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The reluctant jihadi | Robert F Worth

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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.

The
The Akakale border crossing into Syria. Photograph: Jamie Wiseman/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Abu Alis arrival must have struck the Isis men as nearly comically unlikely. Most migrants to the Islamic State work with smugglers and are shepherded from place to place by a clandestine network. Abu Ali came alone and totally unprepared. Still, they welcomed him warmly, and seemed delighted when he said he was Jordanian. We want Arabs to join us , not just all these foreigners, one of them said. After an hour or so, a automobile appeared, and the other Isis man drove Abu Ali to a reception house not far away. It was a large, one-storey constructing with a garden out back, and about a dozen other new arrivals who were getting acclimatised.

It was like an airport, Abu Ali told me. I assured Americans, English, French, people from other countries there was only one Syrian. For the next five days, he slept on a mattress and talked endlessly with the other migrants, who mostly spoke English. The Isis officials told them they were investigating their backgrounds. The emir in charge was Syrian, a very short, friendly human who had lost one of his legs in battle and hobbled around on an artificial one. He once caught Abu Ali smoking and devoted him a stern lecturing, but otherwise he was always smiling. Whatever you asked, theyd say, No problem, Abu Ali said. I told them I dont want to fight, only an administration task, he said. They said, No problem, but you must do the religious and military training like everybody else. You never know when you might need it. I said fine.

There were chickens in the garden out back, and the emir was of the view that merely the Americans and Europeans be allowed to slaughter them. It was training for killing infidels, he told. That was a little odd, but it didnt bother Abu Ali. One thing did. The emir mentioned in passing that the Free Syrian Armys fighters were infidels. The other volunteers took it in their stride, but Abu Ali, who has a constitutional incapacity not to speak his mind, asked what he meant. Lets not talk about this now, the emir said. Well discuss it after the sharia course. Abu Ali persisted. I have insured FSA fighters praying. They fast at Ramadan. Doesnt that mean theyre Muslims? The emir seemed impatient. Like I said, well talk about it later, he said. You truly need a religion course.

At the end of five days, the new recruits were told it was time to leave. Abu Ali got into a minibus with about 15 others, and the latter are driven to Raqqa, the Islamic States capital, about an hour away. They spent a day there in another guesthouse, and then a bus drove them west for several hours, until the roads was transformed into grime ways and they climbed into the Belas mountains, a dry, craggy range of dun-coloured peaks to the east of the city of Homs. It was very cold and there was snow on the ground. The humen get off the bus and strolled along a track towards a group of caves in the mountain slope. Other bus were arriving nearby. This was where the sharia educate would take place, they were told.

For the next two weeks, all of the men would be woken up before dawn. They would perform the daybreak prayer, then go outside for running and press-ups before the sharia lessons began at first light. The lessons were very basic, focusing on discrepancies between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the requirement to fight infidels and apostates. Many of the recruits knew no Arabic, and some were illiterate. At breakfast they were given a few bits of white cheese it was cubes, like that Vache Qui Rit stuff, Abu Ali said some stale bread, and water. Afterward in the day, it was beans and bread. In the evening, after prayers, the recruits would gather inside the cave for announcements and news updates, often broadcast with a laptop and projector against the cave wall.

One night the emir in charge of these courses, a bald Syrian with pale scalp who, in his previous life, had been a history educator in Homs, said there was a special event in store. Once the men are always seated on the cave floor, the emir turned on the projector and a video flickered on the cave wall: an Arab human in an orange jumpsuit in a cage. Flames licked towards the cage, following a trail of petrol, and engulfed “the mens”. A voiceover intoned that this was the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh, who had been captured after his airplane crashed. His grotesque executing by flame was seizing the worlds attention at that moment, and even some jihadis were denouncing it as an immoral act. The men in the cave is likewise shocked, but they bided quiet. The emir stood up and explained that this pilot had fallen bombs on Muslims, and his executing by fire was a simply retribution under Islamic law. The men listened in silence.

Abu Ali soon sensed dozens of eyes turning in his direction. He was the only Jordanian there, and they all knew it. He had not said anything, but his horror at the video must have been visible on his face. The emir also stared at him. Then the emir mumbled something and laughed derisively. Some of the recruits followed suit. This was clearly some sort of loyalty exam. Abu Ali felt their eyes on him, and he began to shake. He had been taught as small children that burning a man to demise was preclude in Islam. The images had nauseated him. He held steady for a minute or so, and then he heard himself say, May God help me. Almost immediately, two Isis guards took him by the arms and resulted him out of the cave. The emir followed afterwards. He sat down on the rocks with Abu Ali and asked him why “hes having” spoken those terms. Did he question what Isis had done? Abu Ali said no. He had only spoke out because people were eliciting him. The emir seemed satisfied. At the beginning of this course you were a kafir ( an unbeliever ), he said. Now you are becoming a Muslim.

Abu Ali was intensely relieved. He had escaped punishment. But from that moment on, he told me, I began to suspect everything around me.


When the two-week sharia course was over, the majority of members of the men were transported to another group of damp mountain caves a few miles back. They now started the military training class. It followed a similar routine: up at dawn for prayers and a few scraps of cheese and bread, followed by some live-fire exercises with AK-4 7s and rocket-propelled grenades. There was also a lot of work. Abu Ali, with his smokers lungs, would just sit down on the rocks when he got tired. The trainers hollered at him, and he would hold up his hand and shout back: Im doing administration , not combat. He was already getting a reputation as a laggard.

On the last day of the course, the men were summoned from their cave in the morning and asked to recite an oath of loyalty. As soon as the oath was over, “the mens” were split up into groups. Abu Ali saw himself standing with about three dozen other men near a bus. A Syrian commander in battle fatigue told them they were going to the frontlines in Iraq. Sir, I dont want to go to the frontline, Abu Ali told the commander. They told I could do administration in Raqqa. The commander looked at him, stone-faced. You swore an oath, he told. You must listen and obey now. The penalty could be death. Abu Ali stood for a moment, registering the shock, then he strolled towards the bus.

After a few days of travel, Abu Ali arrived in Garma, a village simply west of Baghdad near the frontline. Abu Ali and 12 other humen were led to a former Iraqi army officer in civilian dress. They could hear war airliners rising overhead, and every now and then the earth shook as a bomb exploded. With virtually no formalities, the commander pointed to a large earth berm about 350 metres away. The Iraqi army is on the other side of that berm, he said. You will capture the berm tomorrow morning.

Once again, Abu Alis reactions got the better of him. How the hell are we going to capture that berm? he told. Its 12 of us against the Iraqi army. The policeman seemed surprised at this breach of Isis protocol. Allah is with you, he said. You will be victorious. A few hours later, they were given a more detailed briefing. They would attack soon after 3am. The squad leader, another Iraqi, suggested that Abu Ali wear a suicide belt into battle. He refused outright. Why dont you wear it? he said. You want to go to paradise more than I do. The leader was not amused. He told Abu Ali to human a Dushka, a Russian-made heavy machine gun. Abu Ali replied that he had no idea how to use a Dushka. As it turned out, another man came forward just before the attack and said he knew how to fire a Dushka. Abu Ali, depleted and scared, nearly wept with relief. He was assigned to the medical team.

Members
Pro-government fighters in Garma, outside Baghdad, where Abu Ali was sent with Isis forces to attack the Iraqi army. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/ AFP/ Getty Images

For the next few hours, Abu Ali and another recruit dragged wounded humen from the battlefield. It was terrifying run. They could hear and feel bullets whizzing past them in the pre-dawn darkness, and some of the men they dragged there were no stretchers were hollering in pain. They had to leave many others behind. The combat went on for two more days, until it was clear that the assault was failing.

On the morning of the third day, Abu Ali and a new friend named Abu Hassan strolled together into the headquarters in Garma and tackled the Iraqi commander. We dont want to fight any more. You are leaving dead and wounded humen behind. The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, did not force humen to fight against their will. The commander seemed disgusted but unsure what to do. Ultimately, he sent the two men to a less dangerous position.

Abu Ali knew he was taking a risk by refusing to fight, but the alternative, he felt, was almost certain demise. He expected a penalty. Instead, to his astound, he found himself virtually forgotten. He and Abu Hassan were left for days in an abandoned house in Garma. They got along well. Abu Hassan was a former burglar who had joined Isis in the hopes of inducing some fund. As it turned out, Isis paid him a monthly wage of $150 at first, and then stopped. Abu Ali told me he was repeatedly promised a salary for months, and paid a grand total of $50.

The two conscientious objectors were in luck: there was electricity in the house, and even better, a television. They spent hours watching news updates and movies. They knew this was strictly forbidden by Isis, so they maintained the windows closed. This attained it almost unbearably hot and stuffy inside, but it was better than boredom. At one point Rambo came on. I wish Rambo would join us here, Abu Ali told. We truly need him. That got a long laughter from Abu Hassan. Later they watched music videos by Elissa, the Lebanese pop vocalist. A girl indicating her body and sing: this was very forbidden.

After a day or so, a fellow Isis fighter from Kurdistan stopped by the house and caught them with the TV on. He devoted them a lecture and they promised to reform. After “hed left”, they waited about five minutes. Abu Hassan looked at Abu Ali, who nodded, and he turned the Tv back on. It was a news show with a woman presenter. Abruptly the door burst open. It was the Kurdish fighter, who had waited just outside to ambush them. He pointed his AK at the TV and fired. Abu Ali jumped backwards as glass and TV components sprayed across the room, and began hollering: Hey man, were your brothers, calm down! We perpetrated a sin but we wont do it again! The Kurd glared at them and stamped out.


The next day Abu Ali was transferred to another guesthouse in the towns of Falluja , not far away, which was under Isis control. This one was mobbed with men. Not long after, he was amazed to hear the audio of two girls giggling in the next room. Another fighter told him the girls were Yazidis who had been captured in northern Iraq eight months earlier, when Isis overran the area and sold hundreds of Yazidi women and girls into sex slavery. They were 13 and 14 years old, the man said. They had been offered to the governor of Falluja, who didnt want them, so they were being maintained there for the moment. Abu Ali had heard about the Yazidi sex slaves, though he had never encountered any himself. The humen called them sabaya . They were mostly rewards for policemen or men who had doing well on the front not for delinquents like Abu Ali. Over the coming few hours he heard the girls laughter, and once he heard them sobbing. He assumed it was because they missed their families. Subsequently that day, a hollering match erupted in the dozen or so humen in Abu Alis guesthouse. All of them wanted the sabaya . It went on for half an hour or so, has become more and more heated.

A
A displaced Iraqi woman from the Yazidi community. Isis sold hundreds of Yazidi women and girls into sex slavery. Photo: Safin Hamed/ AFP/ Getty Images

Then a human in weariness burst into the guesthouse. He looked like a commandant. He asked where the sabaya were, and one of the men pointed to the door of the next room. He marched in without a word. Two loud shots rang out. The human in weariness strolled out again. Abu Ali, sitting in a chair by the door, gazed up at him, frozen. What did you do? he asked. The man seemed unruffled. Those girls were causing trouble between the brothers, so I dealt with them, he told. And he walked out.

Abu Ali was not the only Isis member who was sickened by what he saw. The initial euphoria had worn off for many of the migrants. Some of them complained about unnecessary cruelty, some about favouritism and hypocrisy in the ranks. Many others simply had not reckoned on the rigours of life in a terrorist army. A few of them, amazingly, complained that Isis was not radical enough that it was bending its principles for political reasons. There are no dependable numbers, but by early 2015 one anti-Isis rebel group in northern Syria began hearing so many tales about people desperate to escape that it organised a smuggling network to bring them out. I fulfilled one defector who was as different from Abu Ali as anyone could be: 22 years old, well-built, recklessly brave, with years of combat experience behind him. He went by the nom de guerre Abu Abdullah. He said that he had taken part in the conquering of Raqqa, the Isis capital, and later served in the groups intelligence wing, helping to plant bombs and sniff out traitors, some of whom were later executed.

Abu Abdullahs disenchantment began, he told me, in the late summertime of 2014, when a tribe in eastern Syria called the al-Shaitat had rebelled against Isis, and in the ensue combats, close to a thousand of them were massacred. Abu Abdullah knew little about it, but was assigned to provide security for a escort of dump trucks that was en route to the town of Slouk , not far from where the combat took place. Outside the town is a deep natural gorge known as al-Houta. As the trucks arrived at the edge of the ravine and tilted their beds back, Abu Abdullah watched in horror as the corpses of women and children began tumbling out. It was not just a few. There were dozens of them. Many had been shot in the head. The little bodies rolled down the slope of the ravine, shedding bloody scarves and shoes as they ran, like garbage flooding into a bin. Abu Abdullah was not a reflective human, from what I could tell. He was a bullheaded child “whos been” joined Isis because he thought they were the best shot to liberate his hometown. But at moments like that, you doubt, he told me.

He kept fighting for Isis another six months. The disappointments amassed. He watched as a corrupt commander scaped punishment through connections with high-ranking Isis figures. When Abu Abdullah tried to report the violations, “hes the one who” went to jail , not the commander. Once he knew he wanted to defect, in the spring of 2015, he rode back to the al-Houta ravine one afternoon on his motorcycle. After checking to make sure no one was around, he climbed down and shot a movie with his telephone. It is a haunting video. In the golden afternoon illuminate, the gorge seems a little like the members of the Grand Canyon, with layered sedimentary rock in varying tones of rusty brown and umber. The camera pans upwards, demonstrating the fading blue sky, the silhouette of a rock formation, and then down towards the black hole at the bottom. You can see corpses strew at various places on the way down. Some are very close to the camera, and some have rolled down towards the pit. The cinema unfolds in silence, apart from the occasional grind of Abu Abdullahs shoes on the stones and sand. It goes on for more than five minutes, and at a certain phase you begin to wonder why he is continuing to film the same motionless scene for so long. Then it dawns: the camera is reflecting his own preoccupation.This is a place he cannot forget.


After two weeks of idleness , marooned in his guesthouse in Falluja, Abu Ali was packed on to a bus bind for Syria. The humen on board knew they were likely to be punished. Arriving back in Raqqa, they were taken to a soccer stadium, known as Point 11: a notorious Isis prison and security centre. Abu Ali and the other 27 humen with him had their rifles taken away and were put into a former locker room in the stadium cellar. They stayed there for a day, and were then blindfolded and driven by bus to another holding centre. Many were terrified, expressed his belief that they were going to be executed. Instead, a man arrived the next day and addressed them. Brethren, do not say, I will not fight any more. Just say, I prefer to fight in Syria. You will be given one more chance.

All the men agreed, and later that day, Abu Ali was driven to his first new assigning: prison guard at Point 11. The three weeks he spent there built him more sure than ever that he could not belly the violence of life in the Islamic State. He often heard the screams of prisoners being tortured. Abu Ali used his phone to shoot a three-minute video in the basement of Point 11. It is painful to watch: a gaunt old man with white hair and a long white beard lies on the floor of what looks like a locker room, while Isis soldiers kick and beat him savagely. The old man implore for mercy. Eventually, the soldiers drag him by his arms into a dark room, and the clip ends.

After three weeks at Point 11, he was bussed north, to another battle zone not far from Aleppo. He got close enough to the front line that he could hear the warplanes shrieking overhead, and feel the ground shake after the bombs struck. It was like Iraq all over again. He was terrified. Abu Ali couldnt assistance himself. Why do I have to fight? he asked his new commander, a strong-looking Syrian who was about 20 years old. They told me I could be in administration. Im not young like you, Im 38 years old. My knees are bad. I can scarcely run. The man looked at him impatiently but let him stay in the rear for a day. Abu Ali observed himself wishing a stray bullet would hit him in the arm, just enough trauma to get him a desk job.

The next day Abu Ali came up with more excuses. He said that he had been an alcoholic before joining Isis, and had a nerve cancer as a result. He was passed from commandant to commander. All of them knew he was lying, but eventually they get so sick of dealing with him that they dedicated in. A Tunisian commander gave him a withering seem and official documents that exempted him from battle on medical grounds. We genuinely dont require people like you, he said.


A few weeks later, Abu Ali determined himself alone in a house in the town of Manbij , not far from the front. There was an internet coffeehouse next door, and to his pleasure, he was able to access the wireless signal. Soon after he did so, he heard the chime of a WhatsApp message on his phone. He looked at it and his heart leapt: it was his wife. She had seen that he was online. She had written an old expression that they both liked: If you love something, let it go. If it doesnt come back, it wasnt mean for you. But if it does, it will be yours forever. After read it, Abu Ali hesitated for a minute or two before answering. He find himself shaking with feeling. There was another chime. She had written: Whats the issues? Dont you know me? He wrote back teasingly: No, you must have the wrong number. But nearly instantaneously he began writing again, asking how she was, and where. He apologised for his blunders. He told her he wanted to come back.

As he recalled that moment, months later, Abu Ali told me: The second I assured her first message I started disliking them all. I said to myself: what an idiot Ive been. What have I done? It was then, he told, that he knew “hes to” get off. He had heard a rumour that one of his comrades in the Iraq battle, a human from Morocco, had escaped to Turkey. He sent him a WhatsApp message. The Moroccan wrote back promptly. He said he was in Istanbul. He dedicated the name and number of a man he told could help. Abu Ali sent a message to that human, who wrote back and told him to wait for instructions. Two weeks later, “the mens” wrote again: go to Raqqa. Equipped with his sick-leave document, Abu Ali got on a civilian bus early the next morning. He was wearing an Afghan-style cloak that identified him as the states members of Isis, and no one gave him any trouble.

When he got to Raqqa, he went straight to an internet coffeehouse and stayed there for hours. He had no idea what he would do if he had to stay overnight. Finally a message appeared on his telephone: go to Tal Abyad, right now. A second message devoted him the name of another internet coffeehouse and a day. He went to the main bus depot in Raqqa, where it was easy enough to find a bus heading north to Tal Abyad, near the Turkish perimeter. At the last checkpoint, an Isis soldier eyed him suspiciously and asked why he was going to the border. Abu Ali pulled out his the documentation and started to explain. It turned out that the soldier, who seemed about 15, was illiterate. He let Abu Ali pass.

Tal
Tal Abyad in northern Syria, where Abu Ali was picked up by the group who helped him escape Isis. Photograph: The Washington Post/ Getty Images

By the time he arrived in Tal Abyad it was 9pm, well past dark. He detected an internet cafe and ran inside to wait for the next message. As he looked around, it became clear that everyone in the coffeehouse was Isis: long beards, AKs on the shoulders, Afghan robes. Abu Ali felt himself shaking. He tried not to look at anyone, but one man was eyeing him suspiciously. The meeting hour came and went. It was almost 11 pm, and the cafe would soon be closing. He said to himself: thats it, Im done for.

Finally, just before 11 pm, two motorcycles pulled up just outside, and one of the riders screamed through the cafe doorway at Abu Ali: The foods ready, sorry were late. Abu Ali got up to go. As he did so, the Isis man who had been staring at him in the cafe stepped forward. Where are you from? he said. Abu Ali replied in an Aleppo accent he figured a local by himself was less suspicious than a foreigner: Im sorry, Im late, I have to go. He walked out the door and got on the back of one of the motorcycles, scarcely breathing. But the motorcycle took off down the road and no one followed. The next day, after a sleepless night in a nearby home, the men who had rescued him from the cafe accompanied him to a remote stretch on the border.

The men were paid smugglers working for a network called Thuwar Raqqa, or Revolutionaries of Raqqa. The group had started helping people escape from Isis only a few months earlier. It was a small opposing organisation, about 1,200 men in all, allied with both the Free Syrian Army and the dominant Kurdish paramilitary group in northern Syria. Its members were all from Raqqa and the surrounding area, and they had many informants and allies in territory was governed by Isis. They thought of themselves as a kind of government in exile, and were already sketching out plans for the reconquest of their home city. I fulfilled two of the groups members in Turkey. They were both quiet and watchful, and seemed to speak only as much as was necessary. They were inordinately brave men, who regularly risked their lives in Isis territory. Several of their comrades have been beheaded by Isis, accused correctly of spying.

They were the same two men who greeted Abu Ali as he crawled through a pit in the border fencing to freedom on the night of 25 May 2015, merely over four months after he had entered Isis territory. He lived for the next three months under their protection, in a rented apartment near the border. These are my friends, Abu Ali told me when I gratified him in Urfa. They saved me.

But someone else had saved him too. After a few weeks, Abu Alis handlers gave him permission to take a bus north to the resort town of Antalya. He waited until 3am and strolled to the house where his wife and her family were living.( She had told him where to run via WhatsApp ). When he was just below her window, he typed into his telephone: Im here. A few minutes later she slipped out. They faced each other in the darkness and embraced for a long time. He could feel her sobbing against his chest. They strolled to a public park nearby, sat down on a bench and talked for about an hour. I forgive you, she said ultimately. But dont fuck up again. Dawn was about to break. He walked her back to the house, and she said she would persuade her brothers to let them get married again. He devoted her a last kiss, and she went inside.

Illustration by Christophe Gowans

Robert F Worths book A Fury for Order: The Countries of the middle east in Turmoil from Tahrir Square to Isis is published by Farrar, Straus& Giroux and Picador

Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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