GAZIANTEP, TURKEY — John Maguire made a strong impression the moment he stepped into the Internet café in Raqqa, Syria. Maguire, who had left his home in Ottawa about 14 months earlier, walked purposely around, shaking everyone’s hand.
“Assalamu alaikum,” he said each time he introduced himself. When he approached Ahmed, a 22-year-old from Raqqa who was working for the Islamic State’s media wing, he gently lowered the screen on Ahmed’s laptop so as to get his full attention.
It was late spring 2014, not long after Raqqa had fallen to the Islamic State and been declared its capital, introducing a new dimension of terror into what was already a brutal civil war.
Maguire, just a couple years older than Ahmed, was full of the confidence of a convert, eager to be accepted by all, one of a few dozen Canadians who have joined the group, also known as ISIS, ISIL or by the Arabic acronym Daesh.
“He was a happy guy all the time. He would carry the kids around, joking with them,” Ahmed said. ‘We didn’t talk about religion but we talked a lot.”
Ahmed and Maguire became friends, except that as Maguire was working to fit in, Ahmed was trying to get out.
“At first I was brainwashed,” Ahmed said in an interview at a restaurant in Gaziantep. “Then two of my friends were jailed and killed.”
The Islamic State viewed his friends as spies — anyone who questioned the group’s doctrine was suspect. A Tunisian spiritual leader, who had convinced Ahmed to join the Islamic State months earlier, took pity on him and said he could be next. He told him to run.
Ahmed and others who had fled Syria for Turkey’s border towns agreed to be interviewed by the Toronto Star provided their names and photographs were not published.
The day before meeting Ahmed, a pro-Islamic State Twitter account reported that Maguire had been killed — although there has not been official confirmation of his death.
Ahmed was saddened by the news. Maguire might have been a passionate supporter of the Islamic State’s oppressive, merciless rule — as hateful to Ahmed now as Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime — but Maguire had once spared Ahmed’s life. “He caught me smoking a cigarette and didn’t report it,” he said.
Ahmed and the others offer a glimpse into Islamic State-ruled Raqqa, a city in eastern Syria that is almost entirely cut off from outside scrutiny, making it difficult, if not impossible, to verify details of their stories. In Ahmed’s case, he said he left quickly without his laptop and most of his possessions, but he does have photos of himself in Raqqa, holding the Islamic State black flag, and his stories and those told by others align on key details.
Maguire, according to these sources, was one of the recognizable foreigners — in part because of his online propaganda encouraging other westerners to join him — but he is not the most renowned Canadian.
One of the top commanders in Raqqa is said to be Abu Mohammed al Kanadi, says Ibrahim al Idelbi, a former spokesperson for the Syrian Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, one of the militias fighting in Syria. “He is known as one of the princes, the emirs,” Idelbi said during an interview in one of Gaziantep’s smoke-filled cafés. An emir is the title given to some of the Islamic State’s top commanders.
The Canadian, whose real identity is not known, apparently keeps as low profile. Abu Mohammed al Kanadi is a kunya, or honorific title, which means “Mohammed’s father, the Canadian.”
Idelbi said the Canadian once had a public falling out with a powerful Raqqa emir, Abu Luqman. They argued, Idelbi said, over the issue of sending foreign fighters to Kobani, a besieged Syrian city pounded by airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition. Luqman wanted foreign fighters on the front line — Al Kanadi did not.
Others interviewed said the Canadian was once close to Abu Omar Al Shishani, a fierce Chechen commander who made statements taunting Britain and warning of attacks, as he recruited its citizens. It is believed Al Shishani was killed last fall.
Ahmed said he had met some of the leaders through his work as an Islamic State videographer but only knew the Canadian by reputation.
The Syrian defectors interviewed all described how foreigners appear to enjoy special status as leaders in Raqqa, and are important to the Islamic State’s survival in Syria. They are given the best accommodation and cars, are offered wives and are exempt from the taxes Syrians are forced to pay to the militant group.
Foreigners are often assigned roles by their nationalities: the Chechens become military commanders and are among the most feared, while a handful of Tunisians, along with those from the Gulf states, are given logistical “emir” roles, helping with military or political strategies rather than fighting on the front line.
Those from the West, especially recent converts to Islam like Maguire, have key roles in the Islamic State’s important propaganda campaign.
Ahmed said he often saw fighters from France, Australia and Britain in Internet cafés contacting friends on social media, encouraging them to travel and join the group. Foreigners, who according to the UN Security Council make up an estimated 15,000 Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, are so prominent in Raqqa that where they live is known as Hai al Muhajireen, “the foreigner’s neighbourhood.”
Azoz al Hamza says he no longer recognizes the city where he had spent his whole life until fleeing last year. “When you walk in the streets most of the fighters can’t speak Arabic. You see people who have come from all over the world.”
Hamza, 24, is a member of the advocacy group known as “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently,” which covertly documents life under the Islamic State’s rule using cellphone cameras. Schools are shut. Women are forced to be accompanied in public. Smoking is banned and praying five times a day is mandatory. Those who disobey are jailed or executed.
The women from an Islamic State unit known as Al-Khansa, who roam the city with AK-47s, are some of the most ruthless. They act as the city’s morality police.
Hamza spoke by Skype from Germany, where he has sought refuge and can disseminate the reports and photos he receives from the group’s members in Raqqa. One of his friends was recently discovered in Raqqa and executed by the Islamic State, he said.
“Most of the (Syrians) who stayed, stayed because they didn’t have the money to leave or transfer to another area,” said Hamza.
Ahmed was among the Raqqa residents who stayed. He was fascinated, and perplexed, by the foreigners like Maguire, who had invited him to watch him burn his Canadian passport.
“I told him, ‘Don’t burn it, give it to me,’” Ahmed said. “I’ve always wanted to go to Canada. I was amazed he would leave.”
Ahmed keeps a low profile now in Gaziantep, an industrial city that’s home to 300,000 Syrian refugees. Turkish police have been under pressure to root out any Islamic State presence, and in October reportedly seized a cache of grenades, C-4 explosives and suicide vests during two raids on suspected militant safe houses.
Westerners travelling to Gaziantep or other southern Turkish towns — Reyhanli, Kilis and Urfa, where it is believed France terror suspect, Hayat Boumeddiene, went before crossing into Syria — are warned of the Islamic State’s ambition to kidnap in Turkey and smuggle hostages into Syria, although there have been no known cases.
In many ways, this city has become a version of what Peshawar, Pakistan, was during the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s — a hub for spies, diplomats, refugees, journalists and relief workers, for fighters who are fleeing or recuperating, until they can again join the war.
Abu Abdul is a sniper-turned-smuggler.
He chain smokes as he sits at the outdoor patio of a Starbucks in Gaziantep after arriving by bus from the nearby town of Kilis. A radio station is playing Adele’s “Chasing Pavements,” the song, punctuated with gunfire coming from his cracked Samsung phone, on which he is showing a video of his time as a sniper in Aleppo.
He asks that his nickname, not his real name, be used.
The 25-year-old once fought for a brigade under the command of Abu al Abbas. When his brother was injured, he accompanied him to Turkey and stayed to take care of him, settling near the Syrian border in Kilis.
Abbas, who was associated with the Islamic Front, an umbrella group representing various militias, asked him to work as a smuggler from Turkey — the liaison person for those coming from abroad to join Syria’s war.
“I did it as my duty,” he said.
He said he helped dozens of fighters cross into Syria — including three in the beginning of 2013 who told him they were Canadian. They did not speak Arabic so would communicate using Google Translate on his phone.
“I can’t remember well but I think they were two blond guys and one with darker skin,” he said. “They were always in a rush to get into Syria.”
The path of the wannabe fighters that Abu Abdul described is similar to other smugglers’ accounts. The foreigners arrive in Istanbul, usually on their own passports and then either take a bus or second flight to one of the border towns.
After a couple nights at safe houses, they cross in Syria. At first, the crossed legally, but now, since Turkish authorities are clamping down on all foreigners, they illegally find a way to cross the nearly 800-kilometre stretch of border between Turkey and Syria.
Abdul said he was never in direct contact with the foreigners before they came, but would get their details from Abbas, who advised them from Syria using Facebook messenger. He would leave the fighters at the border, where they would meet another contact to take them into Syria.
Once Abbas defected to join the Islamic State, Abdul said he disagreed with the group’s “merciless” tactics, so he stopped helping foreign fighters into the country.
But many others have taken his place, he says, helping fighters across what has been dubbed the “jihadi highway.”
What makes foreigners join a group known for beheadings and barbarity?
The Islamic State seemed to appear out of nowhere — their existence thrust onto the international stage with the beheading videos of two American journalists last summer.
Their rise to power coincided with report after report of foreigners among their ranks.
But the first wave of jihadists who arrived nearly five years ago did not go to Syria to join the Islamic State. In those early days the conflict was more clearly defined — opposition groups fighting the Assad regime as part of the “Arab Spring” protests that swept through the Middle East and North Africa.
What propelled many in the early days was the sheer savagery of the Assad regime. Hundreds of videos showing the victims of government attacks have gone viral online. Most of the images are of children with horrific injuries and they are devastating to watch. One of the regime’s weapons of war is the barrel bomb — usually an oil drum filled with TNT, nails and scrap metal, which is dropped from a helicopter, targeting ambulances, field hospitals and civilians, killing hundreds.
In the years since, armed militias that welcomed foreigners became increasingly radical. Al Qaeda gained a footing with Jabhat al Nusra, while Assad’s forces were propped up by Hezbollah.
Militant groups, purportedly on the same side to fight the Syrian government, instead began fighting each other for supremacy.
Meanwhile, as opposition against the Iraqi government increased, Iraq’s Al Qaeda branch, which had been almost decimated in the mid-2000s, gained power. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saw Syria as an opportunity, sending Iraqi fighters across the border to start setting up a base.
Once they were firmly rooted in Syria, in June 2014, the Islamic State announced the creation of the Caliphate, redrawing the borders to declare a swath of Iraq and Syria as its own.
In terms of the all-important narrative for recruiting, the creation of the Caliphate was a “game changer” for Syria, says Amarnath Amarasingam, who has become one of Canada’s leading researchers on foreign Islamic State recruits. “It was seen as the fulfilment of a prophecy ... it became incumbent on Muslims around to world to fight for this and help build this new fledging state,” he said.
Many of the foreign fighters already in Syria switched sides to join the Islamic State. More fighters — including those coming from other battlefields in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen — arrived.
Amarasingam says many of the western fighters, disillusioned by their prospects at home and searching for “significance, meaning and belonging,” were easily seduced by what the Islamic State offered.
Ahmed knows this storyline well. He was once responsible for helping shape this message, while working with the Islamic State’s media wing in Raqqa.
Most days he was asked to film what in media parlance is known as a “streeter” — talking to people on the street about the issue of the day. If there were reports on BBC, CNN or one of the Arabic networks about the Islamic State’s repressive regime, Ahmed said he would be sent to record people praising life in Raqqa.
“There was a shelf of Canons and we would just take one and go out and record,” he said.
The video would then be sent to a “media emir” who would select the clips to be used, translated into various languages, and sent around the world.