EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with former Islamic State member
Islamic State (IS) member "Sherko Omer" would now be a dead jihadist hadn’t he surrendered to the pro-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria earlier this year. Journalist Rozh Ahmad met him to learn more about the experience.
In this interview "Omer" explains how he left his hometown in Iraqi Kurdistan to join the Syrian opposition and eventually became an IS member, what he witnessed and the reasons for which he risked his life to exit the extremist Islamic organisation.
Why and how did you join the Islamic State (IS) in Syria?
Two friends and I decided to leave Iraqi Kurdistan to join the Syrian opposition and its fight against the regime. In October 2013 we got contacts from several people close to the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) in my hometown, Halabja. We were told that the contacts were members of the Free Syria Army (FSA). We met the contacts in Turkey and they took us to a hotel for few days. Afterward, they took us to a training camp on the Turkey-Syria border and we found ourselves at an ISIS (or IS) camp instead of FSA.
But how is it possible that you weren’t aware your contacts were IS jihadists?
Well, we spoke with them in standard Arabic but they did not mention anything about IS until we were at the training camp. They talked against the regime as a machinery killing its own Muslim people and we had already heard that from FSA on TV. Moreover, they had no beards, dressed in modern clothes and even took us to a hotel in the Turkish city of Kilis. We therefore assumed that they were FSA not IS, as did many others who came to Turkey to join the Syrian opposition but joined us at the IS camp.
Is it true that IS trains new recruits for beheadings on dead bodies at the camps?
Not true for the camp I was at, where beheading training was practiced with chickens and other animals. I did not do it because when we arrived they asked for my skills and qualifications and because I am a technical professional and I had qualifications, I was assigned to technical works and trained with pistols and lightweight weapons. This is because my main duty was to learn the communication equipment, interception of enemy phone and radio lines as well as rescuing digital gadgets and archives during attacks. I never engaged in a firefight and this was the precise reason why Kurdish YPG fighters agreed to hand me back to my family after months of investigations.
How did IS members treat you as a new recruit?
IS commanders were very nice and respectful at the camp. You would think you knew them for many years. They gave us the best food; clothes, weapons and we enjoyed the friendship and brotherhood. In reality we knew deep inside there was a choice to leave, but (we started) to think of ourselves as fighters taking this brotherhood and luxury to Syria and we were told that we had secured a place in heaven too, that was very comforting. But beside these facts, to be honest staying also felt like a moral obligation since they spent money, gave us food, clothes, cars and respected us so much that leaving the camp felt like betraying the good deeds of those people.
What about the promise of virgin angles in heaven, is there any truths to this?
Yes, of course. We were told that as martyrs we would have 72 eternal virgins in heaven and we can save dozens of our close relatives from hell too.
So, IS promises its' recruits 72 virgin angels and you are saying this is not "anti-Islamic propaganda" as some people may otherwise claim?
We were promised women in heaven and on earth too based on IS jihadist teaching of the verses of some Suras of the holy book of Quran and hadiths by prophet Muhammad, all of which were explained through the Tafsir (explanation) by Islamic scholars like Ibn Majah, Bukhari and Ibn Kathir. We were told all non-Muslim women prisoners will be our wives and God wills it.
In Islamic holy war you cannot kill enemy women and children under any circumstances, they can only be taken as prisoners. It is permissible to have sexual intercourse with the captive women even if jihadists are married. You can buy and sell these women but for the children you have to raise them as home workers or teach them to become jihadists. I did none of these things because I was a communication technician not in the battlefield. And, who would claim otherwise when IS openly and proudly say they are carrying out these acts as implementation of Islamic Sharia.
Nonetheless, there are Muslim women who willingly offer their bodies for IS jihadists and this is called "Sex for Jihad" and they too will be compensated in heaven according to IS. However, these women were mostly with the commanders, I did not see average jihadist fighters with these Muslim women.
And everyone believed in this at the camp?
The consequences of disbelieving were not clear in an environment where they practice beheading. Nonetheless, many IS jihadist fighters truly believed all this but foreign recruits had no clue as to what the verses of holy Quran actually meant. I saw many foreign recruits who were put in the suicide squads not because they were "great and God wanted it" as IS commanders praised them in front of us, but basically because they were useless for IS, they spoke no Arabic, they weren’t good fighters and had no professional skills. They were brainwashed into the “women in heaven” and those they could rape on earth before they eventually killed themselves. I am alive partly thanks to my qualifications.
You have to remember that IS has been portrayed as an organisation of gangs only, although this is evident what they do, but the political leadership pay unbelievable attention to education and educated recruits. But at the end of the day good moral values are based on the way education and intelligence are being used.
So IS jihadists could just take women prisoners and sleep with them against their will, which the world considers rape?
Not only I say this but the IS emirs and commanders openly and proudly says it too. They believe it is permissible to sleep with women prisoners even against their will if they are infidels, non-Muslims and apostate women. This happened to Christian women in Al-Raqqa after their husbands were publically beheaded and I witnessed it. Now it is happening to Kurdish Yezidi women of Sinjar in Iraqi Kurdistan.
What did you witness in Al-Raqqa?
After training, my two Kurdish friends left to A'zaz where they have been confirmed killed now, but I was assigned to work as a technician in Al-Raqqa in the communications department. I was once told to go to a house to test some equipment to see if they can be useful for the technical and communication bureau. Once inside I realised it was a Christian home.
I saw six jihadists demanding that a Christian women and her daughter become their wives. The daughter was about 12-13-years-old. I told the jihadists forcing women is forbidden in Islam and children can't be touched under any circumstances. They loaded their guns in my face and told me to leave. I immediately left to the local court that was based in a small house, but the judge was worse, he said I was wrong because 13-year-old girl is not considered a child, essentially because prophet Muhammad married his wife, Aisha, when she was only 9 years old. He accused me of having poor faith in the practices of prophet Muhammad for which I could have been detained and possibly punished with tough sentences, but my field commander soon arrived and saved me.
This was the reason that made you leave IS?
I wanted to leave first week into my post in Al-Raqqa but I was a coward, scared of getting beheaded and did not know my way out. Unlike at the camp, IS jihadists acted as God in Al-Raqqa. They were rude, arrested and killed anybody for no real reason.
I decided to risk my life to escape after I witnessed a wounded captured Kurdish YPG fighter publically beheaded. He was about my age, but unlike me he was extremely brave. He spat on every jihadist around him. He shouted slogans about Kurdish freedom and Abdullah Ocalan. I had never seen anyone so brave in my life. His fingers were cut yet he shouted insults against the jihadists. He was finally beheaded from behind to suffer and salt was put on his half-cult neck to die in agony but he did not give up until he painfully died this way. Children too were present at the public execution. However, I felt very sick afterward and did not sleep for a week thinking I am either going to runaway or kill myself, but thank God the chance came soon afterward in the city of Serekaniye.
How and why did you end up in Serekaniye (Ras Al-Ain) because I am not sure if it is possible to travel from Al-Raqqa to the Kurdish region these days?
My commander said Kurdish YPG was an infidel secularist army and impure, arguing that each jihadist has the duty to first purify his own people and if we were all pure then infidels would not exit. The commander and others too gave me examples of Palestine and Israel as well as Kosovo and Serbs. They told me jihadists should first fight impure Muslims of Palestine and Kosovo to purify them and this way Israelis and Serbs would not exist. This was argued against my Kurdish people too. I joined a new battalion; we went back to Turkey and crossed the Turkish border to enter Serekaniye.
And what about the Ceylanpinar Turkish border post that is heavily controlled by Turkish soldiers?
They just turned a blind eye.
We were initially told by the IS field commander to fear nothing because there was cooperation with the Turks at the border. The watchtower light caught us and our commander said everybody should stop but do not look at the light. He talked on the radio, then the watchtower light began to move after 8-10 minutes and that was the signal saying we could safely cross the border.
When and how did you finally escape IS in Serekaniye?
I was sent to fix radios, communication equipment and help resolve technical issues of a small base north of Serekaniye end of February 2014. I joined a new battalion for this because IS planned to regroup northeast Syria to attack the YPG. I fixed all the faulty equipment after I arrived in Serekaniye, but then they asked me to intercept and interpret YPG radio communications. YPG members spoke Kurmanji Kurdish and I spoke Sorani Kurdish, but I could've tried harder to accurately intercept and interpret YPG radios and track their next moves, but when I heard female fighters speaking in Kurdish over the radio I just couldn’t do it.
Nearly a week passed at the base and it was the YPG that attacked our campsite. I was lucky because I was at the last outpost faraway when YPG first attacked and I immediately surrendered after YPG sniper killed the two jihadists beside me. I shouted in Kurdish, they told me to go closer and get naked and after it was clear that I had no suicide belt, they accepted my surrender. It is true that I have physically escaped now thanks to God and thanks to the YPG, but Al-Raqqa is mentally haunting me now because what I have witnessed is just pure horror.
"Sherko Omer" is a pseudonym. His real identity has been kept secret for security reasons. The views expressed are his own.