IS fighter wants to return to Italy, warns of ‘sleeper cells’

QAMISHLI, Syria: An IS fighter detained in Syria urged Italy on Saturday to let him come home to start a new life, saying he had abandoned the self-styled militant “caliphate” after growing disillusioned with its rulers.
Mounsef al Mkhayar, a 22-year-old of Moroccan descent who grew up in Italy, spoke to Reuters in his first interview since surrendering to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) two months ago.
He has been in prison since emerging from Baghouz, a tiny village in eastern Syria where the SDF is poised to wipe out the last vestige of IS rule — which once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.
Mkhayar gave an account of growing chaos among militants on the brink of defeat, and of disputes in the ranks as top commanders fled Syria.
But he said IS was also planning for the next phase, smuggling out hundreds of men to set up sleeper cells across Iraq and eastern Syria: “They said ‘We must get revenge’’.
Mkhayar is one of thousands from all over the world who were drawn to the promise of an ultra-radical utopia overriding national borders. Kurdish security officials identified him as Italian, and he said he holds Italian citizenship.
“I wish to return to Italy to my family and friends… for them to accept and help me to live a new life,” said Mkhayar, who walks on crutches after shelling injured his leg. “I just want to get out of this movie, I’m tired.” Mkhayar was sentenced to eight years in jail by a Milan court in 2017 for spreading IS propaganda and trying to recruit Italians to its cause, according to Italian media. As a result, he is likely to have to serve this sentence if he does return to Italy.
Reuters interviewed him at a security office in northern Syria in the presence of an SDF official.
As it nears victory, the SDF has struggled with the dilemma of holding fighters who travelled from abroad to join IS along with women and children.
Before the final assault on Baghouz, the Kurdish-led SDF said it had around 800 foreign militants in jails and 2,000 of their wives and children in camps. Since then, the numbers have ballooned.
The SDF wants them sent back where they came from. But foreign governments generally do not want to receive citizens who may be hard to prosecute, and who pledged allegiance to a caliphate that left behind of a trail of butchery.
Once an atheist with an affinity for rap music and a dream of moving to America, Mkhayar joined IS at 18.
He said he had spent most of his life in Milan with an aunt he calls his mother, before being placed in a home for troubled youths overseen by an Italian priest. He spent a month in prison on drugs charges.
Then he began immersing himself in IS videos on YouTube and speaking to recruiters on Facebook. It took him only a month to decide to move to Syria with a friend four years ago.
His friend was later killed on the battlefield. After military and religious training, Mkhayar fought on various fronts. As IS lost its Syrian headquarters at Raqqa, he left for Mayadin on the Euphrates river in Syria, then moved further east across the desert, towards the Iraqi border.
— Reuters