Inside a prison in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, vanquished Islamic State fighters who once swept through much of the country now mill about sullenly on a bare, tiled floor, reflecting on a cause they insist will endure. Many spend hours in fierce debate, apparently undeterred by their movement’s apparent military defeat. Their cause, they say, remains divinely ordained. Their capture incidental. “Hathi iradet Allah,” they say. This is God’s will.
A Kurdish guard called for a captive, whom I will call Abu Samya—a brooding Baghdad resident kidnapped first by the Islamic State’s forerunner group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and later by Shia death squads as sectarian lines hardened in 2006–2007. As he walked toward the guard, some fellow captives condemned him as “kha’in,” or traitor. Outside the walls, long before the caliphate crumbled, that charge carried a death penalty. The jaded jihadist shrugged it off.
After a curt introduction, the thin man leaned across the table, eyeballing me. “There is no life left for me,” he said, in a tone of resignation that seemed briefly to disguise the unmistakable sense of anger years in the making. “Ask me anything.”
For the next two hours, Abu Samya laid bare his transformation from a laborer in a mixed, well-to-do suburb to an inmate in Camp Bucca, the US-run prison that came to define an era of the American occupation of Iraq. The journey took him from political disillusion to ideological commitment, and back again, shaping his values, then shattering them within a decade. [Continue reading…]