DOĞU EROĞLU / [email protected]
29-year-old C.A. was born and raised in Ankara’s infamous Hacibayram district, where he first met al-Qaeda associated Salafist missionaries during his teenage years. After he became a drug addict in his late childhood, his life changed drastically. “Once my mind turned to drugs, I gave up on everything. I started heroin in 2002. One thing leads to another, you know? First, I took up pills, then cocaine. I kept increasing the dose and finally ended up with heroin. But I gave up all drugs in the Islamic State,” he says. In February 2014, over a decade of Salafist preaching convinced him to leave Turkey for Syria, to join ISIS as a fighter.
The boy who worked as a vendor after finishing middle school is gone now. Instead, he made himself a reputation in his new line of work, and reclaimed Ebu Huzaifah as his new name. In his new career, he made two voyages to Syria, spending nearly 10 months fighting for the Islamic State.
During his spell there, in his brigade C.A. began to be known by the name “the Decapitator,” fairly earned after he beheaded a Kurdish prisoner of war. Apprehended while crossing into Turkey illegally through a southern border town Elbeyli next to Kilis, he was released under judicial control measures and walked free in Ankara, only until atrocities committed by him was published in the Turkish press.
After a series of publications across Turkish newspapers raised alarms over religious extremism in the capital of Turkey, government snubbed the reports until evidence of ISIS presence appeared in the NYT (The New York Times) as well. That was more than enough for Turkey President Erdogan to lose his temper, and publicly slam the report.
Following his return to the capital, one of the fighters whose existence was firmly denied by President Erdogan, sat down for an interview before he was arrested this week, laying out the details of his motivations, the life under Islamic State, and how the Turkish authorities turned a blind eye to ISIS activities, from the recruitment stage in Ankara until safe passage to Syria.
How did you become acquainted with the Salafist structure emerged in Hacibayram, Ankara?
At the beginning of the 2000’s, some outsiders began to settle in the neighborhood and started proclaiming Salafism to other dwellers. I was only a child back then, but our elders who had adopted Salafism later told me all about it. I had embraced Salafism alright, but I had my ups and downs along the way. After finishing middle school, I started working at a grocery store, and then became a vendor, selling all sorts of stuff that I stock in the back of my van, traveling from town to town across the whole country. But one thing led to another and before I knew it, I found myself using drugs, I mean heavy stuff.
Did your drug addiction pose a threat to your personal belief, or to your relationship with newly formed Salafist society in the neighborhood?
I knew that I had to perform my prayers and commit myself to religious duties, but drugs came into way every time I tried to get myself together. Yet no one pressed against me. Many among the people who first embraced Salafism in the neighborhood were alcoholics after all. So they remained patient and kept inviting me to their meetings despite I was down at the heels most of the time.
Which particular edicts of Salafism appeared different to you?
When Shari’a in force, everything must be regulated in accordance with the Qu’ran. We noticed we had been delusional, living carefree lives separated from Allah, always in search of worldly pleasures. Until we accepted Salafism, we used our ignorance as an excuse. We were living in a rule under man-made rules, instead of the divine order of Allah. Do you know why we choose not to send our children to school? Because schools are secular places where those artificial rules are reproduced and envenomed into our youngsters.
How did you decide to join ISIS as a fighter?
I only knew ISIS from the stuff I was seeing on TV. They kept on showing beheadings and alleged acts of abominations of ISIS, but even back then I knew these killings were retaliation, completely coherent with the edicts written in the Qu’ran. From what I saw on the television, I decided to give my allegiance to ISIS. And the people in the neighborhood were supporting it as well, saying, “Adopt Allah’s religion and perform your prayers. A jihad is in progress in there and you’ll be purified and redeemed if you choose to take part in.” I saw it as an opportunity to kick drugs out of my life.
By that time, plenty of people from Hacibayram including my friends and relatives had already gone there. I made up my mind and told my decision to my parents, who were still loyal to Shia belief, and as expected, they didn’t like the slightest idea of me going there, sacrificing my life. My mother was all shook up, making threats about informing police about my intentions if I would ever try to join ISIS. “Fine, turn me in. You’ll be the first person I’ll kill,“ I replied.
How did the ties between ISIS and Salafists in Hacibayram get established? al-Qaeda was influential in the Syrian Civil War via its proxy al-Nusra Front but, until ISIS appeared, there was no outflow of jihadists from Hacibayram? What changed as ISIS came into the picture?
Many of the Salafists in the neighborhood had already been apprehended and questioned within al-Qaeda related operations of the police in 2000’s. At the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, they were still in contact with Al-Qaeda, but in the latter, they dispensed all ties with them only to give allegiance to ISIS.
How did you arrange your journey? Who did you get help from to cross into the Islamic State?
There was a guy in the neighborhood, dealing with those sorts of arrangements. I went to him in February 2014 and said, “Arrange me a safe passage to the Dawlah.” Then, I simply followed his instructions; first I took a bus to Antep, and when I reached there I called his connection who later came in a cab and took me all the way to the Syrian border near Elbeyli town of Kilis. For reaching the Islamic State, you have to send word to the ISIS amir (commander) in charge of border crossings.
He then arranges a local smuggler in Turkey for the journey until the border, and a chaperone in Syria who accompanies jihadists to various locations where they receive their first trainings in Shari’a. Mine was in Tabka, a town close to ISIS stronghold Raqqa. I wandered around in Raqqa for a few days, spent the nights at one of my relative’s place, and moved to Tabka for my training before long.
What was the general outline of the Shari’a training?
You learn about the verses and hadiths from tutors appointed by the Dawlah. And above all, you start to realize what you are fighting for. The second step forward is the military training.
What are the typical routines of the military training program?
The Dawlah’s military training program is more or less the same with the compulsory military service that you have to endure in Turkey, but you actually fire some rounds in ISIS’ trainings as a difference! For two weeks, you get up at 4 am in the morning, do basic physical training and laps. ISIS has some special education drills as well. For example, amirs approach you while you do pushups, fire four or five bullets to the ground, holding the pistol only a couple of inches away from your ears. They do this for you to make acquaintance with the sound of gunfire; not to startle when heard unexpectedly during the conflict. The same routine goes for the flashbangs thrown into sleeping quarters in the middle of the night. The whole training takes a fortnight and drills are usually take place outdoors with 200 to 300 jihadists attending. However, during my term, coalition air forces had hit one of the military training camps located on the other side of the Euphrates, and 80 of our brothers were martyred. After that, we continued our trainings indoors, generally in large houses, for preventing satellites from capturing images of crowds training.
How are suicide bombers trained? How does it feel to spend time with them?
Their faith is really strong and they want to join up with Allah by becoming martyrs as soon as possible. During our term, there was a 20-year-old from Kobane, and a Tajik of the same age who were picked as suicide bombers. We used to perform our morning prayers and then keep on sleeping, whereas they would carry on reading Qu’ran for more hours to come. The Tajik went on a suicide mission to the petroleum refineries at Baiji in Iraq. Their transcendence seemed peculiar, even to us; staying away from regular folks, and devoting themselves to religious rituals all the time.
Following your trainings, how did get drafted for the actual combat?
As jihadists complete their military trainings, each man gets temporarily enrolled in the reserve army. Amirs arriving to the facilities pick as many men as according to the requirements of their brigades. After I completed the military training, I was enlisted in one of the brigades operating in Syrian part of the Islamic State immediately.
How are the tactical details of an assault mission laid down? And how do you split the spoils of war?
We usually infiltrate at the daybreak. And if it’s rainy or foggy, it’s great; under those weather conditions drones and satellites can not locate us and it gives us the edge for the infiltration missions. Generally, howitzer shelling – reinforced by tank fires if necessary – and infantry is more than enough for capturing most of our targets, even military bases. Everybody admits that absent coalition airstrikes, ISIS ground forces are impossible to stop. There are spoils of war to be shared at the end of every combat; whether it’s money, precious metals, war gear or vehicles. 5 percent of the spoils of war is sent directly to the Dawlah; and the remainder is shared among jihadists fought in that particular operation. You might get a couple of thousand dollars, a car, and some rifles after an ordinary assault.
How is the concept of private property in the Islamic State? As a jihadist moving from one battleground to another, how does a motor vehicle come useful to you?
Well, apart from combats, I was spending my life at my residence which I shared with another single jihadists. You can park your car in front of it; then do whatever you wish with it. You can sell it, or use it.
How did you cover the basic living expenses?
Apart from wages earned by fighting, the Dawlah pays each household a compensation for subsistence. We were getting paid 75 dollars each for our monthly expenses such as food, clothing and so fort. Considering the local economy, it was a great amount, we were eating meat at every meal of the day! It was refreshing compared to the food they distributed during the military training. Some crust and cheese; that’s all you got to eat during the training.
How did you communicate with your family while you were there?
Through WhatsApp on smart phones mostly.
Did you suffer from drug withdrawal syndrome at first? Were they any others like you, attempting to quit drugs?
I kept having drugs until the very moment I step into the Islamic State’s territory, so basically I was still high on drugs at the time I crossed the border for the first time. I had seizures, hallucinated and wanted to kill myself on the first couple of days I spent in Raqqa before the Shari’a education has begun. I even asked an amir to put a bullet in my head and throw my corpse somewhere, it was unbearable. In the Dawlah, drug addicts are seen differently, but not judged. Amirs were always saying that we were fighting a dual jihad; the first one being the war waged upon the infidels, and the second against our wills to crush worldly desires and pleasures.
Do you know how many people you have killed during combat?
I really don’t know… It happened, alright. But I have never counted. If you want to live you have to kill without mercy.
What crosses through your mind during combat?
You know that if you die there, Allah will grant you martyrdom, but you’re only human and it’s how you’re created; of course you’re afraid. When the battle is on, the Devil whispers, and you began questioning what in the world you’re doing there. You think about your family too. My mother once told me, “It’s enough! If you die there, which grave will I visit and cry at?” She’s right, corpses don’t go back home; they stay here and remain buried, if there is a body to be buried of course. But the anxiety and fear fades, as you gain experience in combat. You get used to battle, even long for it. As you witness many of your brothers becoming martyrs, the desire to reach Allah by dying in the battlefield escalates.
Despite your religious motivations, why did you choose to leave the Islamic State?
After a certain point, I started to feel burned out; all the death surrounding me, I wanted to go back home. And… Why should I hide that, Allah already knows. Something inside me were constantly saying, “Oh, if I only were in Turkey, I would have gotten heroin and cocaine!” Indeed, on the night I returned Ankara, I went and got drugs anyway.
By that time, you were a trained jihadist with battle experience. How did they let you leave?
The first time, I asked permission from the amir of my brigade. He prepared a permission slip, and as a gesture of goodwill, he left the return date on the paper empty, allowing me to come back whenever I want. After 5 months there, in July 2014 I returned to Ankara, and stayed there until March 2015.
On crossing the border, have you ever encountered any policemen or soldiers?
On my first crossing, I came up against the gendarme. They saw me crossing the border illegally, but turned a blind eye to it. My return in July 2014, and reentry in March 2015 were uneventful, not a single official interfered. However, the last time I wanted to get into Turkey I got caught. Every time, I crossed the border at Elbeyli town of Kilis.
How did you get caught? Did that come as a surprise to you, considering Turkey’s general attitude towards jihadists?
After leaving Ankara for ISIS for the second time, instead of joining my former brigade in Raqqa, I became part of another one in Iraq. We were based in Ninova and usually stood guard against pashmerga in Sultan Abdullah and al-Nasr areas, or sometimes deployed to Baiji, Ramadi and Tikrit for combat. I was amongst those who captured Ramadi. But at the fifth month, some of my fellows from Hacibayram wanted to go back to Ankara, they had their families with them too, and I agreed to join them, hoping to reunite with my wife. We didn’t bother asking amirs for permission that time; we dressed as civilians, and found ourselves a car with a driver to reach the border. If the driver has a permission slip, no ISIS guard close to border asks for further documentation than that, so that in the midday we managed to reach the border smoothly. In our party of twelve, there were three more fighters besides me, their wives, and five children. I had already got the intelligence, I knew which parts of the border had landmines, so I gathered everyone around me and we walked for a mile. On the ground zero, I saw a soldier on the border watchtower, pointing his rifle against us, and I heard the sound him feeding a round into his rifle’s chamber. He thought that would have terrified us I suppose. Right, we were just the right people to get afraid of a gun, we were coming out of a killing zone alright! I urged him to cool down, told him we were Turks. Momentarily, a Turkish military commander stepped up and ordered the soldiers to apprehend us all.
How did you avoid imprisonment after you got caught?
We were taken to the military police and questioned for hours. Even some guys from the national espionage agency joined the interrogation. They were sure that we had fought for ISIS, but we claimed we had simply emigrated to the Dawlah with our families. I told them during my time there, me and a friend of mine had worked in a bakery. They replied, “We don’t buy it!” Nobody did actually. The next day, all 12 of us were taken to court in Kilis, and the prosecutor didn’t believe us either. In the end, the judge released us conditionally, with judicial control decision. A public lawsuit will be prepared with terrorism related charges in it, but until then, each of us now are expected to show up at a police station in Ankara once or twice a week, not to mention the imposed ban on leaving the country. Well, we were not going to travel to Germany or the US anyway. We will only leave the country for Syria, and we already know how to get there.
Turkish public raises questions that jihadists may get involved in lone wolf attacks when they come back to Turkey. How does the Islamic State see Turkey?
The Dawlah likes Turkey. This is a fact. There are positive feelings towards Turkey as they made things easy on the border and permitted people of all nationalities to pass with ease. ISIS does not contemplate war or action against Turkey. Turkey yields to us mainly because we fight the PKK. With the grace of Allah, if the airstrikes cease, the Dawlah would bury PKK in a month. Despite this, the Dawlah considers Turkey to be taghut, a false idol because it isn’t governed by divine rules.
Do you think Turkey’s border policy deteriorating against ISIS? What will happen if Turkey’s general policy towards ISIS shifts dramatically?
Things have already tightened up on the border. And the Dawlah is laying mines to stop its own jihadists from escaping to Turkey. Number of jihadists has dropped by half compared to the time I first got here. And there are a lot of deserters. Before I left the Dawlah for the first time, I ran away after I became unsuccessful granting a permission slip, and I served 10 days in a prison. 4 out of 5 inmates were Turks, attempted an escape to Turkey. After six months you can go home on leave, but the Caliphate has closed the borders. Since Turkey is a country of blasphemy, Caliphate doesn’t want jihadists go there and lose the righteous path.
What would you do if you are to be standing trial?
If we receive imprisonment, we’ll bow down to it and serve prison time. We’ll welcome it as a part of our duty to Allah, accept it as a test of perseverance. Allah will provide us patience.
What do you think about Islamic State’s take on justice?
As they judge by what Allah has revealed, the Dawlah’s approach to justice is really great. It is a just, equal order. The rules may be a bit severe, but this is what Allah wants. For example, in Raqqa, a doctor who had committed adultery confessed and stoned to death.
There is debate about women and children under ISIS occupation being considered spoils of war and practices such as trafficking and sexual abuse. Do you find those accusations valid?
They claim ISIS allowed women to be bought and sold in marketplaces. Well, I stayed in Raqqa for five months and I didn’t see any chicks in the market. Yes, there is a female slave market, but it’s different. It is not like they display the goods in the open. You go into a house, take your fancy, pay your money and buy one. You go through a religious marriage and then she is under your protection. If you like, you can give her away or set her free.
How do the jihadists under ISIS start families? Have you ever attempted to marry there?
I tried, but eventually decided not to start another family there. The Dawlah pays the sacrifice, arranges a house for the newlywed couple, and pays the 1,500 dollar dowry to be given to the wife.
Throwing people off the rooftops because of their sexual orientations have attracted opprobrium worldwide. Did you witness any sort of punishment like this?
I didn’t see gays being punished, but I saw a drug dealer having his head cut off. In any case, my Lord said in a verse, “When you see infidels, cut off their heads.” We do not practice torture; we either shoot them in the head or, as Allah said, chop their heads off. This is retaliation.
Was the captured Jordanian pilot Muadh al-Kasasbeh burnt to death in a similar act of retaliation?
Everybody says, “They burnt the man alive” to badmouth ISIS. Don’t they have anything to say about the Jordanian pilot dropping bombs and burning women and children? They burnt him in a cage, tipped rubble over him and ran a grader over him. Retaliation was taken for the women and children and those buried under buildings due to the airstrike. So, this is judging by what Allah has revealed. My Lord says, “In retaliation there is benevolence for you.”
The execution of unarmed prisoners captured in battle is another disputed matter. Do you find this proper conduct?
They don’t accept your religion. First, you call for submission and make a proclamation. If a captive seems that he can be of good use to you, you want to incorporate him anyway. But those guys are just dim witted, you know? They don’t want your religion, so they’re infidels.
Have you ever executed a prisoner of war? Or witnessed an execution?
In my brigade, they knew me as “the Decapitator.” So yes, I carried out an execution once – that’s where the name comes from.
Where and under what circumstances did the decapitation occur?
It was in the Nineveh province in Iraq, in Sultan Abdullah area. But, in the name of God, I’ll speak the truth, I hunted him as if he was my prey. It was during night time and I was on sentry duty. I saw a Peshmerga strolling around his own trench. I immediately made my mind up. “If I fail to get him, don’t hesitate to open fire, don’t mind me being there,” I said to my friend. We were communicating through radio as he was watching out for me and aiming at the target from the crosshair of his Dushka. Have you ever seen a Dushka projectile? When hit, it easily rips a body in two! The Peshmerga kept wandering and getting close; it was Allah’s will that he appeared right in front of my sight. Looking into the darkness imprudently, he was unaware that he was under the crosshair of a Bixi-gun while I was about to make my move. I sneaked from his flank, grabbed him; quickly blindfolded him and tied his hands instantly. There was jubilation when I dragged him to our positions, everybody singing praises of my successful infiltration to one another.
What about the verdict? How was his judgment called?
The amir told it was my responsibility to pass judgment on him. It was very simple indeed; I was to proclaim my religion first, and I was to behead him if he refuses to accept the true faith. I preached and talked and did everything to convince him for hours. “Look, mate, this is the path of righteousness – you have to embrace it unless you want your head chopped off,” I said. Finally, I’ve lost my patience. I literally begged him, saying “Man, you’ll lose your damn head. Submit to it!” Cold-bloodedly, he refused. I felt sorry, even though Allah’s words are crystal clear. “Do not take pity while carrying out my laws” the Lord says. The amir then decided, ordered me to decapitate the captive. It is easy to put a bullet in his head. But beheading him? No… As I refused to carry out that order, the amir spoke with fury, “If you don’t comply and cut his head off, I can’t help but label you as a spy” he said. Eventually, I brought him into the public, put a cap over my face and beheaded him with a single blow of the sword.
Do you recall anything about your prisoner? Has the execution affected you?
He was a Kurdish fighter from Kirkuk, his name has slipped out of my mind. Well… I was unable to get over the execution I committed for ten or fifteen days. Couldn’t sleep either. But in the end, the sight of human corpses starts to seem normal to each of us. Well, you’re at war; either the infidel shoots you or you shoot the infidel.
Have any policemen, or officers from an intelligence agency come and questioned the Salafi community in Hacibayram so far?
No, but we feel a tension growing. Two days ago Police Intelligence summoned one of my friends to the headman’s office. “Get used to it,” they said. I think I’m being followed too. If something happens in Ankara, if somebody blows himself up in a suicide attack, we are the first people they’ll bring in.
Does the recruitment in Hacibayram for ISIS continue? Do you think people are still willing to join ISIS?
Sure they are. But war is becoming more ruthless and increased airstrikes is anticipated. ISIS surely needs more jihadists; people in Hacibayram are willing too, but they are also aware of the approaching storm.
What do you intend to do in Turkey now? Do you think you can ever readjust to Turkey, and to your old lifestyle?
I’ve found a job now, as a parking lot attendant. But we can’t adapt to this place. We got used to live under Allah’s rule and life here doesn’t meet our standards anymore. You see how women dress improperly here… Turkey, where I was born and raised, now seems a strange place to me. I feel as if I was born in Iraq or Syria. And you know, we’ve got so used to going off to fight… If we fail to find peace here, another journey to ISIS is possible. But I don’t reckon I’ll ever come back if I go to Syria once more. I’ll probably leave my body there.
Following the ISIS offensive in June 2014, fighting for the city of Baiji went on for 14 months. Providing a major source of revenue to ISIS, oil refinery of Baiji remained at the core of the conflict. ISIS launched numerous suicide car bombing attacks to recapture the refinery; though identities of some fighters executed the attacks were revealed by ISIS, nationalities of most of the perpetrators remained unaddressed.