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Lifting the lid on Iraq's ex-ISIS tribal fighters - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Demonstrators chant pro-ISIS slogans as they carry the group's flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul on June 16, 2014. (AP Photo, File)

Demonstrators chant pro-ISIS slogans as they carry the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul on June 16, 2014. (AP Photo, File)

Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat—With few journalists reporting from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains a faceless organization; the world knows little about the men behind the black balaclavas.

In a rare insight into the jihadist group, Asharq Al-Awsat was able to gain access to former ISIS fighters in Iraq’s restive western governorate of Al-Anbar, after receiving safety guarantees from local tribal figures.

Ex-ISIS fighter Tahir Ghanem Al-Dulaimi, 46, is a member of the prominent, majority Sunni, Dulaimi tribe. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he regretted joining ISIS, saying that allegiance to the group and his subsequent desertion had caused significant problems for both himself and his tribe. In a culture where a strict code of honor is enforced, the former ISIS fighter has found his freedom of movement curtailed by his tribe until it is certain that he will not be targeted by reprisal attacks—potentially opening the door to a tribal war. “Society in Anbar is very tribal, and tribal laws and customs are more important than the sovereignty of the state,” Dulaimi said.

However, back in 2013, after Sunni protest camps were violently dismantled by government forces, Dulaimi decided to put aside his tribal allegiance and join a group few people then had heard of: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Dulaimi had become disillusioned by peaceful protest and felt more radical action was needed to stand up for his Sunni minority against the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. “We saw how the [Maliki] government was trying to eliminate Iraq’s Sunni community while ISIS was growing stronger and stronger within the protest movement in Iraq’s Sunni provinces, standing up for our demands and putting itself forward as a revolutionary alternative to the sit-ins and slogans that had not achieved anything.”

The change of tactic came after the Iraq army was sent in to Hawijah to disperse a Sunni sit-in leading to the deaths of dozens of civilians. “This was the turning point in my view and in the view of other tribesman in Anbar, Fallujah, Mosul and Salah Al-Din.”

“At this point, I, along with many other tribesmen, joined ISIS. We took the decision to take up arms against the Iraqi [Maliki] government and work to bring down the political system in Baghdad,” Dulaimi told Asharq Al-Awsat.

At the time, ISIS had only recently rebranded itself, it was formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI had been around for a while, waging an insurgency against coalition forces since the early days of the US-led invasion in 2003. While the group had been severely weakened during counter-terrorism operations it quickly re-emerged following the withdrawal of US troops in late 2011.

Dulaimi says that after the US forces withdrew from Iraq, the Iraqi government began to increasingly marginalize and confront the Sunni community carrying out arbitrary arrest campaigns and sidelining the western provinces. It was in this context that the Sunni protest camps grew and soon the ISIS flag was being raised at the sit-ins.

Dulaimi was no stranger to guerrilla warfare, he had earlier fought the coalition forces in Fallujah. “I fought and suffered to liberate Iraq from [US] occupation. Resistance is a legitimate and patriotic right and duty that we must carry out as Muslims and Iraqis, as well as tribesman, in order to defend our honor.”

Once he had joined ISIS ranks, he says their goal was to march on Baghdad. “The plan was in place and we were told that thousands of our supporters were ready to stand with us in the capital, including former and current army officers.”

At first, he and his tribesmen retained some independence from ISIS. “In the beginning we relied on our own arms and we operated independently as tribal rebels allied with ISIS.” But when order came from ISIS, they obeyed. “They [ISIS] viewed anybody who did not do so as a traitor and apostate and would kill them.”

“There were Yemenis, Syrians, Palestinians, Saudis, Tunisians and Sudanese among the ISIS ranks, but they did not enter Anbar or Fallujah in the beginning but relied on us, the Iraqis, to control the situation in the cities and create the conditions that would allow the other Arabs to enter.”

Dulaimi claims that their battalion often came across police and military officers who did nothing to stop them. This appears consistent with reports of the fall of Mosul to ISIS on June 10 in the first major victory for the group; the army fled the city leaving little resistance behind.

“I do not know exactly whether there was coordination between the ISIS leadership and some Sunni officers, but I know that I was able to move freely throughout Ramadi and Fallujah at a time when it was well-known that I was with ISIS, while some security officials were careful to call us ‘tribal revolutionaries’ and even welcomed our efforts,” he said.

Dulaimi added that their movement was made even easier by disguising themselves in the official army uniforms and vehicles looted after attacks on army bases. “They [ISIS] said that these uniforms, and even the arms and vehicles, were part of the ghanaem (booty) that they received from attacks on government infrastructure.”

In many cases ISIS were able to take army equipment without a struggle; following the occupation of Mosul, military fatigues littered the roads after government soldiers tried to remove evidence of their identity. Fear of the gruesome death ISIS hostages face led many conscripted soldiers to defect rather than stick around to fight.

The widespread defections and disintegration of the Iraqi army has meant that ISIS have made quick headway across Iraq and Syria. “In the beginning ISIS did not have many weapons, they only had small and medium arms. However with each battle and each government defeat, they obtained more sophisticated arms.”

Dulaimi believes that psychology and faith play a bit part in the rise of ISIS and downfall of the Iraqi army. “An Iraqi soldier does not want to die as opposed to a mujahedeen who does not care about dying but is actually seeking this.”

Commenting on the recent execution of Westerners at the hands of ISIS, Dulaimi claims not to have seen ISIS kill any Western hostages. “This did not happen in Anbar at least, but I did see the executions of policeman and soldiers.” Although these killings received less media coverage, many Iraqis affiliated with the government have been beheaded by ISIS. Reports emerged on October 11 of the death of Iraqi TV journalist Raad Al-Azzawi at the hands of ISIS just days after the jihadist group issued controversial media guidelines regarding the presence of journalists in ISIS-controlled areas.

It was these ruthless tactics that eventually led Dulaimi to flee back to his tribe. “They began to carry out practices that were as far as possible from the teachings of Islam and our tribal customs. They also executed a number of tribesman who wanted to leave due to their objection to the killing of Iraqis without cause and for attacking Anbar tribes that refused to join them.”

It seemed to Dulaimi that ISIS are not the champions of Sunni demands after all. “When I joined ISIS, I thought they truly wanted to achieve the demands of the [Iraqi] people, but I—and other fighters—discovered that they only wanted to seize control of Iraq and implement agendas that have nothing to do with popular demands.”