It has been two years since Kurdish-Arab forces announced the fall of the self-proclaimed caliphate of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Baguz, a dusty oasis in eastern Syrian lands bordering the border with Iraq. The same time that Zuhair Ahmed Ahmed, from Ceuta, has been imprisoned in a prison in northeastern Syria. It was handed over on March 18, 2019 to the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS, compendium of Kurdish-Arab militias allied to the international coalition). “They were orders from the caliphate, we had to make a truce and leave Baguz,” said this 29-year-old Spanish jihadist, who has fought for five years with the Islamic State.
Only two Spanish nationals have been identified to date out of the 1,000 Europeans imprisoned in Syria’s Kurdish prisons. Zuhair Ahmed and Omar al Harshi, husband of Madrid’s Yolanda Martínez, held captive in the camp for relatives of Al Roj jihadists along with their four minor children.
Ahmed left Spain at the age of 22 to join the jihad (the Muslim holy war) together with three childhood friends from the El Príncipe neighborhood of Ceuta. He did so in May 2013 becoming one of the first Spanish fighters to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the caliphate project before its proclamation. “We volunteer to do suicide operations,” he admits without hesitation. They were among the last members to form part of the Tarik Ibn Ziad cell, in which up to 28 people were recruited.
The other three Ceuta members of his cell blew themselves up in suicide terrorist operations “causing hundreds of deaths,” according to the ruling of the Spanish National Court. The members of the terrorist group arrested were sentenced to between 10 and 12 years in prison. Ahmed is the only survivor of the group after backing down at the last minute on two attempts: “I came to do jihad, but I didn’t see that that was what I had to do.” Ahmed enters the room in a wheelchair. He lost his legs in October 2015 “during a drone attack on an Islamic State checkpoint where he was stationed in the city of Shadadi [al noroeste del país]”.
He fought for five years in both Syria and Iraq performing different roles within the terrorist group. “We wanted to help our Syrian Muslim brothers who were being killed by the regime and we contacted some friends from Castillejos who gave us a contact to travel there,” he says during the interview that takes place in the presence of two members of the SDF. He traveled from Ceuta to Malaga, then to Turkey, and from there he crossed the Syrian border on foot to be received in Aleppo, in the northwest of the country. “We received a month and little more of physical and weapons training,” he says, and then they continued on their way to Iraq. They also prepared him psychologically to carry out suicide operations, on “how to drive the vehicle before blowing himself up against the targets.” He had never had a job except for a few temporary jobs cleaning the streets of leaves from the trees in Ceuta. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 to take a computer science course and assures that he had “a normal life.”
In Iraq, he was tasked with his first suicide operation against an Iraqi Army position. Once in the car and with the load of explosives mounted, he decided to reverse. “I saw that there were civilians and I didn’t want to do that,” he argues. From there he went on to fight in the Iraqi desert and witnessed in 2013 the escape operation from the famous Abu Ghraib prison, in which thousands of jihadist prisoners escaped who were to join the ranks of the caliphate once it was proclaimed in June of 2014 in Mosul. “That night we stayed and met with them,” he agrees in rusty Spanish after seven years between Syria and Iraq, although he assures that he did not participate in the operation that also released at least two Spanish inmates, according to his account.
He also fought in the Iraqi city of Fallujah: “We set up checkpoints and searched cars for Iraqi soldiers who were later interrogated.” A few months later he returned to Syria where he lived “a normal life with his friends in the caliphate” and where he married Ahed al Husseini, a young Syrian with whom he had a son, Abdullah, who should now be four years old. With the little one, there are 18 Spanish minors held captive in the camps for ISIS relatives in Al Hol and Al Roj, in the northeast of the country. “My wife and my son went out [del campo] with the first truce [en febrero de 2019] and I have never heard from them again, ”says Ahmed.