Iraq Diary, Day 3: Face to face with ISIS
We drove to an Interior Ministry building in Baghdad where those convicted of terrorism offences are held. We met with senior security officials who were helping us to coordinate the interviews. We discussed the questions I wanted to ask and they showed no objection to any of my questions.
We were then driven to another building not too far away where we were introduced to two men, Abu Baraa and Abu Usama, both from Baghdad. They were brought out into a courtyard where we conducted the interview.
Certain issues arise in a situation like this. It is, of course, obvious that the men are in detention and that some sort of coercion is occurring. While the interview took place, however, at no point did any of the guards intervene, either by trying to control my questions or by trying to steer the answers. They stood back, mainly smoking and chatting amongst themselves while I spoke to the men through an interpreter.
There is always the possibility that detainees are giving certain answers in order to curry favor with their guards. In this case, however, the detainees gave answers that were starkly honest and dispelled any notion that they were reading off a script.
Within a few minutes it became clear that Abu Usama, despite being the smaller and more slight of the two men, was the leader. Abu Baraa helped Abu Usama to transfer car bombs in to Baghdad. Abu Baraa said he was recruited by a friend while working as a teacher at a madrassa (a religious school); while Abu Usama said he was approached by a man in prison.
They both describe being spun a narrative of glory only being returned to the Sunni Arabs of Iraq through the re-establishment of the Caliphate. They say their war is with Iraq's government, but the car bombs Abu Usama sends to Baghdad kill civilians, mainly Shia ones, in the capital's markets and restaurants.
"I don't agree with killing civilians, it is wrong, they aren't my target, the security forces are but sometimes they are in the way and are killed. I have a mission, what am I supposed to do," he said.
His indifferent attitude to killing civilians makes me question his sincerity when he later says he regrets his actions.
I turn to Abu Usama. He comes across as the more repentant of the two.
He is 23 years old. He would have been 11 when the US invasion took place in 2003.
"We were brought up in an environment of violence and sectarianism in Iraq. When ISIS came to us, their message was alluring," he explained.
I motion to the door of the courtyard to my right and ask what he would do if he were allowed to leave. “Would you go back to your life before ISIS or would you rejoin them," I asked.
"I would go home, get my family and leave Iraq forever & start a new life," he responded.
I ask Abu Usama the same question.
"What can I say; I don't know what I would do".
ISIS takes to satellite channels to promote message
In the afternoon we travel to another facility and meet with Taqseem, another militant involved in facilitating car bombs into Baghdad. The officials at this prison again allow us to ask anything we want but request that we only use his first name.
Taqseem tells us that he didn't actually send car bombs into Baghdad. He would pick up cars and then drop them off to another man who would then rig them. Presumably, somebody else would then take over the next stage of the process, transferring the rigged vehicles to the streets of the capital.
He says he didn't know the cars would be used for bombs.
(We were shown a sample of some of the types of bombs used by ISIS, including mines, suicide vests, grenades and booby traps)
"I don't ask questions. I just do my job and then leave," he said.
It's obvious what the cars are being used for but this is, perhaps, a fascinating glimpse into how ISIS operates. Each operative has his own role to play and nobody knows what the other link in the chain is doing, nor does he want to know. This mode of operating makes disrupting networks more difficult as it insulates senior leaders from the risk of informants revealing their identities. Some ISIS leaders are even known to wear masks at all times in the presence of everyone but their most trusted comrades.
I ask Taqseem what made him join ISIS. He says the Sunnis are being oppressed by the Shia in Iraq. Assuming that to be the case, how does he explain the killing and raping of Christians and Yezidis?
"What ISIS did at that time to those groups was ok but now it's not justified to attack them.”
I didn't bother trying to get him to explain.
He went on, saying that he was also influenced by the sermons of some sheikhs on satellite channels. My ears prick up at this point. ISIS propaganda is almost entirely disseminated through the internet. They don't have satellite channels. What channels had he been watching that caused him to join a group of brutal murderers?
He immediately reels them off; "Al Wesal, Al Rahmah, Safa TV… I listened to sheikhs like Adnan Arour (the 'spiritual leader' of Syria's revolution in the early days of the insurrection). They said that we have to follow the Quran and Sunni and that the Shia are polytheists".
Wesal and Safa in particular focus on attacking Shia religious beliefs and practices. They regularly use incendiary language against Shia Muslims, employing pejorative, derogatory terms like "Rafidhi" (one who has supposedly rejected real Islam) to dehumanize them.
Here in front of me was an ISIS militant making the clearest admission yet on the role of these extremist Sunni channels in helping ISIS's recruitment efforts. They continue to broadcast 24/7, in several different languages, causing irreparable damage to the minds of those watching.
The first thing that struck me was the demeanor of all three men. Western audiences are probably used to the sight of hooded ISIS terrorists with their chests puffed out as they stand over their soon-to-be victims. Yet these men stood, eyes to the ground, shoulders slumped. They look so pathetic and helpless that you almost feel sorry for them.
Then you remind yourself what would happen if the roles were reversed.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.