Deep Dives

Inside ISIS: The Making of a Radical

He was a bright young Muslim living an idyllic Scandinavian life. What happened to the mind of Abu Tareq?

Inside ISIS: The Making of a Radical

I. An Outsider in ISIS

The air was melting; it was a boiling October day in Raqqa, Syria, which the Al Qaeda splinter group ISIS controls, claiming it as the first province of the Islamic State it is currently carving out of Syria and Iraq.

Abu Tareq was standing in the middle of a roundabout encircling the clock tower of Raqqa; his gaze, like hundreds of gazes, turned toward two black-masked ISIS soldiers. One of the soldiers was reading aloud the verdict of the man between the two of them; his offense was drinking alcohol. Under the burning sun, low-rise buildings glimmered white, contrasting the turquoise-blue sky. Abu Tareq’s black T-shirt clung to his body from sweat.

Then fell the lashes — seventy of them, thirty-five by each of the soldiers — crisscrossing the back of the offender with red stripes. Next came the moment which, to Abu Tareq, epitomizes his first months inside ISIS:

“The man who had been whipped kissed his punishers on the cheeks. I could tell he regretted his offense,” recalls Abu Tareq. “It was the most beautiful moment to me, illustrating the peaceful, beautiful life under Shariah, under ISIS.”

Abu Tareq is the nom de guerre of a statuesque, twenty-three-year-old Dane with Arab-Palestinian roots. We met on the Internet, after I found his Facebook profile while looking for devotees of ISIS, widely known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. He requested to use an alias in order to hide his identity from Danish authorities.

After our virtual introduction, Abu Tareq and I met in person this June in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, with 320,000 inhabitants. Abu Tareq had just come back from Raqqa, having spent four months with ISIS jihadists. While in Syria, he told me he studied Islam and worked on humanitarian projects, in addition to fighting with ISIS.

Just a few hours before meeting me, Abu Tareq had changed his hometown on Facebook from Aarhus, where he was born, to Raqqa. Images of black-masked ISIS fighters marched across his profile page.

As the crisis worsens in Syria and Iraq, with fighters splintering into varying extremist groups, the question of what motivates these jihadis often surfaces. Despite fairly generalized portrayals of Muslim extremists in much of the media, a closer look at the individuals drawn to fight for fundamentalist ideals reveals a more prismatic reality.

There are some who have lived their whole lives in Syria, who have watched their houses bombed by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and see ISIS as a default option to the regime; there are some who fight alongside ISIS because they have no other source of income; there are some who find solace in the relative order brought by ISIS; there are some who trek from stable democracies, like Abu Tareq did, drawn by the lure of an indefinable utopia.

“When I saw ISIS raising their black flag in northern Raqqa — huge, fluttering in the wind with white signs — I was very sentimental,” says Abu Tareq of his first time arriving in Syria in the winter of 2013. “I felt that this is my identity. I don’t feel I belong in Denmark.”

The toll of this extremism is being measured in fear. Western authorities fear that young men who go to Syria to fight for ISIS and other extremist groups could one day return and commit acts of terrorism on European soil. With the U.S. now actively fighting ISIS in Iraq, some American officials sounded the alarm this week that ISIS may try to launch attacks stateside as well.

And their fears may be justified. Earlier this month The Guardian reported that two British men admitted to joining the extremist organization al-Nusra after returning to Britain from Syria in January. They pled guilty to terrorism offenses and will face trial in London. A French citizen, twenty-nine-year-old Mehdi Nemmouche, was indicted for killing four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels in May. Nemmouche spent a year in Syria, and the Kalashnikov that French police found in his backpack was wrapped in an ISIS flag.

ISIS, which continued to seize new towns in its sweep across northern Iraq this month — drawing the U.S. military back into the war zone — counts between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters, most of whom are of foreign descent, including many Europeans. German intelligence service Verfassungsschutz estimates that as many as 2,000 Europeans might have joined the fight in Syria since the start of the war in 2011. This is the largest European Muslim foreign fighter contingent in any conflict in modern history. With 100 or more fighters in Syria, Denmark has contributed the highest proportion of its population in Europe.

Danish authorities see this scenario as one of the most sincere terror threats to their country in modern times. In a newly released report, PET, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, wrote that many of the 100 or more Danes who went to Syria “will represent a threat when they return to Denmark.” According to PET, “the [majority] of those who left Denmark have been in touch with groups who have a militant Islamic agenda,” primarily Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

Danish intelligence officers estimate there are around 200 to 300 militant Islamists living in Denmark and between 3,000 and 4,000 Danes who sympathize with the extremists’ cause.

In November of last year, the first known Danish-born suicide bomber, a blond Muslim convert named Victor Kristensen, blew himself up in an ISIS mission in Iraq. Since then, three other Danish citizens, two of them Danish-Arab and one Danish-Pakistani, have committed suicide attacks for Islamic extremist groups in the Middle East.

“I wish I could become a martyr too,” was one of the first things Abu Tareq told me when we met.

Three days before my meeting with Abu Tareq, I had met the aunt of twenty-one-year-old Mouin Abu Dahr, a Lebanese suicide bomber who was radicalized in Denmark and Sweden. Last November, Mouin triggered his suicide belt outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, killing twenty-three people.

Breaking her media silence, his aunt and I met in Aalborg, seventy-five miles north of Aarhus. She did not want her name published.

“My nephew stayed with us in Aalborg for six months before he left for Syria and Lebanon. He was brainwashed,” said Abu Dahr’s aunt, a voluptuous woman wrapped in a purple dress that matched her nails. “It was shocking to us that he could do such a thing.”

Several of Mouin’s Lebanese friends described him as “sweet and gentle.” According to his aunt, the would-be suicide bomber was “well-liked and popular in Aalborg.” He got engaged to be married just months before the suicide mission.

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Putting the tensions into perspective requires a delicate understanding of all sides.

Mustafa Haid, founder and director of Dawlaty, a nonprofit that works with nonviolent activists in Syria, cautions against assuming that men like Abu Tareq were radicalized during their time in the Middle East.

“I understand the concerns of European countries like Denmark. They are afraid of these people coming back to their country and committing atrocities, but also we have concerns as Syrians that these people are already committing atrocities in our country,” Haid said in his office in Beirut. “These guys are in Syria committing atrocities against Syrians.”

Haid said his gravest concern about representing men such as Abu Tareq as having been radicalized by extremists in Syria or Iraq is that the onus of responsibility is misaligned.

This view is “putting us as somehow suspicious, as if we are the ones who are making these people radicals,” explained Haid. “Those people are already radicals. In order for them to decide to come and fight in another country, they’ve already reached a point [of] ultimate extremism, to abandon everything.”

Suicide missions are a central strategy to ISIS’s rapid gains in Syria and Iraq, and young foreign men are of value to ISIS because they are often more ardent in their desire to die for the cause than local fighters.

“The foreigners are inspired. They are the most willing to die,” says Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadi groups in Syria and a fellow at the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia. “Ideologically, they are more driven.”

II. Radical at Heart?

Abu Tareq is a man on an ideological precipice. Assessing his true nature is like reading tea leaves; subject to interpretation. Is Abu Tareq a martyr in the making? Or are these the idle threats of a disenfranchised youth?

And Abu Tareq is not alone in his feelings of isolation in Denmark; he is one among a significant number of Danes I spoke with who have joined the jihadist cause.

Abu Dinamarqi, a twenty-three-year-old Dane of Arab descent, shared poetry with me that he had written about trading his comfortable life in Aarhus for war-torn Syria. One of his poems reads:

“Young men exchange the gift of luxury life

They swap it for a life in trenches

Swap alcohol bottles for guns

From expensive brands to military clothing.”

Abu Tareq and Abu Dinamarqi are part of a new generation of Scandinavians who are eager to join the forces of ISIS, which drew international attention when it conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in a blitzkrieg in June. Last month, the group declared a caliphate extending from Diyala in Iraq to Aleppo in Syria and changed its name from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to simply the Islamic State.

“Jihad is a whole new identity amongst these youngsters in Scandinavia,” says Magnus Ranstorp, the research director of the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College. “They have been defined by the war on Islam and the war on terrorism. They feel excluded.”

In the immigrant communities in Aarhus, where as many as eighty nationalities are represented, dozens of young men told me that they wanted to go to Syria.

Items belonging to a Danish national who has joined iSIS. (Photo courtesy Louise Stigsgaard Nissen)
Items belonging to a Danish national who has joined iSIS. (Photo courtesy Louise Stigsgaard Nissen)

“We are more or less leading the European pack in Syrian fighters,” said a source in the Danish intelligence community who spoke under the condition of anonymity.

For every one million citizens, twenty Danes have gone to Syria. Only three out of every million Swedes have left for Syria, and in Germany the number is around two. The Danish Syria contingent of 100 people is the population-adjusted equivalent of 6,360 Americans.

Abu Tareq and other voices from his community offer unique glimpses into the attraction of ISIS and like-minded groups to young foreigners. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the news report Syria Deeply, many citizens and activists describe life under ISIS in Raqqa as a “nightmare” in which crucifixions and beheadings take place and women don’t have access to employment or education.

Just recently, within the span of twenty-four hours in late July, two women who were accused of having had sex outside of marriage were reportedly stoned to death.

Yet Abu Tareq describes Raqqa as a “lovely, peaceful place” where people feel safe.

“Merchants leave the doors to their shops open when they go to prayer because there is no crime. Alcohol and drugs have been banned,” he said. “All the women wear niqab,” he continued, naming the black garment worn by some conservative Muslim women that reveals only their eyes.

“It was very beautiful to me. Murals of niqabed women were drawn on the walls of the city, accompanied by slogans like ‘Niqab sets me free’ and ‘Niqab is my choice.’ Even little girls wore niqab in Raqqa.”

Abu Tareq’s parents do not support his mission to join ISIS. His mother cried and his father “was insane with fury” when he called from Turkey in October to inform them he was en route to Syria. He returned to Aarhus this June, expecting to stay only for a short period of time to check in with his family. He plans to return to ISIS as soon as possible.

“But I’m thinking, second time around, they will get used to it,” Abu Tareq says.

III. To Be or Not to Be…a Terrorist

Abu Tareq was on track to become an engineer when his path was intercepted by fantasies about Syria and ISIS. He was raised by Islamic intellectual parents, Palestinians who grew up in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

The twenty-three-year-old did so well in high school that he had the option to choose the education of his desire at the expense of the Danish state. Denmark provides all students with a small monthly scholarship and universities are free. Yet it is not Abu Tareq’s desire to stay in Denmark.

“I don’t really feel that Denmark is my home. Mentally, I’m in Raqqa,” he says.

It has been less than a year since he became seriously interested in Syria and jihad. “In the beginning, Syria didn’t interest me,” he says. “Then I saw clips and postings on the Internet of how people are tortured. I could feel it on my body.”

Nine months ago, Abu Tareq started to practice Islam with more devotion. He was raised in a Muslim family, but was not invested in religion until this past year, when he started praying on his own and avoiding alcohol and women.

“Two to three months later, I went to Raqqa,” he said, but the decision to embark on this idealistic quest was not made easily.

Contemplating whether or not to go to Syria, Abu Tareq took walks along the Brabrand Lake in Aarhus. “Will I regret going to Syria?” he asked himself as his feet plowed through the dewy grass along the lake. “What would my parents say?”

As peaceful as the Brabrand Lake might seem, the Scandinavian summer light blurring its shades of green and blue, this is the place where several ISIS destinies crossed.

Victor Kristensen, the first Danish suicide bomber, visited the same area, as did Abu Hamzeh, another twenty-three-year-old who grew up near the lake in Brabrand. Abu Hamzeh met Abu Tareq here before both men joined ISIS. Now Abu Hamzeh is wanted internationally for fighting with ISIS and no longer wants to return to Denmark, according to Abu Tareq. He told Abu Tareq that he sees Raqqa and ISIS as his home, as his future.

“Abu Hamzeh and I met twice in Raqqa. I also met Victor [Kristensen],” Abu Tareq said, noting that one of the group’s attractions was the chance to be with fellow Muslims from all over the globe.

“The majority of young Muslims who leave Europe join ISIS because ISIS, as a group, is open to foreign fighters, muhajar,” Abu Tareq explained. In Raqqa, Abu Tareq met Muslims from fifty nations — “even China.”

According to ISIS fighters and supporters, the group trains inexperienced foreign fighters in camps for six months and gives them obligatory Islamic education before they release them to the battlefield.

Abu Tareq was also impressed by ISIS’s organization, noting that the group has a department for “everything.”

“It is not only about the fighting. They have departments for Islamic education, for media, for humanitarian aid, electricity and roads. I met an engineer from Sudan who was working with the Euphrates River to avoid it [drying] out,” he says. “It was the humanitarian aspect that drew me to Syria.”

Now, Abu Tareq continued, he is committed to the fight. “I’m ready to join the front line.”

IV. One Man Is Not a Million

Despite men like Abu Tareq, it would be irresponsible to make sweeping statements about immigrant communities in Denmark. It is very clear that most second-generation immigrants are not attracted to Islamic militant groups. Their level of integration in society may be a factor, but there is no steadfast rule.

In Hillerød, north of the Danish capital Copenhagen, I met twenty-six-year-old Omran Sakr and twenty-nine-year-old Muhammad Diab, both second-generation immigrants from Lebanon.

“I wouldn’t dream of going to Syria to fight,” said Diab. “Denmark is a great place. You have rights. You couldn’t choose a better country.”

Both men grew up in mostly Danish neighborhoods, have an education from the local technical school and work as painters.

For Sakr, a young handyman who is also trying to build a career as a rapper, it was Islam that guided him toward integration. “What changed me was to go deeply into Islam, to follow the prophet in respecting others,” said Sakr. “I feel that Denmark is my country.”

On the other end of the spectrum, I recently met Abu Malik in Aarhus. Malik is a nineteen-year-old Dane of Arab descent who was recently released from jail. Now he is saving money for a ticket to Syria.

“Denmark will never be the right place for a Muslim who wants to pray five times a day,” said Abu Malik. I walked with him as he attended Grimhøj Moskeen, a mosque in Denmark, for the first time. Of the twenty-seven young men from Aarhus who are known to have gone to Syria to join Islamist groups, twenty-two of them frequented the Grimhøj Mosque.

“I decided that I want to go to Syria while I was in jail. I don’t consider ISIS and Nusra Front to be terrorists. They have a legitimate fight,” he said.

V. Forever Extremists?

One of the questions that European authorities are pondering is whether visiting Syria will further fuel feelings of alienation, or whether the reality of seeing violence firsthand will be a wakeup call.

Abu Tareq admitted that the violence he witnessed has changed him. “I have experienced bombs and airplanes. It does have a psychological effect on you, but I can easily handle it,” he said.

In Aarhus, the police are moving at high speed in their attempts to prevent young men from going to Syria, including working closely with the Grimhøj Mosque to reduce the number of young people traveling to Syria.

“We are witnessing a trend amongst these young people,” says Allan Aarslev, the head of criminal prevention with Aarhus Police. “They feel that Muslims have been under attack after 9/11. The attraction is to be a part of the war in Syria, to be seen as active and cool.”

The Danish police in the Aarhus area are recognized in Europe for their efficient reintegration approach. Young men who have fought for militant groups might face criminal charges when they return. But authorities aim to reintegrate others who have done only humanitarian work or studied Islam in Syria, even if they have been with militant groups.

“We are doing anything we can to help them when they come back to Denmark,” continued Aarslev. “We offer them psychological assistance and help them to get back into the high school or university they left behind.”

VI. Why Denmark?

“It’s not as if Danish Muslims as a group are more radical,” said Thomas Hegghammer, director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. “But Denmark has a large radicalized environment compared to the size of the country.”

The destiny of Abu Hamzeh, the twenty-three-year-old Danish-Arab who is in Raqqa and wants to stay there, might offer a few clues as to why.

Abu Hamzeh’s first criminal offense was setting a trash container on fire in an immigrant community in Aarhus while protesting the reprinting of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. The cartoons were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2006, setting off an international outrage.

“This generation is a generation that copy-pastes their identity via Google,” said Muhammad Hee, a Muslim liaison and mentor in immigrant neighborhoods, and part of an anti-radicalization program for the Copenhagen municipality. “Originally, the Salafists were intellectuals, pietists. This direction still exists, but it has been joined by a militant Salafism that glorifies fighters like Osama bin Laden.”

Salafists are members of a movement within Islam that take their name from the term salaf, used to identify the earliest Muslims. Adherents believe they provide the epitome of Islamic practice. Salafist Muslims have been in Denmark since the 1980s, said Hee, but the new militant Salafism preached by radicals implies that in order to be a good Muslim, you cannot be passive.

“Guys who went to Syria will come back to the ghettos and say, ‘Are you a man or a mouse? If you are a good Muslim, you have to go and fight.’ The important thing is how we catch these men when they come back,” said Hee.

But Abu Tareq is not focused on coming back to Denmark. For now, his sights are set on Syria.

Along the Aarhus Canal, Abu Tareq’s face sparkled thanks to the rays of a setting sun. He tilted his head a bit to avoid golden flickers in his hazelnut eyes.

“Many guys from my environment, a few from the gangs, have asked me how I did it — how I went to Syria,” he said. “Now that ISIS is gaining ground in Iraq, they are becoming even more popular. My friends tell me they want to go to the front line.”