Last June, a 27-year-old Frenchman from Paris who goes by the name of Salahudine left his home to join a jihadist group fighting in Syria. Over the past few weeks, he spoke to FRANCE 24 about his experiences on the front line.
Salahudine agreed to talk to FRANCE 24’s Charlotte Boitiaux on condition of anonymity since they have known each other for several years.
The Frenchman of Moroccan origin from the Saint-Denis suburb of Paris was severely wounded in early February in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo. Salahudine sent his last message on February 8. He has not been seen or heard from since then.
Here is a first-person account of his experience garnered from email exchanges and phone calls over the past few weeks:
“I am going to die in Syria – surely quite soon. I would say I have only about seven more months on this earth. Jihad is a way of living – and dying – that not everyone understands. But before joining Allah, I would like to leave a mark of my short time on earth.
I set foot on Syrian soil on July 11, 2013, if I remember correctly. Here, we forget the dates and time. I took the nom de guerre Salahudine al-Faransi (Salahudine the French). We fighters never use our true identity.
I'm 27 and I'm from Saint-Denis (a suburb of Paris). My wife Khadija – who’s also French, but of Tunisian origin – and her two daughters, Mariam, 8, and Fatima, 6, left with me. (Names have been changed to protect identities at the request of the interviewee.)
Besides them, I gave up everything to come here. I had good professional prospects. I earned about 3,000 euros per month. I had to let go of everything. This is how Allah judges our sincerity.
I'm not sure what was the trigger – when exactly I chose to become a terrorist under French law. Everything happened gradually. Early in the Syrian conflict, in 2011, I resented the world's indifference toward my Muslim brothers. At first I did not know what to think. In French mosques, you cannot talk about it. They just teach you to perform your ablutions. They ask you to be respectful. They never talk about the context of confrontation. Islam calls for an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I only learned that on the Internet, when I started watching videos and listening to [Osama] bin Laden’s sermons. He was a billionaire who dropped everything to defend his concept of the world. I was moved by his speeches. You can call it "religious radicalisation” – I call it "awareness”. I did not join any network or group, believe me. I did not know anyone. I prepared for my journey alone.
A month before my departure, I could not sleep anymore. Allah made me realise that my land was no longer here in France. I had to go to Syria to atone for my sins.
Before that, I used to go to nightclubs, I drank alcohol, I was a man of this world – only interested in possessions. Now, jihad has become an obligation. For an entire week before I left, I withdrew 1,000 euros per day from my bank account.
Then the big day arrived. We left home on the last week of June. From [the central French city of] Lyon, we flew to Istanbul. From there we went to Antalya and Hatay [in southern Turkey] before taking a bus to Kilis on the Turkish-Syrian border.
Meeting the ISIL and training in jihadist camps
“The first time was not easy. I had no contacts. We had to hurry, I did not want to put the girls at risk. We went to the Salahuddin district of Aleppo [in northern Syria]. This is where I quickly met some fighters of the ISIL (the hardline Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). They were my neighbours. To be quite honest, when I approached them, I did not even know who they were. I had never heard of them. All I wanted was to fight alongside those who wanted to establish an Islamic state in Syria and impose Sharia law. I was not very interested in joining the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – we share the same enemy but not the same goal. Their goals are democratic, I think.
I quickly realised that when you're a foreign fighter, you are not welcomed with open arms. People are suspicious of you, they think you are a spy. Confidence is only won on the battlefield.
The ISIL trained me in a military camp in the Sheikh Suleiman region [near Aleppo]. For a month, I learned to shoot, to crawl, to kill. Then they sent me to the front – in the Aleppo region each time. I was never sent to work in the “kitchen”. That’s a common myth. The media portrays this idea to discourage foreign fighters from joining the battle.
Just a few days after my arrival, I saw, for the first time, [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters dropping barrels of TNT on the population. At one point, 17 barrels fell in one day. I do not know how to describe what I felt.
Shortly after that I shot one of Bashar’s soldiers in Aleppo province. It was a beautiful September morning. We had been fighting for three days. The soldier was behind a wall. I was behind a wall. We were shooting until one of us fell. It was him. I remember this incident, because it was a first. I confess I did not feel guilty for a second. You should see what Bashar’s army is doing to the people. Here, most fights are not face-to-face, they are mortar and sniper attacks.
For five months, my days were the same: fighting during the day and keeping watch for hours in the watchtowers at night. Free time is reserved for cleaning weapons and reading the Koran. It often rains. Sometimes, I have cold, wet feet.
Switching from ISIL to al-Nusra Front
“In November 2013, I switched sides and joined al-Nusra Front. I did not feel very comfortable with the ISIL. I did not know that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was also fighting against FSA soldiers.
I personally don’t have any problems with the [FSA] rebels. I will not say much more. I don’t know anything about the French hostages [in ISIL captivity]. I'm just a fighter. They do not share such information with me.
No, I was not considered a traitor when I went from the ISIL to al-Nusra. The two groups are not enemies. You are free to choose on which side you want to fight.
My daily life in my new al Qaeda "family" has not really changed. But my battlefield experience has expanded. I have fought in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. I have chosen to train in explosives, sniper instruction and commando training on the ground. Al-Nusra provided me the third option.
The children ‘miss Nutella’
“Between battles, we often encounter civilians. They are not afraid of us. The children often laugh when I speak French... even when I speak Arabic! I have not yet mastered the language.
Every month, we get paid 8,000 Syrian pounds (about 50 euros). It’s enough to live on since housing, weapons and food are provided by al-Nusra. I bought my own Kalashnikov on the black market. It cost me $1,200. It’s expensive, but at least it’s mine. I made an explosive belt too. If ever I run out of ammo and the enemy is going to get me, I will use it.
The girls are not unhappy. Their lives are in God’s hands. They are not in danger. They stay with the women and children of the other fighters away from the fighting. Actually, I hardly see them. When I go to the front, I'm away for weeks. I can’t reveal much detail, all I can say is that they miss Nutella.
When an area becomes too dangerous al-Nusra moves them on. A month ago, they were in Harithan [not far from Aleppo] and because of the increasingly violent clashes between the ISIL and the FSA, they were displaced. Al-Nusra moved them to the Turkish-Syrian border. When I cry, Mariam and Fatima are amazing – they call me Superman! It makes me laugh every time. It's amazing how well they adapt to all situations.
I don’t care if I am being identified and monitored on social media sites by the French intelligence services. I will never return to France. My parents, my two brothers and my sister know nothing. They think I’m travelling. Perhaps they suspect something. I do not know. But what could I tell them? They would not understand.
On Friday, January 30, I lost my best friend in Talbisseh, near Homs. He was also 27 years old, from Belgium. A sniper shot him at a street corner. I went to find him. He died in my arms.
The arms we have are paltry compared to the regime soldiers. We only have light weapons. They, for instance, have night vision goggles. We dig trenches to protect ourselves – that’s all we can do to hide from the enemy. That may be why some jihadists are turning to suicide operations. I have the opportunity to enroll on a list to become a suicide bomber. I do not know if I'll do it. I have not yet decided. But it does not worry me. Death is a reward for me.”
(This piece was published in partnership with the French daily paper Libération.)
Click here to read France24.com Editor Sylvain Attal’s editorial on “Confessions of a French jihadist”.
Click here to read Charlotte Boitiaux’s story: My friend, waging holy war in Syria
Date created : 2014-02-12