An orange jumpsuit fell loosely over his frail frame and a grey winter cap hid his shaven head as Nouamane sat patiently.
Abdellah Nouamane, a 24-year-old Daesh militant, was just a stone’s throw away from me when we sat down for a one-on-one interview. But it seemed we were worlds apart.
An orange jumpsuit fell loosely over his frail frame and a grey winter cap hid his shaven head as Nouamane sat patiently until the two hooded guards allowed him to speak. His cold, hollowed out eyes looked frostier than the white, stony walls of the room inside the high-security prison in Al Hasakah in Northern Syria.
“I have all the time in the world,” the Belgian national with Moroccan roots quipped as we took a few minutes to set up our cameras.
Indeed,! Nouamane is among thousands of alleged Daesh militants who are languishing in squalid, over-crowded prisons in Northeast Syria since early 2019 after Daesh suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Kurdish and Coalition forces.
The Daesh state that these militants killed and died for lies in tatters. So is their once-promising life in Europe that they left behind.
Nouamane is clueless about his future. So we began speaking about his past.
“I was a normal teenager studying chemistry, playing football (and) watching movies.
I had a friend in my neighbourhood. His sister was married to a guy who was this extremist people. My friend convinced me to convert to Islam,” Nouamane told Khaleej Times.
As a new convert, his life in Antwerp changed as he was not allowed to watch movies or have fun.
“My mother saw me practising (Islam) and how the incidents in Syria affected me. She was worried. I told her I will never leave her. And they believed when I said I will never go there. They believed their son. I never lied to my family, except for this one.”
Nouamane was just 18-year-old when he left Belgium in 2013 to travel to Syria, considered the most dangerous country in the world.
Nouamane insists he was not initially lured by the Daesh ideology. “I came to help the people of Syria. I first came to Idlib and joined a normal group of fighters (and fought at the checkpoints.)
“I was in touch with my mother and she kept crying and asking me to come back. My friend who was in Syria with me said my family will get over it soon.”
Inside a Daesh stronghold
Nouamane said he joined Daesh in 2015 after coming to Aleppo.
“When I went to fight in Aleppo, we were facing the Assad regime but we weren’t allowed to fight. They sent us, especially the foreigners, like sheep to a point where the regime is not allowed to cross over. They fire us with bullets, bomb us with barrel bombs . with mortars.”
According to Nouamane, it was in Aleppo he came face to face with the ugly side of Daesh.
“In the beginning, it was like a normal state. There was police and the state had around 12 million people. Everything was a little bit normal. Then the crazy stuff started to happen. Bad leaders, corruption . there was killing, beheading, cutting hands off. They stopped Internet. They killed their own people. One of my friends got killed by Daesh because he argued with them.”
“I wanted to go back. But it was a big step. There were Daesh militants and they would not let you go. Then there was FSA (Free Syrian Army) groups. It was like being in a trench you cannot escape.”
Did you kill anyone?
“Not everyone kills. I know that is what people think,” said Nouamane.
Did you pick up a gun?
“Of course. Am I going to Syria with a flower in my hand? It is a war country. FSA, civilians, everyone has guns.”
Did you witness torture?
“We don’t get to see this. Normal soldiers and civilians don’t get to see this. You know, there are slave women but you don’t see them.”
“But I saw a lot of death from both sides. Both from the Coalition and Daesh. Thousands died, families vanished, women were wounded. Many whose heads or legs got blown apart. I myself have buried four children. Of course, I have seen enough violence. More than enough.”
Nouamane denied partaking in any of Daesh demagoguery, and claimed he himself surrendered to the Coalition forces. “I was not arrested during any fight.”
While Khaleej Times could not verify his claims independently, Nouamane claimed he was injured when another Daesh fighter from Belgium fired at him accidentally.
“He was cleaning guns. He shot at me by mistake,” he said, adding that his intestines were hanging out of his body after the accident. “I have diabetes and need insulin to survive. I have run out of insulin now. I could die here, you know.”
Regretting the past
Standing half-way between disillusionment and hope, Nouamane says he regrets joining the Daesh group.
“I regret coming to this terrorist group. I regret becoming a terrorist. I don’t regret coming to Syria though. I initially came to help the people against the Assad regime.”
“I came at a really young age and was brainwashed. I was not born a terrorist, you know. I became a radical terrorist in the end – from practising (Muslim) to extremist to a terrorist.
Nouamane knows fully well that his government considers him a national security threat, and that regretting his decision may not be good enough to plead for a second chance in life.
“They are scared. It is fully their right to be scared and to want to make a good plan before taking us back. I know that I will have to go to court, jail and pay the price. It is not enough to say that I regret it. Of course I need to show that I regret it and that I condemn the act. I am ready to finish my studies, go back to work, show the community that I am good until they can accept me.”
Nouamane’s cold aloofness gave way to an anguish when he started talking about his family that he fears is stranded in a camp somewhere in Syria.
“I married a woman from Holland after coming to Syria. I have two children, Zakariya and Mohammed. I haven’t heard from them in the last 10 months. I am prepared to take my wife and children anywhere – to the north pole, to the south pole, to China, to the desert. I just want to get out of here.”
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