UPDATE: According to reports in January 2016, Ahmed — real name Yasser Sadek — was killed in an airstrike on Raqqa in 2015. He was wanted by Swedish police after appearing in an Islamic State propaganda video filming an apparent execution in northern Syria.
This article originally appeared in VICE Magazine.
Ahmed* waits for me in a parking lot at the northern edge of Gothenburg, Sweden. It's a dreary November morning in his hometown, and he's standing on a patch of grass in an expanse of damp concrete and gray sky. He's likable, a shy but friendly 25-year-old who greets me with an earnest handshake and expresses himself clearly and politely in English.
He's also a member of the Islamic State, the vicious group of Sunni extremists now at war with a US-led coalition of more than 60 countries. Over scalding coffee and chocolate doughnuts in a nearby fast-food restaurant, he explains why he joined.
The Islamic State controls large parts of Syria and Iraq in a self-declared "caliphate" where militants enforce a fanatical interpretation of Islamic law and have committed widely publicized atrocities.
Ahmed does look vaguely like a fighter away from the front lines, with a full beard (no mustache) under a camouflage cap and a short, solid frame clad in a thick jacket to combat the approaching winter. But his facial hair is neatly trimmed, he smiles amiably, and he keeps a pack of quintessentially Scandinavian snus lodged behind his upper lip as he speaks.
He's back in Sweden after a year and a half of fighting in Syria. Despite the comforts of his current surroundings, he's eager to return and seek his death in a violent armed struggle against those he sees as enemies of his religion.
"A martyr is the best thing to be in Islam. It is an honor," he says calmly, adding that in a family of several children born to strictly religious Middle East-born parents, it was an aspiration. "I always thought about jihad. I didn't know there were Muslims who didn't want that."
Muslim leaders across the world condemn the Islamic State and its violent excesses, but Ahmed's interpretation of Islam is anything but peaceful. Instead, he believes that all believers should make jihad to bring about the end of days prophesied in Islamic eschatology. "Now, my biggest intention is to have Allah satisfied," he declares. "His word is highest, and the kuffar's [unbelievers'] is lowest."
At first he planned to join an armed group in his parents' homeland, but then he decided that national allegiances conflicted with his religious ones. When he began to see images of the war in Syria, he traveled there to do battle.
Many of his countrymen have made the same journey. Fredrik Milder, a press officer for the Swedish Security Service, told me that at least 130 "al Qaeda-inspired individuals" are known to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight with extremist groups including the Islamic State, and that unconfirmed information put the real number at anywhere between 250 and 300. Up to 30 are thought to be dead, and around 40 have returned to Sweden, Milder added.
The Islamic State's Syrian arm is made up mostly of non-natives and regularly fights against local rebel brigades battling government troops in the country, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The group's foreign recruits have enthusiastically participated in some of its worst atrocities, many of which—crucifix- ions, stonings, mass executions—they have documented in gruesome propaganda videos. A militant with an English accent has played a prominent role in propaganda footage showing the beheading of a number of foreign journalists and aid workers.
The extremists have also slaughtered members of minority religious groups and enslaved women, rights organizations say.
Ahmed describes Islamic State-held territory as a paradise where one can easily practice Islam. "Everyone knows there are bombs overhead, but people are happy," he says, claiming that the group is helping free the devout from Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime and even the Western-backed FSA, which he accuses of war crimes.
He denies some of the Islamic State's worst atrocities and says that the media misrepresent the group. "You [journalists] like to make us look crazy and say we kill innocents and rape. We didn't leave our whole world to rape women and to kill." He admits, however, that the Islamic State has executed those who violated its strict moral code.
To him, the brutal videotaped killings of hostages are welcome, a necessary weapon of war against America and its coalition allies as they launch airstrikes on the extremist organization. "It's good. They [the Islamic State] are doing the same things the US and the UK are doing... [The hostages] weren't killed because they are journalists; they were killed because they're kuffar and we want the US to stop [bombing us]. America is killing civilians, not just mujahideen... When they take one American, the whole world riots, but we [Muslims] are cheap."
Despite his claims of traveling to Syria in order to help its people, he later admits that many don't want to live under the Islamic State. "They say to our faces, 'Go away, you make problems for us.'" But Syrians, he says, are not entitled to lands the Islamic State views as part of the caliphate. "The majority of Syrians don't like us; everyone doesn't like us. But this is not their country. It's Islam's, and they have no right to it."
In many ways, Ahmed fits the standard profile of a Swede joining the Islamic State or an ideologically similar group. Most recruits are men between the ages of 18 and 30 from Malmo, Gothenburg, or Stockholm, according to the Security Service. A disproportionately large number have come from Gothenburg in particular.
Swedish journalist Per Gudmundson, who has written extensively on Islamic extremism, conducted a 2013 study of 18 Swedish citizens fighting for jihadist groups in Syria. He told me that all were first- or second-generation immigrants from countries including Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Philippines. Half, however, came from two adjacent Gothenburg neighborhoods.
Ulf Bostrom, a police officer of 37 years who has spent the past decade as a member of the city's integration unit (a three-person team that works with different religious groups to minimize conflicts and radicalism), describes the area as Sweden's "epicenter" of extremist ideology.
The causes are partly social, he says. More than 20 percent of Gothenburg's 540,000 residents are immigrants. But 80 percent of them live in the northeast neighborhoods of Backa and Biskopsgarden, segregated from the rest of the city amid widespread unemployment, poor academic results, and high rates of crime. "In some ways, we [the Swedish authorities] have helped to create this problem with our integration policies, because we didn't know how to go about it properly," Bostrom admits. "Now, the soil here is best for growing terror."
Bostrom's assessment is similar to that of Gudmundson, all of whose subjects went at least partway through the Swedish school system, came from low-income families, had little you are at the bottom and someone opens his arms to you and talks nicely with respect, offers food or some money and speaks about religion in the finest way, you might see that as the only door to your future," Bostrom says, noting recruiters often portray fighting with the Islamic State as a chance for a new life.
A smaller contingent of those joining extremist militant groups are better educated, according to Mohammad Fazlhashemi, a professor of Islamic theology and philosophy at Sweden's Uppsala University. Instead of longed-for acceptance,income themselves, and often had a record of petty crime. Bostrom says that many Swedes who have fought in Syria feel they have no future in the country of their birth. He depicts a typical recruit as a disenfranchised male youth who's been bullied, tried and failed at criminal activity, or dabbled in drug abuse—someone, he suggests, who is keenly aware of his family's disapproval and is isolated as a result.
This makes such young men easy targets for extremists looking to radicalize recruits. When he told me, recruiters often seduce them with religious theories that seem to legitimize the Islamic State's actions.
In Gothenburg, Bostrom says, the network of recruiters is long-established and active in mosques, both with and without the imams' knowledge, as well as smaller places of worship in basements and garages. Initial contact is often made online.
Ahmed denied that he had been radicalized by an outside party, instead characterizing it as his own decision. Unlike those from more moderate backgrounds, he said he had told his parents before he left for Syria. They backed his decision and even asked him to take along a relative, who died in the fighting in early 2014. But Ahmed doesn't regret bringing him, telling me that he's happy a family member attained martyrdom.
Many of Ahmed's associates have far less radical backgrounds. Friends of his who have also joined the Islamic State did so in secret, knowing that their families would try to stop them. "If we all did as our parents said, there would be no one making jihad!" he laughs.
Back in Sweden, Ahmed isn't waging war. He's stuck. He first entered Syria illegally through Turkey's easily permeable border, and he tried to take the same route again after returning to Sweden for a few months in 2014. This time, though, he was caught by Turkish border police, then deported and banned.
He's desperate to go back, both to fight and to see his Syrian wife and a newborn daughter he hasn't met. Leaving them, he says, was the biggest mistake of his life.
In a series of texts sent via a mobile messaging app, he repeatedly asked for help getting into Syria, naively unsure of how to make the journey himself and unable to reach senior Islamic State commanders who could smuggle him in through established routes. "They don't have time to help me; they have much to do... Or maybe they do have time, but I don't know who to ask," he wrote. Neither, he added, did other Swedish fighters or even British ones.
Men like Ahmed, not provably guilty of a crime but strongly suspected of joining jihadist groups, are a major concern for authorities. According to Milder, the Security Service focuses much of its efforts on these men, interviewing them as they return to Sweden and gathering intelligence on whether they might be planning attacks on home soil or "actively supporting terrorism" in some capacity.
Ahmed describes being questioned by the authorities when he returned and says that their main fear was whether he planned to launch an attack back home. He tells me that he is still under close observation. "They are spying on me all the time, following me," he says, adding with a smirk that anyone watching him must be bored, since he spends most of his days at home.
He insists, however, that he would never attack his birth country, which has been good to him. "I like Sweden. Gothenburg feels like home," he says, gesturing around him. But he warns that others may feel differently. "I think security should let those who want to travel to Syria do so. Those who can't go might commit jihad here instead."
*Name has been changed.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck