God saved me, but I will bomb again
A thwarted suicide bomber in Syria’s fast-growing jihad movement reveals his part in an attack that killed 59, including schoolchildren
They called it the groom’s farewell. More than 20 young men gathered around Abu Ismail to shake his hand and hug him as he prepared to set off for a “marriage in heaven” to 72 virgins.
Most of the men cried as they sang a martyr’s anthem to give him courage: “I bid you goodbye with the tears of my eyes, watching my loved ones on earth as I leave them behind. As I embark on my journey, I will not bend . . .”
Abu Ismail, 25, knew them well after sharing a house with them for four months. “There were German Arabs, Turkish fighters, Saudis, Kuwaitis and Tunisians,” he said. “They kissed me goodbye. Some were envious that they had not been selected for the task.”
At noon he climbed into a pick-up outside the house in the Damascus suburb of Jobar, waved his friends goodbye and headed for the city centre, carrying 1 tons of TNT.
A short distance ahead, his housemate Abu Qaaqaa, a Canadian Arab, was at the wheel of a similar vehicle packed with three tons of explosives.
“We drove in silence. There was no communication between us during the journey,” he said. “I was not afraid. In fact I was very happy. I was going to heaven that day.”
The two men were on a mission for Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist group linked with al-Qaeda that has become a powerful part of the rebel movement fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Their target was an office of Assad’s Ba’ath party, but when they were still some way off, crawling through the lunchtime traffic, there was an enormous explosion.
The Canadian’s bomb had gone off prematurely, ripping through surrounding cars and tearing the limbs from passers-by just as children were streaming out of a nearby school for their break. Fifty-nine people were killed, including some of the children.
Abu Ismail juddered to a halt, his left arm broken by the force of the blast. Hot shrapnel seared his flesh and punctured his right eye and his skull. He was trapped in his vehicle with fire all around him.
“I started to scream at the top of my voice,” he said. “I felt the blaze and the heat. I screamed, ‘I want water. I want water.’”
A stranger appeared through the smoke, saying: “Don’t worry. I am Abu Khaled from the Free Syrian Army. Let me help you.”
The next thing he knew, he was being dragged from the car and hauled away to hospital.
Abu Ismail had come from Zarqa, the Jordanian home town of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq until his death in 2006. Yet nothing in Abu Ismail’s early life suggested he would choose the “martyr’s” death of a suicide bomber.
The son of a blacksmith, he grew up with five brothers and sisters and regards his teenage years as wild. He smoked, partied and followed girls to their schools. His dream was to get rich and buy a house and car.
Everything changed when his best schoolfriend was killed by a lorry that smashed into his car.
“I began turning to God to make sense of it all,” he told me last week at a secret location, where he is still being treated for his injuries three months after the blast. “I was afraid of death and afraid of dying.”
As he studied the Koran, Abu Ismail developed a new fear: that he would be punished for the sinful life he had led. “I decided to become a pious Muslim and give up all the vices,” he said.
He started going to the mosque with friends who had found religion at the same time. They listened intently to preachers’ calls for an Islamic state.
Two years ago Abu Ismail was arrested for taking part in demonstrations calling for Jordan, ruled by King Abdullah II, to be replaced by a caliphate.
He spent four months in solitary confinement, “where I never even saw the sun”, and then a further eight months locked up with Islamist prisoners who preached the mantra of jihad.
By the time he was released, his father had died of a heart attack and his closest brother had become a militant. Together, they watched the worsening news from Syria on Al Jazeera, the Arabic television network.
“I saw pictures of women displaced and children injured, and heard stories of women who had been raped. Who would help them? We had to rise for this,” he said.
Abu Ismail and his brother knew a man named Abu Samir, the owner of an Islamist bookshop they used in Zarqa. Abu Samir, 38, had fought in Iraq for two years during Zarqawi’s time.
He had joined Jabhat al-Nusra in the Syrian capital and risen rapidly through the ranks as it attracted hundreds of jihadists from much of the Arab world and beyond.
“He is the emir of Damascus, a man worthy of 1,000 men,” Abu Ismail said. Abu Samir shaved his beard and dressed in western clothes to avoid detection as he drove to and fro over the Jordanian border.
Abu Ismail’s brother was the first to travel to Damascus, but was arrested. Their mother was reluctant to let Abu Ismail follow at first, even though, he said, she was a pious woman who understood the meaning of jihad.
“Why?” she asked when he announced that he was going to Syria.
“I have to fight with my brothers to defend and protect them,” he replied.
“Then go with my blessing,” she said, “and may Allah ease every step you take.”
Abu Ismail explained her willingness to see him go to war like this: “Fighting a jihad in the name of Allah is better than living on earth. In heaven there is everything.”
No sooner had he arrived at the safe house in Jobar and settled into a dormitory with mattresses on the floor than Abu Ismail declared his desire to martyr himself.
The months that followed were filled with religious instruction and military training. Some of the al-Nusra recruits went out to fight, but Abu Ismail stayed behind, watching videos of attacks and listening to taped lectures from Sunni preachers denouncing western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq.
He learnt to refer to Assad as “the oppressor” and the Alawite elite around the president as “infidels”.
“Al-Qaeda is the best organisation in the world,” he said. “People here want to be ruled by infidels rather than by the sharia of Allah, but Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda will change that. We will impose the Islamic state here, and then move to Palestine and do the same.”
A high degree of discipline was instilled in the men at the house. There were no films, music or television, and smoking was banned as an un-Islamic western vice.
Abu Samir gave Abu Ismail and his Canadian friend three days’ notice of their suicide mission. They were separated from the others so that they could concentrate on “worshipping Allah and getting closer to him”.
“I prayed to Allah to grant me success in my mission and to let me through the gates of heaven,” Abu Ismail said.
On Thursday, February 21, he awoke at dawn to perform the first prayers of the day with a thrill of anticipation. Abu Samir arrived early and took him to the basement, where he and the Canadian, Abu Qaaqaa, sat on cushions on the floor for their final instructions.
“He drew a map for us — the route, the target and where we should park our cars in order to blow them up,” Abu Ismail said.
Abu Qaaqaa was ordered to enter the target area from the right and immediately detonate his vehicle.
“Stay behind him with a bit of distance,” Abu Samir told Abu Ismail. “Once you hear the sound of his explosion, enter the target area from the left and detonate your load.”
The “emir” issued two other stern instructions. First, they should be ready to blow up their vehicles on the spot if they encountered any problems at checkpoints. Second, each would be fitted with an explosive belt to trigger if all else failed. “We would wear the belts and blow ourselves up that way rather than be caught,” Abu Ismail said.
I asked if it would not have been better to live and fight. “If I fight the regime, I kill one or two or maybe three in one go,” he said coolly. “Our goal that day was to kill many in a regime base.”
The two bombers declined offers to make a tape to be broadcast after their mission. Nor did Abu Ismail want to phone home.
“I didn’t want my mother to worry,” he said. “I do miss her, though.”
Abu Samir kissed both bombers on the forehead and blessed them. “May Allah give you the strength to be steadfast and may He grant you victory in your mission today,” he said.
Finally, they were ready. Two cameramen went ahead of the bombers, ready to film the destruction of the Ba’ath party office for propaganda.
In the event, the footage of charred cars and survivors streaked with blood on Thawra Street was broadcast on state television, highlighting the ruthlessness of the opposition. According to The Long War Journal, a respected American website, it was one of the deadliest of 57 suicide bombings claimed by al-Nusra since December 2011.
A year ago the group was barely known beyond obscure jihadist websites. Now it numbers more than 10,000 fighters among a rebel movement estimated by the US intelligence analyst Stratfor at 100,000.
British jihadists are said to be among those who have joined, with French, Germans and other fighters from as far away as Turkmenistan and Australia.
Members of the Free Syrian Army are reported to be defecting to al-Nusra, which is funded by Sunni fundamentalists in several Arab states.
Last month it pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Then last week it released two videos showing summary executions of opponents.
In the northern town of Raqqa, where the black flag of jihad flies over the governor’s office, three men were shot in a square, as bystanders in shorts and flip-flops took pictures on mobile phones.
Al-Nusra said the victims, all army officers, had been killed in retaliation for a massacre of Sunnis by pro-regime forces at Banias on the Mediterranean coast.
The second video, apparently made last year, showed a Saudi commander in a black balaclava carrying out the sentence of a sharia court against 11 “apostate soldiers” accused of massacres.
They knelt in a silent row, facing the camera, as the commander shot each man in the back of the head.
Al-Nusra is also said to have set up a force called the Vice and Virtue Police in towns it controls. The police have banned alcohol, warned men not to shave and told women to wear the abaya, a long black garment with a veil. Unclothed mannequins are reported to have been removed from shops after being judged sexually enticing.
The group’s influence has created an acute dilemma for western countries, including Britain, debating whether to intervene in support of the rebels. British and French officials have struggled to convince others in Europe that arms could be supplied to moderates without falling into the hands of extremists.
The mounting brutality of the conflict has also created alarm in Washington, where the Obama administration remains divided over how to respond to evidence that chemical weapons have been used.
For his part, Abu Ismail has no regrets about the bombing. When I asked him about the deaths of the schoolchildren, he replied simply: “They have all gone to heaven, God willing.”
Was he disappointed that he had failed to achieve martyrdom?
“Allah the almighty has written it to be so,” he said. “But once I am fully recovered, I will return to the front. I hope I will get a chance to carry out another attack.”
Abu Ismail’s name has been changed.