But the outcome of these journeys was always the same. Two minutes later, Mohammed returned and climbed back in the car with a sigh. “Not him,“ he said. And then he was silent the whole journey back.
Mohammed had already spent four weeks in Kilis—making phone calls, chasing contacts and traveling back and forth to the border in a desperate hunt for his teenage brother, Ayoub. He was charged on feelings of brotherly responsibility and guilt. Three years ago, Mohammed, a young Libyan from the city of Al-Khomos, fought in the revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. He was part of the brigade that captured and killed Gaddafi’s son Mutassim, and he’d become a hero in his young brother’s eyes. Now Ayoub, just 15 years old, had followed in his footsteps. “Sometimes he said that ‘I want to be like you, I want to do the same that you did,’” said Mohammed.
He never thought that Ayoub would put those thoughts into action, but in late December Mohammed received a phone call from his mother. Ayoub had disappeared. Her teenage son, who didn’t have travel documents or any money, had called his family just as his plane was about to take off. He was on his way to Syria, and he was going there to fight. A day later Mohammed was on a plane too, hoping to catch his brother in Turkey before he crossed over the border. But he was too late—Ayoub’s journey had been so well planned that by the time Mohammed arrived in Kilis, Ayoub was already in Syria and, unbeknownst to Mohammed, had enrolled in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). So Mohammed was left behind, rattling around in a Turkish border town and searching for any clues about his brother’s whereabouts and what he was doing.
He knew that Ayoub was tantalizingly close, just over the border in Aleppo, Al-Bab or Azaz, or any of the other northern Syrian towns that have found a grim kind of infamy in war. But here was the problem: Ayoub hadn’t joined the Syrian rebels. He had joined ISIS, the Islamo-fascist armed group that is terrorizing large chunks of the rebel-held north, trying to establish an Islamic caliphate in the power vacuum that President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has left behind. Mohammed knew that he could not simply enter the war zone and look for his brother. “Even if I find where he is, if I ask about him, it is 80 percent that they will kill me, because they will think that I want to take him from Islam,“ he said.
Mohammed had been told a cautionary tale soon after he arrived in Kilis, about a man from Sudan who came to look for his son. Just like Ayoub, the boy had joined ISIS and was based in the Syrian border town of Azaz, just a couple of miles beyond the border crossing. So the man went to look for him—but he didn’t come back. “They shot him, he died,“ said Mohammed. “They killed him because he was looking for his son.”
The rumors and gossip blow around Kilis like tumbleweed—maybe that story was just one of those wartime legends. This end-of-the-road town has the feel of the Wild West. Its cheap hotels are full of journalists, jihadists and other sundry chancers who make their living from the war just down the road: smugglers, weapons dealers, humanitarians. They all talk and share stories in the bars and cafés, and the whispered half-truths take on a life of their own. And then they reach the ears of men like Mohammed, the people who have been slung in here unwillingly and are left to pick their way through the craziness. “When you’re going under the water, whenever someone says he will help you, you think you’re going up,“ he said. But so far he has only sunk further. The men who said they could help him find Ayoub never came up with any results. Many of them expected money for their efforts.
In a gaudy hotel room heavy with red and gold trimmings, Mohammed chain-smoked Libyan cigarettes as he pulled up pictures on Facebook. ISIS’s fighters are enforcing a medieval ideology but documenting it in 21st-century style in their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook updates. There on the ubiquitous social media site was a picture of Ayoub, baby-faced and holding a Kalashnikov. His khaki jalabiyya and camouflage jacket swamped his coltish frame, and he pointed the index finger on his right hand skywards in the silent gesture of jihad.
Mohammed couldn’t pinpoint the moment when Ayoub’s mind had been turned, but he was certain it had. Since entering Syria the teenager had sent increasingly aggressive messages to his brother, telling him he would not be coming back, and that he would kill him if he saw him. His malleable young mind had been twisted by ISIS’s religious training, even in those few weeks that he had spent inside Syria. He had told Mohammed, a quietly devout young man, that he did not consider him a true Muslim. The ISIS emirs had quickly imprinted their own, bastardized version of the faith upon him.
But Mohammed was certain that he knew how Ayoub had been recruited. Back in Al-Khomos there was a man who had spilled his secrets as soon as he had been arrested. He was ISIS’s recruiter in the city, searching out young men with a thirst to fight, arranging their passports and plane tickets and sending them over to Syria so that their indoctrination could begin. When he was arrested he was with eight boys, all of them the same age as Ayoub, who were about to travel over there together. “At least we stopped him,” said Mohammed. But it came too late for his brother.
Libya has become a fertile recruiting ground for the extremists. The weak central government has virtually no control over the east of the country, and in Benghazi and Derna a hardline Islamist group called Ansar Al-Sharia is smuggling weapons and training jihadist fighters with virtual impunity. But even in cities such as Al-Khomos, which is just an hour’s drive from Tripoli, the Libyan revolution has left a glut of weaponry and a generation of war-hungry young men behind it. Ayoub was just 12 when he watched his two older brothers fight in his country’s Hollywood-esque revolution. He was old enough to understand but too young to take part—all he could do was watch with envy as men just a few years older than him turned from nobodies into khaki-clad heroes in a matter of months. He didn’t have his own revolution to fight in, but then there was always Syria—the corner of the Arab Spring that turned into a nightmare winter of discontent, and then into a place with no rules where a bored young man from anywhere could go to act out his video game combat fantasies.
A few days later, Mohammed returned to Libya. His search for Ayoub had failed. He had been holding out in the hope that his brother had been arrested by one of the more moderate rebel brigades, but on that night in the border café his hopes were quickly and cruelly dashed. His contact showed him a photo of a young Libyan who was being held in a brigade prison, but it wasn’t Ayoub. What else could he do in Kilis, other than listen to the rumors and hope for the best?
Back in Libya he has started to question everything he did three years ago. He blames himself for his part in setting in motion a chain of events that now seems unstoppable. “This is our mistake. We started the revolution and we didn’t finish it,“ he said. “It made our kids like the guns and the shooting, and when they hear there is fighting they are smiling and want to join in. The world can’t do anything now.”