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When the peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke out in 2011, which led to Syria’s brutal civil war, Khaled * was a peaceful protester. A lot has changed since then.
Syria has been at war for seven long years. The Al-Assad government faces rebel and jihadist groups of the self-styled Islamic State, and multiple countries have been directly or indirectly involved in the conflict.
This is the story of how a peaceful protester who was involved in spiral of violence and ended up becoming a murderer.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of torture that could hurt the sensibilities of some readers. Some names were changed or removed.
Khaled did not wake up one day in the northern city of Raqa, key to the battle for many factions, surrounded by dust and the smell of death and decided to become a murderer.
When he was sent a special invitation.
Six men were ordered to appear at an area base in Aleppo, in Northwestern Syria, where a French coach would teach them to kill with pistols, weapons with mufflers and sniper rifles.
There they learned to assassinate methodically, taking prisoners to become their victims.
“Our objective in the practices were soldiers of the regime who had been arrested,” he says. “They put them in a difficult place and you needed a sniper weapon to reach them, or they sent a group of detainees and they asked you to shoot one without reaching the others.”
“Almost always the murders were carried out from a motorcycle, you needed someone else to drive the motorcycle and you sat behind it, you got to the side of the victim’s car, you shot him and he had no escape.”
Khaled learned how to follow people. How to “buy” whites you could not reach, by paying people close to them. How to distract a convoy of vehicles so that a fellow murderer could choose his target.
It is a bloody and inhumane education. But in mid-2013, shortly after the Syrian army withdrew from Raqa, this apprenticeship served the leaders of Ahrar al Sham, a hard-line Islamist group trying to rule the north of the city and eliminate its rivals.
Khaled was one of the group’s commanders, in charge of the city’s security office.
And yet, as he told the BBC, when the Syrian revolution took its first steps, in 2011, he was a man of peace, “a little religious, but not too strict”, who worked in the organization of pilgrimages.
“It was an incredible feeling of freedom mixed with fear of the regime,” he says, recalling the first day he joined anti-government protests.
“We felt we were doing something to help our country, to bring freedom and to be able to elect a president who was not Assad, we were a small group of about 25 or 30 people.”
Khaled says that at the beginning of the protests nobody thought about taking up arms. “We did not have the courage to do that,” but still the security forces arrested and beat people.
One day he went to Khaled, whom they arrested.
“They took me from my house to the Department of Criminal Security, then to other departments, from Political Security, State Security … and then to the central prison where I stayed for a month before they released me.”
“By the time I entered the central prison I could not walk and I could not sleep because of the back pain.“
Khaled says the one who treated him most savagely was a guard from the Department of Criminal Security who forced him to kneel before a photograph of President Assad saying, “Your god will die, and he will not die, God dies and Assad lasts.”
“I had shifts every other day and when he arrived I knew he would torture me.”
“I used to hang myself by the arms with chains from the ceiling, I was forced to undress and then put myself on the ‘flying carpet’ to whip my back, then tell me: ‘I hate you, I hate you, I want you to die. die in my hands’ “.
“I left that paralyzed prison and when they transferred me to the central prison the prisoners cried when they saw me, they had taken me on a stretcher”.
“I decided that if God saved me, I would kill the guard wherever I went .”
When he was released from prison, Khaled took up arms against the government. He says he “helped” 35 soldiers of the Syrian army to desert the 17th Division, stationed in the northeast of the country.
Some he kidnapped, selling his possessions to obtain money for weapons.a
Sometimes, he says, he worked with attractive women who were responsible for attracting “notorious subjects who injured the protesters” with offers of marriage.
He forgave their lives but forced them to record videos of desertions so that they could never again serve with President Al Asad.
For his first hostage a ransom of 15 Kalashnikov rifles was ordered, or their cash value.
But a man did not receive that mercy: the guard who had tormented Khaled.
“I asked people about (the guard) who worked in the Criminal Security Department until I found him, I followed him home and I took him.”
“He had told me something that I reminded him later, when he was in prison, he told me: ‘If you leave this prison alive and you manage to capture me, do not be lenient.’ And that’s what I did.”
“I took him to a farm near the central prison that was a liberated area, I cut his hand off with a butcher knife, I stuck out his tongue and cut it with scissors, and I still did not feel satisfied.”
“I killed him when he begged me to do it, I had come for revenge and I was not afraid.”
“Despite all the methods of torture I used with him, I had no regret or pain, on the contrary, if today I came back to life, I would do exactly the same.”
“If there had been an authority to complain about, to whom to tell him that he beat and humiliated the prisoners, I would not have done that to him, but there was no one.”
Khaled lost faith in the revolution . His center of attention became the daily battle for his own survival. And soon he would find an even darker role in the savage conflict in Syria: as a murderer of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS).
“I showed them a friendly face … then I murdered them.”
The friendship or the betrayal , the fights on tactics and the changes in the balance of power: all this caused that many of the Syrian rebels changed of factions, sometimes repeatedly.
Against this background, Khaled left the Islamists of Ahrar al Sham, who had trained him as a murderer, and joined the Nusra Front, which was then an official affiliate of al Qaeda in Syria.
By 2014, the self-styled Islamic State – which both Khaled and other combatants once ridiculed as a low-value group with a very small number of members – had already driven out the rebel factions of Raqa. The city would become the de facto capital of the “caliphate”.
The militants terrorized the civilian population with beheadings, crucifixions and torture. “He kept his property, killed and imprisoned for the dumbest reasons,” says Khaled.
“If you said, ‘Oh, Mohammed,’ they killed you for blasphemy, taking pictures, using cell phones, punished activities, smoking meant going to prison, they did everything: they killed, they stole, they raped.”
“They accused an innocent woman of adultery and then stoned her in front of the children, I would not kill a chicken in front of my brothers .”
The jihadists attracted important rebel leaders with money and high-level positions. Khaled was offered a job as “chief of security”, with an office and authority over IS fighters.
He understood that refusing would mean a death threat. So it came to a terrifying personal commitment.
“I said yes,” he says, “but with the consent of Abu Al Abbas, a high leader of al Nusra, I became a double agent.” I showed EI a friendly face, but secretly kidnapping and questioning his members and then I would kill them, the first one I kidnapped was a Syrian, the leader of an IS training camp. “
“I filtered to EI anything that Abu al Abbas wanted to filter, some information was true, so that EI would believe me, but at the same time he would steal his secrets.”
The Frente al Nusra had an obvious reason to spy on EI. He had rejected the union announced by the leader of EI Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2013, and had allied with other rebel groups.
The decision Khaled made seemed to lead him to certain death, but it was others who perished. He assures that he killed some 16 people for EI, shooting them in their homes with a silencer gun.
According to Khaled, the victims had sold their religion for money, betraying Ahrar al Sham and the Free Syrian Army, the Western-backed alliance that first took control of Raqa from the government.
One of his victims was an Islamic scholar from the city of Al Bab. “I knocked on his door, he opened it, I immediately came in with a gun pointed at his face, his wife began to scream, he knew what awaited him.”
“Before telling him anything, he told me: ‘What do you want? Money? This is my money, take what you want.’ I said, ‘No, I do not want money.’ And I locked his wife in another room.”
“Then he said, ‘Take the money, if you want my wife, you can sleep with her in front of me, but do not kill me.” What she said encouraged me to kill him.“
The emirs of EI in Raqa liked the novelty, and they continually killed those they had bribed to replace them with new blood. Sometimes they blamed the US-led coalition for the deaths, other times they did not bother to do so.
Within a month of accepting the job with EI, Khaled was sure he would be caught soon.
The killer fled, first by car to the eastern city of Deir al Zour, and then to Turkey.
When the BBC asked if he has any regrets or feel that you will one day be prosecuted for their crimes, Khaled said only: “Everything in what I thought was how to escape and stay alive.”
“This is not a crime, what I did, when you see someone pointing a gun and beating your father, killing your brother or your relatives, you can not stand still and no force can stop you.” What I did was in self-defense “
“I killed more than 100 people in battles against the regime and against EI, and I do not regret it because God knows I never killed a civilian or an innocent person.”
“When I look in the mirror I see myself as a prince, and I sleep well at night because all those who asked me to kill, deserved to die.”
“When I left Syria, I went back to civil life, and now if someone says something rude to me, I’ll answer him, ‘whatever you want.'”