The last days of ISIS - Macleans.ca

The last days of ISIS

Adnan R. Khan on the ground with two Canadians: one who joined the Islamic State, the other the Kurds

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Men suspected of being ISIS fighters wait to be searched by members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria's northern Deir Ezzor province on Feb. 22, 2019. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

When the blindfold is removed, Muhammad Ali has a look in his eyes that is not so much panic or fear; it is one of emptiness—someone who has lost all sense of purpose.

It’s a stark contrast to the young man who burst onto the jihadist social media scene in 2014. Back then, ISIS was at the height of its power, when it controlled vast swaths of territory across Syria and Iraq, and was still growing. Ali, now 28, had left his home in Mississauga, Ont., in April that year to join the group in Syria, and sounded then like a man on a mission, one that involved beheading infidels, executing homosexuals and enslaving women.

Not long after arriving, he tweeted about “playing soccer” with the head of James Foley, the U.S. journalist who was executed by ISIS on Aug. 19, 2014. In a November tweet, Ali, referring to the terrorist attacks at Parliament Hill and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., in October that year, called on ISIS loyalists to “strike them, just as they strike your brothers and sisters.”

Now, as he is led to a chair, Ali’s gait is tentative and uncertain. He scratches his arm and upper thigh obsessively, a skin condition he tells me, though he never suffered from anything like it growing up. Before sitting, he pauses and looks around at the Kurdish intelligence officers in the room, as if waiting for instructions.

After eight months in a prison in northern Syria, Ali looks otherwise healthy, apparently well-fed with the beginnings of a new beard replacing the one he shaved off before attempting to escape the last vestige of the ISIS caliphate in June last year. He becomes agitated when one of the intelligence officers sets up a video camera for the interview.

“I don’t want that,” Ali says, his voice strained. “They’re gonna use it for propaganda. They’re always forcing me to do these interviews.”

READ MORE: Life amidst the ISIS insurgency

It’s not a good start to an interview I’d been trying to set up for more than a week. In fact, Ali was not even the Canadian ISIS prisoner I was hoping to meet. That was Mohammed Khalifa, the Toronto native who has admitted that he was the voice behind some of the Islamic State’s most gruesome execution videos.

I explain to Ali he is under no obligation to talk to me. To calm his nerves, I tell him I have news about his wife, who is also Canadian, and two young daughters, who are being held in a camp for the families of ISIS fighters.

“Are they okay?” he asks, his dejection taking a sharp turn.

“The last I heard they are fine,” I tell him. “Your wife is in touch with her father. He’s working on getting them returned to Canada. Do you want to do this interview?”

Ali nods and settles into his chair.

The prison in northern Syria where ISIS fighters like Ali are kept is an imposing concrete panopticon surrounded by blast walls and razor wire on the southern outskirts of al-Hasakah. The prison has changed hands a few times over the course of the Syrian war. For a brief period in 2015, it came under the control of ISIS, which reportedly released all of its prisoners. It then fell to the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the Kurdish militia in northern Iraq that, backed by the U.S., has led the fight against ISIS.

On the day I meet Ali, in a side office inside the prison compound, the prison shows little signs of the violence it has seen. The enemy, the one that once vowed to turn northern Syria into a medieval theocracy, is no longer threatening its gates; it is, instead, locked inside.

As many as 800 ISIS foreign fighters, including Ali and Khalifa, now reside in al-Hasakah’s central prison, most captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, during the last stages of the assault on the dwindling caliphate’s territory. Over the past few months, under the cover of U.S. air strikes, artillery barrages and rocket fire, the SDF closed in on the last remaining ISIS strongholds, battling through the Euphrates River Valley on its march to the Iraqi border, one ISIS-controlled village falling after the next.

VIDEO: ISIS foreign fighters are coming home. Now what?

On March 4, according to Mustafa Bali, an SDF spokesman, as many as 3,000 people, mostly civilians, fled from ISIS’s last stronghold in Baghouz al Fawqani, a tiny patchwork of rundown farmhouses, farm fields and tunnels on the east bank of the Euphrates, less than five kilometers from Iraq.

The last time I was down near Baghouz, on Feb. 11, ISIS fighters were surrounded and desperate, lashing out in a counterattack that seemed to serve little purpose. U.S. jets, artillery and rocket launchers were raining ordnance down on their positions. Hundreds of civilians, almost entirely women and children, were on the move, stuffed into the backs of open-top trucks transporting them to SDF camps.

The counterattack failed. It may have been tactical, or it may have been exploratory, a probing mission to look for weaknesses in SDF lines. Or it may just as well have been the violent spasm of a dying beast.

When I first meet Kyle Town, it’s purely by chance in a restaurant in Derik, a small town in the Kurdish-controlled countryside of northern Syria near the Iraqi border.

The 30-year-old Thunder Bay, Ont., native walks in for lunch with a group of six foreign fighters, mostly Americans, who have enlisted with the YPG, considered by most experts to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish acronym, PKK, which has fought a bloody insurgency in Turkey’s southeast for decades and is listed as a terrorist organization in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

Despite its dubious origins, the YPG is a key ally of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS and the founding militia of the SDF, dominating its command structure and fielding its most potent fighting force, armed and trained by American special forces.

Derik, a sleepy administrative town, is the home base for the International Freedom Battalion, the YPG’s foreign fighter contingent. Hundreds—from Europe, the U.S. and Canada—have joined the group; some, like John Gallagher from Windsor, Ont., have died fighting for them. Town arrived in northern Syria in August last year, geared up not simply to destroy ISIS but to participate in what he considers the noble cause of the YPG’s revolution.

We meet later at the Freedom Battalion’s headquarters, in the rolling green hills surrounding Derik. It is a cross between a military outpost and a trekking base camp, and offers a commanding view of the Kurdish countryside, not just in Syria but Iraq and Turkey as well.

RELATED: Why did teenage Somali-Norwegian sisters flee to Syria to join ISIS?

Town shows me around the base, pointing out the aluminum portable building with “mosque” scrawled on its side that the YPG took from ISIS and now uses as a common room for its fighters, decorated with pictures of famous leftist revolutionaries like Che Guevara and Margherita Cagol, the leader of the Italian Red Brigades. He walks me over to a firepit set on a hilltop overlooking a valley.

“If you look to the north you can see the Cudi mountains, which are a part of northern Kurdistan within the borders of the Turkish nation state,” Town says. “If you look to the east you can see some of the mountains that are in Iraq, so southern Kurdistan. It’s kind of a constant reminder that Kurds are living in these four split-up parts—when you include Iran. These borders, which were drawn up in some kind of meeting room far away from here, have divided people and denied them a lot of their rights.”

The symbolism is central to the YPG’s revolutionary cause. For both ISIS and the YPG, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, doling out different parts of the Ottoman Empire to Britain and France, was the original sin that created superficial nation states and subjected the people of the Middle East to the rule of dictators. That sin, both groups claim, can only be erased by dismantling those nation states altogether.

For ISIS, of course, they would be replaced by the caliphate; for the YPG, by a quasi-anarchist system of self-governing communities, each in control of its own destiny.

The clash of these two ideologies is the backdrop to the war that has played out in northern Syria between ISIS and the YPG, with the latter now declaring victory.

When I meet the foreign fighters at the Freedom Battalion camp, they know the war is nearing its conclusion. They are relaxed and talkative. All have been to the front to fight; Town most recently at the beginning of January. What he found there was an enemy in retreat, without the will to fight and lashing out in desperation. “For the most part there was little resistance,” he says. “On Jan. 7, ISIS attacked our position during the evening. They had cover from dust that was being kicked up by the air strikes and carried on the wind. They swept across the front and wrapped around the right side of our position. The firefight lasted for about three hours and then when night came, they retreated again.”

Mohammad Ali, a 28-year-old Canadian jihadist captured by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

At the time—in early January—SDF forces had already overrun Ash Sha’fah, the same village where, seven months earlier, Ali had decided to abandon ISIS and make a dash for the Turkish border with his wife and children. He was captured by the YPG there.

In his telling, the journey to Ash Sha’fah began in 2008, when he was 18 years old and a first-year student in the aerospace engineering program at Ryerson University in Toronto. Those first months at university were a difficult transition for Ali. He found university life disorienting and his choice of career path uninspiring.

“I don’t know what it was, man, whether it was depression or just the stress,” he says. “But I just couldn’t handle it, to the point where I even stopped going to classes. Eventually my marks dropped and they kicked me out.”

Growing up, Ali attended John Cabot Catholic Secondary School, where he had few friends and spent almost no time socializing. His life was routine: go to school, come home, watch television. There was nothing that really interested him, no set of beliefs that his parents, Pakistani Muslim immigrants who arrived in Canada in 1999 and were busy trying to build a new life, instilled in him.

So when he did find something, he took to it with unusual fervour. In 2010, Ali says he turned to religion, though his family was never particularly religious. His exploration began online where he says he began reading classical Islamic texts. But without anyone to guide him, his understanding took a more militant turn after the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011. As the uprisings intensified, Ali became progressively more dismayed and distressed. The Syrian regime’s violent attacks on peaceful protesters left an especially deep impression.

Ali’s anger grew. He fell into bouts of depression and anxiety, sometimes breaking down into tears over what he saw as the crimes being carried out against Muslims around the world. His family became dismayed. At one point, he says, his father took him to a local imam to try to help him.

Ali’s family has declined media interviews but, according to a friend who spoke to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity, what they didn’t know at the time was that, online, Ali had befriended Andre Poulin, the Canadian Muslim convert from Timmins, Ont., who had left to join Syrian rebels in late 2012. Poulin had joined the Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a group of foreign fighters based around Aleppo led by Chechens; he was encouraging the increasingly frustrated Ali to come join him in the fight.

Poulin’s death in August 2013 was the final push Ali says he needed. For months he had thought about going; his friend’s “sacrifice” was what finally gave him the courage to follow through. For years after being kicked out of university, he had wandered through life aimlessly and eventually ended up in northern Alberta taking on odd jobs in its oil fields. After Poulin’s death, Ali went home to Mississauga, bought a plane ticket to Turkey, telling his family he was going on vacation, and in April 2014, left.

READ MORE: De-radicalization can work for former ISIS fighters

While Ali was en route to Turkey, and then being smuggled into Syria, Kyle Town was back in Thunder Bay employed as a sheet metal worker but with dreams of being part of a revolutionary movement that would upend the injustices he felt had become institutionalized around the world.

Town had grown up in an environment of activism and social justice. His parents had opposed the provincial government of Mike Harris and its slashing of social programs in the late 1990s. When Town was three, his father, a police officer, was shot in the line of duty and paralyzed. “We got a lot of support from the community,” he says. “We managed to have nurses to take care of him 24 hours a day. We were really fortunate in this way, something that a lot of families don’t have.”

Harris’s cuts would have directly affected this kind of support. In response, the Town family took to joining protest marches against Harris’s plans and Town, then 10 years old, himself began to appreciate the power of “popular resistance to the government.”

Later, after the Liberal party took power, Town says he came to the realization that all political parties were the same, that it was the structures of capitalist-led democracy itself that was the problem. As a teen, politically active and searching for an ideology, he toyed with Marxist-Leninist-style socialism but came to the conclusion that its reliance on centralized state structures would only lead to more tyranny, as it had in the Soviet Union and China. He then turned to anarchism.

In 2007, Town left Thunder Bay for university in Ottawa to study political science—but found that what he was being taught was its own kind of propaganda. “I didn’t really agree with what we were being asked to accept,” he says, “that Canada, and the West generally, is more or less the pinnacle of progress in society in terms of democracy.” He dropped out and joined like-minded people in the anarchist community.

Syria first caught his eye during the early days of the ISIS expansion, especially when news began to emerge of its genocide against Yazidis in the summer of 2014. The PKK’s defense of the Yazidis struck him as not only heroic but also the product of the kind of ideologically driven tenacity that was needed to bring about the revolution he felt the world needed.

When he was finally ready to go, in the summer last year, he says he didn’t keep his intentions secret. He told everyone, including family, friends and work colleagues. “My family was supportive,” he says. “I’ve always been open with them about my thoughts on different issues. We’ve always talked about things like this.” In August, he boarded a flight to Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq, and then made his way to the Syrian border.

Kyle Town in the “mosque” at the base for the International Freedom Brigade, the YPG’s foreign fighter contingent in Derik, Syria. (Photo by Adnan R. Khan)

Neither Town nor Ali had any military training but both firmly believed in their causes. Town’s story is relatively easy to confirm and, being on the side that fought the universally hated ISIS, he has no reason to lie. Ali’s story is more complicated. Fearful and in the hands of the YPG, he now claims his only goal in coming to Syria was to protect Syrians and that he only ever fought the Syrian regime, never the YPG.

It’s impossible to confirm details of his time in Syria (Maclean’s was able to confirm the details of his life in Canada through media reports and interviews with people who knew him). But Ali has been consistent with his story, and the timeline of what he did while he was an ISIS member does align with how the group’s territory expanded and then collapsed.

Ali claims he arrived in Aleppo in early April 2014 with the help of a Swedish radical from ISIS whom he met online. “I didn’t really know much about the groups,” he says. “I just ended up meeting this guy from ISIS. At that time, pretty much everyone was going to ISIS, all of the foreigners and also the Syrians.”

After a month at a compound in Aleppo with about another 200 foreign recruits, Ali says he was moved to Jarablus, on the Turkish border, and then to a camp outside Raqqah, the city that would later become the capital of the ISIS caliphate. He learned how to use small arms; he learned how to pray properly and recite the right lines from Islamic tradition for a variety of situations, whether going into battle or before eating a meal.

After three weeks of training, ISIS administrators asked him what sorts of skills he possessed. Ali says he told them about his work in Alberta’s oil fields, so he was sent to the oil fields south of Raqqah. But there, nothing was working so he ended up sitting around until he was approached by an Australian fighter who invited him to come to his training camp in al-Tabqah, a small town just east of Raqqah.

Over three months there, Ali received advanced sniper and reconnaissance training. It was there also that he met his future wife.

Little is known about Rida Jabbar, an Afghan-Canadian from Vancouver, and her motivations for joining ISIS. But according to other wives of ISIS fighters, foreign women who joined the caliphate were held prisoner in homes until they found a husband. In Ali’s case, he was told while at the training camp in al-Taqbah that there was a Canadian woman available for marriage in the village. The two met once briefly and, sometime in September 2014, were married.

RELATED: The terrifying last days of ISIS in Mosul

Ali insists this was not a forced marriage or any kind of enslavement. He claims he had heard rumours at that time about what was happening to Yazidi women but didn’t really think much of it. “There was always people trying to justify it,” he says. “And me, while not understanding Arabic or being well versed in Islam or things like that, I mean it’s very hard sometimes to separate the truth from fiction and to know what’s right and to know what’s wrong. I mean, at the same time you’re sitting in a war zone and you’re getting pressured from all sides. It’s not an easy life, man.”

Ali was also using social media at that time to promote ISIS atrocities like the sexual enslavement of Yazidi women. He was, by his own admission, on board with its mission. In those early days, while the caliphate was rapidly expanding, Ali says it did feel like their cause was divinely ordained. The morale was high, he says, and he was happy.

Things began to change sometime in early 2016, after the birth of his first daughter. By then it had become clear to Ali that ISIS was not simply fighting for the Syrian people. Its split from other rebel groups fighting the regime had led to infighting that Ali believed undermined the cause. And he now felt the propaganda campaign calling for attacks on Western targets had been a mistake, even though he himself had participated in it.

“I started seeing that I’d been manipulated, that this group was more so a mafia than anything else,” he says. “They were really not concerned about the Syrian people or foreigners like me. They were mostly concerned about protecting themselves and surviving.”

The breaking point came in October 2017, when SDF forces began their assault on Raqqah. Ali says he had been stationed at a training camp for foreign fighters in the countryside east of Hama where he trained others in sniping and reconnaissance. But by the summer of 2017, the regime was closing in. He was forced to retreat to the east to al-Mayadin, on the Euphrates River.

As regime forces advanced, the ISIS lines collapsed. By mid-October, Ali and his fellow ISIS militants were forced further south. By then, Raqqah had fallen to the SDF. After that crushing blow, the will to fight evaporated, Ali says. “A lot of people at that time were fed up already. They wanted to go back. Some people were willing to hang around a bit longer. And for some people, going back was not an option.”

By January 2018, the ISIS caliphate was little more than a patch of land no bigger than Moosonee straddling the Euphrates River. Ali had been sent back to the front near Ash Sha’fah, tasked with targeting regime forces for ISIS snipers and doing some of his own sniping. On the morning of Jan. 23, he says he crossed the river to visit his wife and children and drop into an ISIS office for some work.

“By the afternoon, I heard that pretty much the entire west side had fallen in that hour or two-hour period that I’d been gone,” he says. “[The regime] pretty much just walked in and stormed the place. When I heard that news, I pretty much left work, just stayed home with my family, saw a few people. I left ISIS; I stopped working for them.”

Hundreds of civilians fleeing ISIS, mostly women and children were moved to SDF camps (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images)

Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue who interviewed Ali in October last year, says ISIS foreign fighters have often had a change of heart, especially once there are children in the picture. “I think his argument that he was disillusioned is probably accurate,” he says. “Whether he was able to leave right away is probably the more difficult question. But he did have a wife and kids at that point.”

He also believes that foreigners in the caliphate were likely used as pawns, particularly women and children who were moved in tandem with the shifting front lines and kept as human shields. “I was stunned by the number of Western women coming out of the last holdouts,” he says.

Ali also claims that the ISIS leadership abandoned foreign fighters, which Amarasingam says is also probably true. For the Iraqis and Syrians at the higher echelons of the organization, melting into the local population would be straightforward, as well as strategic. Most experts agree that ISIS is planning an insurgency in both Syria and Iraq. In fact, it has already begun. But for foreigners like Ali, who looked different and spoke little Arabic, there was no choice but to stay and fight.

The more difficult question to answer is whether Ali has abandoned his ideological fervour. He insists he was never fully inured to the ISIS brand of Islam. But when the situation was good, when ISIS controlled large swaths of territory and Ali was contentedly working away in the oil fields or training snipers, he was, by his own admission, happy to play the role of radical Salafi jihadist and believed he was engaging in a holy war against the West.

The Canadian government has been evasive on the issue of what to do with people like Ali—as many as 32 Canadians are held in al-Hasakah’s prison and a refugee camp in northern Syria. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has admitted that bringing them home and prosecuting them will be difficult considering the challenge of gathering evidence of their activities in a dangerous war zone. The U.S., meanwhile, has said if countries like Canada do not repatriate their nationals, the SDF will have no choice but to release them, increasing the likelihood they will return to the battlefield.

Ali insists he poses no danger to Canada and wants to come home, that his experiences on the battlefields of Syria have taught him the value of life in his home country. “Canada is very open and everyone is very accepting of each other,” he says. His revolution, he claims, is over.

For Kyle Town, the ideological question is more clear: being on the winning side has only deepened his belief in the YPG’s cause. ISIS was only one part of a much bigger battle, he says, and he was late on that scene anyway. During his brief time on the front lines, he was witness to the end of the caliphate. Now there is a more dangerous enemy on the horizon, he says.

Turkey, which considers the YPG as much a terrorist organization as the PKK, is threatening to launch its own offensive on YPG-held areas in northern Syria. For the Turks, the YPG’s political vision, its rejection of all state structures, is an existential threat.

During the last ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK, PKK militants were criticized by international organizations for setting up their own political structures in areas they controlled in the southeast, in essence overthrowing the local government. In Syria, the YPG has done ostensibly the same thing. Its utopian political experiment means the Syrian regime will either have to give up political control over a vast swath of its territory or try to take it back by force.

Town says he is ready to fight, whether it is against Turkey or Syria. His revolution is only beginning.

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