Mohammed Al-Saud is under no illusions. “In 2011, the majority of the current ISIS leadership was released from jail by Bashar Al Assad,” he said. “No one in the regime has ever admitted this, or explained why.” Al-Saud, a Syrian dissident with the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, left Syria under threat of arrest in 2011.
Others were not so lucky. In 2006, Syrian Tarek Alghorani was sentenced to seven years in jail for the contents of his blog. Since his amnesty in 2011, he has been an active opponent of the Damascus regime. “There were around 1,500 people in there,” he recalls, outside a sleepy midtown café in Tunis. “There were about ten of us bloggers, around one hundred Kurds and the rest were just normal people. I’d say that, when they went in, around 90 percent were simply normal Muslims.”
“The situation in there was like the middle ages. There were too many people and not enough space. There wasn’t enough water to drink. There wasn’t enough food to eat and what there was would have been ignored by dogs in the street. Torture was an everyday reality. After years in there, all of those people became Salafists and in a bad, bad way.”
His fellow prisoners were members of ISIS. “Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, (founder of the Jihadist group, Jabhat al-Jabhat al-Nusra) was rumored to be there. Mohammed Haydar Zammar, (one of the organisers of the 9/11 attacks) was there. This is where the Syrian part of ISIS was born,” he said.
Alghorani is convinced that members of ISIS were released strategically by Assad. “From the first days of the revolution (in March 2011), Assad denounced the organisation as being the work of radical Salafists, so he released the Salafists he had created in his prisons to justify the claim ... If you do not have an enemy, you create an enemy.”
Fellow Syrians agree. “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their work, in their creation of armed brigades,” a former member of the Syrian Security Services told the Abu Dhabi newspaper, the National, on condition of anonymity in January this year.
“The regime knew what these people were. It knew what they wanted and the extent of their networks. Then it released them. These are the same people who are now in Iraq,” Al-Saud added.
“In jail, you have leaders, then you have leaders of leaders. Things form their own structure,” Alghorani recalled. “When these guys were released they all became leaders. They all developed their own followers. My jail was an academy for radical Salafist fighters.”
By 2012 it was estimated that, despite the open rift with their earlier partners Al Qaeda, ISIS had almost doubled its previous numbers to 2,500 fighters.
“Al Qaeda are extremists. They’re terrorists, they’re everything you want to say about them, but they’re operating to a central creed.” Al-Saud said. “ISIS are simply a bunch of ignorant young men who have been brainwashed into thinking what they’re doing is right.”
J.M Berger, author and researcher on Al Qaeda noted, “ISIS has been very competitive with [Al Qaeda] for popular appeal, especially in the key demographic of angry young men. Until now, there hasn’t been a clear victor in the battle for hearts and minds, but ISIS is reaping a lot of benefits from its current campaign in Iraq and this may be a gamechanger.”