Additional reporting by BADER AHMED
Mohamed starts to reminisce about the life he left behind. “I used to go to the beach with my brother, I used to love the beach, that was the kind of fun young people like,” he said, anxiously picking at his nails. “I only left Tunisia once before this. We went to do Umrah in Mecca [an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia]. I was 14. That’s the only reason I had a passport.”
Mohamed Amrouni, age 23, a captured ISIS member, shifts nervously in his plastic chair in front of a camera. His hair is cropped close, and he’s wearing a track jacket and shorts. It’s hard to imagine him as a militant who spent years with one of the most brutal terrorist organizations on earth, as well as a potential security threat to his home country.
Mohamed is in an administrative office run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria near the border with Turkey. The SDF have hung a patterned bedsheet behind him in an attempt to make the dingy office a little more cinematic.
The SDF is a coalition of Kurdish, Arab, Christian, and Turkmen rebel forces who, since 2014 and with backing from the US, France, and other Western countries, have defeated ISIS militarily in many of their previous strongholds, such as Raqqa.
Now, the SDF is responsible for the custody of thousands of ISIS members who either surrendered or were captured as ISIS lost control of their once-massive swaths of territory in Syria in from 2014 to 2017. Tunisian Mohamed Amrouni is one such prisoner. I know his family in Tunisia and kept in touch with him online sporadically when he was with ISIS.
The SDF has allowed media access to some ISIS prisoners, likely to shed light on the crisis they’re facing in housing the militants. But Interviews with ISIS members in captivity are inherently challenging. In most cases, these people are awaiting trial for membership in a terrorist organization, so responses to questions about the scope of their activities while in these groups are often lacking.
The Sole “Success Story” of the Arab Spring
I first met the Amrouni family in Sousse, Tunisia in May 2014. I was in the popular tourist beach town covering the alarmingly high rate at which young people were leaving the country to enter the war in Syria. In the summer of 2013, Mohamed Amrouni, then 17, ran away from home and traveled to Syria, devastating his family. I produced a short documentary about the Amrounis that aired on MSNBC in July 2014.
The family was warm and welcoming, but their intense grief was obvious. Mohamed’s mother, Salwa, openly wept in the family’s living room as she recalled his final days in Tunisia. Both parents said Mohamed was a calm, submissive boy—qualities they believe made it easy for extremists to brainwash him.
Mohamed’s brother, Ajmi, showed me the bedroom he’d shared with his younger sibling. Mohamed’s side remained untouched, as though he might return home at any moment. A certificate from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis was on the desk, recognizing Mohamed for his impressive command of the English language.
Ajmi picked up a laptop sitting next to it. “This was Mohamed’s,” he said, flipping it open. “But he completely erased it before he left Tunisia. We have more questions than answers.”
In his interview, much of what Mohamed said echoed things his family has speculated over the years. “In Tunisia, after the revolution, it was not stable,” he said. “Everyone could do whatever they wanted. There was lax security, especially at the mosques, and people were talking about Jihad, and telling the young people to go to Syria.”
Tunisia’s revolution in December 2010 kicked off what became known as the Arab Spring. It led to the ousting of longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and soon after inspired revolts in other countries, Syria among them. While the uprising in Syria has been ongoing since March 2011, Tunisia’s revolution lasted less than a month. Tunisia was hailed a success—the one Arab Spring nation to successfully oust a leader and rebuild a democracy.
President Ben Ali had taken a strong stance against Islamism, prosecuting members of the then-Islamist political party Ennahda and leading Tunisia with a sort of forced secularism. Hardline Islamists faced intense scrutiny by police, and as a result, most stayed underground.
Following Ben Ali’s ousting, increased freedoms and a lack of security meant that a network of extremist Islamists were able to take to the streets. There were public rallies urging young men to travel to Syria to fight against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Islamists visited high schools and preached to students. Imams openly advocated for travel abroad for jihad in mosques, as they did in the one Mohamed Amrouni frequented.
On a reporting trip in June 2014, I saw men in the streets holding a sign that said, “A call from al-masjid al-Aqsa to the Islamic nation and the Muslim armies to establish Dawlat al-Khalifa (the government of the Caliph) and to free the blessed terrains.” In other words: if you are Muslim, you should go join an Islamist army and go abroad.
The efforts of the local extremists were successful. By 2014, more foreign combatants had joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq from Tunisia than from any other country. Since 2011, an estimated 6,000 Tunisians have joined terrorist organizations abroad.
Mohamed’s neighborhood, Kalâa Kebira, is a shabby inland suburb of Sousse. It’s a far cry from the polished beach resorts beloved by international tourists a few kilometers away. A disproportionate number of the combatants who traveled to Syria and Iraq from Tunisia have come from the area. When I spoke to Mohamed’s father Khaled Amrouni, a business owner, last year, he said he thought the youth in Kalâa Kebira was driven to extremist groups by a lack of opportunity. Sousse’s unemployment rate is nearly 30%.
But compared to the average Kalâa Kebira family, the Amrounis are affluent, owning multiple homes and businesses. Mohamed was a brilliant student, and everyone assumed he would graduate high school and go to university. They couldn’t imagine he’d consider leaving it all behind.
Amine Saad*, 23, is also from Kalâa Kebira. He had been Mohamed’s friend since childhood. “Everyone in Kalâa knows someone who went to Syria,” he said. “I myself know several guys. And of course, my best friend, Mohamed, went to Syria, too.”
Mohamed and Amine loved playing computer games together and going to the beach. But as of late 2012, Amine noticed changes in Mohamed’s behavior. He wore religious clothes and eschewed talking to girls. He preached at Amine and their other friends. By 2013, the childhood friends rarely saw each other. Mohamed opted instead to spend time at the mosque.
An Islamist from the local mosque took a particular interest in Mohamed, spending time with him after school several times a week. Mohamed’s parents said he claimed to be a math tutor helping Mohamed with his studies, a story concocted so they wouldn’t suspect that their son was being effectively indoctrinated.
Mohamed says his parents were aware of the risks posed by the Islamists, as so many young men from the neighborhood had already disappeared into the Syrian war. They gently warned their son to steer clear of them. “It was like I heard them, but I didn’t really listen. Like telling a small child not to touch a hot stove,” he said. “The child wants to do it, and they have to touch the stove to learn that it’s not good for them.”
One Friday at the mosque in the summer of 2013, Bilal, a man in his mid-20’s known to be an extreme Islamist, asked Mohamed if he wanted to go to Syria. “I told him I wanted to, but I didn’t have any money. He offered to pay for me if I went with him, and I agreed.” Mohamed said, hanging his head.
After a pause, he continued. “He is, of course, the reason I am here in Syria. I was young, and he tricked me into this. And I heard that [Bilal] came back to Tunisia and got money for bringing me to Syria. He sold me.”
After Mohamed left Tunisia, his parents discovered a network of recruiters in Sousse who were instrumental in arranging the transport of at least a dozen other young people to Syria. They said a bounty was paid to recruiters for each youth.
The Trip to Syria
Less than a week after he first approached Mohamed, Bilal told him it was time to leave. It was Ramadan, and Mohamed was practicing i’tikaf, staying in a mosque overnight to pray and read Quran. The tradition had been outlawed under Ben Ali’s rule, but was enjoying a resurgence in post-revolution Tunisia. Mohamed called his mother and told her he’d be sleeping at the mosque.
That night, with little else but some clothes and his passport, Mohamed traveled by car to Ben Gardane, a town near the Libyan border. Ben Gardane was long known to be a hotspot for extremists as well as a smuggling outpost, which made it the ideal location for Tunisians wishing to cross out of the country undetected.
Bilal was with Mohamed during the car trip, and a man named Zarga was driving. Mohamed’s older brother Ajmi said he knew almost immediately that the two men were involved in Mohamed’s disappearance.
“Zarga had a clothing shop next to the mosque and our father’s shop, and we saw him all the time,” Ajmi said. “Within 24 hours of Mohamed leaving, people in the neighborhood knew that Mohamed had gone and that Bilal and Zarga had taken him. And the next afternoon, Zarga was back at his shop already. I went to see him.”
Zarga was visibly distressed. As Ajmi pressed him for answers, a group of other Islamists from the neighborhood approached and told Ajmi his brother was on his way to Syria. “Don’t waste your time chasing him,” Ajmi remembers them saying. “He’s already gone.”
“Everyone was shocked,” Amine Saad added. “And by this point in Tunisia, everyone noticed the trend of young people going to Syria. There was going to be a crackdown, it was obvious. The Islamists were also a bit scared, because Mohamed’s case was special, because he was so young and because his family was somewhat rich. They thought they’d be arrested. But they weren’t, of course.”
The Amrouni family waited helplessly, praying Mohamed would call them and make his way back home.
From Libya to Turkey
Mohamed and Bilal spent several days at a house in Ben Gardane. Other Tunisians en route to Syria joined them, including a man with two wives and children in tow. Finally, the group crossed into Libya with the help of the smuggler. “I was allowed to call my mother when we crossed into Libya. I just told her I left the country and then they made me turn my phone off,” Mohamed said.
Once in Libya, Mohamed and the others were taken to a home in the coastal city of Sabratah before eventually making their way to the airport in Tripoli. Although Mohamed was a minor, his travel was never questioned by authorities in Libya or, more surprisingly, upon his arrival in Turkey.
“When we were in Turkey, [Bilal] did everything,” Mohamed said. “He even had my passport. He told me to follow him and not talk or ask questions and that he would get me to Syria.”
Mohamed and the others took a bus from Istanbul to the border city of Antakya. They went to a smuggler’s house a couple of kilometers from the Syrian border, and after a short wait, proceeded to walk into Syria.
First Days in Syria
When Mohamed and Bilal arrived in Syria, they went to the countryside of Latakia, a province bordering the Mediterranean south of Aleppo, and stayed with a group of Libyan fighters. The Libyans already seemed battle-hardened, laughing at him whenever he showed fear. After a week, Bilal disappeared. “He told me he would leave to go back to Tunisia, but I thought he was kidding,” Mohamed said, his face still showing disbelief. “But then he was gone. He left me alone without money, and I didn’t know anyone.”
Mohamed calls the group of Libyan combatants he was placed with “the Libyan battalion” without referring to them by name. The landscape of factions in Syria was much different in the war’s nascent years. When Mohamed arrived in Syria in July 2013, ISIS had only recently emerged. ISIS, along with another Islamist faction, Jabhat al-Nusra, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Swayed by ISIS’ more hardline adherence to Sharia law, many of the foreign fighters in Nusra defected to ISIS.
Initially, both Nusra and ISIS were allies of the blanket opposition force, the Free Syrian Army. Other independent factions, such as Suqqor al-Ezz and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, existed in the Latakia area and fought alongside the al-Qaeda affiliated groups. These factions were known to have many foreign combatants among their ranks. It’s likely Mohamed’s first placement was with one of these groups.
Mohamed says he refused to participate in combat while he was in Latakia, much to the irritation of the group he was with. Based on the timeline he gives detailing his locations in Syria, it is likely that he was in the Latakia countryside on August 4, 2013, when a joint operation between ISIS, Nusra, and a handful of other factions was launched on the civilians in the area who were predominantly Alawite, an Islamic minority sect which President Assad’s family belongs to.
The carnage these groups unleashed was horrific. Human Rights Watch released a 105-page report on the massacre, saying the actions of the group constituted crimes against humanity. In a matter of days, 190 civilians were killed and more than 200 others, most of whom were women and children, were captured and held hostage by the groups.
Journalist Leith Aboufadel, who has family from the area, and said the circumstances were even worse than described in the report. “It was a ruthless offensive,” he said. “They actually managed to push deep into eastern Latakia. A lot of the jihadis wore Syrian Army uniforms, and the civilians believed they were military personnel, then they were slaughtered. But the saddest story of all is the missing women. There were so many of them kidnapped, between the ages of 13-30, and we never heard from them again.”
While the group he was placed with unleashed terror on civilians, Mohamed says his early days in Syria consisted of walks through the forest and teaching Quran to Turkmen children at a nearby mosque. Mohamed sounds like a naïve teenager as he describes being faced with the realities of war for the first time. “The nature was beautiful,” he says of mountainous Latakia. “But I didn’t expect war, and guns, and seeing people losing body parts and being shot.”
Mohamed says his reluctance to fight was increasingly unacceptable to his Libyan hosts. “I just stayed with them, eating and drinking, and I was a burden. They kept asking me to go and fight with them, but I told them I couldn’t.”
A Libyan man who had left this unnamed group to join ISIS came to visit from time to time, affording Mohamed a chance to get to know him. “He said he was from the Islamic State, that they were applying the law of God…and since I was looking for a solution, because the Libyan group I was with wanted to kick me out, I joined ISIS.” This likely occurred in August or September of 2013.
Mohamed Joins ISIS
Typically, a fresh ISIS recruit would be sent to military training and Sharia courses. Mohamed says that because of his young age, the Libyan man took him directly to his house, an isolated place in the mountains of Latakia with no electricity or running water. Over the next four months, more young fighters arrived. “Sometimes they were Tunisians…sometimes Saudis…all the time, he would bring a couple people until there were nearly 20 of us,” he said.
After several more months, men came to the house and announced that there was a battle, and the group would be joining it. Mohamed’s group was shuttled to al-Mansoura, southwest of Raqqa. Eventually, Mohamed was taken to a battle against the Syrian army in al-Tabiya, a town in Deir Ezzor province of less than 2,000 people, 6 kilometers south of the Conoco gas plant.
In February 2014, ISIS eventually wrested control of the gas plant from the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. It was Syria’s most productive, and ISIS used the proceeds from its oil and gas exports to finance much of its operations. It remained under ISIS control until late 2017.
The battle was Mohamed’s first. He says he worked as a field medic and that a bullet grazed his shoulder as he tried to drag an injured comrade to safety. Despite his injury, Mohamed remembers this as the time he started to feel at home with ISIS. “I was convinced by their ideas then, to be honest, because everyone was giving speeches, and there were so many conversations about what ISIS was doing…it was an exciting time.”
Mohamed returned to the Latakia countryside while his wounds healed. A couple of months later, ISIS turned on Nusra and the Free Syrian Army factions it was previously allied with in Idlib and Aleppo, sparking intense clashes between the groups.
Mohamed’s ISIS battalion was ordered to the northern countryside of Aleppo, but the battles cut the road from their location in the Latakia countryside. An alternate route was devised. Mohamed remembers that a group of masked ISIS members came to pick them up. “They were Iraqis, and they were wearing masks. I felt like I was dealing with the mafia,” he said. “They told us to shave our beards and wear masks, and we did. We were taken in a bus, and then we all walked together following a man, and eventually, we realized we were walking directly into Turkey. No one stopped us.”
A number of vans waited for the militants after they’d crossed the border, and the group was immediately taken to a hotel. The next day, Mohamed and the others were loaded onto a bus and driven directly into Syria at a different border crossing. They were taken to al-Rai, just south of the Turkish border, where ISIS was fighting its former allies in Nusra and the Free Syrian army.
Leith Aboufadel says the border between Latakia and Turkey at that time was practically unregulated, a claim bolstered by countless ISIS fighter accounts. “No doubt Turkey is to blame for the massive influx of jihadis to Syria,” he said.
After some time in al-Rai, Mohamed was moved to the Raqqa countryside, southeast of al-Rai, where he says he received a brief weapons training. He was placed with a new battalion and split time between the Hama countryside and Raqqa.
Freedom under ISIS
In Raqqa in 2015, Mohamed enjoyed more freedoms than he had since he’d arrived in Syria. He had a cell phone and was able to use the internet. He was sporadically communicated with his family back in Tunisia. Then, he says, he got bored.
“I wanted to go to a different place, so I went to Deir Ezzor. It was a self-made decision. It’s like I rebelled,” Mohamed said. Once in Deir Ezzor, southeast of Raqqa, Mohamed ran into an Egyptian ISIS member who he’d known in Latakia. He stayed with the man for a while.
When Mohamed heard that ISIS had taken control of the ancient city of Palmyra, he decided to move there. “I like meeting new people and seeing new places,” he said, shrugging, as though explaining a vacation choice. He says that while in Palmyra, he had to answer to ISIS’ bureaucracy for previously going rogue, and was forced to spend 10 days in a jail.
After he was released, Mohamed says he started working in a local mosque. He does not admit to engaging in any sort of violence in Palmyra, but a former Syrian ISIS member Ahmed Issa*, 30, told me about the extreme brutality he witnessed inside the city.
“There were a lot of sleepers already inside [Palmyra] before ISIS came officially,” he said. “And because of this, ISIS knew which people, which families were working with the Syrian Army. And they took them and executed them in public.” ISIS propaganda videos showed the group smashing antiquities with sledgehammers and carrying out mass executions in the renowned Roman theater.
Mohamed says that while he was in Palmyra, fellow ISIS members were pushing him to get married. “The idea of getting married wasn’t on my mind, but then, I started to think about it, and I got married.” His new wife was the daughter of an older Syrian ISIS member he’d met in Palmyra and become friendly with. ISIS gave him money and a house.
Shortly after his wedding, Mohamed says his hand was injured while he was in a building hit by a coalition airstrike. Once his injuries healed, ISIS wanted to send him to the frontlines. He requested another transfer instead, and was allowed to go to Raqqa and work as an administrator in al-Hisbah, ISIS’ notoriously harsh religious police force.
Mohamed claims his duties in al-Hisbah were distributing food and housing to civilians and fixing things on local ISIS bases. According to civilians forced to live under ISIS rule and ISIS’ own boastful propaganda materials, al-Hisbah’s activities included arresting and torturing those accused of committing immoral acts.
Al-Hisbah officers would arrest shop owners who failed to close during prayer times, publicly flog civilians in possession of cigarettes, and chop off the hands of those accused of stealing. They’d apprehend those who’d committed more serious alleged offenses and were to be executed, such as a female dentist in Deir Ezzor who, as Al-Masdar News reported, was beheaded in August 2014 for treating male patients.
Then Mohamed moved to al-Tabqah, a town west of Raqqa. He remained there for eight months working with the local al-Hisbah unit. He asked ISIS for another transfer, and was sent to al-Mayadin, an inland town in Deir Ezzor province, just north of the Iraqi border,where he continued working for al-Hisbah. Meanwhile, Mohamed’s wife had given birth to his first child, a son, and was quickly pregnant with a second.
The Caliphate Crumbles
By late 2016, Raqqa had lost much of its territory in Iraq and Syria, and an offensive led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was underway in Raqqa.
Faced with the inevitable defeat of the Islamic State, Mohamed and his father-in-law began to think about fleeing Syria for Turkey. They hatched a plot to pass through Hama, but an eruption of fighting caused them to abandon the plan.
Mohamed said ISIS asked him to return to Raqqa to fight in the battle against the SDF, but instead, he was able to get permission to join one of ISIS’ media departments in the Latakia countryside. Even as the so-called caliphate was crumbling, ISIS continued to release slick propaganda films touting the group’s supposed successes.
Mohamed’s boss in the media department was a higher-ranking Egyptian member he’d met in Latakia years earlier. “He taught me how to shoot photos, and I was sometimes shooting photos, or doing administrative work.” Mohamed didn’t say what he was photographing.
“I was just doing these things so that I could leave,” Mohamed said. “If you are in ISIS and not doing any sort of work, they will send you to prison. Or if they hear you’re going to leave, they’ll do worse.”
While Mohamed worked for ISIS’ media arm, his wife, children, and their relatives managed to escape ISIS territory. Mohamed wouldn’t say whether they’d remained in Syria or crossed the border into Turkey. As a prisoner, he has only been able to communicate with his brother through letters delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross, and has not been in touch with his wife or her family since his capture.
In October 2017, the SDF declared that ISIS had been completely driven out of Raqqa. Mohamed decided it was time to try to leave. He and some other ISIS fighters passed through al-Hasakah, an area in northeastern Syria controlled by the SDF, where they were ultimately taken into custody. He has been in an SDF-run prison in the al-Hasakah governorate ever since.
Mohamed is vague on his time in active combat and as a part of al-Hisbah. He claims several times that his tenure with the famously brutal ISIS morality police was spent distributing food and performing light handyman work. Mohamed admits to seeing many public executions carried out for “crimes” identified by al-Hisbah, but he denies personal involvement in any.
When asked if he’d encountered any of the Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS, he said he’d heard about them but hadn’t seen them, adding that he didn’t believe the practice was religiously sound.
“One wrong word can mean death for you.”
After the story I produced featuring his family aired on MSNBC in July 2014, Mohamed spoke to me over Facebook messenger in both French and English on a few occasions in 2015. By then, he had some freedom in communication. His location within ISIS territory varied.He would call his family occasionally to let them know he was still alive, and he would make and quickly deactivate Facebook accounts to communicate with others.
“But I was still monitored,” Mohamed said. “And there was one time, for example, that I was in an internet café in Raqqa using my cell phone. And a man next to me just grabbed it out of my hand. He asked why my signal was so strong while his was so weak. And it was clear that he was saying I could be a spy. We were all scared of our shadows, even with some freedom, because one wrong word can mean death for you in ISIS.”
Mohamed says he remembers speaking to me, but doesn’t remember what he said. “I told someone I was talking to a journalist, and they warned me that if ISIS saw, they would behead me directly.”
But after speaking with Mohamed, he gave me the contact of an ISIS spokesman, Abu Katadah, in Mosul. Mohamed had been given permission by ISIS to put me in touch with him, meaning ISIS knew that we were communicating and were most likely monitoring his social media use. Abu Katadah refused to give me an interview, even online, because I am a woman.
I do remember what Mohamed said to me, and I have screenshots of some of our conversations. During one of them, he’d left his location services active, geotagging the al-Mayadin region of Deir Ezzor, a place he said he’d settled for a period while working for al-Hisbah.
He joked that he hadn’t yet married because he’d take an American sex slave (a “sabaya”) when “[ISIS] opens America soon, Insha’Allah.” He told me he wasn’t with his family, but he was very happy. He said he loved killing kafir (non-Muslims.) He indicated that he would have no qualms about killing me. I assumed he was being monitored, and that his over-the-top responses were to curry favor with his ISIS supervisors.
The ISIS prisoner crisis
Mohamed has been a prisoner for more than a year and a half, and he isn’t sure what his fate will be. “To be honest, I have no idea what is going to happen,” he said. “I always ask [the SDF] what they will do with me. We had a television in the prison for a while, and we saw on the news that the Tunisian government said they would take us back. But I’ve heard nothing.”
The ISIS prisoners are a big problem for the SDF, Kamal Akef has pointed out to any press outlet that will listen. He is a representative of the Foreign Relations office for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. His office is responsible for, among other things, negotiating repatriation with the home countries of captured ISIS fighters. “We can say now that ISIS has been defeated militarily here, but we still have two big issues: sleeper cells and the ISIS prisoners,” he said in an interview conducted in Kurdish with The Investigative Journal.
Akef added that these prisoners pose a risk not just to Syria but to the entire world.
The SDF worries that the makeshift prisons they scrambled to assemble to house the ISIS prisoners are nowhere near as secure as they should be, and are likely to be targeted by ISIS sleeper cells attempting free their brethren to rebuild the group.
Akef says that there are around 6,000 ISIS combatants currently in custody in North Syria. 5,000 of these are Syrian and Iraqi, and 1,000 are foreigners from 50 different countries. Citing ongoing negotiations with their home countries, he declined to give specific statistics on the regional makeup of the foreign prisoners, but mentioned that there were more Tunisians in custody than other foreign prisoners.
According to Akef, the instability following Tunisia’s revolution is partly the reason for the influx of Tunisian jihadis, but he thinks much of the blame lies outside of Tunisia. “We have to say that Turkey was responsible for this, too, because while Tunisia was in chaos, Turkey gave the extremists the ability to easily come and pass to Turkey. It was easy for them to fly to Turkey, and it was easy for them to cross the border to Syria from Turkey.”
Akef cites Turkey’s incursions into historically Kurdish areas in Syria, such as Afrin, which was under the control of the SDF, as proof of their collusion with ISIS. “All the countries, including the U.S. and Russia, know that Turkey supported ISIS, both militarily and logistically. Turkey’s attacks against us only serve to help ISIS.”
Mokhtar Ben Nasr, the head of Tunisia’s National Counterterrorism Commission, recently told Tunisian parliament that around 1,000 ISIS members returned to the country between 2011 and 2018. Many entered the country secretly. Among those known to authorities who have been prosecuted, sentences have varied. A construction worker who returned to Tunisia in 2015 was recently sentenced to two years in prison, while a computer engineer who’d spent time working for one of ISIS’ media agencies was sentenced to twelve years. The Tunisian government claims most of the returnees known to officials are being monitored.
But Tunisia, like most countries with ISIS fighters in captivity in Syria, has made few earnest efforts to repatriate their citizens, including the wives of ISIS fighters and their children. In the al-Hol camp in Hasakah, more than 170 Tunisian women and children remain in limbo after the Tunisian government has repeatedly denied repatriation requests from the administration in North Syria
The SDF, frustrated by the lack of progress, began calling for the formation of an international tribunal to tackle the crisis. “We have all these prisoners, and we have all their documents. We have proof of what many of them did, and the atrocities they committed against the people…things necessary to try them for their crimes. We could do this with international judges, under the supervision of the international coalition,” Akef said. “These prisoners are too heavy a load for us to handle alone.”
“The old Mohamed”
Like many ISIS prisoners, Mohamed now expresses deep regret. “Of course, I made mistakes. And I’m trying to fix those mistakes. I regret leaving everything behind. I left my studies, I left everything. I can say I grew up in Syria, actually. I was a child. And when I got married, I started to feel the responsibility, especially when my son was born. I felt the pain of my mother and father when they lost me. I felt that I was wrong, that leaving was wrong,” Mohamed said.
He does not speak of missing his own children and seems to view himself as a child who misses his parents more than a parent himself. At no point in the interview did he admit to personally causing harm to anyone in Syria.
Mohamed’s older brother Ajmi and friend Amine both think he is truly remorseful for his actions. “But he does deserve to spend time in prison,” Amine said. “He did join a terrorist organization, and he stayed with them a long time.”
Amine said a local man who had joined ISIS and returned to Sousse at some point in 2015 or 2016 told him that he asked Mohamed to return to Tunisia with him before he left Syria. Mohamed refused, saying he was happy to be with the Islamic State. His first earnest efforts to leave the group came only after most of their territory had been lost and the group’s defeat was undeniable.
“I’m curious to see what the Tunisian government will do. Whether he will have to stay in prison for a long time, or what they will help him to reintegrate,” Amine added.
Ajmi says he just wants his brother home. “I was going to go meet him in Turkey when he escaped Syria, but of course, he never did. I just want him to come home and start his life. I miss him very much,” he said.
Mohamed doesn’t think the Tunisian government should be worried about the ISIS fighters who want to return home. “Of course they will feel danger, as a government,” he said. “But they don’t know the truth of these people. There are a lot of people like me, who regret coming here, and just want to go back to their families and have a normal life.”
Mohamed says he misses Tunisia, and he feels like he has woken up and is free from the delusions he had under ISIS. “I am trying to get back to the old Mohamed. The Mohamed who was in Tunisia. To my reality.”
As with most ISIS captives, there’s no way to know the true extent of Mohamed’s actions in Syria. Was he was acting as a handyman as he claims, or as a brutal torturer for ISIS’ morality police? It’s similarly impossible to know whether his mentality has changed, or if he’s merely hiding his continuing adherence to ISIS’ dangerous, violent ideology.
Kemal Akef stressed that the ISIS threat didn’t end with the liberation of Raqqa. “We cannot say ISIS has been completely defeated until these issues are solved. These are people who spent five or more years in Syria, receiving training, and becoming truly dangerous. There’s still a big chance they can commit terror attacks.”
There are thousands like Mohamed in improvised prisons in Syria, under the supervision of an overburdened authority begging the international community to intervene. They can’t stay there forever.