Countries that saw citizens leave for the so-called "caliphate" are now reluctant to take detained jihadists back.
RMEILAN – Nawaf and Hassan both left their homelands to live under the Islamic State group, but now sitting in a police station in northeast Syria they insist they did nothing wrong.
The two men in clean tracksuits, one from Bahrain and the other from Turkey, are among hundreds from some 40 nationalities who have been captured by a US-backed force of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
They were caught fleeing as the self-declared “caliphate” they once served collapsed in the face of ferocious military onslaughts in both Syria and Iraq.
Nawaf, 22, says he left his home in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain and travelled via Qatar and Turkey to join IS in the summer of 2015 to “defend Muslims being bombed”.
He fought in Iraq but refuses to dwell on what he did there before moving to Raqa, which was the group’s Syrian capital.
“It was a normal life,” separated from the brutal beheadings and violence for which IS became infamous around the world, he said.
“We only saw them in the media or in propaganda videos.”
Nawaf claims he was a “simple employee” under Bahraini Turki al-Binali — chief religious advisor who was killed in an air strike in 2017.
He married a woman from Kuwait and had a daughter.
“It is good,” he says of the group’s severe interpretation of Islam that requires women to cover up.
“Like that they don’t attract people sexually.”
Sitting nearby Hassan, 49, claims he is a civilian who is still having problems after several back operations.
He says he came to Raqa in 2015 where his Uzbek wife was a doctor and worked only as a “car park attendant” who was in the dark about what IS was doing.
“I did not fight. I knew nothing,” says the bald man with blue eyes and a short beard.
– ‘Nobody dared challenge it’ –
While the two men lived under the rule of IS the group carried out a string of bloody attacks across Europe.
“I don’t approve of them,” says Nawaf.
“But that is the philosophy of IS and nobody dared to challenge it.”
Although both men are adamant they were low-level functionaries who do not have blood on their hands, their stories raise serious doubts.
Hassan reveals that he passed through camps for fighters in both Turkey and Syria and at one time lived with “the Uzbeks” in the tribal region of Pakistan.
Uzbeks living in that region are known as jihadists with brutal reputations who were linked to Al-Qaeda before pledging allegiance to IS.
Meanwhile Nawaf’s patron Binali was not only a senior religious official, but also a key recruiter of Gulf nationals who threatened attacks abroad according to the US.
Eventually both Nawaf and Hassan were pushed out of Raqa in summer 2017 by the advance of the US-backed fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Smuggled out by IS ahead of the assault, they went to Mayadeen in eastern Syria where the jihadists were busy settling their bloody scores.
The fear of becoming victims of the group that they once moved abroad to be a part of then spurred them even further, they claim.
In autumn Hassan says he fled north on a motorbike with his wife but they were stopped at a Kurdish checkpoint and detained separately.
Nawaf gave some $4,000 (3,200 euros) to a people smuggler who ended up handing him over to the Kurdish forces as he sought to cross the border with Turkey.
Now the two men have no idea what will happen to them.
Countries that saw citizens leave for the so-called “caliphate” are now reluctant to take detained jihadists back.
As for Hassan and Nawaf, they insist they have turned their backs on IS for good.
“They are just traitors, torturers. There is nothing Muslim about them,” says Hassan.
All he wants, he says, is to find “a good place to practise Islam”.