ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - The airstrike obliterated its target in northern Iraq and sent the men scattering. Four of them dived into a river and crossed to safety on the other side, but the fifth froze at the water’s edge. He had never learned to swim.
The 30-year old Islamic State militant hid in the bushes on the banks of the river Tigris for two days before venturing out in search of a boat, but by that time Kurdish forces had overrun the area and he was taken prisoner.
“I wish I had been martyred,” Mohanad told Reuters in an interview at the maximum security jail where he has been held since January in the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan region.
The interview, arranged by Kurdish authorities at Reuters request, took place in an office at the jail. A jail official was present most of the time but occasionally left. Mohanad appeared healthy and comfortable speaking about his past.
He wore a white polo shirt with blue stripes, instead of a prison uniform, and a few days’ stubble rather than the full beard typical of jihadist fighters. His wrists were bound by handcuffs, while his feet, in plastic sandals, were loose. He was given water and tea in paper cups, but drank neither.
Mohanad is far from the image of ruthless efficiency projected by the militant group in videos that show its fighters beheading captives and gunning down prisoners in mass graves. His experience gives a sense of what it is like to serve at the lower rungs of the organization.
For Mohanad, it was at least partly about fulfilling the legacy of his two elder brothers who joined Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Both were killed fighting American forces in Mosul, the largest city in Iraq’s north.
He says he believes his fellow Sunni Muslims were ill-treated under the Shi‘ite dominated order that took power in Iraq after the U.S. invasion.
Last June, the day Islamic State fighters swept in from Syria and captured Mosul, Mohanad was at home not far away in the village of Danich. He watched on TV overjoyed as the Sunni militants stormed the city before tearing towards Baghdad.
Young men from the area began to enlist in the group, and Mohanad resolved to do so as well: “I thought: two of my brothers joined this organization and I am the only one left”.
Mohanad’s father had died in a car accident years earlier, but he sought his mother’s blessing before leaving: “She said go,” he said, laughing as he recalled her words: “I have already lost two sons: go with them too.”
At a local Islamic State headquarters in the Shora district near Mosul, Mohanad was sworn into the group by a man known as Abu Saleh: “I held his hand and said: ‘I pledge allegiance’, and I joined the organization,” he said.
The new recruit was given a Kalashnikov and taught to fire it, he said, miming the action of loading a rifle as far as the handcuffs around his wrists would allow.
For the next five months, Mohanad guarded an Islamic State office in a village southwest of Mosul. It was uneventful, he says.
The 300,000 Iraqi dinars ($260) Mohanad earned per month on the Islamic State payroll was more than he had made as a manual laborer since dropping out of school in the first year of secondary education, having repeatedly failed his exams.
“PATH OF THE RIGHTEOUS”
As the militant group lost ground in northern Iraq towards the end of 2014, Mohanad was put in charge of a small unit of four men at an outpost along the frontline southeast of Mosul, where Islamic State was confronting Kurdish security forces.
The five of them, all Iraqi, took turns keeping watch over the enemy through a pair of binoculars in two hour shifts during the day, while another larger group replaced them at night.
Off duty fighters sat in a small encampment, drinking tea to keep warm. They were regularly brought bread, jam and eggs by someone from a village across the river in a skiff.
Instructions came from “Abu Saad”, a local Islamic State leader with whom the men communicated via walkie-talkie. Mohanad said he did not meet any foreign fighters.
The men shared a machine gun, although Mohanad said they did not engage in combat.
Every five days, Mohanad was allowed to return home to his wife and three children - aged 6, 5 and 3. They are not aware of his fate and must assume him dead, he said.
Mohanad said he misses his family, but otherwise showed little remorse, except for having been captured and thereby denied a place in paradise with the 72 virgins promised to martyrs in Islam. “They are very beautiful,” he said, grinning.
Asked why he had not volunteered for a suicide mission if his desire was martyrdom, he said the prospect was daunting and he did not know how to drive.
The mention of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi still inspires reverence in Mohanad, though he has only ever seen him on TV: “He is on the path of the righteous, God willing”.
”The most important thing is for Islam to spread,” he said. “It (Islamic State) will continue to fight until it advances.”
Editing by Peter Graff