Senior Isis leaders have been forced to accept that they will lose their caliphate in Syria and Iraq and see terrorist attacks in the West as the way forward for jihad, according to foreign fighters who are abandoning the Islamist group as it faces an onslaught in Mosul and an impending attack on Raqqa.
The killings of some of their best commanders, divisions and fear of treachery have contributed to Isis steadily losing territory, according to two Belgian Muslims who recently deserted and fled to Turkey. At the same time, destruction of munitions has led to the group depending more and more on light weapons, suicide bomb cars and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) to try and stem the offensives being launched against it.
“When Daesh [Isis] went into Iraq and took the armour and Humvees from the Iraqi army, it was a big success because it allowed them to move forward very fast. But once the bombing started by the Americans a lot of these armoured cars and Humvees just got smashed; moving around in them just made you a big target,” said Rachid, 27, who used to work as a mechanic in Belgium before his journey to Syria.
“Now the Daesh leaders talk about ribat, which means defending territory, not going forward, so it is a different kind of warfare. Daesh have [surface-to-air] missiles, sure. They have even built their own but how many planes have they brought down? Very few, it is not so easy with modern planes,” he continued. “They still have very good bombmakers and suicide cars are very good because they are effective and really make the enemy afraid. But when the Americans and the Russians started their air strikes these cars were getting blown up before they got to the enemy, so not so effective now and also numbers of people volunteering to be suicide bombers has fallen.
“But you can get people prepared to be suicide bombers in Europe and they can cause much more damage. So, the leaders of Daesh are saying that is where the struggle should take place. A lot of the brothers now feel Mosul cannot be held, Raqqa cannot be held. So, the fight is moving to Europe”.
Despite Belgium appearing to become a base in Europe for Islamist terrorism, with fighters returning from Syria being responsible for murders in Paris and Brussels, Rachid and his Belgian companion, Yasin, claimed to have no knowledge of those attacks and hardly knew those who carried them out.
“They did not hold a majlis [council] to discuss what they were doing. Of course we were not in the rooms with these people when they were deciding what to do,” Yasin wanted to stress. “And you must know that a lot of these attacks have been planned in Europe, in America, with people carrying them out just giving bay’ah [allegiance] to the Sheikh [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Isis]. They are not asking for instructions from Raqaa.”
Both the men, who are of Moroccan descent, said they had gone to Syria after being angered by violent suppression of protests by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They had been in contact with other European nationals who were already in the country and found it relatively easy to cross the border from Turkey.
“At the time they were not doing anything much to stop people going to Syria from Belgium. I think that was the case with most of the other European countries as well”, said Rachid. “The European governments were against Bashar, so why would they stop us? I know it’s much more difficult now, but there has been a big drop in foreign volunteers anyway.”
The men had joined Isis, they claimed, after trying other jihadi groups because it was the best at fighting the regime. For Yasin, it was also because “it was the most pure and dedicated”. They claimed disillusionment had set in after witnessing excesses committed by Isis and confessed they were frightened of being killed if they had stayed in Syria.
The accounts given by Rachid, slim and talkative, and Yasin, short, muscular and taciturn, were, at times, self-serving. They had fought on various frontlines such as at the capture of the towns of Manbij, Qalamun and Aleppo but had not, they insisted, taken part in executions and the violent punishments meted out by Isis.
Yasin wanted to qualify: “most people approved of what the Hisbah [the religious police] were doing, because they are Muslim and they believe in sharia. The punishments were harsh, but they made people keep to the law. That was the way it was at the beginning…” Rachid interjected: “But then it became more and more harsh and if people complained they were accused of being apostates, even traitors. They would be punished severely if they protested.”
The two men and a number of other opposition fighters from different groups claim that the Isis leadership feared that the group had been infiltrated by Western intelligence agencies, led by the British. The suspicion and paranoia, they said, stretched to military planning. “If you disagreed with something a commander was saying, making bad decisions, then there was always the risk someone will say, ‘why are you disrupting, are you a spy?’” said Rachid. “Those of us who had volunteered from other countries had to be extra careful. That was not the situation before, but they became more paranoid.”
Yet it was the death of a foreign commander which has been a major loss to Isis, said the two men. Omar al-Shishani, a Georgian-Chechen whose real name was Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvilli, was reported killed outside Mosul in an air strike last summer. “I know that some people think he may not be dead, but there was real disappointment in Daesh over this when the news came because he was so experienced and was such a brave leader,” said Yasin. “But other commanders have been killed as well, it is a big problem for Daesh.”
Isis is also suffering from loss of revenues as it loses territory, in particular the oil fields it used to control. The group has also made considerable sums from ransoms paid by Western governments for hostages. It has been claimed that the French and Spanish governments paid sizeable sums for the release of their nationals held by jailers led by Mohammed Emwazi, the British jihadist who became known as “Jihadi John”.
The US and UK governments have a policy of refusing to pay ransom and American and British hostages, including the photojournalist James Foley and aid workers David Haines and Alan Hemming were beheaded by Emwazi.
“First of all, we do not approve of those killings; we had nothing to do with it. But they would have been probably freed if money had been paid. Other governments had paid money, everyone knows that, I think a German woman was freed recently, how much was paid for her,” Rachid asked Yasin, who said he had heard that €10m had been paid to an Islamist group linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate which recently changed its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
“That is a lot less than before, we heard the Spanish paid €30m,” said Rachid. “But the ordinary volunteers do not know what happens to the money. We just got paid, that’s all.” The two men said they received around $60 a month and free housing. Those with families had food and other essentials paid for.
Rachid and Yasin would face criminal charges and the prospect of lengthy prison sentences if they return to Belgium. The leaders of Isis, they maintained, have their own escape plan and would evade capture or being killed in Mosul and Raqaa. “Look how long it took them to get to Osama bin Laden,” Rashid reminded.
But that was because the al-Qaeda leader had found refuge in Pakistan with allies in the country’s military and intelligence service, when he had to flee Afghanistan, I pointed out. “You will be surprised at what countries may want to hide Daesh leaders and give them protection”, declared Rachid. “The capture of Raqaa will not mean everything is finished.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies