In June 2014, the Islamic State militant group emerged in response to the brutal tactics of the Syrian government as it suppressed a rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. Assad, a strongman like his father, exercised little caution or restraint in response to the uprising. What started as a ripple effect of the Arab Spring turned very quickly into a blood bath and has left the country in shambles. Initially called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, the group was founded by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi to rid the area of borders and install an Islamic caliphate that would unite Muslims under one leader.
However, while many thought this was just another terrorist group, it soon became apparent that ISIS meant business. It shocked people around the world by posting gruesome videos of its beheading of captured journalists, and pledged to spread chaos, obliterate the border between Iraq and Syria and create its own currency. It is clear that the Islamic State is a much bigger problem than anyone could have initially imagined.
To say ISIS is violent is an understatement. As it flexed its muscle in northern Iraq, capturing vast swaths of land, news came of massacres of the Yazidi and Shia communities. The group has its own definition of Muslim and is quick to deem opponents or other ethnic and religious minorities as kuffar that must be killed lest they take up arms themselves. Thousands of minorities have fled their homes or have been slaughtered at the hands of Baghdadi’s soldiers.
The echoes of extremism in history and terrorist ideologies never change as power-hungry, self-proclaimed leaders decide that it only their “kind” must prevail while others must be stomped out of existence.
Of the many peculiarities of ISIS, one sticks out more than any other. And that is this mass emigration of Westerners and Europeans to Syria to take arms and join the fight, or jihad as so many members refer to it. As it stands, approximately 90 Canadians have left and are known to be in Syria now along with many others from the United States and Europe. Students from universities and ordinary folk, maybe even living a few blocks away from any one of us, have turned away from this life and are now jihadi soldiers fighting a war many thousands of miles from home. What has led them to join in a fight they essentially had no ties to? What’s their purpose? The following conversations with two people help answer many of these questions and more.
At the age of 26, Ahmed Waseem is one of the many Canadians to head to Syria to take up arms. A native of Windsor, Ontario, Waseem left sometime in 2013 to join the war against the better judgment of his many friends and family. He began his journey by going to Turkey and Egypt to learn Arabic. “I spent some time in Cairo studying Arabic,” he explains. And then he went on to the front lines in Syria. An abdominal injury caused him to eventually fly back to Windsor to recuperate. Throughout this time, the imam of the local mosque and Waseem’s family, with the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Security Intelligence Service worked together to deradicalize him and deter him from returning to Syria. Reports say that his mother even took away his passport. But nothing could stop Waseem, and he returned once again to the organization around June 2014. He fled under what reports assume is a false passport to Syria soon thereafter. He currently faces charges of passport fraud in absentia and will be arrested if he returns to Canada.
Before Waseem became a man in a camouflage T-shirt on the back of a pickup truck with a full beard, he was an average Canadian who would quote Malcolm X on his Facebook profile and joke around with his friends. The imam at the Windsor Mosque described Waseem as “one of the good youths,” one who would always help his community and was good to his parents. He was even said to have attended events held by the mosque and the R.C.M.P. to sway youth from going abroad to fight.
But Waseem developed a belief that the war was a Muslim cause and he must join it. “I had been looking to go for jihad for a while,” Waseem explains. “It was just a matter of where and how. So I found a way to Syria, got on a plane and left.” He refused to confirm or deny the process by which he undertook his journey.
“Like most mujahideen, he was somewhat disenchanted by the Western world’s lack of response in Syria, and the continuation of the slaughter by the Assad regime, and felt that they had to intervene themselves,” said a source who knew him and who wishes to remain anonymous. In addition to this many recruits feel religious obligation to defend their community – as a defensive jihad. This rhetoric of jihad in Syria being a duty upon every Muslim in the world is prevalent among members of ISIS and other rebel groups currently operating there. “Waseem takes his religious obligation very seriously and is quite angry at Western hypocrisy. He does not understand, for instance, why Jewish youth are allowed to join the IDF, but he and his brothers can’t fight against the Assad regime,” the source said.
Waseem’s understanding of jihad is that it is merely about taking arms and joining a war. “Linguistically, you could say since jihad means to struggle that every struggle you’re in is a jihad,” he says. “But realistically, we both know what jihad is.” According to Islamic State, jihad by any other name is a play on words and not what is asked of Muslims.
Waseem and many others went from leading normal lives in metropolitan cities in developed countries to wielding AK-47 rifles on battlefields in Syria and Iraq under the belief that they were fulfilling their Islamic duty. It is a must that every Muslim go to jihad and support the Islamic State in all its glory is the sales pitch that leads throngs of youth to turn away from their bright futures and join in a war across the Atlantic Ocean. As we speak many more are joining the ranks of in the Islamic State thinking they are fulfilling their duties towards God.
“Alhamdulillah (Thank God)..even tho you dont like to hear it..we kill and beg to be killed to get closer to Allah swt. It is the message every kafir (infidel), murtad (apostate) and munafiq (hypocrite) should remember,” reads one of Waseem’s Facebook status updates.
But while the problem of youth traveling to Syria to take up arms alongside their Muslim brothers and sisters, there is a greater issue brewing in Western societies. There are staunch supporters of the Islamic State exist who hope to one day join in the glory of becoming a muhajir (an immigrant) and mujahid. Such is the case of Umm Kulthoom.
A mother of two in her mid-40s living in South Africa, Umm Kulthoom speaks highly of the Islamic State. She discusses the revival taking place and the tectonic plates that are shifting and causing Muslims to realize that they must fulfill their religious obligations. “If you follow the tails of cows and leave jihad, Allah will humiliate you until you return to your religion,” she explains. “Returning to your religion is returning to jihad and the ummah was never as humiliated and oppressed as when there were only a few fighting.”
Her Twitter feed is that of one of ISIS’s biggest fans, and she firmly believes in the cause of the Islamic State. “I would like my sons to make hijrah and fight in Allah’s cause and be martyred,” she says. “There is an Islamic revival taking place and the Islamic State will be victorious by Allah’s will.” It is these thoughts and beliefs that place this organization in a very different category than Al Qaeda or any other militant group world leaders have faced. A mother hopes that her sons would join the fight is rarely heard of.
And again, the dutiful Muslim rhetoric is apparent in the discussion. “If there is a consensus around the world by the ulemah and the Islamic State and the khilafah is accepted by all then it will be compulsory for all Muslims to make hijra,” she says. It is of primordial importance to do this as a Muslim. “You listen to Allah first then your parents. If what your parents say goes against Allah, you don’t listen to them. I’m a mother and I would like my sons to make hijrah and fight in Allah’s cause and be martyred,” she says. “There are even women who divorced their husbands to make hijra. I would have had too, my ex was not against it but he was not interested in it. As long as he makes his five daily prayers, he is okay with his life.”
As ISIS gains notoriety for its bloody atrocities, it is curious to see the justification of the beheadings and mass killings of ethnic and religious groups. And it is not uncommon that supporters of ISIS would go so far as to pull from hadiths and verses from the Quran to justify their actions. “Umar (RA) always said: Shall I behead him? If someone was rude to the Prophet (PBUH),” explains Umm Kulthoom. “Beheadings have occurred in all cultures throughout the ages, Islam is not the only religion that has done them. The Quran says strike them at their necks and Abu Lahab was beheaded.”
Shia are deemed to be enemies of Islam, “They curse the first three rightly guided khalifahs and Ayesha (RA), they accused her of adultery when the Quran said she was innocent,” says Umm Kulthoom. “Going against Quran and Sunnah takes you out of the fold of Islam.” ISIS has declared that members of the Shia community do not fall under the protection of Islam and thus deserve to be massacred. One wonders what happened to letting God judge the people of this earth. Members of the organization are told that Shia must be stopped before they spread and lead the ummah astray.
Looking into the thought processes behind supporters and current fighters of ISIS, one can clearly see that they have fallen victims of brainwashing and manipulation. Other attempts at speaking to fighters in Syria were met with stiff responses and demands for payment in exchange for an interview. There’s an anger that can be felt, emotions run high and even though their blog posts show their undying support for the cause, one wonders when talking to them if they are not merely average people that got led astray themselves.
Fighting ISIS is not as simple as sending troops to the grounds, it stems from something much greater that is happening right in many backyards. ISIS has tapped into an emotion of emptiness that many Muslims face and has played on it and convinced them that this is the future — nay the duty of Muslims worldwide — to brandish guns and go to a battlefield in the desert of Syria and Iraq. Its leaders have sold a dream, one in which there is a caliphate and the borders that were drawn by European colonizers so many years ago are erased, doing away the Arab states and leaving simply an Islamic State. Bottom of Form.
First published in print in the Winter 2014/5