Born and raised in Dublin in a Muslim family, to a Libyan father and an Irish mother, one of the first women in her country to convert to Islam, Sam was brought up to respect religious values, but with no particular fundamentalism. So much so that when he grew up, like many of his friends he moved away from religious practice, putting other interests first. But at a certain point, the link with his father’s distant homeland, Libya, played a decisive role.
‘I was nine years old when I went to Libya for the first time, I was young and very impressionable. I quickly learned Arabic in about six months, which allowed me to feel a great empathy for the country and for those who, like myself, had different origins. After this first visit, I returned to Dublin where I spent my entire adolescence.
It was at that time, during my journey as an adult, that I gained a clear understanding of what living under a dictatorship meant. At the time there was an embargo and I witnessed Gheddafi’s mass punishments. After two years I returned to Dublin, where I lived a normal life, leaving my experiences behind me. I didn’t even practice my religion, but lived my life and got a degree in IT, because the computer industry was flourishing in Ireland at the time’.
The Arab Spring arrives...
‘Then 2011 happened. It offered me the opportunity to redeem myself after years of living having achieved nothing, and Libya had the chance to try to resolve its problems. For months I followed events on the television and I was very worried because I knew what the regime was capable of doing, and how it could kill so many innocent people. What struck me most was the participation of the Serbian mercenaries who were flown into Libya, and paid by Gheddafi to fight in defence of the dictatorship. I hadn’t really studied history and I didn’t understand how armed interventions worked. But when I discovered how many mercenaries who had been paid – not just in cash but also with drugs and alcohol – were fighting in our villages, there was a real change in me. It was too much to bear, I could not just sit and watch the atrocities that the TV news was reporting. I remember taking a step back and saying: ‘My friends are there. I must do something! I’m going!’. I had to leave everything behind and go. My country was calling me, I had to fight injustice. I made myself available to perform any service; to use my English to deal with the media, to get involved with food distribution, and even to use weapons’.
From ideal to reality: when you arrived there, on the front, what happened?
‘When you get there you are plunged into something totally new. In a military conflict you are effectively naked, you put on your clothes but it’s as if you were naked: you have no weapons and you’re not trained. I went, and joined up with a group that my brother-in-law was part of, and trained with them for months. In this type of training, you’re instantly thrown into the conflict, because it’s the best way to learn. In doing so, I learned a lot about body language from interrogations. After a couple of months I was part of the battle, and stayed there for eight months from June 2011. When we arrived at the gates of Tripoli to liberate the city – I was with around four hundred men – we realized the real scale of the conflict, but also that things were already deteriorating. Then some time later I decided to go to Syria, and to join the rebel groups against Assad’.
How much did your Muslim upbringing influence your decision to go?
‘Neither my journey to Libya nor the subsequent one to Syria had any sort of religious background to it. I and thousands of other men like me went through patriotic spirit, and not for religious reasons. I went to Syria, along with other Libyan groups, to bring what we had learned from the revolution in our country: it wasn’t a conventional war, but a revolution which had to be fought as such. This is why we left for the north of Syria. I wanted to see the Syrian people free from the shackles of the dictatorship. That, and not religion, was our motive’.
What is your relationship with violence?
‘I think that violence is a necessary evil. Many people become violent because violence arrives on their doorsteps, it’s a necessary reaction. ISIS do not represent Islam, and is a dangerous deviation from it. When I arrived in Syria in 2012, ISIS was not yet fully involved in the conflict, but was starting to recruit young people. I believe that this happened to many of the fighters, as is demonstrated by a few well-known personal stories. Starting off as secular and liberal, and then going through the dramatic experience of the war, they become religious fanatics. Because if you find yourself in a bad situation like war, you’re in danger and you hear people talking about an afterlife. After all you want to feel at peace in some way, and you start to think that perhaps they could be right. If you have any sort of faith and find yourself in a situation where your life is at risk, you at least want to be on the good side. This is why people take on religion when they get there. ISIS has become attractive because it takes vulnerable men from war-torn countries, giving them comrades and the tools to defend themselves in places that resemble the most terrible horror films. The percentage of people who leave already with a fundamentalist objective is very low, but they all become extremists in the end. It’s hard to explain, but when you’re there you’re so scared that you can’t help but think that you’re there for a good cause. You don’t know who your friends are and you don’t know who your enemies are. As a foreign fighter you don’t even know the country and you have to be careful because the dynamics are different: you’re not at home, you could be sold, or kidnapped. The point is you have to be careful: you can’t tarnish everyone with the same brush, I myself have been labelled as a Jihadist by an Italian journalist. But I am not!’.
Did you have any problems when you returned home? How were you welcomed?
‘That’s also very interesting, because it suggests how fickle public opinion and the media systems are. In 2012 we had fought revolutions and were considered heroes, even by the Western media. When I was in Syria there was no ISIS, there was still the revolution. But now everything has changed: there’s a war in Syria today, which is completely different from three years ago. Now I could never return, I couldn’t even fight on the same side that I fought on in 2012, because I would be arrested when I returned to the West’.