Captured extremists have said they were recruited into a secret sleeper cell by Syrian intelligence agencies that aimed to target US patrols and spread propaganda among the war-torn country.
In the latest episode of the 11-part documentary, Al Arabiya interviewed former members of a cell who were recruited by Syrian intelligence agencies in the city of Qamishli, in northeastern Syria on the Syria–Turkey border.
One member of the former sleeper cell, Jalal Abdullah Ismail, 31, broke down in tears as he spoke of his part he played in the regime.
“I am broken,” he said. “I made a mistake.”
The cell was first activated in 2018 by the Military Intelligence Division. Some of its members were detained while others disappeared.
But Military Intelligence at Qamishli Airport, specifically a colonel named Ahmed Suleiman - nicknamed ‘Sheikh Ibrahim’ - reactivated the cell in 2020 with the aim of forming cells called ‘Popular Resistance.’
The cell was preparing to target American patrols in the suburbs of Rmelan and to write slogans on walls and streets expressing support for the forces of the Syrian regime.
The three members of the cell were detained. Two have now spoken to journalist Rola al-Khatib, as part of a new “Face to Face” series, which sees Al Arabiya go into camps and villages in Syria and Iraq and sit down with former ISIS members and their families, former members of the Syrian government forces and residents in the two countries to tell their stories.
In the fourth episode, ‘Face-to-Face: The cells of the regime,’ head of the cell, Ali Hamoud Hamdan, a 35-year-old father-of-six, explained how he recruited Ismail.
“In September, a man named Mohamed al-Halo talked to me. He told me there was a Colonel in the Air Force Intelligence. We went to the colonel - Ahmed Suleiman, nicknamed ‘Sheikh Ibrahim’ - and sat down with him,” Hamdan said.
“At first, Jalal wasn’t allowed in because the Colonel he was coming with me. I told him I had a young man with me. We went in, Mohamed al-Halo and I, Jalal stayed outside,” he continued.
“I told him that I know a young man who wants to work with me. He asked me if I trusted him and I said yes. He said: ‘say no more.’”
Ismail said he was allowed to meet the colonel who then gave him instructions to spread propaganda in parts of Sryia.
“He asked us to write things, to write: ‘the Syrian Arab Army is coming,’ ‘death to America,’” he said. “The colonel said it’s to make it look like a popular revolution rather than one affiliated with the State.
“We bought spray paint and wrote the slogans,” he added.
Hamdan said: “The colonel asked us to write slogans and to target the American convoy and the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
He revealed the colonel told the cell members “he would provide explosives.”
“He was going to provide them from the airport. Qamishli Airport is still under the control of the Syrian regime.”
Hamdan said the only act he participated in was writing slogans on walls.
This, he said, was to “create chaos in the area, for people to know that the State is present and that it will take the area back.”
The two men have polarizing views of their time in the secret cell.
For Hamdan, a father of six, he has no regrets.
“I acted out of love for this State. It was depending on us. Ultimately, I’m telling you I don’t regret it. If I said I regret it, I would be lying,” Hamdan said.
Ismail, however, spoke of his devastation at being recruited, saying he was acting out of hunger and a drive to provide food for his family, from whom he is now separated from.
The colonel had provided them with food baskets in return for their work, the men revealed.
“We lost our children and we lost ourselves,” said Ismail, a father-of-three. “My daughter is two-months-old. I couldn’t get her milk.”
“I didn’t do it because I loved the State or the regime or the party. This wasn’t an issue I thought of. I had no inclination either way. I just wanted one thing; to provide for my children,” he said. “My daughter is nine-years-old and I haven’t registered her yet. I can’t afford it.
"They asked for 50,000 lira ($15) just to register her…I can’t afford it. I swear, I didn’t do it willingly. Hunger drove me to it.”
Speaking in a one-on-one interview with al-Khatib, Ismail explained the fear he had over his recruiter, Hamdan.
“I’m always scared of him. Once, I was at home, he brought a gun to my home. He said no one could know he was in the area. He told me not to tell,” Hamdan told Al Arabiya. “He brought a gun and threatened me and my children.
"He threatened me in front of my mother, in front of my wife. He has no mercy. He is willing to eliminate anyone. I didn’t do anything willingly. I had a life before.”