Tall Abyad (Syria) “I used to be a terrorist but now that is all over and, thanks be to Allah, I am still alive. I hope one day to go back to leading a normal life in Italy with my wife and children”. That is how the first Italian jihadi of the Islamic State captured by the Kurds in North Eastern Syria introduced himself. Samir Bougana, a son of Moroccan immigrants who holds Italian citizenship, was born in 1994 in Gavardo in the Province of Brescia, a small town of 12,930 inhabitants. After lengthy negotiations the Syrian Democratic Forces who took him prisoner on 27 August last year gave authorisation for our meeting. A Kurd in a camouflage uniform holding a Kalashnikov and wearing a hood over his head so as not to be recognised keeps a constant eye on him. Short and without the Islamic beard since he was released he seems unassuming and asks for some tea when he arrives in handcuffs for the interview.
“I feel linked to the country in which I was born and I always think about it – the young executioner began – even more so since I was imprisoned by the Kurds. They told that maybe I will be sent to Italy”. In reality no European country wants to take back the more than 1,000 foreign volunteers who were captured by the Kurds after the fall of Raqqa, the historic capital of the Islamic State. Samir speaks Italian well after attending the Industrial and Technical Institute in the Province of Cremona until 2010. The eyes of the militiaman of the Islamic State light up when he recalls “my friends in Piadena where I lived for ten years and grew up with the football team and the school”. Samir was a mid-fielder in the Gs Martelli football team of the Lombard village of just 417 souls. “I still have relatives in Italy: aunties in Piadena and in Sicily. They did not know I had joined Isis. Only my parents and my brothers and sisters were aware of it”, Samir emphasised. His family moved to Germany in 2012 where he began to slide into Islamic fundamentalism. “When we moved I began attending mosques and the war in Syria broke out”, the Italian ISIS member explained. On the internet I followed the video speeches of the Saudi Arabian sheiks who argued that it was our duty to help the Syrian people in any way possible”. Samir lived in Bielefeld, just 26 kilometres from Abu Walaa, a jihadi preacher who was recruiting fighters for Syria. Walaa was the mentor of Anis Amri, the Berlin Christmas market terrorist released by Italy in 2015.
Samir claims that he had only heard of the Jihadi preacher. “At the end of 2013 many Europeans had arrived in Syria”, he recalled. “I saw the images of the war and the violence. At 19 years of age I said to myself: I will do it as well”. His contact was a European mujahid who would be killed in battle. “He gave me the number of a Syrian in Turkey. I took a flight in the normal manner from Dusseldorf to Istanbul with my wife Fatma Binol, a German of Turkish origin”, he reveals. “The meeting was in Antakia in the south of the country. He loaded us into the car and took us the border. It was easy, there was no police and no checks. Another contact met us in Syria”.
To the north of Latakia, the last area that still today is in the hands of the Jihadist rebels, “German and French volunteers invited us to join the Jund al Sham brigade (The Army of the Levant linked to Al Qaida, author’s note). I was trained to shoot with a Kalashnikov and to use other arms and pistols”. The instructor was Chechen and Samir confirms that “the toughest, coldest and nastiest fighters came from Russia. They have no pity”.
In the mosques “the sermons incited us to kill the infidels and in that way they would go to hell and we would go to heaven”.
At a certain point the gang of European mujahideens convinced themselves that “Isis is stronger, more powerful and safer for our families. That is why I decided to go to Raqqa with my wife. Once I got there I joined the Islamic State”.
At the end of 2014 “they sent me to Deir Ezzor where I belonged to a ribat unit (front line fortification). I was a soldier of Isis and patrolled the streets at night”, Samir explained but he was very reticent about the fighting. In Raqqa the mosques disseminated “messages about Jihad, oly Holy War”. And in the summer of 2014, when Abu Bakr al Baghdadi established the Caliphate in Mosul, the Italian terrorist was convinced that “I was doing the right thing because the Islamic state was powerful and held a large tract of territory. People thanked us”. Too bad if they had removed the cross from the only church in Raqqa and transformed the church into a base”. And too bad if the executions of the prisoners were public and brutal. “At the beginning I thought I was helping the population, that it was fantastic”, Samir explains. “Then I realised I had made a big mistake”.
As regards the jihadist massacres in Europe he recalls with an ironic smile that “after Brussels or Paris they showed us films of the attacks on big screens in the square in Raqqa. And they also showed us videos of executions. People watched them with their wives and children”. Samir reveals that “the Islamic State gave us a house and a wage of 150 dollars. The money came from smuggling oil” with Turkey. The leaders of the foreign units were Tunisians and Saudi Arabians In Raqqa “I met two or three (mujahideens) of Algerian and Moroccan origin who had lived for several years in Italy and joined the Islamic state”.
Everything changed from 2015 onwards. “You woke up in the morning and did not know whether you would survive the day because of the bombardments”, explains our home-grown jihadi. The Americans hit targets such as the bases and houses of the rebels case but not the Russians. They bombed the markets as well”.
In Syria the jihadi family grew with the birth of three children: Isha, Abdullah and Zeinab, who is only eighteen months old. “The closest bombs landed behind the house at the end of 2016”, Samir explains. “The pressure and the noise were very strong. The initial flash of light, the smoke and the fire convinced me that I had to get out. I feared for the ’safety of my family”. Samir claims he did not take part in the battle of Raqqa, the final defeat of the Islamic State but that he found refuge in Deir Ezzor, the last pocket. “At the end there was chaos. Many (mujahideens) wanted to return to Europe through Turkey”, he explained. “I had an Italian passport and thought about turning myself in to our embassy in Istanbul. I knew I would go to prison but I had no choice. I was wanted by Germany and Italy and could not remain in hiding forever”. Last August Samir and his family entrusted themselves to “a people trafficker who wanted 2000 dollars per person to get us into Turkey. But the same day he handed us over to the Kurdish forces in Raqqa. He was working for them”.
The terrorist’s goal is clear: “I hope to be transferred to Italy where the prison is without doubt better than the Kurdish one”. Now that he is behind bars he says he “regrets joining the Islamic State”. And he realises that will not go free soon: “I know I have to pay for what I have done”.