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This former ISIS hostage has an unexpected message: don't fear the ISIS

Sneha Vakharia | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 7:33 IST

On the border between Hungary and Serbia, four-year-old Zain Al-Abdeen crossed a razor wire border into Hungary. He was now one border closer to Sweden.

What no one noticed, however, was that little Zain's foot had gotten caught in the wire at the border fence. His pants were wet with blood.

His father helped him across and then said, "He was a real hero. Zain only cried on the inside because he knew the border police was close by."

Zain is one of the eleven million refugees from Syria. That number is half the entire population of Syria.

There comes a point though, when the mind fails to comprehend disasters of this scale. Victims are reduced to statistics. Or they are reduced to the faces of a few.

Nicholas Henin is one of those faces.

Henin was a hostage taken by the ISIS, along with James Foley (whose beheading had been recorded and uploaded onto the internet). Henin survived, due to diplomatic negotiations between his Government and the ISIS group.

He eventually wrote about a book about the ISIS, called Jihad Academy, published earlier this year.

The most noteworthy thing about the book is that it doesn't deal with his ten months in ISIS captivity at all. There is no chapter, line, or word, detailing his experience as an ISIS hostage.

This is a very deliberate choice. This is also a very deliberate sacrifice. He could have written about his days as a war hostage.

He could have provided little insights into the world we alternatively revile and fear. It would have earned him much fame and fortune.

But he didn't.

Because he knows that his story is no worthier, nor more important, than that of James Foley, Aylan Kurdi, or even little-known Zain Al-Abdeen.

Because his life, a fact that he establishes repeatedly over the course of the book, is no more precious than the 2,00,000 others in the region who have already been killed.

Henin decided to write, not about his own experiences, nor about any other individuals caught in this horrific web of political violence. Instead, he decided to write about the web itself.

Focusing on the disease, not the symptom

Henin begins by stripping ISIS of its pedestal. It is not a super terror group. It is doing nothing new. It is nothing exceptional.

The group that calls itself the ISIS, is "just a symptom, not a cause. They are only the fever. The disease is elsewhere."

And yet, it is important. Because the ISIS is symptomatic of a disease that is destroying Iraq and Syria, the cradle of all our civilizations.

"Our roots are being destroyed in this conflict, too. If that world collapses, ours is threatened."

So where does the real disease lie?

The answer is manifold and complex. It demands patience. And a keen willingness to understand. With this premise established, Henin begins.

The Jihadi Highway

In 2003, Saddam Hussain had sent out a clarion call to Muslims everywhere to help defend Iraq against the invading U.S forces.

Bashar Al Assad, the increasingly despised dictator of Syria, allowed fighters heading to Iraq to pass through his territory. Because, it is said, he hated the US more than he would ever hate Hussain.

The influx of fighters from Syria and Iraq created a "Jihad Highway" on the world map. This highway, tellingly, is the present-day region of influence of the Islamic State.

When US forces left Iraq in 2011, they left in place a deeply sectarian leadership with limited control over its population. Across the border, a peaceful revolution demanding the resignation of Assad began to ferment.

In both the neighboring states, there was a power vacuum, with no dearth of militants and armed radicals waiting to crawl out of the woodworks. That the ISIS, an offshoot of the Al Qaeda, should gain power, came as little surprise.

To our understanding, the main battle for Syria and Iraq has taken place between the forces of Assad's regime and the ISIS. One aspiring to establish a Caliphate, the other trying to hold on to his throne at all costs.

Yet, Henin proceeds to establish the many ways in with the ISIS and Assad's regime are complicit with one another.

Take for example, the number of times the Islamic State has actually fought the Syrian army over the course of the bloody war:

  • The ISIS fought the Syrian army when they seized the Menagh air base.
  • They also fought the army when they captured Division 17 in Raqqa (now capital of the declared Caliphate). Here they also captured a neighbouring airport.
  • The IS has also taken part in small-scale battles near Alleppo, Lattakia and Al-Qamishi.

This is the comprehensive list. And for a war that's claimed 2,00,000 lives and displaced half the country, the number of battles remains suspiciously small.

There's also the fact that when the ISIS had taken over Raqqa in June 2013, the Syrian army began dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas - causing damage that was widespread.

However, the ISIS headquarters and the massive provincial government building at the city-center was untouched. It was eventually bombed, but not by Assad's forces. By the U.S.

Henin does not write about his ten-month tryst with the ISIS because he does not want to feed into the ISIS-hysteria

It's also well documented that oil flows freely through pipelines between ISIS territory and areas under the regime's control. In fact, as of 2014, ISIS was earning $3 Million every day in the form of oil revenues. And a large portion of this oil is, to this day, sold to Assad.

This complicity may be surprising. But it is not necessarily illogical.

Because Assad stands to gain from the existence of the ISIS. It legitimizes his position as leader of the Syrian people. The "Assad or chaos" slogan is one he manipulates and brandishes with much success.

The ISIS is the bogeyman. And by focusing on the malaise that is the ISIS, we are playing right into Assad's hands.

So if the deaths aren't collateral damage, who is killing whom

Over the course of the next few chapters, Henin goes through great pains to demonstrate that it is indeed Assad attacking his own people.

By September 2014, the regime had killed 150 times more people than the Islamic State. 125,00 casualties can be clearly attributed to the regime. 850 to the Islamic State.

Appeals have been made repeatedly to the international community to end Assad's brutality.

In October 2011, a request was made for a no-fly zone.

In December 2011, there was a request for a humanitarian buffer zone, in which displaced people could seek protection.

In January 2012, there was a request for clear support for the Free Syrian Army (a group of deserters, mafia men and moderates that continue to fight both Assad and the ISIS).

In March 2012, a request was made for an international military intervention to put an end to massacres.

In August 2012, there was a request for anti-aircraft weaponry.

In August 2013, there was a chemical bombing in Ghouta. 1,400 people died in the singular act of violence.

At last, everyone thought, international intervention was inevitable and imminent. Assad and his family would have to flee - either to Iran or Russia.

But the intervention never happened. And if anything, the realization that the world was not going to make any moves no matter how many "red lines" he crossed, emboldened Assad further. He increased the frequency and brutality of chemical weapon attacks on his own people.

The influx of fighters from Syria and Iraq created a "Jihad Highway" on the world map. This highway, tellingly, is the present-day region of influence of the Islamic State

And because we continue to fear the ISIS over Assad - because the ISIS has managed to capture our imaginations; because we prefer a dictatorial regime that we, at least, understand, to sword-wielding fanatics that we don't; because Assad will never attack our homelands but the ISIS could; - he is not going to stop.

We are complicit in the creation of this bogeyman

Henin, having survived a kidnapping by the ISIS, doesn't believe that its threat is legitimate.

The Syrian people, as well as the Iraqis, would never accept the leadership of the Islamic State. It is an organization fraught with infighting and deceit. It cannot provide a viable Government in either country. It simply does not have the structural efficiency to.

Additionally, the fear of the ISIS seems more potent than it is because of their ingenious PR campaign. We find ourselves shaken by their videos. We replay them time and again on television, further feeding into the deliberately cultivated fear. We are concerned that a future fighter of the ISIS may be among us.

And in all this, we fail to recognize the sporadic, disorganized violence for what it is.

The real threat remains Assad. In his absence, the Sunni majority will not feel compelled to align with the fanatic jihadis. The moderates will rise again. The conflicts will begin to resolve themselves.

But the first step is to dethrone the ISIS from the status of "super-terrorists". It's what they want. And they are not a credible threat to the world.

Henin does not write about his ten-month tryst with the ISIS because he does not want to feed into the ISIS-hysteria.

Instead, in an act of supreme selflessness and bravery, Nicholas Henin wrote this.

First published: 2 November 2015, 7:49 IST
Sneha Vakharia @sneha_vakharia

A Beyonce-loving feminist who writes about literature and lifestyle at Catch, Sneha is a fan of limericks, sonnets, pantoums and anything that rhymes. She loves economics and music, and has found a happy profession in neither. When not being consumed by the great novels of drama and tragedy, she pays the world back with poems of nostalgia, journals of heartbreak and critiques of the comfortable.