Meet Mohammed Faisel, a 26-year-old Saudi man who decided to leave his family to join ISIS, and was ready to become a martyr for what he believed to be a worthy cause. That was before he witnessed what it is to be an ISIS member, and managed to find a way back to Saudi Arabia. Mohammed gave a detailed interview in Arabic about his experiences with ISIS. The account, which has gone viral on YouTube, is horrifying many in the Middle East. “We are living in dark times at the moment. The only thing that can possibly get worse than what it is now is a nuclear bomb,” a friend said as she sent me the video link during my last visit to the UAE.
Mohammed is a college graduate. He is good-looking and soft-spoken, and one would never imagine that he could become a killer. He comes from a middle-class family of nine in Saudi Arabia and decided on a whim to join ISIS after he attended a Friday prayer and learned of some of his friends leaving to join ISIS ranks in Syria. It took him only two days to arrange his departure out of Saudi Arabia. He left without a suitcase, telling his family that he was going to welcome a friend at the airport. He kissed his mother, knowing he had no intention of coming back.
He bought a one-way ticket to Turkey, where he was given instructions by an ISIS member to go to a Turkish province on the border with Syria. There, he met another ISIS agent, who drove him to ISIS-controlled territories in Syria. Mohammed then took off his traditional Saudi long white garment and men’s head covering and put on new cloths that he acquired in Syria to match ISIS fighting gear. Upon arrival, he was asked to take part in a ceremony to give allegiance to the Emir Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi and to give up his passport.
“They told us that Al Baghdadi aims to run Iraq and Syria. I didn’t care about him very much. I was there to die a martyr. I didn’t care about anything else.” In the YouTube video, Mohammed describes the ceremonial destruction of his passport, which was ripped up to celebrate the beginning of the new Islamic state. “They curse all the Arab countries as they exist now from Saudi Arabia on. They told us the army we are fighting are all infidels, Christians, Shia’a, and Alawis and we were all ready to die for Islam.” Mohammed is ignorant of the fact that never in Islam did the religion consider Christians, Shia’a and Alawis as infidels. This is a new doctrine that was alien to the majority of Muslims up until a few years ago. But Mohammed is honest about his incentives, saying, “eventually you hang out enough [with] the guys and you want to be one of them. They become your friends and when you hear one of your friends gave his life for Islam, you can’t wait till you join him and die a martyr so you can go to heaven.”
Three days after his arrival Mohammed was taken to a training camp to learn how to fight. “They taught us everything from using a gun to a machine gun. If we had any questions throughout our training, there were lots of religious supervisors who told us all about the religion, how we should kill, and why. They were only youth, in their 20s just like myself. Mostly they were from Saudi and Libya,” he explains.
Most of the religious leaders’ mandates include checking to make sure everyone is praying at the correct times. “Those who don’t pray, they get whipped,” along with those who smoke or do not fast. Prisoners of war and those who fail to obey for any reason are killed. “Because it is seen as an honor to kill, they do a lottery from those who have not gone into fights and have been guards or drivers. The person who is chosen gets the chance to either shoot the person to be killed or use a knife to behead.” Images of heads are common in ISIS territories, as are calls for women to join the fight by marrying ISIS fighters. “Marrying fighters is all that is asked of women as their ways of Jihad. Its called marriage jihad,” he explains. Mohammed talks of a friend who joined ISIS with his sister. They escaped from their family together and were separated upon arriving in ISIS controlled areas—the sister assigned to her “marriage jihad” and the brother to his fighting.
Mohammed discovered that ISIS members were following orders blindly, without questioning or making up their own minds about what is right or wrong. “If ordered, a brother would kill his own brother,” Mohammed says. “I was programmed. I became one of them. I had the aspiration to be like the best of them … a martyr.”
Mohammed’s wake-up call came when he was ordered to join a fight against the Islamic Front, an Islamist rebel coalition involved in the Syrian civil war. “It didn’t make sense,” he said. “I was there to kill non-Muslims, but here I was ordered to kill the Islamic Front. I didn’t know who they were. I just knew it didn’t make sense to kill other Muslims. So I decided to manage a way to escape.”
It helped that Mohammed got injured. During that time, he managed to find a smuggler who would get him out of ISIS territories for $1,000. “It wasn’t the money as much as the fear of the smuggler himself. One doesn’t know if he would hand me back again to ISIS members or if he will truly take me out of their sights.” Mohammed speaks softly as he describes all the details: “I saw everything I am telling you about first hand. I am a witness and was part of this. When I realized they were killing other Muslims, they were not killing Bashar’s [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] soldiers but Muslim soldiers, I knew I don’t want to be part of this for it will hinder my arrival to heaven.”
Even in his remorse, Mohammed misses the point. He confirms that he would have been committed to fighting other Muslim soldiers if they were Shia, Alawis or Sunnis who do not share the religious beliefs held by ISIS. But the horrors he witnessed and shared have prompted discussion and initiatives to promote unity among Muslims of all sects. This awakening may have initiated a return to the region’s previous level of religious tolerance within Islam. Saudi actors are now using sitcoms to promote dialogue and foster alliances between Sunni and Shia, and the latest bombing in Kuwait has also led to more unity than division. Perhaps things had to get this bad in order for tolerance to enjoy a rebound.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including best selling memoirBetween Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She’s developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
Watch the full interview with Mohammed Faisel below (Note: there are no English subtitles)