KIRKUK, IRAQ —
Islamic State militants usually speak to the media through their propaganda machine against a backdrop of bombs, mortars and sniper fire. To better understand what is happening in IS-controlled territories, VOA visits a detention center in Kirkuk, Iraq, to meet a self-described former IS fighter. Here is what happened:
The door abruptly swings open, and we are surprised to see two soldiers burst in, the prisoner Mithaq in tow.
Mithaq’s wrists are handcuffed in front of him and a black knit cap is pulled over his eyes and nose. I had imagined we would see him in a cell, and not dressed as he is - in a black and red Adidas track suit.
He slumps on a couch, bowing his head and the soldiers slip out of the door, leaving only Colonel Fattah at his desk to guard the prisoner.
Mithaq’s fate has not yet been decided and Fattah later explains the sentencing process for captured IS members.
If he is found guilty of being a member, he will be imprisoned for 15 years. If he is found guilty of a specific crime, like one of the countless amputations, beheadings and stonings IS members have committed against civilians, he could be executed.
Mithaq shakes visibly.
Our interview with Mithaq will not affect his case if he confesses nothing more to us than what he has already told security forces, but his position greatly affects the way he tells his story to us. He confesses to being an IS fighter and taking part in military operations, as he has already told authorities. But he maintains he has committed no crimes against civilians and calls IS violence “criminal.”
We have no reason to believe what he says is false, but we know it is the only thing he can say without further incriminating himself, so we don’t focus on these issues.
When IS swept into Hawija in 2014, the group promised to provide services for civilians in the name of Islam. After years of deadly protests in Hawija against the Shi'ite led government in Baghdad, the group's arrival in the Sunni-dominated region was, to some, a relief.
“I liked them so I asked to join,” he says quietly when our translator asks why he took up with them. “I thought they were really an Islamic Caliphate.”
“What about it did you like?” I ask.
“They said they love Islam,” he explains, and the colonel interrupts.
“The militants tell these guys they can win their rights and serve God if they join,” Col. Fattah says. “That’s how they get them.”
“But then I found they are using religion in a wrong way,” Mithaq adds later. “They've killed so many people. When I was with them fighting I saw so many things that are not in Islam: killing men, women and children; chopping off people’s hands.”
Before joining IS, he goes on to say, he was a farmer, living relatively comfortably with his wife and two small children, one a newborn at the time. As an IS soldier, participating in military assaults - some failed and some successful - as well as manning checkpoints, he was paid 250,000 Iraqi dinars a month, a little over $200.
Later I ask our Iraqi translator if he believes Mithaq would abandon a successful farm for that small a salary. In many areas formerly controlled by IS, locals say IS finds poor, uneducated youth, and seduces them with money and promises of virgins in paradise. Mithaq was about 30 years old when he joined.
“He really believed he was serving God above himself at the time,” says the translator, apparently convinced this part of his story is true.
When it all changed
“My family was not upset when I joined,” Mithaq says when asked if his family was concerned. “The situation was good when they first came. But after a few months when our militants started to kill people, to punish them, to whip them and cut off their heads, people didn’t like us.”
Mithaq’s story is consistent with the accounts of scores of civilians we have talked to who say for the most part, IS militants were either kind or neutral to the people in the first months of their rule, and then suddenly began imposing draconian rules and gruesome punishments.
“Why did suddenly it change?” asks another reporter in the room.
“I don’t know. I wasn’t an emir (leader),” Mithaq says, appearing to consider the question. “Really I don’t know. The emir gave the orders and told us what were the new rules.”
In Mithaq’s town, Hawija, still an IS-stronghold some 120 kilometers from Mosul, the rules were similar to rules in other IS territories. If you stole, your hand would be chopped off. If you tried to run away you would be arrested. If you communicated with anyone on “the other side” like the Iraqi Army or Kurdish Peshmerga forces, death was certain, and often public.
“It was the cutting of the hands that originally changed my mind about the group,” Mithaq says. “But if I tried to flee, they would chop off my head or put a bullet in it.”
Life as a militant
Mithaq says he mostly socialized with other Iraqi IS militants during his time with the group, speaking mostly of jihad, Islam and fighting. Other topics of conversation were generally forbidden.
“I lived in my house with my family,” Mithaq says, appearing to be more comfortable with this topic than the question of his guilt, or IS crimes, though it's hard to tell; the cap remains pulled down over half his face. “For the first six months they provided us with good food and services. I would just go to work and come home. If they needed me to fight, I would sleep at the base.”
Foreign militants were around, he says, but they were a separate, more elite group of fighters. They were called “Inghamassi,” which means they would die before they would surrender. Foreign fighters were also known for being stricter with the people and having more battle experience and communications training.
Local recruits like Mithaq were trained in Mosul. For about a month, he spent his days alternating between 30 minute lectures on IS’s interpretation of Islam and three-hour military training sessions.
“Did you believe in their philosophy 100 percent?” our translator asks in Arabic.
Mithak seems confused. He has already denounced violence, as most prisoners would. The translator repeats the question, and I interrupt. In IS-held territories, women are required to wear full-face veils, men are required to wear beards and shortened pants and smoking is forbidden.
“He’s against violence, we get that,” I say. “But does he believe women should be wearing niqabs (veils) and men should be wearing beards and nobody should smoke?”
Again Mithak pauses, apparently unsure what is the best answer.
“These things are not violent,” I add.
“This is true,” he says after hearing the translation. “In my opinion, women should be veiled but beards are optional. Cigarettes are sinful. Long trousers are more modern and attractive than the shortened pants.”
The translator repeats the question again in different ways, and his opinions shift.
“I prefer shortened pants because they are Islamic,” he says. “And according to Islam we should have long beards and long hair.”
The beardless Col. Fattah laughs out loud. “We are Muslims too,” he says, lighting a cigarette.
Mithaq was arrested four or five months ago, says the colonel, after being identified as a militant among fleeing civilians from a list of names.
“I came here to Kirkuk because I was fleeing Daesh,” Mithaq says, using the pejorative and widely used term for IS in the Middle East. Only IS militants and civilians under their rule call the group “Dawla Islamiya” - Islamic State.
Mithaq would certainly have been risking his life to leave Hawije; whether he was fleeing because he was truly appalled by IS violence is for a court to decide.
Mithaq says a combination of factors made him run.
“There was no food left and they were criminals,” he says. “People were running away and there were only a few militants left. Our emirs had all fled.” He goes on to describe the emirs as hypocritical, secretly smoking and sleeping with unmarried women.
“Where did the emirs go?” asks a journalist.
“We couldn’t ask emirs where they were going,” Mithaq says. “It’s not allowed.”
Soldiers wander into the room and we are told to wrap up the interview. Among the many questions left unasked: where is his family now? I manage to throw in one question about his education. Civilians fleeing IS often say militants are uneducated and ignorant. Mithaq 's education ended in primary school, he says, seemingly fulfilling that stereotype.
But he also seems offended by the question.
“It’s not lack of education that made me join,” he says. “They have doctors and other educated people working with them.”