A former Islamist fighter in Syria recalls why he went to Syria, how easy it was to get there – and why he would go again, if he could.
On his first trip abroad, he left with 400 euros in his pocket, a printed map from the internet and the belief that he was fulfilling his destiny in eyes of Allah. The destination was the frontline of the war in Syria, but his jihad ended faster than it started.
Two years later, in a bar full of people in his hometown in northern Albania, Ebu Merjem stands out with his long beard and his trousers cut short above the ankle.
He does not like the attention he attracts and chooses a half-empty corner of the bar to explain what that pushed him towards a far-away war.
“If I had the chance, I would go even today and fight in Syria,” Ebu Merjem says. “It was God that created jihad and you have to love something that God loves,” he added.
The 37-year-old unemployed father-of-two has been a practicing Muslim for 17 years.
He is one of 90 Albanians who went to Syria between 2012 and 2014 to take part in what they believed was a holy war.
Since the Syrian conflict began, ten Albanian jihadists have lost their lives there. Thirty others returned home before the adoption of a law that criminalizes participation in conflicts abroad.
According to documents obtained by BIRN, nearly 50 Albanian jihadists identified by the security services are still fighting in Syria.
Albania is a Muslim majority country with a long tradition of interfaith coexistence, and few understand why local Muslims like Ebu Merjem have traveled to fight in Syria.
Merjem has lived all his life in Albania, but believes his homeland is wherever there are Muslim believers. If his Muslim brothers are being attacked, even if they are thousands of kilometers away, he feels it his duty to protect them.
“My brother is the American, Syrian or French Muslim. My enemy may even be my brethren,” he says. “This has nothing to do with nationality or blood. I went there for my faith and my biggest regret is that I couldn’t experience war,” he added.
The road to Syria
Syria was the last country in the Middle East to be engulfed by the wave of anti-government protests in spring 2011 known as the Arab Spring. The conflict there soon took the nuances of a civil war.
The involvement of militant Islamic organizations in this war and its geographical proximity to Europe soon turned Syria into a hub for jihadists from all over the world.
The use of the internet and social networks directly from the battlefield popularized calls for jihad, especially in Europe where a considerable number of second-generation immigrants from the Middle East have embraced religious extremism.
From the beginning of the conflict until now, over 12,000 foreigners from 81 countries have joined militant organizations fighting in Syria. Nearly 3,000 are believed to have come from Western countries.
Ninety of these fighters are Albanian followers of the Salafist brand of Islam, preached on the fringe by imams, often in isolated mosques whose legal standing the official Muslim Community of Albania questions.
These believers started to show up in force at Tirana airport in the autumn of 2012, where they declared they were travelling to Turkey for health reasons. From Turkey, the jihadists jumped the border illegally into Syria and landed in the war.
The head of Albanian League of Imams, Justinian Topulli, lists several reasons for the involvement of Albanian Muslims in the war in Syria.
He says they felt a form of religious solidarity with the Syrian Muslims in their struggle against Bashar al Assad’s dictatorship, but it was also a way of escaping the Albanian reality, in which many Muslims do not feel comfortable.
Another no less important reason, according to Topulli, is the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of religious texts about the Apocalypse, which some preachers mistakenly tie with current events in Syria.
In contrast to Topulli, Ebu Merjem believes that a Muslim’s highest purpose is the sacrifice of jihad.
“A man must seek the eternal. One day we will all die, but to die as a Muslim martyr is the highest death of all,” says Ebu, sounding very convinced.
This is what he was looking for when he went to Syria on November 17, 2012, with three other believers from Albania.
For three months he went from one camp to another, but he never got the opportunity to go to the front even for a day, which disappointed him deeply.
He returned on February 2, 2012, a few days after two of his other comrades also returned home. The fourth member of the group, Denis Jangulli, was killed on the first day he went to fight against the government forces of Assad.
Many things have changed since then, both in Albania and Syria. The Albanian police have either arrested the religious leaders of the Albanian fighters in Syria or they are on the run.
After turning a blind eye to the Albanian jihadists traveling to Syria for a long time, the authorities opened an investigation in December 2013.
On March 11, a joint operation by the Serious Crimes Prosecution Office, the National Intelligence Service, and the police resulted in eight arrests and warrants being issued for five others.
On August 19, Albania passed a law that mandates jail sentences of up to 15 years for anyone who gets involved in the Syrian conflict or who recruits people to take part in the war.
Two of the suspects detained in the joint operation were imams, accused of organizing the recruitment of the jihadists.
Genci Balla and Bujar Hysa used to preach jihad in two mosques; one located in a suburb of Tirana and the other in the village of Mezez, a few kilometres from the capital. Some more isolated cells were identified in Leshnicë, near Pogradec, the city of Elbasan, the town of Cerrik and the village of Dragostunje, near Librazhd.
The third organizer was Gerti Pashaj, a student radicalized in Turkey, who is thought to have acted as a guide for the Albanian jihadists seeking to reach the war front.
Ebu Merjem denies having been recruited or paid by any of them. He says he went to Syria of his own free will and adds that Denis Jangulli helped him only with the details of the trip.
He describes Jangulli, who was killed, as a brother and as a devoted believer who spoke four foreign languages and had strong connections in Kosovo and Macedonia.
Ebu Merjem cannot speak any foreign language and only embraced Islam after getting in touch with two Albanian students who had studied religion in Saudi Arabia.
The cleric Justinian Topulli says a lack of understanding of Islamic text is the main reason why so many Albanians that have gone to fight in Syria, believing they are engaging in holy war.
Topulli explains that while a good Muslim must fulfill the commandments of the Koran, armed jihad is not one of them.
“Armed jihad is not an individual obligation either for Albanians or for the others, but for communities and countries if they have the possibility to do something in this case,” he said. “Our jihad is to help our country and family to deal with the problems of our common home, called Albania,” Topulli added.
Forced oath of allegiance
According to Ebu Merjem, the journey to Syria for jihadists is a simple one. They travel to Istanbul, buy a bus ticket worth 80 euro to the border town of Rehanlia and find a man there to jump the border.
He describes the region between Turkey and Syria as easy terrain for would-be jihadists; dozens of young people from France, Sweden, America or Belgium go in and out from a fence, which is the only barrier between the two countries.
Smuggling jihadists from one side of the border to the other is no different from the other kinds of human smuggling.
Ebu Merjem says he gave a Turkish shepherd a few euros to help him cross the border mostly because he was afraid he would spy on him rather than show him the way.
After they crossed the border, Ebu Merjem and his comrades sought the city of Aleppo, which has been the scene fierce fighting between government forces and rebels since the start of the conflict.
However, the Albanians got stuck for a long time in the camps in Tal Rifat, a town in the Aleppo region controlled by the Al-Nusra front, a branch of al-Qaeda.
The Albanian jihadist were eager to reach the front but underwent a series of background checks by leaders of the foreign jihadists. “They looked at as with suspicion and gathered our passports in order to verify us. We didn’t like this but they were afraid of infiltration,” Merjem says.
The Albanian jihadists stayed for the first 10 days in a house and were then sent to a real training camp. The camp was also in the region of Tal Rifat. This time, they stayed in a luxury home occupied by the radical Islamic group, a phenomenon that the media call the “5-star jihad”.
They spent their days studying the Koran and were trained to use Kalashnikovs or snipers. “We also used to run a little but it was no big deal. The lack of weapons was the main problem and none of us had 1,500 dollars to buy a Kalashnikov,” he said.
According to the Albanian prosecution file obtained by BIRN, the majority of the Albanian jihadists became part of the Jabhat al-Nusra front, a branch of Al-Qaeda. Some arrived there as part of a Turkish extremist group, Murat Gezenler, while the Albanians from Macedonia fought under Chechen fighters.
However, in a chaotic civil war this configuration changed over time. By 2013, most of the Albanians had gathered in a brigade of 45 to 50 persons on the outskirts of Aleppo led by Numan Demolli, from Kosovo, and, after he was killed, by Lavdrim Muhaxheri.
Until ISIS emerged, they stayed under the protection of Al-Nusra. Today, most of the 50 Albanians remaining in Syria are fighting with Islamic State.
In his interview for BIRN, Merjem says they couldn’t stay in the camp unless they swore an oath to Al-Nusra. If they had not done so, their presence there would have become even more suspicious and unwanted.
“The people from Jabhat al-Nusra came and asked us to swear an oath to them but we didn’t do that,” he says. “We told them that we were sworn to Allah and were there to help the Syrian people,” he added.
During his three months stay in Syria, Merjem had another problem. He had not got his mother’s permission to engage in holy war. This is a big concern for believers, because jihad is seen as invalid if it is undertaken without a parent’s permission.
After his mother refused to give her permission, Ebu Merjem decided to return to Albania. During this period, his fellow Albanian jihadist, Jangulli, was killed in an attack outside Aleppo.
“I was saddened because I would miss a friend; at the same time I was also happy because God received him as a martyr,” Merjem recalled.
Merjem returned to Albania on February 2, 2013. Since then, the authorities have not allowed him to leave the country.
He keeps informed about everything happening in Syria and now question some of the actions of the Islamic State.
Merjem says that the war is causing death on all sides, endless atrocities, including the crimes that “the Muslim brothers” of ISIS are displaying with pride in social media. But still he does not like it when their crimes are