Syria began, MD did not hesitate to support it directly. In the first stages of the unrest, the resistance refused to take up arms. People met, discussed together, wrote on walls and joined demonstrations but they did not seek violent clashes with the Syrian regime security forces. However, MD did not believe there could be a peaceful settlement of the crisis and felt there was no option but to get weapons to oppose the state. This belief led him to join a Salafi-armed rebel group where he developed strong relationships with other fighters. MD had found a group of like-minded people with whom he could share his experience of isolation and threat from the regime.

“Many of the brigades didn’t believe in their work. There was no real advance and we wanted a solution.”

Free Syrian Army fighters credit: Freedom House
Free Syrian Army fighters credit: Freedom House

As the revolution escalated, MD knew that he had to make a choice. He had to understand what goal he wanted to support and to pick the “right side of the revolution”. There were seemingly hundreds of different brigades and the situation appeared incredibly fragmented. According to him, “there was no real advance” and people desperately wanted a solution. The situation was extremely disorientating and the battlefield performance of many moderate groups was poor.  It was in this context that MD decided to fight on behalf of a hard-line Salafi group operating in the northern Aleppo countryside. The threat of imminent danger combined with the desire to work towards a noble objective increased the fighters’ respect for group commanders as well as their values and norms, even if they tended towards extremism. As MD admits, you “work with men who ha[ve] combat experience” you come to accept their ideas.

“They interpret the Quran in the way they want to and so we were carried away.”

The war environment combined with the constant religious training made it difficult for MD to defend himself against the group’s indoctrination. But when his group received instructions to target the Free Syrian Army (FSA), MD was surprised: “the FSA are Muslims, Syrians. They chose to fight with a certain group and I’m with another. We are not enemies. We had worked together. We’re going through the same thing.” Yet, MD admits that at this stage of his involvement, “it wasn’t hard to pull us in that direction.” As he recalls, “the focus was mainly on religious education” with an aim of bringing the thinking of Syrian and foreign fighters closer together.  But MD considered that this was a mistake: “[it] brought the Syrians towards extremism.”

“We all had the same ideology, what happened, happened and the Islamic State was announced”

As Daesh announced the establishment of its “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, many fighters started to join the organisation. According to MD, this was not a difficult decision: “we needed the caliphate, a strong entity. The announcement of [the establishment of Daesh] made people really believe in it.” From the University of Aleppo all the way to Daesh, MD’s journey was a gradual process of radicalisation, where prolonged exposure to violence leads individuals to seek increasingly extreme methods to achieve their goals. But as the rest of MD’s story reveals, the farther one goes on that path, the harder it gets to find the way back.

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