Lebanese Joining Daesh: Because Life with it is better

My Translation and Analysis. 

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A reader sent me a very interesting article in Lebanon’s Al-Saffir newspaper.

The article, which I translated below, describes the Court-room defense of two young Lebanese men, who made an initial decision to attempt to go to Syria to join the Islamic State. However, they claim they realized immediately this was a mistake and came home before engaging in any violence.

What they are saying should be viewed with some skepticism– their attempt to play down the extent of their attraction to ISIS is likely an attempt to get a lesser sentence.  But still, it is worth the read and there are lots interesting nuggets of information.

The Translation & Commentary at the End: 

Rarely does a day pass that those who have become convinced of the ideas of terrorist groups in Syria and then go to join up,  are called to account before the Military Tribunal

Yesterday, the Tribunal heard from two of these – who explained their motivations. Each has their specific motivations for what causes them to leave their homes/ families to travel to “the land of Jihad. “

The first, Guy A. 21 years old.  Left his home to go to the port of Tripoli, without even telling his parents about his travels to Turkey, and then onward to Raqqa.

Guy A, who was born in a poor rural village in the Lebanese countryside, never sought out anyone to tell him about “the State.”

He first came in contact with the group, when he received a message via WhatsApp that was sent to the wrong address. It was from someone named Abu Fulan, asking for someone else named Abu ABC..

Despite the wrong number, Guy A stayed in communication with the guy who called him, who convinced him to travel to Syria to join the group, because “life is better with Daesh.”

Guy A wanted to join the fight.  He woke up one morning, took camo pants and military boots from a store owned by his father and uncle, and then headed towards the Port, with the intent of contacting Al-Iraqi upon arriving to Turkey, with the goal of making it to Syria.

However, at the port, the young man felt he made a bad decision. He decided to return to his house. He asked the border control officer to give him back his passport, which aroused suspicion. Guy A’s luggage were then opened, he was questioned, and finally his plans of travelling to Syria were uncovered.

Yesterday, Guy A addressed the Military Tribunal, responding to questions, and expressed his regret:  “I swear to God I don’t love Daesh.”  He just wanted to put it all behind him and go back to his studies.

However, the story of the second person, Guy B is different than Guy A.

A native of Tripoli, Guy B was working in a café. He received a phone call from his friend, Hashem Al-Haj, aka “Abu Mujahidd” who was working carrying a trolley in the streets selling cake.  He implored his friend to join Daesh, and that he would really improve his economic circumstances which weren’t great – and improve his ability to take care of his wife and two sons by becoming “super rich”.

Guy B, totally naively, believed this guy’s promise that Daesh would pay a salary equivalent to that of a general in the American Army, or $6,000/month.

Guy B – heard this and agreed, before his friend was killed during a battle.  Guy B then made his way into Syria via a Turkish driver who happened to speak Arabic.

At the first camp, there were hundreds of people, of various nationalities.  On Day 2, Guy B was moved to a different camp in Jarablus, affiated with Daesh, led by the commander Abu so and so. 

Immediately after morning prayers, Guy B had to join with a group to receive Shariah lessons from a Saudi member of Daesh.

Participating in the actual fighting was delayed and the group had to go through military training, because of air attacks by the Syrian Army against the terrorist positions.

When Guy B heard this, he was terrified and decided to get out while he still could, without getting the money he was promised.  He told Abu X about his desire for this, but he advised him to not think about the issue.

But getting into Daesh locations and getting out are different things.  They grabbed him and moved him by car to a different location.  There, he was imprisoned for 15 days and interrogated about his desire to return to his country. He was then released and allowed to return to Turkey to work there in order to raise the money to pay for a plane ticket back to Lebanon.

He expressed his regret to the court: “They tricked me….It wasn’t for me. I don’t want to kill and slaughter.”

After the Defense finished, the Military judge sentenced Guy B to hard labor for two years and the loss of his civil privileges (no voting, no working in Government jobs). ; and Guy A to one year.

Some Commentary: 

(1) Are these articles common? 

For those who don’t read Arabic — and might wonder – are there lots of articles published  like this that provide good insights into the local appeal of ISIS?  Not that I am aware of. Therefore this article is more interesting because of its uniqueness.

(2)  “I did it for the cash” defense…  

Room for skepticism?  It is hard to believe that anyone in Lebanon – where average salaries are about $1,300/month – could really believe they’d get paid $6k to join ISIS. My hunch is that maybe money was a factor but there had to have been at least some meaningful sympathy with the group’s message too. But that probably isn’t something you would tell a judge in this case if one is looking to convince a judge you deserve a lesser punishment.

(3) “I didn’t contact them – they contacted me accidentally” 

Again, a smart thing  to tell a judge yet seems there has to be slightly more to the story.

Although there could be something here. When I lived in Lebanon I bought a standard burner phone, brand-new at the local store. I would occasionally get Spam-type Text messages from religious charity type organizations raising money related to the Syrian Civil War.  This was sometimes a bit creepy.  How did they get my number? Clearly, someone somewhere has a mass phone number list.

So it is plausible it was a truly random “wrong number” from a guy that just happened to be a recruiter. Probably also true though that somewhere along the line he expressed an indicator of support for the cause, that made have something to do with getting the “Wrong number” text.

(4) Deep religious beliefs not necessarily the primary motivator

While both were clearly Sunni,  their decision to join –doesn’t seem to be about some kind of deep religious motivation, although the article says nothing about this. I am also skeptical it was really only about the money for Guy B. It seems more about the appeal of being apart of some greater Cause. Something different and exciting than either – both with mundane, very low-level jobs could ever find otherwise. 

In any case, it seems the judge made a reasonable judgement (based solely on what can be ascertained from the article) that these two guys probably aren’t hard-core true believers in the ideology and sentenced them to a pretty light sentence. Even more than that they are both, but especially the Second guy, extremly lucky to have even made it back alive from a dangerous situation.

4 thoughts on “Lebanese Joining Daesh: Because Life with it is better

  1. A reader from the area

    Although I agree that they might very well have concealed their ideological motivations in front of the judge, I think some points are worth raising:

    The article says that one of the two men is from the village of Al Marj in the Bekaa valley. As a resident in a close by area, I can say that that village is one of the most disadvantaged. Not to generalize, but it is known in the region as a source of extremism and danger (one example is that a huge explosives factory was found there not long ago, linked to ISIS). It has even been repeatedly described as “out of control” by mainstream Sunni powers. So the guy definitely comes from a background prone to radicalization. In addition to being poor, the village is also left behind in every other possible way. So it has the potential of generating: anger and hatred (even – and probably more so – towards the mainstream Sunni powers), the feeling of being insignificant and wanting to be part of a greater cause, the desire for some sort of payback, and the need to make more money.

    Of top of all that, people in that area have no feeling of being protected whatsoever — and if you ask me they have every reason to feel that way. But this lack of safety leads them to become militarized to protect themselves. The article says that the guy worked in a military equipment store (and there are hundreds of these), so he just took what he needed and left. Teenagers and young men in similar areas are the primary customers at such shops, and although they don’t legally sell guns, many of many have “a back door”. Knowing many of these people, I can safely say that this has everything to do with the sense of adventure.

    The idea of joining ISIS appealed to them because it satisfied all these needs. And if it comes at the cost of becoming deeply religious, what the hell… they’ll give it a try.

    That being said, I agree with you that their motivations are not purely religious. Of course it is convenient to be born Sunni to join ISIS, but religion alone can never lead to such a decision. I think the case of these two men fits perfectly with your previous articles on socioeconomic motivations.

    In the end, they decided to leave ISIS. It could be because they didn’t want to die, or didn’t want to become butchers. But they did follow that initial impulse that satisfied their rage, their wanting to be part of a greater cause, wanting payback and more money, and wanting to go for an adventure… and that alone speaks volumes.


  2. Nathan

    Thank you so much for sharing this extremly insightful comment.

    This is exactly what I am getting at by the importance of local knowledge, in really gauging the extent of the ISIS challenge — which in my view can only really be measured by gauging HOW MANY PEOPLE are willing to take up arms in the name of the cause.

    To gauge that, one has to have some mastery of the local domain. What you are writing here is true expertise on that Lebanese situation.

    Whereas, the one size fits all academic attempts to come up with some kind of magic bullet formula that try explain why people radicalize, and then compiling data from everyone that joined a jihadist group for the last 40 years, including in that sample, people who joined Hamas, the IRA the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah is not useful from a policy perpsective in dealing with this new ISIS problem.

    To get to the roots of who is joining ISIS, we have to look at exclusively who is joining ISIS.

    And we have to look at that local domain. This article plus your comment are extremely useful insights. Yet –they would all be missed by those operating exclusively from the Terrorism-Counter-Terrorism paradigms.


    1. A reader from the area

      I agree. I can’t see how data about people joining ISIS is comparable to data about people joining Hezbollah for example. Totally different circumstances and motivations, because the popular base of the two is completely different. There are too many variables, I think, in comparing them.

      Some US policy makers might view all these entities as equally “terrorist”, but from a local perspective even the fiercest opponents of Hezbollah know that they are not in any way comparable to ISIS.


  3. Nathan

    Yes – I am extremely skeptical that there is analytical value in assuming that the reasons that people joined Hezbollah, somehow provide insights to US policy makers trying to figure out why people are joining ISIS. It’s apples versus oranges.

    But in defense of US policy makers, the paradigm is largely formed by the academic and research communities. It’s a matter of their appraoch.

    HERE is the question of which the disagreement stems:

    Do you focus on every possible group that has done “terrorism” over the last 40 or 50 years? Or do you focus on this specific group – ISIS?

    Some will strongly disagree with me, but I would say US policy makers would be better served in getting to the root of the ISIS/ISISism problem by focus more narrowly on the Middle East domain, and this group itself. Accordingly, I find your comment here about the realities of the Beqqaa more informative than just about anything I’ve read about ISIS in Lebanon published in English.

    However, according to the terrorism studies paradigm it will be drastically downplayed, if not ignored, because local domain doesn’t matter. It fundamentally is not taken into the equation in the Terrorism studies approach.

    Furthermore, as you mention, there are too many variables to lump in the IRA, Hezbollah, ETA, Hamas, and anyone who has embraced the tactical use of terrorism violence.

    Frankly – I would strongly argue that there is far more to be learned about ISIS from studying the examples of Communist, The National Socialist German Worker’s Party (the Nazis) and Anarchists of the last half of the 19th century.

    But according to the dominant paradigm — none of those groups count as “terrorist.”

    But what is ISIS closer to — groups like these that were existential – blowing up their status quo and replacing it with some kind of utopian paradise? Or groups like the IRA or others that were using tactical terrorism in the context of some kind of narrow post-colonial liberation type activity?


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