The long read: When Abu Ali joined Isis, he thought he had nothing left to lose. Once he had crossed the border into Syria, he rapidly realised it was the last place he wanted to be. By Robert F Worth
One morning in mid-January 2015, a small, furtive-looking human in a black hooded parka stood alone on the Turkish side of the Akakale border crossing with Syria. The weather was sunny and cold, and there was almost no one in sight. The man glanced around uneasily, and finally approached a street sweeper in a blue jumpsuit. I want to cross to the other side, he told. What can I do? The street sweeper demanded 75 Turkish lira and pointed to a small hole in the fencing , not far from the main gate. The man paid him but hesitated. He had come a long way, and was now scarcely 10 metres from his destination: the dusty brown hills of northern Syria, where the Islamic State began. What about the guards? he said. No problem, the street sweeper replied. Just run. The human strolled towards the hole in the gate. He bent down and squeezed through. On the other side, he began to run. One of the Turkish guards insured him and shouted. He did not stop.
The newcomers name was Abu Ali. He had another name and another life, but like most migrants to the Islamic State, he had cast it off. He wanted to be born again. In early 2015, Isis was at the high levels of its power, and was still attracting thousands of eager new followers every month from all over the world. The American-led coalition had been bombing Islamic State targets for months, without dislodging it from any of its terrain. If anything, it seemed to grow stronger. Isis regularly rolled out gruesome videos of public beheadings and executings, and trumpeted its practice of selling captured non-Muslim women into sexuality bondage. All this ferocity only seemed to amplify its appeal to young and frustrated Muslims.
Butsome of the true disciples who arrived in the Islamic State were was found that life there was not quite the paradise they had imagined. A new narrative of disillusionment, of horror, of black slapstick was slowly leaking out from the inside. Abu Ali would become one of its voices.
I gratified him late last summertime in Urfa, a Turkish township near the border. It was about three months after he had escaped from Isis, with the help of smugglers and a network of sympathetic activists. We expended the day sitting in an outdoor cafe in a public park, with Turkish households strolling around under the trees. The smell of sweet tobacco floated by, and we could hear the squeals of children playing in a water fountain not far away.
Abu Ali was not an archetypal jihadi: short and bald, with a delicate chin and nervous brown eyes. He was 38 years old, and after a lifetime of smoking and drinking, he knew he was not cut out to be a fighter. He told me he had joined Isis in the hopes of get a desk chore and stimulating himself into a good Muslim. He had been born in Kuwait and carried a Jordanian passport, but had spent most of his life in Aleppo, the old trading hub in northern Syria. Their own lives there had been a kind of parable of old-regime Arab corruption. He worked for his father, who made a good living as an expediter helping Syrians navigate the maze of government bribes required to buy a auto. Abu Ali helped out with the paperwork. Id get up about 9am, go to the office, drink coffee and sign some papers for about two hours, and then go home, he told me. It was corrupt but it was OK with me. He also went to bars and clubs and partied several nights a week, despite his wifes constant haranguing. She was infertile, and the absence of children made their days especially empty.
By 2012, Abu Alis profligate life began tilting towards despair. His fathers government work had stopped after the rebel Free Syrian Army entered Aleppo. He was living off handouts from other family members abroad. He had held out some hope after the Syrian revolution started in 2011, but now he felt that everything was going to hell. He had gone to religious school as a kid in Kuwait, and as the war closed in on Aleppo in 2012 he sought refuge in Islamic piety( though he could not bring himself to give up booze or cigarettes ). One of his wifes brethren was an officer in the Syrian military, and one day he told her that her brother was an pagan. That stimulated her furious, and it got back to her family. One of her other brothers a tailor confronted Abu Ali, and after a shouting match, Abu Ali declared that he was divorcing his wife. In Islamic law, thats all it takes. She moved out.
After that, Abu Ali felt he had nothing left to lose. He bought a plane ticket to Istanbul, and from there took a bus down to Urfa, in the south. Then it was a half-hour trip-up by minibus to the Syrian border. My heart was pounding and pounding the whole trip, he told me. I hesitated a bit. But I told myself, its the devil trying to change my mind. Dont listen. Just go.
After Abu Ali had sneaked through the borderfence into Isis territory that sunny January morning, he soon assured a group of men with long beards and handguns, sitting in chairs by a house. He stopped short. Why are you running? one of them asked. I am operating to you! he told, between gasp. He gestured backwards towards the Turkish guards at the gate. The Isis man looked at him and smiled. Relax, he told. They are our friends.