One of the Last ISIS Fighters was not a Muslim

One of the lighter moments in my conversation with Ayman, a Yazidi boy forced to fight for ISIS, in village Seje near the city of Dohuk in the Kurdish Region of Northern Iraq, March 12, 2019.

In northern Iraq I met with Ayman, one of the last ISIS fighters, and found to my surprise that he was not a Muslim nor was he even an ISIS volunteer. He was a sixteen-year old Yazidi boy who had been captured by ISIS when he was only ten years old, sold into slavery, and impressed into service as an ISIS fighter.

The Yazidi religion is ancient, perhaps linked with pre-Zoroastrian Mesopotamian religions, involving belief in a divinity in the form of a Peacock Angel and prayers facing the sun. Its adherents form a small tightly-knit community of some 500,000 found mainly in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq near the Turkish border. Many Muslims wrongly regard Yazidis as devil-worshipers, and to the ISIS cadres they were fair game for exploitation, slavery, and murder.

The boy I talked with had been living in the main Yazidi town of Sinjar that was overrun by ISIS forces in 2014, when Ayman was only eleven. First his father and older brothers were separated from his mother, sisters, and himself, and he has never heard from the men in the family since then. ISIS cadres usually killed the Yazidi men almost as soon as they were captured. Later Ayman was separated from his mother and sister as they were taken away to be sold into slavery by ISIS, and they too have disappeared. The mother was most likely impressed into housework and the sister into sex slavery, though both may no longer be alive. ISIS was in the habit of killing its Yazidi slaves as they retreated from territory that they had once held.

Ayman was also put up for sale as a slave, but only after he went through a forced transformation. ISIS tried to make a Muslim out of him. First they changed his name. Then he was sent to Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, and placed in a camp with boys from various backgrounds, though he was kept from interacting with any Yazidis. He was given lessons in the Qur’an and in the ISIS version of radical Islam. He was forced to speak only Arabic, and in time he lost his fluency in Kurdish, his mother tongue.

When he was deemed sufficiently Muslim and his Arabic was up to par, Ayman was ready to be sold as a slave. He was put up for auction, and he was purchased first by a Moroccan ISIS volunteer in Syria who put him to work as a household servant, cleaning his rooms and helping in the kitchen. It was a miserable existence.

Things got worse when he was sold again, probably after the Moroccan fighter was killed, this time to a Saudi ISIS fighter with two wives who forced him to do housework and chores. He was subjected to regular beatings and various other kinds of abuse. I didn’t pressure him for details, but he said it was the worst part of his captivity.

His captivity under the Saudi man came to end, probably because he was killed during the last intense year of ISIS fighting, Ayman was still under ISIS control, however, and was commanded to become a soldier. He was now sixteen and sufficiently able to fight. He was given a gun and a few weeks of training on how to use it, and he became one of the last ISIS fighters holding on to a sliver of territory between Syria and Iraq in Boubadran and Baghouz.

In the last week before I talked with him, when he was fighting for ISIS in Baghouz, he was struck by a mortar round and his right leg was shattered. He was carried off to a field hospital where a splint was attached to his leg and he was provided makeshift crutches.

When he was able to walk, Ayman realized that the leadership structure of the ISIS fighting forces was falling apart in the intense battle for survival. Someone in the hospital whispered that he should simply flee. He did just that, hobbling out of the war zone at night to a checkpoint commanded by the forces he had been shooting at just hours earlier.

He surrendered to the Kurdish forces that were battling ISIS, explaining that he was in fact a captured Yazidi who had been forced to fight. He was brought back to a hospital near his old town of Sinjar, which had been destroyed during ISIS control and in the subsequent battle to liberate it. He was interviewed on Iraqi television, and by luck people who knew his family saw the interview and informed his grandfather, the only known surviving member of the family.

His grandfather traveled to the hospital for a tearful reunion and brought the boy back to the village where I met them. They arrived just the day before. Both Ayman and his grandfather seemed eager to tell the story of what had happened to the family.

Ayman was remarkably composed despite the trauma of five years of slavery and a dramatic escape. At times he laughed when he recounted some of the odd things that happened to him. But his face darkened when discussing the worst of his experiences, the beatings, the violence, and the abuse.

Later that day I talked with another survivor of ISIS slavery. This was a 19 year old Yazidi girl who had been held in slavery for six years and rescued only a few months ago. She had been captured in 2014 when the town of Sinjar was taken by ISIS. She was one of five sisters, four of whom were abducted. As ISIS closed in on the town the eldest sister rescued their aging parents, taking them up to nearby Sinjar mountain where they camped out until they were rescued. The other four were left behind and captured.

The younger sister I talked with had been sent to Raqqa and put up for auction and sold for a small amount of money. She was then resold, passed from one man to another, and finally married to a 37 year old Turkish Kurd who was an ISIS fighter who she said treated her relatively well. When he tried to leave Syria to take her back to Turkey he was apprehended by the Syrian Kurdish forces, the YPG. Surprisingly, they did not initially release her but forced her to work with them as a translator, since she could speak her native Kurdish along with Arabic and Turkish.

Only when members of the International Red Cross came to negotiate humanitarian aid with the Kurdish forces was the Yazidi girl able to explain to them that she was in fact a Yazidi and had been taken captive by ISIS. The Red Cross organization arranged her release and she was able to be reunited with her sister, with whom she was now living in the village where I met with her.

When I asked her what life was like in captivity, she didn’t want to talk about it. “It’s all the things you hear about,” she said, “beating, torture, rape, the worst.”

At the end of my day in the village I was emotionally exhausted, and haunted by these stories of oppression and liberation. Perhaps the one comment that stayed with me as I left was from the grandfather of the sixteen-year old Yazidi boy who had been taken into slavery and forced to become an ISIS fighter. How could anyone who called themselves religious, be they Muslim or Christian or any other religion, do such horrible things to other humans, he demanded to know. It was a question for which I did not have an answer.


My thanks to Prof Dilshad Hamad of Tishk University, Erbil, and Dr Muslih Irwani, director of the Public Policy Institute in Erbil, who arranged my visit to this village, and to Jeen Maltai, who provided translation. This trip was supported by the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies in Uppsala University, Sweden.


The Myth of the Lone Wolf NZ Terrorist

Was the New Zealand terrorist attack committed by a “lone wolf? “The recent attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand by a 28-year old white extremist, Brenton Tarrant, killing fifty innocent worshipers in the midst of their weekly prayers, raises the question of how to describe it. Was it a hate crime or an act of terrorism, or both? And if it was terrorism, was it part of an organized conspiracy or was it simply the act of a crazed individual—the so-called “lone wolf” terrorist?

Much of the news media and many politicians have quickly asserted that if it was terrorism, it was of the “lone wolf” type since Tarrant apparently acted alone with no connection with or active support from any organized group. This implies that we need not trouble ourselves with looking at the wider background, for this was simply a crazy act that could happen anywhere at any time for any reason. It also implies that there was no larger movement or audience to whom the killer was related, and for whom the act was intended to impress.

Yet this description is woefully inadequate to describe the New Zealand massacre, which was clearly meant to intimidate people—the basic definition of terrorism—and the racist apartheid patches on Tarrant’s jacket in his Facebook photo indicates that he identified with and wanted to impress other right-wing racists around the world, so he is hardly a lone wolf. Nor does the “lone wolf” characterization fit many of the other individual terrorist attacks in recent years.

In 2018 the vicious assault on a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh by Robert Gregory Bowers was characterized as an act of “lone wolf” terrorism. So was the 2015 massacre in a Charleston church by 21-year old white supremacist Dylann Roof and earlier that year the assault on the headquarters of a satirical magazine in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, by two Algerian brothers, Said and Cherif Kouachi. Before that, there was the 2013 Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston marathon, the deadly assault on a Norwegian youth camp by Christian extremist Anders Breivik in 2011, the August 2012 attack on the Milwaukee Sikh Gurdwara by Wade Michael Page, the 2010 Times Square bombing attempt by Faisal Shahzad, and even earlier, the 1996 Atlanta Olympic park by Eric Robert Rudolph and the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing by Timothy McVeigh.

Some of these were committed by Christians, some by Muslims, and some by those with no particular religious affiliation at all. Some had racist ideologies in mind, others were simply raging against society. In almost all cases, though, these have been instances where alienated individuals have struck back at a society that they thought had abandoned them. And they perpetrated their attacks in a way meant to impress a specific audience.

This is the most basic definition of terrorism, a public act of violence meant to be intimidating. What makes the terrorism of recent decades so striking is that they are seldom undertaken for strategic purposes—to gain territory or make demands—but are rather done for symbolic reasons. They are acts of violent meant to give the illusion of power, to intimidate one group of people and impress another.

Hence terrorist acts can be described as “performance violence.” A performance is done for an audience, or multiple audiences, to intimidate and impress. It makes no difference if someone like Tarrant or Breivik was a member of an organized extremist network or not; they were clearly trying to impress their imagined community of support, their White nationalist kinfolk, and to intimidate multiculturalists and Muslims into compliance with the idea of a society dominated by white Christians.

The comparison between Tarrant and the Norwegian terrorist Andres Breivik is relevant for a number of reasons. Like Breivik, Tarrant was part of a wider subculture of hatred. He likely thought of himself not as a terrorist but as a soldier in a great and hidden war, carrying out a mission on behalf of an imagined constituency of supporters. Like Breivik, he dressed up in military garb with militant patches—in Tarrant’s case he wore the symbol of a far-right nationalist group in Ukraine. As in the computer war games that are popular in his generation, Tarrant thought of himself as a warrior in a secret war. He even credited the computer game, Fortnite, for training him how to kill. One of Tarrant’s friends said that Tarrant had told him prior to the killings that he wanted to start a race war. This sense of mission would help to explain why Tarrant, like Breivik, thought of himself on a secret mission in an act of what he regarded as virtuous warfare and what we see as hideous terrorism. Like Breivik, Tarrant never showed remorse for conducting what he thought was a soldier’s duty in a grand, invisible cosmic war.

Then there is the matter of the message, one implicitly transmitted in the terrorist act itself, the other explicitly conveyed through a manifesto. Like Breivik, whom Tarrant openly acknowledged as a role model, Tarrant published on the Internet his own eighty-page written defense of his horrible deeds. Written in a question and answer format as if he was of sufficient importance to be interviewed by the news media, Tarrant’s manifesto winds through a twisted rambling set of comments and memes expressing Islamophobia, hatred of immigrants, and a strident right-wing nationalism. Impervious to irony, the Australian Tarrant –himself a foreigner writing in New Zealand—demands that outsiders be forcibly removed. He shows admiration for the nationalist stance of US President Donald Trump and like Breivik expects that his right-wing comrades will take a cue from his actions and his stance and rise up against Muslim and other non-white immigrants in their countries.

So it makes no difference whether or not Tarrant or Breivik were card-carrying members of racist organizations. They thought that they were part of a great social struggle in which their acts would receive approval and their roles respected as if they had been triumphant warriors. The white racist subculture of neo-nationalism around the world from the US and Europe through the Middle East, Asia, Australia and New Zealand have provided just such a social context. Despite the acceptance of multiculturalism by most people as a normal and interesting way of living in the wake of the dramatic demographic shifts in this era of globalization—or perhaps in an ugly reaction to the multiculturalism of global societies–racism and right-wing nationalism around the world are flourishing.

These communities of extreme nationalism that are punctuated with strident voices of hatred have given context and support for Tarrant’s act. Far from being a “lone wolf,” therefore, the perpetrator of the New Zealand massacre was not isolated. This terrible event was part of a sad, established pattern of xenophobic nationalism and white Christian terrorism that is as global as it is destructive.



This essay includes observations that I have made in other essays about a variety of acts of supposedly “lone wolf” terrorism in recent years.


Why Do We Think About War?

Introduction to God at War, to be published by Oxford Univ Press. The picture is a detail from Picasso’s Guernica.

“This is war,” the sad Filipino man said to himself as we looked across the river at the town of Marawi. Only weeks earlier, in a five-month siege in the last half of 2017, it been flattened by a military attempt to rid the city of an ISIS-affiliated Muslim separatist movement. As we viewed it across the river, the city still lay in ruins, baring the scars of battle.

His comment startled me. Though I also was dismayed to see the extent of the destruction, I knew that there was some controversy over who was responsible, who started it, and whether the military assault was justified. Just as the cities of Mosul and Raqqa were decimated in the efforts to free the evil grip of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in those countries, this effort to drive out ISIS rebels in the Philippine state of Mindanao resulted in the cities being turned into rubble. The liberating armies had to destroy the cities in order to save them.

I agreed that these were heavy handed military operations. They might also have been misguided. But were they war? My Filipino companion repeated the phrase quietly, as if stating the obvious. What did he mean by that, and what did he see that I didn’t?

I didn’t live in Marawi, of course. But he did. His family home was in the midst of the inner city and he lived through months of bombs and social dislocation. Now he was facing the specter of a ruined city across the river.

“There’s nothing left,” he told me, showing videos of what was left of his family home taken several days earlier on his cell phone. He was right—I could see only a pile of brick and stone rubble where once a multi-story had proudly stood.

“My mother built that home with her sweat and toil,” he said sadly. She had worked for years as a domestic housekeeper in Saudi Arabia, carefully sending the earnings back to her family in the Philippines. Part of the money was for their college education. The rest was for the house in Marawi.

Though he had been mildly sympathetic with the Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao before, he told me, his attitude had changed after the fighting. He knew now that they were in a state of war.

War—what a remarkable notion. As my Filipino companion told me, it enabled him to see everything differently. He saw the world through new eyes. He could no longer trust the government to do what was right; he now saw them as an enemy that was beyond redemption. One could only fight and attempt to conquer them in a scenario of struggle that engulfed every aspect of the social world around him.

It is a strange way of thinking, this idea of war. It turns the world upside down. It creates demonic enemies out of competitors, and brings normal civil activity to a halt. It animates ordinary people into a state of action, allowing them to kill and be killed, and cheer when the enemy—whose lives may not be all that much different than theirs, men and women with families and duties and dreams—is destroyed, sometimes viciously so.

Yet history is full of war. Perhaps more perplexing, religion is full of it. Human creativity in general revels in it. It saturates the images of popular culture—the plays and movies, novels and television stories, comic books and computer games. It is the prevailing image in the minds of those who have undertaken acts of terrorism in recent years. And it is the idea that animates those have launched their own wars on terrorism against it.

It is a powerful notion, war, and a puzzling one. For decades I have been studying the rise of religious violence around the world, including groups like ISIS and Christian militias that have been involved in acts of terrorism. Invariably war is central. All of the activists with whom I have spoken eventually get around to the subject.

“Mr. Mark, there’s a war going on,” I was told by a jihadi militant who was imprisoned for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. “We’re at war,” a Buddhist monk in Myanmar told me in justifying Buddhist attacks on the Muslim minority in his country. “We’re in a culture war,” a Christian activist in the United States explained, adding that “it’s not a metaphor, but a real war.”

So over the years it has become clear to me that war is the central image in the world view of virtually every religious movement engaged in violent acts. Behind the moral justification of using violence in savage attacks are images of great confrontations, of war on a transcendent scale. My fascination with these notions of war have deepened into a profound curiosity about what war is, and why it seems to emerge so spontaneously to situations of extreme shock, humiliation and stress. I want to understand war, to understand how this template of the human imagination can transform our view of the world around us, and what religion has to do with it.

This book is about war—the idea of war, why it is so appealing and why it is often associated with religion. I want to know why war needs religion and why religion needs war. What fascinates me is the idea of war—war in the mind. I am less interested in the actual use of lethal weapons than the world view that makes that usage possible. I know that much has been written about the strategic decisions that go into warfare, about the cold calculations to gain economic benefits or political leverage at the cost of soldiers’ lives, and about the political and moral justifications that allow for armed force in response to perceived threats. As important as these considerations are, though, they are not what I want to focus on in this book. What interests me is the quiet yearning for war that makes such calculations possible, the public acceptance of the notion that in some situations of social tension, war makes sense. It is this idea of war—this totalizing construct of the human imagination that absolutizes one’s view of the world—that I want to explore.

It is this mentality that I am thinking of when I talk about war. It is not so much the act of warfare as the idea of it, the passion for war, the war worldview. The passion for war is not a rational thing. Though the conduct of military operations certainly involves a great deal of skill and rational calculation, it seems to me that war—the idea of absolute conflict that precedes many but not all military acts—is almost an instinctual thing. It has much more to do with emotions—or a kind of inarticulated mental reflex—than with conscious reason. It is what I mean by “the war mentality,” the way of seeing things in war-like terms.

In fact, the idea of war and the actions of military forces do not necessarily go together. There are police actions and humanitarian interventions, even on an international scale, that involve deadly force, but they are seldom regarded as war. A military raid intended to locate culprits and bring them to justice is usually not thought of as war, but as a kind of police action. The Philippine government in Marawi explained that it was simply going after culprits in a violent gang. When the FBI surrounded the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco, Texas, on a fateful April day in 1993, their intention was not to kill the leader or burn alive the inhabitants of the compound. The FBI agents were not at war. But the members of the movement, trapped inside in what seemed to be a desperate situation and informed by biblical prophecies about the war at the end times, clearly saw things differently, just as the Muslim separatists in the Philippines saw Marawi differently. To them it was a salvo in a war in which they were a target. Hence militant actions are seen differently from different social perspectives. For those who accept that the motives of the U.S. and Philippine governments were lawful, these are cases of police action. For those who question the motives and perceive that there is a bellicose relationship between resistance groups and the government, Waco and Marawi were skirmishes in enduring wars.

These examples show that the application of military force and the idea of war are not necessarily identical. Similarly the pursuit of the al Qaeda activists in Afghanistan after September 11 could have been justified without the absolute and totalizing language of a “war on terror.”  Moreover, the idea of war does not require constant military action. The Cold War, for example, involved various regional military encounters—in Cuba, Korea and Vietnam, for instance—but the overarching concept was greater than any of these specific military skirmishes.

For most of us who grew up in Europe or the United States in the era of the Cold War, that global tension was, in an odd way, a reassuring view of the world. We knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, and we knew what to do about them. The decade after 1990 was one of uncertainty on a global scale. The “war on terrorism” announced by President George W. Bush in 2001 presented a new image of global war. Though not necessarily comforting, it presented a template of meaning on international events. Again Americans knew who the good guys and the bad guys were, and everyone else was either “for us or against us,” as the President sternly put it.

In the public pronouncements and popular sentiment in the years that followed 9/11, the war on terror was seen in the American imagination to have been in some ineffable way blessed by God. In the United States, as elsewhere in the world when the sound of war drums is heard, the rise in the language of warfare is accompanied by religious rhetoric. Just as the Islamic terrorists themselves proclaimed a holy war against America, the US militant response was also accompanied by a religious refrain, “God bless America.” God, it seems, is always where the military action is.

This has been true throughout history. Whether it is the warfare of the Hebrew Bible or the great armies of the Hindu epics, God has marched alongside conquering armies. In our attempt to understand the idea of war, therefore, it is inevitable that we will be trying to understand what God has to do with it. Why is religion so full of warfare, and why do wars always seem to employ God as a mercenary on either side?

This book, then, is a meditation on war and religion. It is a reflection on the dark side of the human imagination, and its capacity to deal with deep discomforts and profound anomalies in what strikes me as a horribly irrational and quite peculiar way—through constructing a template of meaning that totalizes the differences between positions, satanizes enemies, and gives moral sanction to the most hideous acts of destruction. What is this terrible thing called war, why do we humans want it so, and why is God so often in command?

God at War: Alternative Realities of War and Religion, is in press and will be published in Fall 2019 by Oxford University Press, New York, and in a German edition by Herder Verlag, Frankfurt.