Life after ISIS: Haunted by their experience, former militia plead for second chance

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Former ISIS militants and conspirators share personal stories of terror and sleepless nights from the time served with the extremist ISIS group. They also discuss their hopes of a new life after serving jail-time for their links to the terrorist organization, in an 11-part series documentary by Al Arabiya.

In the episode, ‘Face-to-Face: ISIS men out of a cage,’ Al Arabiya spoke to four former members of the terrorist group. Jailed for their crimes, the former ISIS members are now living in Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, where they hope to rebuild a new life.

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One man, identified only as Fahed, invited Al Arabiya journalist Rola al-Khatib into his home to talk about his experience collaborating with ISIS.

Speaking on the condition Al Arabiya would blur his face to protect his identity, Fahed said he remained “afraid of ISIS,” and fears that extremists with the group are still present in Syria and will come for former members of the group.

“Things happen here every couple of days, security wise. So, we’re afraid. We can’t go out at night. We stay home,” he told Al Arabiya.

Another, identified only as F.A.A, fought with ISIS in Iraq’s Sinjar District.

ISIS, he claimed, took him from his Syrian hometown to fight for the extremist group.

He was unable to carry out the violence the group has become infamous for, he claims.

“(I joined ISIS) because I was hungry. The area was under siege. We’re grown-up men, so we either joined them or we couldn’t keep on living,” the former militant said. “So, I stayed with them at the battlefronts without fighting. I couldn’t fight.”

Dreams of a new life

F.A.A served two years in prison after being captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces. He was released three months ago and now dreams of rebuilding his life.

“I want a new life. A life that is all about my house and my work. I don’t have a job and I have no money.”

For now, he is just another young man in Syria, out of employment and desperately seeking work, hoping his previous expertise in stone splitting will earn him a job and income.

If ISIS came back and offered him money though, F.A.A, a father to three sons, one who also joined ISIS, said he would refuse – no matter how financially desperate he was.

“I wouldn’t repeat that experience again,” he said. If anyone from the extremist group tried to make contact, F.A.A said he would report them to his country’s intelligence or national security department.

“I would go directly. Because I hated them after the experience I had.”

For now, F.A.A. must deal with the stigma attached to being a former ISIS conspirator.

“How do you face people?” al-Khatib asked. “Some people say, ‘he was with ISIS.’ Others say, ’He’s a traitor.’ There are people who hate me,” she added.

“Yes… there are people who hate me and people who like me,” F.A.A responded.

In addition to former ISIS militants having regrets about joining, one ISIS mother told Al Arabiya she lives in fear for her sons.

“I’ll tell you what I’m afraid of. Every few days there’s a raid,” an unidentified woman said,

“I would get up screaming for my son once I heard an aircraft flying by. I would scream for my son. My sons are my whole world.”

“What can I do? I’m so tired of this and I don’t know what to do,” she added

F.A.A dreams of a life without fear.

“I want my children to be around me. I’ve suffered a lot. I can’t sleep at night, I’m a nervous-wreck… My hair is all gray now. My hair turned gray with worry.”

Haunted by fear

Another former militant, A.S.A, collaborated with ISIS against the regime forces for more than three years.

He managed to evade jail, but is still haunted by his memories – and the lingering stigma that his former association with the group has left.

“I want to blend in society now and be like everyone else. A fellow citizen like everyone else,” he said. “I don’t want to be called a terrorist, I’m their brother.”

A.S.A, also said he would warn anyone to steer clear of ISIS – a group he longer wants an affiliation with.

“Nobody has come to see me, and I wouldn’t see any of them or talk to them. I can’t even make a living now. I can’t get out of here. I can’t go somewhere else because they consider me a terrorist.”

A social pariah

A fourth former militant, known only as H.K.A, was a relationship officer between ISIS and civilians in Syria.

H.K.A served several months in jail for his work with the terror group. He said when the Syrian Democratic Forces took over the city of Dier el-Zour, where he is located, he was arrested.

But, he claimed, he had planned to turn himself in, regardless.

He, like his former comrades, is aware of the stigma he carries from his former affiliation with ISIS. It has meant he often lives as a recluse.

“I don’t do visits or gatherings. I mean, you know how society looks at us, they consider us all with ISIS. If a friend visited me at home, people might misinterpret that visit. So, I only mingle with my immediate family, my neighbors, and my relatives.”

He has worked to change society’s perception of him.

“Now, I help everyone, whether I know them or not, whether it’s a man, a woman, a child, an old man, I help everyone. And I’m teaching my children to help any old people they come across with anything they need, in order to improve my relationship with people and blend into society.”

Read more:

Former ISIS members tell their stories in Al Arabiya’s latest ‘Face to Face’ series

Face to face with ISIS child soldiers

Face to face with ISIS in al-Baghouz camp

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