The Backstory

Map by PAVONIAN via Wikimeida Commons.

You probably remember seeing them on nightly news clips. Rickety boats crammed with displaced people desperately floating to southern Europe, a flood of dispossessed humanity that has yet to abate. Seeking safety and succor, they keep coming, hundreds of thousands of them. Many hand over their life’s savings to human traffickers to escape from war-torn Eritrea, Southern Sudan, Niger, Libya, and of course Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Extreme poverty and drought force some to abandon their homelands, but most flee tyrants, sectarian violence, ethnic cleansing, or unending war. Thousands have perished at sea, and many of those who made landfall huddle in makeshift camps in Greece and Italy with or without travel documents. Some receive sanctuary as political exiles but most not. Those that are able just keep walking, bicycling, hitchhiking, or pack into buses and trains, traversing arteries into the heart of Europe.

Lightly sprinkled and folded into these hordes are unknown numbers of committed extremists on the move, intent on infiltrating the nations of Europe. They and groups that sponsored them, such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, held the decadent and hegemonic West responsible for the subjugation of Muslim lands and the debasing of all that is holy to them. Seeking Sharia and a Caliphate at home and revenge abroad, they establish themselves in Europe to recruit aimless and disaffected Muslim youths and radicalize their consciousness. Some they route into conflict zones to take up arms against infidels and apostates. Others formed terror cells to target mayhem such as London, Paris, Brussels, Madrid, and Munich ha ve suffered. The jihadists’ logic is that slaughtering infidels will provoke overreactions from the West that in turn will radicalize more Muslims, or at least that’s what “national security experts” tend to say before Islamophobic politicians go on to overreact. It seems to be working for all of them: The experts get paid, politicians get votes, militaries and spy agencies get more money to meddle, and terrorist groups get recruits. Only the people and the martyrs lose.

As a whole, the public in the West seems to accept the narrative that Islamic radicals are the product of fanatical civilization-hating mullahs who preach death to infidels and urge young men to martyr themselves to seek salvation and purify the world according to Allah’s will. Little is said or known of the life experiences that drive individuals to become jihadists, but it has to take more than a preacher’s exhortations to motivate someone to follow a path of destruction to eternity. Happy people don’t blow up random strangers, themselves along with them. So what explains jihadism? Hatred of secular institutions and lifestyles? A need to submit to a greater cause? Commitment to political liberation? Personal revenge? Western news media rarely bother to uncover backstories or untangle motivations, instead fixating on consequences and suppression of terrorism rather than its causes and dynamics, helping no one understand how terrorists are manufactured not just by mullahs, but by actions of countries like the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Turkey.

This book tells the story of one such jihadi, a twenty-something Sunni Muslim, devout but no fundamentalist fanatic. What radicalized him was not the secular stench of Western civilization, even though he had strong doses of it as a youngster in Iraq. His own path to salvation is personal, as jihad is supposed to be, and motivated by revenge, as not all are. What put him on it was the unnecessary and inept invasion of his country by the US that turned his family into internal refugees, ultimately leading to the slaughter of his parents at the hands of an ISIS militia. Mahmoud is on the warpath not because some Imam brainwashed him but because his life was ruined. Secure in his own faith, he despises those who twist Islam to justify despotic atrocities and is willing to find common cause with anyone with the courage to stop them.

Kurdish partisans help him flee ISIS to Syria and hand him over to an international fighting force made up of socialists, communists, and anarchists who infiltrated into northeastern Syria to join forces with the Kurdish resistance to eject ISIS from their ancestral lands. This part of Mahmoud’s backstory isn’t purely fictional. Such a group of Western radicals is assembled in Syrian Kurdistan and did actually help Kurdish YPG-YPJ (People’s Protection Units and Women’s Protection Units, the armed wings of the PYD Party) forces drive ISIS out of the strategic border town of Tal Aybad and, more famously, incredibly broke its siege of Kobanê. They patterned the International Freedom Brigade, as they called themselves, after those left-wing partisans who converged on Catalonia in the late 1930s to combat the Fascist takeover of Spain. Within its ranks are women and men, both Muslim and infidel from the Caucuses, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Some are ex-soldiers while others have never seen combat, but all are drawn to Syria by the depravities of Assad and Islamic statists, collectivist and anti-imperialist impulses, and their own special demons.

They come to Kurdistan to resist fascism and to do whatever they can to help the Kurds to establish a new kind of participatory democracy that is being built in Northern Syria from the bottom up on socialist and egalitarian principles, a place called Rojava. Three cantons, Kobanî, Jazira, and Afrin, now constitute this ungoverned multi cultural, non theocratic enclave—ungoverned in the sense that its residents directly administer their affairs with no reliance on the Syrian or any other state. Rojavans and their supporters aim to incubate participatory confederations throughout Kurdistan and beyond, and are leading by example. Time will tell if their solidarity in isolation will prevail against the many forces arrayed against them, not the least of which is Turkey. We’ll get to that country later.

In the several months he spends in solidarity with his IFB and YPG-YPJ comrades, Mahmoud receives both military training and Marxist-Leninist-anarcho indoctrination, but he’s more focused on vengeance than ideology. After he distinguished himself in the campaign to liberate Tal Aybad, things change. A split develops between the IFB and YPG, and his brigade crosses into Turkey to strategize. There, his commander taps Mahmoud to participate in a secret operation being hatched in Greece by an old Turkish comrade. He sends him on his way across Turkey to float with refugees to Greek shores, Knowing nothing of his mission beyond that it promises to make history, Mahmoud accepts it as his jihad. As the book opens, we meet him soaking wet on a fog-shrouded beach on the isle of Chios, seeking revenge and redemption, carrying with him only some American dollars, a canteen, a change of clothes, his Qur’an and Iraqi passport, doing exactly as instructed.


Although rooted in real places and events, this book is a work of fiction. None of its protagonists represent actual people. Certain characters without speaking parts, however, are or are modeled after them. These include public figures, some prominent, others obscure. Certain organizations, institutions, and establishments are mentioned that are also real, some with fictitious names. The story takes place during a month or two in the fall of 2015 and incorporates actual events, some of which occurred before and some after that time frame, compressing time for the sake of a good yarn.

And although some might see it that way, Mahmoud’s Jihad is not a radical manifesto or a call to arms. Beyond providing reading pleasure, its purpose is to broaden conceptions of political oppression and reactions to it by vividly transporting readers into a radical subculture made up of real people, not caricatures of “evildoers,” having hopes and fears, longings, and relationships not unlike their own. Hopefully, their odds-against struggle to find relevance in a world well on its way to dystopia will find some sympathy. And perhaps that sympathy will engender a bit of empathy, which perhaps will motivate more of us take firmer stands against discrimination, authoritarianism, and militarism.

When a volcano smothers, an earthquake shatters, or a cyclone swamps human communities, people everywhere open their hearts and wallets to help the afflicted. But victims of unnatural disasters such as war, oppression, or economic collapse tend not to be seen as equally needy, even those that have no place to live, nowhere to go, and no money to start over with after they bury their dead. Perhaps we think such people are somehow culpable for their fate by not doing enough to get a leg up and to work within or improve whatever system has brought them misery. We tend to blame politicians for not doing enough too, but perhaps they just reflect our own complacency. If impoverished and persecuted Kurds and a few foreign supporters can build strong, democratic, and just communities in the middle of a war zone, what’s to stop those of us who live in more comfortable circumstances from striving for a better world for us and our less fortunate compatriots?


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