By Zainab Salbi
24 May 2016
Saddam Aljamel, a Syrian in his late twenties, joined ISIS after being a member of the Syrian youth who rebelled against Bashar Al Assad. His parent’s named him after Saddam Hussein as a reflection of their admiration for the Iraqi leader. Many in the Arab and Muslim world do indeed like Saddam Hussein, viewing him as the man who stood up to the West. Iraqis, who still remember their oppression during his regime, are an exception It is a sore point between Iraqis and the rest in the Arab world, how Saddam is seen and remembered.
Saddam Aljamel was in his mid-20s when the Arab spring started and he joined the revolution to overthrow the Assad regime, known for its brutality toward its people. But the regime used weapons to respond to the demonstrators and, after a few months, Saddam and all of his friends took up arms and started fighting the government of Syria as part of the Free Syrian army.
I didn’t meet Saddam. Instead I met his best friend Abu Ali, a nickname he has used since moving to Istanbul, Turkey, the country he escaped to after ISIS asked for his head in his own home town in Syria. But Abu Ali and Saddam are no longer friends, Abu Ali explains to me as he turns around nervously. We are in a public café in Istanbul, by the Bosporus, and he scans the place to see if anybody is watching him or listening to our conversation.
Abu Ali, only 27 years old now, lowers his voice and says, “Saddam and I are no longer friends. He now wants to kill me and accuses me of being an infidel.”
I ask him why he fights against ISIS while his friend has joined ISIS. “How could best friends split like this?”
“Well, things changed after Al Nusra Front killed Saddam’s brothers,” Abu Ali explains. Al Nusra Front is the origin of ISIS. They started as the same party and after a dispute over rightful leadership and ideological direction, a split occurred between the two sides: one became ISIS and the other continues to be the Al Nusra front. At the core, they share the same fanatical interpretation of Islam and, politically speaking, they both continue to play a major role in the war in Syria. Abu Ali explained how Al Nusra first came to assist the Free Syrian Army, then started killing them and taking away their weapons to weaken them. It was during that time that they killed three of Saddam’s brothers. At this point Saddam wanted revenge, not from the Assad regime but from the Al Nusra Front.
Saddam decided to join ISIS as a tactic to help him take revenge. But after two months in ISIS territories, he became a true ISIS believer. First he wanted to bring Abu Ali with him, telling him about his new beliefs and values. He told him that for the first two weeks all he saw in ISIS training camps were video images of how the US destroyed Iraq, killed civilians, destroyed towns and villages with cluster bombs, tortured Iraqi prisoners in the most humiliating ways, and bombed Afghan villages. He cried as he narrated the stories to Abu Ali on the phone, to convince him to join. Saddam’s cause was no longer the overthrow of Assad. Saddam’s cause became the overthrow of all oppression against Muslims, in territories in and beyond the Middle East, including the West.
When Abu Ali resisted, and reminded him of the times they drank and partied together, and that their values were never to bring a new way of Islam to Syria but to get rid of Assad’s oppression, Saddam became angry and started accusing his friend of being an infidel. Soon, what used to be dear friendship became a serious threat to Abu Ali, enough to lead him to leave his home town and escape into the crowds of Istanbul.
This happened just over a year ago. Now Saddam has a home, a decent salary that pays for him and his newly acquired four wives, according to his former friend. As a fighter in ISIS territories, he can buy women in addition to his wives from the women’s market, where they sell anybody ISIS deems not to be Muslim. This could be Yazidi women, Shia women, and Sunni women who are not following the ISIS way of Islam. And with this Saddam made the transition from being a young revolutionary who joined a non-violent uprising against Assad, to becoming a fanatic dedicated to taking revenge, provided with all the financial support and all the women his heart desires.
By contrast, Abu Ali is single, living with two friends who were also forced to leave their home town, now taken over by ISIS. Abu Ali’s family remains in Syria living under ISIS. He speaks to his parents by phone but avoids sending them any pictures of himself. He worries that if ISIS sees his photos on his parent’s phone, it will get his parent’s in trouble. “What worries me the most is my younger brother,” Abu Ali explains. “He is only 11 years old and all that he hears and sees is ISIS propaganda. Imagine being afraid of our children, but we all are at the moment. I don’t trust my baby brother knowing where I am for I wouldn’t be surprised if he reports on me. He may be too far gone with ISIS ideology now. I don’t know how we are ever going to get out of this.”
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures.