Waiting for the tram in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, Abu Omar is on his way to the mall. No groceries today, his shopping list includes a Turkish-made tablet computer and a small GPS navigation device loaded with digital maps of the Middle East.
“It’s nothing special,” says Abu Omar, an Iraqi national, as he puts the goods in his rucksack. “But this stuff might come in handy after I make it to Syria.”
Abu Omar, a handsome young man with long black hair, is not the only one making the trek to Syria. Hundreds of Iraqi prisoners, mostly suspected or convicted jihadists, were freed in July after al Qaeda-linked militants staged a deadly jailbreak at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. At the time, Iraqi and Western authorities feared that some of those men would travel to Syria, helping to fuel the rise of extremist groups there. Those fears have now become a reality.
Abu Omar is one of the al Qaeda members who escaped during the Abu Ghraib prison break. He says six of his former cellmates have also made it to Syria. “Many more are on their way,” he says in a strong Iraqi Arabic accent. “Everybody wants to go for jihad to Syria.”
Abu Omar sees the Syrian war as much more than a struggle against a brutal dictator. For him, it’s a war against unbelievers, and its ultimate aim is the establishment of an Islamic government that transcends the borders of the modern Middle East. “Syria and Iraq are the same struggle to us,” he explains. “Both governments in Iraq and Syria are run by unbelievers, so we will fight both. Syria is currently very weak and close to falling into the hands of the mujahideen [jihadists].”
Abu Omar refuses to give his exact age, saying only that he is in his 20s. We were able to contact him through a Syrian activist in Turkey known for his close links to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq and Syria. The jihadi organization, which is an extension of al Qaeda’s longtime networks in Iraq, has been growing in prominence in Syria’s north and east and has even recently clashed with several more moderate rebel groups.
Abu Omar spent 26 months imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, which gained notoriety in 2004 after shocking pictures were published of American guards torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. He was imprisoned on terrorism-related charges, but claims he is innocent of any crime. According to him, the experience of being locked up in Abu Ghraib led to his radicalization. “When I was in prison I met a lot of ISIS inmates,” he says. “They convinced me of their ideas. Their ideology of creating a caliphate is the best, and I decided to join them in their fight.”
The prison break gave him the opportunity to make good on his word. It was a massive operation: Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed that it used suicide bombers, rocket-propelled grenades, and 12 car bombs in the assault on the Abu Ghraib compound, freeing over 500 inmates. According to the Iraqi government, 29 security personnel were killed in the attack.
“The higher-ups within ISIS knew beforehand that Abu Ghraib would be stormed by our comrades,” he claims. “So shortly before the attack, we started a huge riot from inside the jail to distract the guards. The mujahideen then entered the prison.”
After breaking free, Abu Omar sought refuge in Iraq’s western province of Anbar, the traditional heartland of Iraq’s Sunnis. The area was once the center of an Islamist insurgency against the U.S. troop presence, and in more recent years it has become a hotbed of resistance to Iraq’s Shiite-led government and a crucial gathering point for jihadists bound for Syria.
Abu Omar stayed for a couple of weeks in an ISIS camp set up in Anbar. The camp’s leaders provided him with military training and showed him rousing videos of jihadi speeches and operations within Syria.
Later, Syrian jihadists visited the camp. “They explained to us about jihad in Syria,” Abu Omar says. “I decided to go there because mosques are being destroyed and Muslim women are being killed by thekafir [unbelievers].”
He considers jihad in Syria “holier” than jihad in Iraq, a view he says is shared by other extremist fighters. “The Quran and the hadiths already predicted that Satan will be defeated in Damascus,” he says.
After Abu Omar made up his mind to leave for jihad in Syria, he was given a cell phone by an Iraqi ISIS member whom he refers to as “my handler.” Abu Omar is only allowed to call one number, that of his handler. The handler, meanwhile, uses his phone only to call Abu Omar’s number. It’s a precaution designed to protect the jihadi network, if Abu Omar or his handler is under observation, the authorities can only find one contact from each man’s phone.
Before he left for Syria, Abu Omar decided to visit a barber and shave his beard. This way he would not stand out as a religious man. Clean-shaven, he traveled north to Iraq’s Kurdish region, snuck into the part of northern Syria controlled by the Kurdish rebels, and then illegally crossed the border into Turkey.
Abu Omar’s handler told him to travel to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and gave him the address of an ISIS safe house there. He stayed for a couple of days at the safe house, where he met fellow ISIS members who entrusted him with $10,000. “This money is meant for the mujahideen of Syria. I’ll bring it to them,” Abu Omar explains.
The day after Abu Omar went shopping, his phone rang again. “Please know that you will go tomorrow to Syria,” he says his handler told him. “Be ready; somebody will pick you up.”
On Sept. 18, Abu Omar was taken by a Syrian ISIS contact to the Turkish border town of Kilis, just a stone’s throw away from Syria. After illegally crossing the border into Syrian territory, he kissed the ground and prayed. Five minutes later, his new comrades picked him up and drove him to the nearby town of Azaz, where he disappeared into the fog of Syria’s war.