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Former captive Iraqi doctor tells of dissent and despair within Islamic State's ranks

Some foreign fighters regretted joining IS when they witnessed the reality of the group's rule, but were stuck, says physician who treated them
A man carrying two children flees Mosul in July 2017 as Iraqi government forces fight to retake the city from IS (AFP)
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Mosul, Iraq

Mohamed, an Iraqi orthopaedic surgeon forced to work in Mosul hospitals under the Islamic State group, said he saw firsthand cases of foreign fighters who regretted joining IS but felt unable to leave. 

“The foreigners who changed their minds after they arrived couldn’t leave. They couldn’t go back because they had no passport and IS had ordered that any IS fighter who escaped and ran away, especially from battles, must be killed,” Mohamed told Middle East Eye.

Accounts of regret from former IS members themselves - fleeing the last pocket of territory that IS still occupies in Syria and now seeking clemency and repatriation to their home countries - are often treated with suspicion.

'It was actually like a rat trap and IS was the cheese'

- Mohamed, doctor

Mohamed, however, confirmed that IS members were often unable to leave and would face severe penalties for trying to do so.

Upon arrival in the so-called IS "caliphate", male foreign fighters surrendered their passports, were often given new Arabic names - the surname usually reflecting their home country - and were issued with IS ID cards. The only IS passport available was a "Passport to Paradise" - a one-way ticket to heaven - its design loosely based on standard-issue earthly passports. 

“When foreign IS fighters arrived here, they brought their principles, they took a different name and IS sent them to fight. But it was actually like a rat trap and IS was the cheese.

"They gave the impression in their videos and propaganda that they were a force for good - helping patients and giving money to the poor - but, when the foreigners arrived, they saw this was not the case,” said Mohamed.

Some foreign fighters quickly became disenchanted.

“The Western IS fighters wanted to come here and they thought they’d be fighting bad people but after they’d arrived, they realised those people they were supposed to fight were not actually bad people but just ordinary Iraqis,” he said.

“One Western IS fighter, I don’t know his nationality, was given orders to blow himself up in a nearby village. He went to do the bombing and saw all the people were at mosque, praying at prayer time. He didn’t bomb them but came back and said, ‘They’re not Kuffar [infidels], they’re Muslim,’ and he had a very big fight with IS about it. Local people said he was a good Muslim and not really IS at all,” said Mohamed.

The Islamic State's 'Passport to Paradise'
The Islamic State's 'Passport to Paradise' (MEE/Afshin Ismaeli)

“[Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi loved foreign IS much more than Iraqi IS because they were stronger believers and were more committed and true to the IS cause than the Iraqis. Locals here often only joined for money or to have power and carry a weapon.”

Foreign fighters and would-be IS brides were essential to the self-proclaimed "caliphate" and were largely recruited online or through widespread dissemination of IS propaganda. English language, music videos of nasheed  - vocal-only religious chanting without instruments - such as "For the Sake of Allah", targeted young men, and many Arabic language propaganda videos were subtitled in English. 

“IS had doctors from all over the world,” said Mohamed, listing nationalities - Pakistani, British, Indian, Australian, Syrian and Russian - adding that these foreign doctors were only for treating members of IS and would rarely see civilian patients. 

“There was a British IS doctor here for six months. He was British-born but of Algerian descent and very religious. He’d had a long journey to get here and most of his radicalisation was over the internet, which is how IS talked to people all over the word and converted them,” said Dr Mohamed.

He said the British doctor was called Abu Muslim, adding that foreign IS members always concealed their true names and identities.

“These foreigners were indoctrinated by IS ideologies because IS had very good, strong and effective press and propaganda. They were excellent liars and made a lot of press and propaganda with pictures and videos about happiness under IS, glamourising IS, showing how great IS was and how it stood up to the EU and US,” said Mohamed.

“I last saw the Algerian-Briton in mid-2016. We didn’t talk much, as he was never friendly or talkative, but I felt he was afraid of IS and had become very uncomfortable with the situation. I really felt he didn’t accept what IS was doing, or even what he himself did.”

Mohamed said he was trapped working under IS who he said guarded him and his family "like wolves".

"If we didn’t work for them, they set fire to our homes," he said.

An Iraqi Special Forces medic who worked in Mosul and dealt with injured IS fighters captured in battle suggested around ten percent of foreign fighters regretted joining IS, especially more recent converts to Islam or those who had been brainwashed with IS’s extreme ideologies.

“They came to Mosul to help, as IS had called them to do but, when they arrived, they saw the reality of IS was quite different, but they couldn’t leave because they didn’t have their passports anymore, just rubbish IS ID cards, some of which they appeared to have made themselves,” said the medic.

Screenshot of IS propaganda video targeting English speakers
Screenshot of IS propaganda video targeting English speakers

He added that other foreign IS fighters were so completely brainwashed they were “beyond help,” including very young children rescued during fighting, who scolded Iraqi medics for smoking, telling them it was haram [forbidden].

It wasn’t only Western foreign fighters who, having pledged allegiance to IS, became troubled when they saw the realty of the group. Members from neighbouring countries also expressed doubts.

“One Syrian IS came here with severe migraines and, after talking to him, I understood these headaches were brought on because he was thinking too much, thinking all the time, ’Am I on the right path or am I on the wrong path? How do I know if what I’m doing is right or wrong?’” said Mohamed.

He said he gave the fighter a vague diagnosis of psychological problems, so the man would not get in trouble with his IS superiors who, apparently deciding the Syrian was crazy and a liability, kicked him out.

Disillusion and dissension

IS fighters seized Mosul in June 2014. By 2015, there was serious dissatisfaction and dissension within IS ranks which sharply increased from late 2015, said Mohamed. 

“People saw things were being done in the wrong manner and started to realise IS were liars and then a lot of problems started inside IS,” he said. “We saw a lot of disagreement between IS themselves.”

This was confirmed in a September 2018 interview on Iraqi TV with imprisoned former IS commander Issam al-Zobai (whose IS name was Abu Abd al-Haq al-Iraqi), who admitted that disagreements could be so fierce they left some commanders injured or imprisoned. The appointment of foreign IS commanders over locals was also deeply contentious. 

Iraqi Special Forces pull down an IS flag in Mosul in 2017 (MEE/TomWestcott)
Iraqi Special Forces pull down an IS flag in Mosul in 2017 (MEE/TomWestcott)

“They started to blame themselves or each other and became unhappy. They even started to fight each other, or to try and escape,” said Mohamed.

Leaving was particularly difficult for IS foreign fighters, whose appearance and inability to speak Iraqi dialects made them stand out.

Their escape could only be facilitated by paying large sums - reportedly up to $10,000 per person - to smugglers. With IS members also working as smugglers, there was an additional risk that a smuggler might be an IS spy. 

Mohamed saw only a handful of cases where foreign fighters gave indications of regretting their decision to join IS. Others, locals said, contributed to the increasing reign of terror the group inflicted upon Mosul residents. 

'The IS wives were scary, to be honest'

- Hassan, Mosul resident

Mosul resident Ahmed said that after the first three months of IS rule, which he described as “very good and secure”, large numbers of foreign fighters and their wives started arriving in the city, coinciding with the time when IS became stricter and started meting out harsh punishments and public executions. 

“I saw a Russian IS member inside Souk Halib and he had a child with him, maybe 10 years old, who also looked Russian and he gave the boy a gun and told him to shoot people,” he said.

“That happened here, if you did something wrong, they got their own sons to carry out the punishments.” 

The foreign IS wives, which some locals described as “beautiful” with tall slender physiques and light-coloured eyes, also became feared.

“The IS wives were scary, to be honest. They carried guns under their abayas but I never saw any of them fighting, they were just in the Hisbah (morality police),” said Mosul resident Hassan.

“They had a biting machine, made of metal, and if women were caught not wearing a full-face veil, they would be punished by the female Hisbah. This was mainly happening inside Mosul, in the city centre. We stopped going out because we were scared.”

'From decent person to killer'

The harsh reality of IS also dashed the hopes of many locals that the group’s self-proclaimed "caliphate" might have offered a viable solution to the sectarianism which blighted Iraq following the US-led 2003 invasion. 

“Social and sectarian problems were rife in Mosul before IS and people were angry about bad governance. IS presented itself as a solution to these problems and Mosul accepted this,” Mohamed said.

“But then IS changed its face, from Islamic to criminal, from helper to purveyor of cruelty, from decent person to killer. With each passing day, people started to question this behaviour and started to reject IS.”

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IS members started covering their faces with balaclavas after around a year, he said, because they had become so widely hated and knew they would become “wanted” people in the future.

Zobai, the imprisoned former IS commander, admitted in the TV interview that the increasing oppression and injustice IS inflicted on civilians was one of the main reasons IS lost both territory and local support.

He said one of Baghdadi’s biggest mistakes in the Mosul battle was to forcefully keep 64,000 families of IS members and supporters, as well as thousands more ordinary civilians, in the city as human shields.  

“We expected that they would be evacuated, and were surprised that the roads were blocked by the Caliphate's office, and nobody was allowed to leave Mosul,” he said.

"Nobody was allowed to leave, whether it was a family of an IS commander or just any Muslim family. It was a battle for life or death.”

Such mistakes, he said, had led to IS losing virtually all its support base in Iraq, destroying the concept of a successful "caliphate", and reducing IS to a position of insurgency.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.