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AUGUST 16, 2016

Since its creation, we have learned about the Islamic State from its enemies. Its story
has largely been told by those ghting the group in Iraq and Syria, traumatized
civilians who have escaped its brutal rule, and the occasional defector. That is about
to change. This is the story of Abu Ahmad, a Syrian operative for the Islamic State
who witnessed the groups lightning expansion rsthand and spent months among
its most notorious foreign ghters.
In this series of three articles, he provides unique insight into how Abu Bakr alBaghdadis political scheming paved the way for the Islamic States expansion into
Syria, al Qaedas eorts to stem the groups rise, and the terrifying weapons in the
arsenal of the self-proclaimed caliphate. Some names and details have been
omitted to protect Abu Ahmad. Read part two here.


Abu Ahmad never hesitated in his embrace of the Syrian uprising.

Born in a northern Syrian city to a conservative and religious Sunni Arab family, he
was a student when the revolt began in March 2011, and joined the protests against
President Bashar al-Assad from day one.
With excitement in our hearts we saw [the uprising in] Egypt happening, followed
by the revolution in Libya, he said. We hoped the wind of change would not pass
our country.
When the uprising became a full-edged civil war by mid-2012, Abu Ahmad decided
to take up arms and ght. He joined a jihadi-leaning rebel group, whose members
were mostly Syrians but also included some foreign ghters from Europe and Central
Asia. The composition of the brigades was in ux then every couple of months,
Abu Ahmads group would either change its name or unite with other jihadi rebels.
But then the groups began to consolidate: In Spring 2013, Abu Ahmad chose to side
with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant when it ocially expanded into Syria, as
tensions escalated between the jihadi group and the Nusra Front. The group would go
on to proclaim itself a worldwide caliphate in June 2014, assuming the name Islamic
State to reect its global ambitions. To this day, Abu Ahmad is a serving member in
the organization, with unique insight into the groups behavior and its history.
Over the course of our more than 15 meetings with Abu Ahmad, we questioned him
intensively about his knowledge of the jihadi group and his bona des as one of the
soldiers of the caliphate. Over a period of 10 months, we spent more than 100 hours
with him. He patiently answered our questions on everything from how he ended up
with the Islamic State, how the organization is organized, and the identity of the
European foreign ghters within the group. Our interviews would go on for six hours
a day, in week-long stretches.
Abu Ahmad took a great personal risk in talking to us. Because he is still with the
Islamic State, we had to deliberately obscure some details about his life to protect his
Abu Ahmad agreed to speak to us, he explained, for several reasons. Although he is
still with the Islamic State, he doesnt agree with everything the outt does. He is
attracted to the organization because he views it as the strongest Sunni group in the
region. However, he is disappointed that it has become too extreme, blaming it for
doing such things as crucifying, burning, and drowning its opponents and those who
violate its rules.

For example, Abu Ahmad objected to a punishment that the Islamic State
implemented in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, where it put a cage in the middle
of the city center, known as Freedom Square, to punish Syrian civilians guilty of
minor crimes, such as selling cigarettes. The group, Abu Ahmad said, imprisoned
Syrians in the cage for three days at a time, hanging a sign around their neck stating
the crime that they had committed.

Now the square is known as the Punishment Square, he said. I think this kind of
harsh punishment is bad for us. It is making ISIS more feared than liked by Sunnis,
which is not good at all.
In the past, Abu Ahmad said, he had hoped the Islamic State would become jihadi
uniers, capable of bringing Sunni jihadis together under one banner. He admired
the foreign ghters whom he knew, mainly young men from Belgium and the
Netherlands who had traveled to Syria to ght jihad. They had all lived in rich and
peaceful countries, and while tens of thousands of Syrians had paid large sums of
money to be smuggled to Europe to escape the war, these jihadis voluntarily traveled
in the exact opposite direction.
These foreigners left their families, their houses, their lands and traveled all the way
to help us here in Syria, Abu Ahmad said. So to support us they are truly sacricing
everything they have.
But Abu Ahmad would soon sour on aspects of the jihadi group. First, the Islamic
State has not brought jihadis together; on the contrary, tensions have risen with other
groups, and he worried that the rise of ISIS led to the breakup with the Nusra Front
and the weakening of unied jihadi forces in Syria.
Secondly, while some of the foreign ghters were men who led truly religious lives in
Europe, he discovered another group that he took to thinking of as the
crazies. These were mostly young Belgian and Dutch criminals of Moroccan
descent, unemployed and from broken homes, who lived marginal lives in marginal
suburbs of marginal cities. Most of these crazies had no idea about religion, and
hardly any of them ever read the Quran. To them, ghting in Syria was either an
adventure or a way to repent for their sinful lives in Europes bars and discos.
There was Abu Sayyaf, a jihadi from Belgium, who often talked about beheadings. He
once asked his emir, Abu al-Atheer al Absi, if he could slaughter somebody. I just
want to carry a head, Abu Sayyaf said. Locally he was known as al-thabah, or the

In war, the rst victim is often the truth. The stories Abu Ahmad told us were so
incredible, and so close to the seat of the Islamic States power, that we were
determined to put his assertions to the test.
In order to do so, we set up a quiz for Abu Ahmad. He said that he knew many of the
Dutch and Belgian ghters who had joined the Islamic State, so we prepared a list
with roughly 50 photographs of jihadis from those countries who are known to have
left for Syria. During a meeting with Abu Ahmad, we asked him to identify the men in
the pictures.
Abu Ahmads answers conrmed that he had extensive knowledge about the
European jihadis ghting for the Islamic State. In front of us without access to the
internet and with no outside help Abu Ahmad went through the images, and
correctly identied roughly 30 of the jihadis by name. In most cases, he would add
some anecdotes about the ghter. For the other pictures, he said that he had not seen
the people and did not know their names.

A behind-the-scenes photograph supplied by Abu Ahmad showing an Islamic State execution in the city
of Palmyra.

Abu Ahmad showed us private photos and videos on his laptop of some Dutch,
Belgian, and Central Asian ghters in Syria, which are not posted online. The only
way that he could have had these images was through deep, personal experience
within the jihadi community.
Abu Ahmad also proved that he had behind-the-scenes access to some of the Islamic
States most spectacular acts of violence. After the jihadi group captured Palmyra in
2015, Abu Ahmad paid a visit to the desert city to witness a Game of Thrones-like
setting for executions of the groups opponents. One day in July 2015, two Islamic
State members from Austria and Germany executed two people who they claimed
were Syrian Army soldiers on the ancient citys great colonnade. This was one of
many executions in Palmyra; on July 4, the Islamic State released a video showing
the bloody spectacle of teenage ghters executing 25 alleged Syrian soldiers in the
citys amphitheater.
Weeks before the ocial Islamic State video of the gruesome executions by the
German and Austrian ghters went online, Abu Ahmad supplied us with a picture of
the execution. The photograph not only shows the two prisoners moments before
they are killed, but also shows two members of the Islamic States media unit
capturing the horror scene. Never has the group published such a behind-the-

scenes picture of one of its executions; it is not available online. The picture
supplied by Abu Ahmad is truly unique secretly taken by an insider.
Remarkably, one of the two cameramen in the photograph is Harry Sarfo, a German
citizen who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. He said he subsequently
became disillusioned with the group and ed back to Germany, where he is currently
imprisoned. The New York Times prole of Sarfo claims that Islamic State members
told Sarfo to hold the groups black ag and to walk again and again in front of the
camera as they lmed a propaganda video. The photograph supplied by Abu
Ahmad, however, contradicts the narrative that Sarfo played a passive role in this
production: While the video only shows him holding the black ag, the photograph
shows that he was one of the two cameramen lming the killers who are about to
execute the two Syrians.
Abu Ahmad has not just watched the growing war between Syrias jihadis from afar
he witnessed its beginning up close. The split between the Nusra Front and the
Islamic State was one of the most epochal events of the Syrian war; it resulted in a
massive divide within the anti-Assad ranks and signaled the rise of a new jihadi force,
led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that has come to overshadow al Qaeda.
Abu Ahmad had a front-row seat to how the jihadi worlds biggest divorce unfolded.

The caravan of the caliphate

Islamic State
leader Abu
Bakr alIn mid-April 2013, Abu Ahmad noticed a dark red-brown car pull
up in front of the headquarters of Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen
delivers a
sermon during
Friday prayer at
a mosque in

a mosque in
(MSM), a Syrian jihadi group led by Abu al-Atheer, in the northern
Mosul on July 5,
2014. (Photo Syrian town of Kafr Hamra.
by Al-Furqan
Agency/Getty One of Abu Ahmads friends, a jihadi commander, walked up to
him and whispered in his ear: Look carefully inside the vehicle.

The car was nothing special: not new enough to attract attention
but not a jalopy, either. It wasnt armored and it did not have a license plate.
Inside the vehicle sat four men. Abu Ahmad recognized none of them. The man
sitting behind the driver wore a folded black balaclava like a cap. On top of it was a
black shawl, falling over his shoulders. He had a long beard. Except for the driver, all
occupants held small machine guns on their laps.
Abu Ahmad could see that there was no extra security at the gate of the headquarters.
As usual, just two armed ghters stood guard in front of the entrance. The internet
connection at the headquarters was working normally. To him, there didnt seem to
be any sign that today was dierent from any other day.
But after the four men got out of the car and disappeared into the headquarters, the
same jihadi commander walked up to him again and whispered You have just seen
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Since 2010, Baghdadi had been the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al Qaedas
aliate in that war-torn country. According to Baghdadis own account, he sent Abu
Muhammad al-Jolani as his representative to Syria in 2011, instructing him to set up
the Nusra Front to wage jihad there. Until the beginning of 2013, ISI and Nusra
worked together. But Baghdadi wasnt satised. He wanted to combine al Qaedas
Iraqi and Syrian aliates to create one outt that stretched across both countries
with him, of course, as the leader.
Every morning, for ve days in a row, the red-brown car dropped o Baghdadi and
his deputy, Haji Bakr, at the headquarters of MSM in Kafr Hamra. Before sunset, the
same car with the same driver would pick them up from the headquarters and take
Baghdadi to a secret location for the night. The next morning, the car would come
back to drop o Baghdadi and Bakr.

Over the course of those ve days, inside the headquarters of MSM, Baghdadi talked
extensively to a group of important jihadi leaders in Syria. These were some of the

worlds most wanted men, all gathered in one room, sitting on mattresses and pillows
on the ground. They were served breakfast and lunch: roasted or grilled chicken and
french fries, tea, and soft drinks to wash it down. Baghdadi, the most wanted man in
the world, drank either Pepsi or Mirinda, an orange-avored soda.
In addition to Baghdadi, the participants included Abu al-Atheer, the emir of MSM;
Abu Mesaab al-Masri, an Egyptian jihadi commander; Omar al Shishani, a leading
Chechen jihadi who had come to Syria from Georgia; Abu al-Waleed al-Libi, a jihadi
leader from Libya who had come to Syria; Abed al-Libi, an emir in the Libyan Katibat
al-Battar group; two Nusra intelligence chiefs; and Haji Bakr, Baghdadis second in
Abu Ahmad was fascinated by the congregation of so many senior commanders.
During breaks in the talks, he would walk around the headquarters, speaking to
people who attended the meeting. Abu Ahmad was full of questions: Why did
Baghdadi come from Iraq to Syria? Why did all these commanders and emirs meet
with him? And what was so important that Baghdadi himself discussed for days on
The answer to Abu Ahmads questions could be found in a speech made by Baghdadi,
shortly before the Kafr Hamra meeting. On April 8, 2013, Baghdadi announced that
his organization had expanded into Syria. All jihadi factions there including Nusra
had to submit to his control. So we declare while relying on Allah: The
cancellation of the name Islamic State of Iraq and the cancellation of the name
Jabhat al-Nusra, and gathering them under one name, the Islamic State in Iraq and
al-Sham, he intoned.
The sheikh is here to convince everybody to abandon Jabhat al-Nusra and alJolani, one of the participants in the talks told Abu Ahmad. Instead, everybody
should join him and unite under the banner of ISIS, which soon will become a state.

The al Qaeda allegiance lie

The Islamic
State's ghters
in Syria (from Baghdadi, however, faced one big problem in realizing his goal.
left to right):
Abu al-Atheer, The assembled emirs explained to the ISI chief that most of them

Abu Ahmads had sworn allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Ladens
emir; Abu
Shishan alchosen successor and the leader of al Qaeda. How could they
Belgiki, a
Belgian citizen suddenly abandon Zawahiri and al Qaeda and switch to Baghdadi?
of Chechen
origin; Abu
According to Abu Ahmad, they asked Baghdadi during the
Tamima, a
French jihadist; meeting: Have you pledged allegiance to Zawahiri?
and Omar alShishani, an Baghdadi told them that he had indeed pledged allegiance, but
hadnt declared it publicly, per Zawahiris request. But Baghdadi
jihadist who
rose to be one assured the men that he was acting under the command of the al
of the top
Qaeda leader.
commanders in
organization. The jihadi leaders had no way to check if this claim was true.

Zawahiri was perhaps the most dicult person in the world to

contact he had not been seen in public in years, and is still in
hiding, most probably somewhere in Pakistan or Afghanistan.
With Zawahiri unable to mediate the dispute himself, the jihadi leaders had to make
up their own minds. If Baghdadi acted on behalf of Zawahiri, there was no doubt they
had to follow the order to join ISIS. But if Baghdadi was freelancing, his plan to take
over Nusra and other groups was an act of mutiny. It would divide al Qaeda and
create tna, or strife, between all the jihadi armies.
So the commanders gave Baghdadi a conditional allegiance. They said to him: If it
is true what you are saying, then we will support you, Abu Ahmad told us.
Baghdadi also spoke about the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. It was important,
he said, because Muslims needed to have a dawla, or state. Baghdadi wanted Muslims
to have their own territory, from where they could work and eventually conquer the

The participants diered greatly about the idea of creating a state in Syria.
Throughout its existence, al Qaeda had worked in the shadows as a nonstate actor. It
did not openly control any territory, instead committing acts of violence from

undisclosed locations. Remaining a clandestine organization had a huge advantage:

It was very dicult for the enemy to nd, attack, or destroy them. But by creating a
state, the jihadi leaders argued during the meeting, it would be extremely easy for the
enemy to nd and attack them. A state with a dened territory and institutions was a
sitting duck.
Abu al-Atheer, the MSM emir, had already told his ghters before the arrival of
Baghdadi that he was very much against declaring a state. Some people are talking
about this unwise idea, Atheer told his men. What kind of madman declares a state
during this time of war?!
Omar al-Shishani, the leader of the Chechen jihadis, was equally hesitant about the
idea of creating a state, said Abu Ahmad. There was a reason why Osama bin Laden
had been hiding all these years to avoid getting killed by the Americans. Declaring
a state would be an open invitation to the enemy to attack them.
Despite the hesitation of many, Baghdadi persisted. Creating and running a state was
of paramount importance to him. Up to this point, jihadis ran around without
controlling their own territory. Baghdadi argued for borders, a citizenry, institutions,
and a functioning bureaucracy. Abu Ahmad summed up Baghdadis pitch: If such an
Islamic state could survive its initial phase, it was there to stay forever.
Baghdadi had another persuasive argument: A state would oer a home to Muslims
from all over the world. Because al Qaeda had always lurked in the shadows, it was
dicult for ordinary Muslims to sign up. But an Islamic state, Baghdadi argued,
could attract thousands, even millions, of like-minded jihadis. It would be a magnet.
Baghdadi and other jihadi leaders, said Abu Ahmad, would compare this to
Prophet Muhammads migration, or hijrah, from Mecca to Medina to escape
The assembled jihadi leaders extensively discussed how a state would function, how
it would deal with its population, what its aim would be, and its stance toward
religious minorities.
After days of talking, every participant including initial skeptics Atheer, Shishani,
and the two Nusra Front intelligence ocials agreed with Baghdadis plan. The
only condition they wanted from him was this: The newly created state must be
declared in full cooperation with Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, another jihadi rebel
group. Baghdadi agreed to these terms.
The next step was, on the spot, to pledge allegiance.

One by one they stood in front of Baghdadi, shaking his hand and repeating the
following words: I pledge my allegiance to the Emir of the Faithful, Abu Bakr alBaghdadi al-Qurashi, for compliance and obedience, in vigor and impulsion,
abjectness and abundance, and in favoring his preference to mine, and not
contending the orders of his trustees, unless I witness manifest disbelief.
Then Baghdadi asked each commander to bring in some of his ghters. Abu alAtheer, the MSM commander, invited Belgian, Dutch, and French ghters who were
under his command to the occasion. Among the foreigners who personally met
Baghdadi and pledged allegiance were Abu Sayyaf, known as the slayer;
Abu Zubair, a Belgian jihadi; Abu Tameema al-Fransi, a French jihadi killed in July
2014; and Abu Shishan-al-Belgiki, a handsome blond jihadi with a Chechen
background wanted in Belgium, his home country, for possible participation in
Later that day, the Europeans who until recently mostly had been small-time
criminals in Amsterdam, Brussels, or Paris enthusiastically told everybody how
they pledged bayah to Baghdadi.
Many others followed suit. Our narrator, Abu Ahmad, would oer bayah two days
later to Abu al-Atheer.
The switch from ISI to ISIS meant that all groups or factions who had joined ISIS
would cease to exist in name. For the Nusra Front and its leader, Abu Muhammad alJolani, this development was a potential disaster; it could mean the end of their
inuence in the worlds most important jihadi battleground. Jolani ordered Nusra
ghters not to join ISIS but wait until al-Zawahiri published a ruling on who should
lead the jihad in Syria.
A large majority of Nusra commanders and ghters in Syria didnt listen. When Abu
Ahmad visited Aleppo only weeks later, some 90 percent of the Nusra ghters in the
city had already joined ISIS.

READ MORE Baghdadis new soldiers ordered the few remaining Nusra Front
War on the
Islamic State Is
Only Making It
Forever War

loyalists out of the al-Oyoun Hospital, which had been until then the
main Nusra base in the city. You must leave; we are from al-dawla
[the state] and we hold a clear majority among the ghters, they told
the Nusra men, according to Abu Ahmad. So this headquarters now
belongs to us.
Everywhere in northern Syria, ISIS seized Nusra headquarters,
ammunition caches, and weapons stores. Amazingly, al Qaedas

Libyans Are

Libyans Are
aliate in Syria was suddenly ghting for its existence. A new age had
Winning the
Battle Against begun the age of the Islamic State.
the Islamic

Harald Doornbos is a Dutch journalist based in the Middle East.

Turkey Did
Nothing About
the Jihadists in Jenan Moussa is the roving reporter of Dubai-based Al Aan TV.
Its Midst
Until It Was
Too Late