EXCLUSIVE: It wasn’t the slaughter of innocent women and children, the $150-per-month in wages or the strict rules enforced by torture and death that prompted Abu Almouthanna to desert the Islamic State army.
It was the endless killing -- ordered by his Islamic State “emir” -- of like-minded jihadists who marauded through Syria under banners different from the caliphate army’s ominous black flag, the 27-year-old Syrian and admitted former member of the terrorist army told FoxNews.com.
Almouthanna, already hardened by stints in prison, fighting the Damascus regime in the three-year civil war and conscription in the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra, said he had no issue with murdering Christians, Kurds and Yazidi when he joined the murderous group.
“When your family has been killed, you will want to kill, too,” Almouthanna told FoxNews.com in a recent clandestine sit-down arranged in Gazientep, Turkey, where he is in hiding.
Almouthanna’s bloody path to murder in the name of Mohammad began in the farming village near Raqqa where he was born, he said. The constant repression under the government of President Bashar Assad took a dramatic turn when the civil war broke out in 2011, and young men in the north were often jailed and tortured without cause, he said.
Almouthanna recounted spending 10 months in a Syrian jail in 2012, where he said his captors pulled out his fingernails and flayed his skin. He fared better than others, who he claims to have watched get beaten to death.
When Almouthanna was released, he joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel group that took up arms against Assad’s army before jihadists from throughout the world flooded in and turned the war-ravaged nation into a bloody free-for-all. After a few months, Almouthanna said, he left the FSA to join Jabhat al Nusra, an Al Qaeda offshoot that had come into Syria to help the FSA liberate the nation in what became a tense and uneasy alliance. At the same time, ISIS, as it was then known, was gathering momentum and sending fighters in from Iraq, where it had already seized huge swaths of territory, money and weapons.
A well-chronicled falling out between ISIS and Al Qaeda soon meant the army now known simply as Islamic State was at war with everyone, including the FSA and Al Nusra, Assad’s army, ethnic Kurds in the northeast and religious minorities throughout Syria.
Four months after Almouthanna joined Al Nusra, his battalion was crushed in a bloody battle with Islamic State, he said. Some 2,000 fighters, including Almouthanna, simply signed on with the victors, he said.
“I was happy to move to ISIS,” he said. “They had the most money and the best weapons, but other than that they were just the same.”
His new commanders sent him to a remote boot camp for 40 days of training under battle-scarred foreign fighters, including Chechens and Afghans, he said. Sleeping 10 men to a room, they were awakened at all hours for grueling exercises, drilled in tactics and weaponry and given noms de guerre, including the name Almouthanna now goes by. The pay was about $150 a month, he said.
It was during this training that Almouthanna met some of the thousands of radicalized Western fighters who have flocked to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, he said. Three Frenchmen and a Briton who he bunked with were given regular Arabic lessons and studied the Koran endlessly. But it was their sheer bloodlust that set them apart, he said.
“From Day One, they joked about cutting heads and making the enemy pay,” Almouthanna said.
For the next 14 months, Almouthanna said, he fought for Islamic State, battling mostly FSA forces while based between the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa and Deir ez Zor, a city some 100 miles to the southeast.
Battles led by Libyan fighters tended to be much tougher and involved hand-to-hand combat, Almouthanna said. Raids led by Chechens, who Almouthanna said were by far Islamic State’s best fighters, tended to be well-planned and tactical. Both utilized an initial wave of suicide bombers, and ended with conquered territory littered with mines and IEDs, he said.
The fighters killed civilians with merciless glee, and didn’t have to be ordered to do so.
“They were all enemies,” he said matter-of-factly.
After one battle, Almouthanna recalled, Islamic State forces took 300 prisoners, including women and children. They held them for a day, before deeming them a burden and mowing them down in the desert, he said.
To spread terror among the civilian populations of small villages, Islamic State fighters would conduct public beheadings, he said. Townspeople would crowd into the main square to watch, bringing their children and exhorting the killers more out of fear than solidarity, he said. Islamic State members would fight over who would wield the blade, believing it “brings them closer to god,” Almouthanna said. They did the same for the privilege of carrying out suicide missions, he said.
The butchery of battle gave way to “special” camaraderie when the fighting ended, Almouthanna said. Islamic State fighters would recount their exploits, the nameless innocent victims they’d killed and joke about women. Women, some of whom were slaves taken from conquered villages and others who were female jihadists themselves, would cook feasts for the victorious warriors, Almouthanna said.
In Raqqa, Islamic State prisons were packed with captives being tortured with cattle prods, beaten with sticks and burned to death, Almouthnanna said. But the victims were members of the terrorist army who had broken its strict laws forbidding smoking, being irreverent during prayers or uttering Allah’s name.
The turning point for Almouthanna came in the battle for the eastern city of Markada last March. The fight pitted Islamic State raiders against both FSA and Al Nusra, and left far more than the reported 125 total fighters dead, according to Almouthanna.
For Almouthanna, the five-week fight for Markada was the “unforgettable battle” that ultimately convinced him to desert. The fight for the city, Syria’s seventh-largest, was critical to Islamic State as it lay along the army’s supply route from Iraq. Islamic State would capture the city, but lose Omar al-Farouk al-Turki, a top commander and key deputy of Islamic State leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“By the end, we were killing everything and everyone, including women and children in surrounding villages or left in the town,” he said, quickly denying that he personally had killed any children.
“It was easy,” he added. “We had been in battle for weeks.”
The battle, and the capture and killing of dozens of Al Nusra fighters, left Almouthanna disenchanted, he said. He said he realized that he was no longer battling the hated Assad regime, but fighting fellow jihadists. He said others felt the same way, but noted that those who try to leave are easily replaced by foreign fighters pouring in daily.
He made plans to flee.
“Everyone is very afraid to speak about their fears or feelings, and escaping [warrants] an immediate death penalty,” he said.
The terrorist army, which includes senior leaders from Saddam Hussein’s military, is infested with spies who report anyone whose resolve could be weakening, Almouthanna said.
He asked his emir, or commanding officer, for two days off to visit home, then drove to the Turkish border and melted into that nation’s population. He knows what will happen if he is caught by his old comrades.
"The punishment for leaving is death," he said.