The fighter pictured is for illustration only; he is not the one I interviewed, since the prison did not allow photographs.
“This war is not over,” the tall, bearded Iraqi old me, his voice quivering with rage. Mohammad was a fighter for the Islamic State, and even though he was only 29 years old when I talked with him in prison in Northern Iraq, he had been a fighter with ISIS and its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, since 2005. In his mind he was still was at war.
Though he said the war was over, in fact it was over for him in reality since he was serving what would be a long prison sentence, perhaps for a life time. The war was also over in another sense, in that he had left the militant organization in disgust over its corruption even before he was arrested and the movement was militarily defeated.
His story provides an interesting case study on how an extremist movement like this can end as a militant threat, even though its ideology of warfare persists. But to understand how this came about—how Mohammad came to reject the movement that enshrined the ideology of cosmic war to which he remains dedicated—we have to look at how he got involved in it in the first place.
Mohammad even at age 29 still has a soft round face framed in a traditional Muslim beard. He is a tall guy, physically large and somewhat intimidating when he stands up to make a point. The warden had allowed us to meet in a private conference room so we would not be disturbed. I was alone with my Arabic translator and Mohammad. And although the warden thought that I would be safe, there were moments in the conversation that were a bit frightening.
The conversation began quietly as Mohammad told me how he gotten involved in the movement. He was raised in Mosul in a Sunni Arab family that had prospered under the Saddam regime. Some of his relatives were in Saddam’s army. The family’s fortunes and its political connections came crashing down when the US invaded Iraq in 2003 and Saddam was deposed.
The first stage of Mohammad’s militancy was one of identity politics. As a Sunni Arab he was incensed that the US occupation not only deprived Saddam loyalists of their occupations but also raised Shi’a politicians to positions of prominence where they could systematically exclude Arab Sunnis from meaningful participation in the government or the receipt of lucrative government contracts. Though a young teenager at the time, Mohammad life was deeply disrupted and his anger turned towards militancy.
When Abu Musab al Zarqawi formed al Qaeda in Iraq, Mohammad saw it as a way of empowering Sunni Arabs. In 2005, when he was scarcely fifteen years old, he joined the movement and became a fighter for AQI. All his friends were doing it, he said, and the leaders that he met with at the time were inspiring. He saw it as a way of redeeming his community and proving his manhood. He saw the movement as a liberating force for Iraq, he said, adding that “Iraq had become a colony of Iran.”
He would not tell me what he actually did in the movement, though he said that “everyone was equal” and they rotated such tasks as transporting weapons, helping with communications, setting improvised explosive devices, and fighting in teams. Within a year, however, he was caught, arrested, and sent to prison for two years, from 2006-2008.
Those two years in prison comprised a formative phase in Mohammad’s radicalization. He described the prison as “jihad university,” since senior members of the movement were able to indoctrinate young recruits like Mohammad into the jihadi ideology. “We loved going to prison,” he told me, “it was just like going to school.” Classes were organized into different aspects of textual, historical, and theological studies. It was there that Mohammad embraced the anti-Shi’a, anti-Western apocalyptic Muslim extremism that later characterized the Islamic State. This, then, was the second stage of Mohammad’s radicalization, a religiously ideological stage.
When Mohammad told me what he believed, however, it was only the basics; it clear that whatever teachings he learned in prison he was not currently able to articulate the finer points of theology. The principles seemed to boil down to three main points: opposition to the forces that were resistant to true Islam, an opposition that included especially Shi’a, moderate Muslims, and Jews and Americans (whom he called Zionists and Crusaders), and belief in the coming Caliphate.
This was the point in the conversation where he became quite agitated. He stood up and thundered about the injustice done by these three groups of people—Shi’a politicians, moderate Muslim officials, and the American military. He said they could not be redeemed, and implied that the only recourse for them was death, looking at me sternly.
I nervously looked around the room at anything that might be used as a weapon in the event that he decided to carry out this sentence on an American professor in his presence. I realized that the pen in my hand that I was using to take notes could be used to stab me in the neck, so I quietly slipped it into my pocket.
Sensing my discomfort, Mohammad sat down, and his voice calmed. He could tolerate Shi’a and Americans, he said, when he was not in the Caliphate. He had Shi’a friends when he was younger, he said, and they were good friends at that, but they were not anti-Sunni the way that the Baghdad Shi’a seemed to be. He also said that some Americans could be decent people, a statement that I inferred could apply to me, which gave me some relief.
But when one is in the reign of the Caliphate, he said, everything has to change. In order to fulfill history, there has to be a total cleansing. Using language that appeared to legitimate the actions of the Islamic State when it was in power, Mohammad said that in the Caliphate no Shi’a or non-Muslim foreigners should be allowed, nor should moderate Muslims be tolerated. Christians could purchase their release, he said, but everyone else would have to be annihilated. “They have to be killed” he said, coolly. Even your old Shi’a friend, I asked him? “Yes,” he said quietly, adding that “all who are against us have to go.”
After prison he quietly became reengaged with the movement, slipping under cover so he would not be identified by the Iraqi police. The era of ISIS was exhilarating for him, he said, though he would not admit to being formally a part of the organization. He was a “known person” within the movement, he said, and people came to him for advice and counsel.
He did not volunteer any information about his specific role within the movement or acts that he may have committed. I assumed that he did not want to say anything that might complicate his prison sentence or contradict what he might have said in court when he was convicted. Moreover, the specifics of his role and activities were not my main interest. What I wanted to know were the basics: why he got involved and why he left.
His conversation implied that he played a leadership role, and that he got into disputes with others in leadership positions within the movement. At one point, he said, there was violent infighting, and during the ensuing struggle he was shot in the stomach by another member of the movement. Mohammad lifted up his shirt to show me the scars on his torso which were indeed severe.
That was the point in which he lost all faith in the leadership, Mohammad said. He became disillusioned with the organization and its leaders. He continued to admire some of the main figures, such as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who proclaimed himself the caliph, and Abu Mohammad al Adnani, who before he was killed in 2016 was the leading voice of ISIS and its chief spokesman. He had no use for Ayman al Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden as head of al Qaeda, since Zawahiri did not approve of the attacks on Shi’a. Mohammad regarded Iraq’s Shi’a leadership as being a terrorist organization, more dangerous, he said, than ISIS or al Qaeda.
So he respected some if not all of the well-known jihadi leaders. But on the lower levels, there were often squabbles and infighting. Many of these lower level leaders, Mohammad said bitterly, were just in it for the money and the power. Others used the ability to kill and punish as a revenge against people that they did not like.
What Mohammad told me confirmed much of what I have learned about how militant movements like this come to an end. The ideology does not change—and in fact, there is no point in counterterrorism measures that waste their time trying to convince militants of their theological or ideological errors and trying to change their minds. What makes them quit the movement in many cases is a collapse of authority within the movement itself, or the realization that their militant tactics were not working. Mohammad understood the legitimacy of killing enemies of true Islam, he said, but this power was increasingly abused. Ultimately the followers of the movement were turning on one another.
So he left. For a time he had to go undercover to protect himself against both the Iraqi police and his own former comrades in the movement. Eventually, when he was in an area outside the movement’s control, he was spotted by an Iraqi police informant and arrested. Mohammad still does not know whether that was a coincidence or whether he had been betrayed by someone in the movement.
Because he was a “known person” within the movement, as Mohammad described himself, there was a police dossier about his alleged activities which was used against him in his trial. Mohammad said that he did not cooperate with the judicial proceedings since he assumed that they had already determined in advance that he was guilty and that he would be serving a long prison sentence, if not a death sentence.
It turned out to be a prison sentence. He did not reveal the number of years, but implied that it was lengthy, perhaps a life sentence. The warden has kept him isolated away from other convicted members of al Qaeda and ISIS for his own protection, since he is regarded as a turncoat against the movement. His wife is allowed to visit him during regular visiting hours, he said. And he had hopes that some day he would be released.
I asked him what he would do if he was ever able to leave the prison? He would rejoin his wife and family, he said, and get some sort of job, perhaps in construction or auto mechanics. He would not take up arms and join the movement again, he said, even in guerrilla warfare. “We did that,” he said, asking “and what did that accomplish?” Fighting has only destroyed the movement he said, implying that it was destroyed both from outside and from within.
I wondered whether the idea of a great cosmic war would continue to loom so large in his imagination if the social and political situation was different—if, for instance, the government in Baghdad would welcome the Sunni Arab community as equal citizens? I wondered if the Iraq government would ever empower the Sunni tribal leaders in the way that led to the success of the Awakening movement against the earlier moment of al Qaeda activism in Iraq from 2006 to 2011. Without the sense of Sunni Arab outrage would the apocalyptic ideology of ISIS still be a motivating force?
At present, however, the governments of Iraq and Syria have not changed their suspicions about Sunni Arabs, and Mohammad has not abandoned the great image of cosmic warfare between the forces of evil and of true Islam in which the Shi’a politicians are the enemy. He believes that there will be a time when the Caliphate will rise again, and he is convinced that there will be righteous struggle in order to implement it. He will be ready to fight then, and he looks forward sometime to being a true soldier for that sacred cause.
But not now, he said. “Now is not the time.”
My thanks to Shahid Burhan Hadi for his arrangements and translation assistance when I was in Iraq in March 2019, and to the support of the Resolving Jihadist Conflicts Project of Uppsala University, directed by Isak Svensson.