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What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters

They’re drawn to the movement for reasons that have little to do with belief in extremist Islam.

No sooner am I settled in an interviewing room in the police station of Kirkuk, Iraq, than the first prisoner I am there to see is brought in, flanked by two policemen and in handcuffs. I awkwardly rise, unsure of the etiquette involved in interviewing an ISIS fighter who is facing the death penalty. He is small, much smaller than I, on first appearances just a boy in trouble with the police, his eyes fixed on the floor, his face a mask. We all sit on armchairs lined up against facing walls, in a room cloudy with cigarette smoke and lit by fluorescent strip lighting, a room so small that my knees almost touch the prisoner’s—but he still doesn’t look up. I have interviewed plenty of soldiers on the other side of this fight, mostly from the Kurdish forces (known as pesh merga) but also fighters in the Iraqi army (known as the Iraqi Security Forces or ISF), both Arab and Kurdish. ISIS fighters, of course, are far more elusive, unless you are traveling to the Islamic State itself, but I prefer to keep my head on my shoulders.
Rumors abound as to summary executions of ISIS prisoners without due process, but of course no one will go on the record to report such abuses of human rights. Anecdotally, we were told about a prisoner who was interrogated for 30 days but only said “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) for the entire month. “Wouldn’t you shoot him?” they asked. One peshmerga gave an eyewitness report about five prisoners captured, questioned, and shot in the head. We spoke to various military leaders who said they didn’t want to take prisoners, since injured bodies are often booby-trapped and kill approaching soldiers; for this reason the PKK has a take-no-prisoners policy. (The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is the Turkey-based Kurdish separatist group on the international terrorism list; in proving themselves indispensable in the fight against ISIS, they have caused a dilemma for Western governments. They are seemingly not so indispensable that those governments have felt compelled to oppose Turkey’s recent bombing campaign against them.)

“With ISIS, there’s no compromise…they’re not interested in prisoner exchange.”
Another source told us of the futility of holding prisoners for their bargaining power: “With ISIS, there’s no compromise, no negotiation…they’re not interested in prisoner exchange because they believe that they’re better off dead.” Whatever the truth of the behavior of the military and security services, the fact remains: ISIS prisoners are hard to find.

One evening we watch a documentary on BBC Arabic profiling Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir, the head of police in the Iraqi governorate of Kirkuk. He is shown policing the town of Kirkuk, personally patrolling the streets and houses, arresting people suspected of fighting for ISIS. Kirkuk, then, seems like a good place to start: At least there are prisoners there, shown by the BBC, no less.

And so my colleagues and I drive to Kirkuk from the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, to meet Qadir. Despite the workload of maintaining security in this uneasy, half-Arab, half-Kurdish area, rife with ISIS sleeper cells, he is welcoming, sending armed guards to bring us in from the highway to the city. We are served tea in his office, and he sits with us for half an hour before we are taken to the interview room with two colonels. (The week after I left the country he and other officers would be caught in a huge car bomb; Qadir was wounded for the fourteenth time in the service of Kurdistan.)

Once the first prisoner is there, and with no possibility of small talk, we launch straight into the research questions I am there to ask, the same questions asked of fighters and non-fighters all over the country, questions I’ve asked in Lebanon too, and which have been replicated in other parts of the world by my colleagues at Artis International, a consortium for the scientific study in the service of conflict resolution. The research is based on cognitive and moral psychology, exploring when and why humans commit the most extreme sacrifices—including their lives and the lives of their families—for abstract causes, for so-called “sacred values.” Our research tries to determine why people will change their minds about these sacred values, and whether and how they will change their behavior in defending them. We hope to find out how to persuade people to abandon violent pathways, though I am fast losing faith in that possibility in this part of the world.
For this trip I am accompanied by senior colleagues; by Scott Atran, an academic based in France; and by Doug Stone, a retired American general who spent over two years in Iraq during the US occupation, interviewing prisoners on a daily basis. This, of course, changes the interview experience fundamentally, crowding the room and giving the event more importance, more formality, but also bringing entirely different questions, emphases, and expertise to bear and so drawing out many different angles on the interviewees. In any case, informality is never going to be achieved with prisoners on death row.

First are questions probing perceptions of the strength of various groups—some of which the interviewee might have sympathy with (although he might not express this). Other groups he would quite clearly consider to be the Other, the Enemy. I bring out a flashcard with pictures of half-naked men on it, ranging from the fairly puny to the biggest bodybuilder—each head replaced by a flag of the Islamic State. Whatever this youngster was expecting, whatever he’s been asked before—this was neither. He looks up, startled, at my colleague Hoshang Waziri—his first human reaction—who begins to explain.

“This is the Islamic State—look, this is the flag here,” Hoshang says, pointing at the bodybuilder and flexing his biceps. “This picture shows the Islamic State as the strongest it could be. Here, they are very, very weak; and here are all the things in the middle. How strong do you think they are?” The boy timidly points at the weakest—to be expected, as he doesn’t want to seem to be a fan—and we move to a similar picture, but with the Kurdish flag rather than the Islamic State flag superimposed on the bodies. “Now the peshmerga: How strong are they?”

The prisoner got the hang of the question, and points to the second-strongest picture. In other pictures, he decides that the Iraqi army is in the middle, Iran a little weaker than that, and America the strongest. (He hasn’t heard of the PKK, despite their repeated victories over ISIS.) We ask him to rank all the forces, using the cards, and then I realize that he is still handcuffed and I ask for them to be taken off. In the ensuing hiatus, with policemen fetching keys and walking to and fro, I try to chat more informally, and finally he looks at me, answering questions in one-word answers as to his age, background, education, family. Slowly, with snippets emerging from the rest of the interview, I piece together a picture that is to be repeated, with only minor differences, with other prisoners we talk to that day, stories familiar to General Stone from during the allied occupation, and to journalists and researchers I’ve spoken to since.

This man is 26, the eldest of 17 children from two mothers (that is, his father had two wives at the same time), from Kirkuk. He completed sixth grade, meaning that at least he was literate, unlike others we were to interview. He is married, with two children, a boy named “Rasuul,” meaning Prophet, and a girl named “Rusil,” the plural of Prophet—indicating the centrality of Islam to his life. He was working as a laborer to support his huge family when he hurt his back and lost his job. It was then, his story goes, that a friend, from the same tribe but only distantly related, approached him with the offer to work for ISIS. The story has been honed through repeated interrogation and the trial, and comes out pat. Life under the Islamic State was just terror, he says; he only fought because he was terrorized. Others may have done it from belief, but he did not. His family needed the money, and this was the only opportunity to provide for them.

“We need the war to be over, we need security…all I want is to be with my family, my children.”
Later in the interview we find out just how committed he is to his family, first with flashcards that we use to test the degree of fusion of the individual with various groups. We ask about Iraq, Islam, family, friends, and the Islamic State. The choices are again made pictorially: We use a set of two increasingly overlapping circles (at one end of the spectrum the circles are not even touching, at the other they are fully overlapping, with four circles of varying degrees of overlap in between), and again, they are unexpected and confusing to the prisoner—there is not an obvious “right” answer for most of them. The man is drawn out of his shell in spite of himself, losing his self-consciousness in his concentration and his questions to Hoshang. Eventually he decides that he is almost, but not entirely, fused with Iraq and with Islam, completely separate from the Islamic State (again, to be expected), barely connected to friends (“I have no friends”), and fully fused with his family. In fact, his family is the only group he was fully fused with, a decision that took no time at all. During more informal questioning about his family and tribe comes this telling statement: “We need the war to be over, we need security, we are


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