'It Was Never My Intention to Join ISIS': Interview With a Former Member of Islamic State

ISIS fighter
In the Magazine
An Islamic State fighter gestures from a vehicle in the countryside of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, October 7, 2014. Stringer/Reuters

A former ISIS member going by the pseudonym Sherko Omer tells Newsweek of how he left his native Iraq hoping to join the fight against Assad in Syria, but soon found himself caught up in a horrifying sectarian war, unable to escape.

I come from a privileged family. My father is a successful businessman in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. After I graduated, my father invited me to join the family business but I wanted to help the Syrian people and stop the killings of civilians. It was never my intention to join ISIS.

My parents are practicing ­Muslims and prior to leaving for Syria I regularly went to the mosque for Friday prayers. I never joined a political party or organisation but I had friends who were members of Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) – and it was KIG who gave us the contacts in Turkey to go to Syria.

I wanted to fight against a tyrant because that is how the media portrayed the Syrian uprising against Bashar Al-Assad and nobody talked about a sectarian civil war. The Free Syria Army (FSA) fascinated us but now I know they were all extremist Islamists such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS.  

When the three of us went to ­Turkey in October 2013 most of those who crossed into Syria ended up at ISIS border camps. This is what happened to us. Others were jihadists who knew what was going on and believed that if they died fighting for Allah they would go to heaven; and there were some who had come to join organisations such as the al-Qaida branch in Syria, the Jabhat Al-Nusra.

In the beginning, my friends and I discussed whether or not we could leave, but the ISIS guys were really nice to us. You would never think they would do such horrible things as I witnessed later in Al-Raqqa. We were also scared to leave. There was special training for the suicide squad who trained with suicide belts; and ISIS special squads practised beheadings on animals. When someone questioned the beheadings of animals, ISIS said it was the Islamic way of killing Syrian commanders and criminals who raped women and children and that according to the words of God this is how those criminals should die.

But in Al-Raqqa, everybody ISIS disliked was beheaded. It was nothing to do with regime’s commanders alone. The public executions included civilians of Al-Raqqa who ISIS jihadists thought were not good for the Islamic Caliphate or regarded them as guilty of crimes against God.

At the start, we thought that to leave would be a betrayal because the ISIS men at the camp gave us food, clothes and whatever else we needed. We also thought that if they were fighting against the regime of Syria then we should just join them to save the Syrians.

But when we left the camp and went to A’zaz and I finally ended up Al-Raqqa, everything was different. I witnessed horrible crimes committed by ISIS. I was so stressed in Al-Raqqa that I thought of suicide on several occasions. I wanted to escape but there was no way out. Only when I was deployed to the Kurdish region did the opportunity come to leave and I immediately surrendered to the YPG [National Army of Syrian Kurdistan] forces as they attacked our ISIS camp in the Kurdish city of Serekaniye.

I was held for several months and finally released after all sorts of investigations proved that I had no part in any crimes. I had been assigned to work in as a communication technician but my two friends became ISIS fighters. They were deployed to A’zaz – and both have been confirmed as dead.

While with ISIS, I noticed that the field captains and commanders spoke fluent Turkish. I rarely heard them speak in Arabic. ISIS commanders in Raqqa openly talked about the best foreign jihadists crossing into Syria from Turkey. Once, I heard that some ISIS foreign jihadists had been stopped by the Turkish border guards and police, but such were the ISIS connections that they were soon freed and safely on their way to Syria.

The last time I talked to one of my friends on the telephone, he had had enough of the whole organisation and he too had witnessed ISIS killing innocent people. He said he was scared to make an escape because he had witnessed ISIS publically beheading its own members who had tried to run.

It is difficult to get back to a normal. I have a constant feeling of guilt and shame that I ended up with this organisation in Syria. I tell myself that I had done this or that I could have made it out earlier and I get angry with myself. ISIS is now an inseparable part of my history although I am not and never was an extremist.

I now work at an agriculture project owned by my father. I listen to music, watch TV and read Kurdish literature. It is painful thinking that you were once part of an organisation that carried out genocide against your own people. I have flashbacks and bad dreams. A normal life far from war is all I seek now.

Read next: Newsweek Investigation: How Does ISIS Fund It's Reign of Terror?

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