April 21, 2019
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Blacksmith to jihadist, the Moroccan who escaped IS to surrender in Syria

By Isaac J. Martin

Northern Syria, Mar 28 (efe-epa).- From a blacksmith in Morocco to a jihadist in Syria, Mohamed Aghdoun followed a friend in 2015 to join the ranks of the Islamic State (IS) group but once there he only sought to escape, he told EFE.

Four years later, he surrendered when the radicals lost their last territories in the Arabic country and says he wants to return home.

With a downcast look and without handcuffs, the 35-year-old jihadist, born in Tetouan, northern Morocco, does not move from the chair where he has been placed by Kurdish authorities, which he surrendered to last January in the settlement of Abu Badron, situated between the last bastions of the extremists in the eastern province of Deir al Zur.

"I regret joining IS because it is an organization that works for its own interests, besides they kill their own members in cold blood," Aghdoun told EFE at a Kurdish-controlled detention center in the northeast of Syria.

The location of the center cannot be revealed, as a condition of the Kurdish Intelligence allowing EFE to conduct the interview.

Aghdoun sighs in anguish. He does not know where to look as he sits in the chair while the interview equipment is prepared.

Before leaving for Syria, via Turkey, he let himself to be seduced by the propaganda spread by the radical group after IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, proclaimed from the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 29, 2014 the so-called caliphate, which at the time extended through Syria and Iraq.

Another reason for his “hijra,” like that of many of the jihadists who became Al Bagdadi followers, was to see “that the Syrian people demanded international Arabic support,” in the conflict that began in 2011 in Syria after a revolt against the president, Bashar al-Assad.

However, it is difficult for Aghdoun to confess what really motivated him to take the plane to the quasi-state that he idealized - welfare.

They promised him a house, money and women. Things he did not have in his hometown, Tetouan, where he complained there was a lack of job opportunities. In his own country he worked as a blacksmith and even a vendor in the streets of the town, which is known as “White Dove.”

But when he arrived in Syria, the reality was different - his salary was $100 and only lasted for two weeks, he said.

With that amount of money he could not afford to buy a "sex slave," who were mostly Yazidi women, one of the religious minorities which suffered the most under the extremist occupation in Iraq.

They cost between $20,000 and $70,000, according to Aghdoun.

His relationship with Spain

Just 35km separated his home from the Spanish city of Ceuta, where he has been several times, although he says he has “never” set foot in Spain.

“I’ve never been to Spain, only in Ceuta, I’m from Tetouan and I go to Ceuta because it’s part of the occupied Moroccan territory,” he said, while constantly fidgeting his limbs.

The little amount of light that enters the small room illuminates the deep dark circles of his consumed face.

Aghdoun said that once he was in Syria, he always moved with a group of friends he met there, who were also from Tetouan, as well as with other Moroccans, Tunisians and Spaniards.

“Yes, here (in Syria) we had comrades who come from Ceuta and Melilla, but the Islamic State killed one, another stayed alive,” he said, but does not give more details about their identity.

"In general, those who come from Ceuta were very few, and those from Tetouan have always been together," the jihadist said, adding that he can speak a little Spanish, although he did not answer questions in that language.

“There are still Moroccans, and people from Tetouan, here,” in Syria, Aghdoun said while barely blinking at the end of the interview, which took place a few days after the defeat of IS at the hands of the Democratic Syrian Forces (FSD), an armed alliance led by Kurds that has taken a lot of the extremists’ territory in Syria.

Repatriation to Morocco

Morocco is one of the few countries that has accepted the requests of the SDF to repatriate jihadists held in custody in detention camps or in refuge centers.

On Mar. 10, Morocco repatriated eight of its nationals, in an operation of "humanitarian character", according to the government of the North African country.

"If I want to return to Morocco, I understand that I will be imprisoned, but I do not care as long as I have my wife and my son with me, I ask the Moroccan government to accept my wife and my son, even if they are Syrians, but it will be very difficult to return to Morocco without them, nobody can live without their family," Aghdoun said from the small room while his message was recorded by camera.

Aghdoun has a wife and a son who were able to escape to the Aleppo province in northwestern Syria, he said.

At least 200 Moroccan jihadists have returned to the country, according to Morocco's official figures, and could face penalties from 10 to 15 years in prison, according to the penal code.

It is estimated that more than 1,500 Moroccans traveled to Syria to join the ranks of IS, Al Qaeda or other radical groups, and was one of the countries with more fighters who carried out so-called “jihad.”

Day-to-day life under the Islamic State

Aghdoun worked as a blacksmith. From there he went to a workshop to make weapons. He was forced to carry a weapon, like everyone else, although he never killed anyone or saw an execution in public, he said.

“Our lives were focused on working in the factories, it was forbidden for us to go to war because they wanted to protect professional workers, most of the workers wanted to go to war not to fight but to get a bounty,” he said.

And, according to his version of events, he did not stop criticizing and confronting those responsible for the “caliphate,” which forbid, he claims, asking questions about the Islamic State. He accused them of being corrupt.

“The soldiers were very poor and IS told them lies. It told them the wars were holy with bounties we were going to share. But it was a lie, nobody got anything from these wars, the leaders kept everything,” he said.

When asked about information on a possible “coup de’etat” against Al Baghdadi by a group of Maghrebis at the beginning of this year, Aghdoun said he knew about a “plan” the Moroccans had against the IS leader, but that it apparently did not work.

He does not know if Al Bagdadi is now dead or alive. In fact, he has never seen him.

“Nobody could see Abu Bakr, we do not know if this caliphate exists or not,” he said.

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