The Call of Duty features thirty-one-year-old Abu Hilmi, a Kosovar interviewed in June of 2016 in Kosovo by Anne Speckhard, with Haris Fazilu serving as an interpreter. This video clip was produced by Zack Baddorf and the ICSVE team. It focuses on the call to duty that many around the world, particularly those who lived in regions with a history of ethnic or other forms of violence, as in the Balkans, felt in response to the Syrian peoples plight suffering under Assad’s atrocities. Terrorist groups, and even ordinary citizens, were putting out videos and calling for Muslims around the world to first come and help them fight Assad, and later, in the case of ISIS, to build the so-called Islamic Caliphate. Data suggest that upwards of eight hundred and fifty foreign fighters and their family members heeded these calls and traveled from the Western Balkan region to Syria and Iraq.
Abu Hilmi’s story also highlights the dangers of prison recruitment, as he found the facilitating network to travel to Syria among other inmates, while being briefly incarcerated in Hungary for an illegal border crossing. Abu Hilmi was already a seasoned fighter by the time he left for Syria, having served as a child soldier fighting the Serbs during the Balkan wars of the nineties. He explains that being unable to legally travel to France to live with his wife and children—coupled with his deep sympathy for their plight, his previous militant training and the fact that he was “bored”—he became interested in helping the Syrians.
Abu Hilmi states that watching the atrocities perpetrated by Assad upon his people reminded him of his duty to defend others. However, when he arrived in Syria, unable to speak Arabic, he faced a barrier to communication. He couldn’t understand what was going on around him, or even who to fear, further leading to frustration and confusion. Disillusioned, he returned to Kosovo after a short stint in Syria, and then moved to France to be with his wife and children. In France, he was grateful to be offered therapy to overcome his posttraumatic responses to war. However, when the 2015 Paris attacks occurred, he found himself under suspicion and was ultimately sent back to Kosovo, where he faced terrorism charges.
The group which Abu Hilmi belonged to was not well determined, and despite having initially pled guilty to the terrorism charge of joining a terrorist group, he was able to get off on a legal technicality. He now warns others not to believe the claims of ISIS or other terrorist groups. He warns others not to believe the promises they make, stating that what is often seen on YouTube is very different than the realities on the ground, and that giving your life to such a cause means you will miss out on education, your family, and may even land—as he briefly did, in prison.
Timed transcript of The Call of Duty video:
The Call of Duty
0:03 I joined [The Kosovo Liberation Army in 1999] because Serbia was committing genocide against our population.
0:08 [I was] 13 or 14 years old.
0:09 [The Serbs] massacred the population. They murdered people unjustly.
0:14 Abu Hilmi
So, every person had an obligation to serve his or her country.
0:19 My uncle and brother joined first.
0:23 Then my father.
0:25 We purchased weapons with our own money.
0:26 I fired my gun, but I don’t know if I [killed anyone].
0:29 I returned [to Kosovo] in 1999.
0:32 I went back to school. I was the first student to return wearing a military uniform.
0:34 Abu Hilmi volunteered next to fight in eastern Kosovo in 2000 and then Macedonia in 2001.
0:41 [After that] there were no more wars, so I returned to Kosovo.
0:43 I kept myself busy with some activities in Ferizaj [Kosovo].
0:47 I worked a bit [on] electricity-related [jobs]. I sat around.
0:50 Regarding, Syria, I heard about [what was happening] through the media and some individuals.
0:56 I saw some videos. I was moved and the videos motivated me to go [there].
1:01 These videos portrayed Bashar [al Assad] committing genocide.
1:06 [These were] images shown and captured through phones, cameras, etc.
1:11 [They showed] torture, people getting murdered—women and children.
1:15 It made my heart ache.
1:19 I was in prison in Hungary for 3 months [for an illegal border crossing]. `
1:24 There I met some Syrians. I became interested [in fighting in Syria].
1:30 They gave me some addresses of where to go there.
1:34 Telling no one, not even his wife, Abu Hilmi traveled from Kosovo to Syria and joined a militant unit.
1:40 It’s unclear which militant groups Abu Hilmi served in Syria.
1:42 However, evidence suggests he was aware of and was observing both al Nusra and ISIS activities while in Syria.
1:46 I had a personal gun they gave me.
1:49 Where I stayed, I was in charge of distributing food, medications, and things of that nature.
1:57 [The Syrian regime] would bomb us from airplanes [like] helicopters.
2:04 I remember this one instance. It was Friday and we went to a mosque.
2:07 As soon as we walked out of the mosque, they attacked us.
2:10 Several people were killed. Mostly civilians lived in this city [Idlib].
2:17 During the 20 days I was there, it happened to me [that I was attacked] four or five times.
2:22 It bothered me that each time I [a foreign fighter] went out, I had to have guards accompanying me.
2:27 And they would tell me ‘Don’t go here. Don’t go there. Someone might try to kidnap you.’
2:32 I didn’t know the reason [to be afraid].
2:30 At some point, I didn’t know who to fear and not to fear anymore.
2:35 Because I didn’t know the language, I had no way of finding out what was happening.
2:38 When I joined, my obligation was to stay for 20 days.
2:46 Considering that I didn’t like what I saw there, I decided to return home.
2:54 Abu Hilmi returned to Kosovo, then moved to France to live with his wife and children.
2:58 The French government provided him with psychological counseling to help him overcome posttraumatic responses from his experiences in
3:03 When the [2015 terrorist] killings in Paris took place, the French authorities started going after the perpetrators.
3:08 [The French police] brought me in for an interview. They ran a background check and they had nothing on me.
3:12 When they checked the Interpol database, they found out that I was wanted in Kosovo.
3:16 They transferred me to Kosovo in a private, special plane.
3:20 They brought me to Prishtina, [Kosovo].
3:23 [The plane was] like the ones that presidents use.
3:28 When I arrived in Prishtina, [the authorities] were amazed when they saw the private airplane.
3:33 They couldn’t believe that it was me.
3:36 [The authorities] started screaming and yelling at me.
3:37 They started asking what I had done wrong and why I was brought in on this plane.
3:39 They were somewhat aggressive.
3:44 Members of the police and the special police arrived in their vans. There were too many of them.
3:52 In the evening they sent me to jail. In the morning, they took me to a court.
3:58 Abu Hilmi was initially sentenced to 30 days in jail for participation in a terrorist group.
4:03 In 2016, Abu Hilmi pled guilty to a charge of terrorism. He was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison.
4:08 Later, he appealed, citing a technicality, and withdrew his initial plea of guilty. The prosecutor dropped the case and Abu Hilmi was freed.
4:15 Now I am 31 years old. In all these years, I experienced four wars.
4:20 I hope to return [to live with my family in France] and put all this behind me.
4:24 I don’t care whether someone wants to establish a Caliphate, build armies, or capture territories.
4:29 I must return to my normal life.
4:31 I spent my whole life fighting and facing difficulties and problems.
4:34 We held lectures with the youth.
4:36 I spoke to those who were present at the facility [and] told them about the dangers of joining.
4:45 It’s dangerous [to join ISIS]. [They shouldn’t] make mistakes or pursue a wrong path.
4:50 People are focused on YouTube.
4:52 Once you get [to Syria] you will see that it’s not the same as on TV.
4:56 People join and then witness a whole new reality.
4:58 Some may wish to return but can’t return [home]. Some may die over there.
5:03 [Terrorists like ISIS] show similar videos to the poor, the uneducated and the unemployed.
5:09 All [terrorist] organizations target the poor.
5:21 These people promise them money, apartments, or wives.
5:29 The people there live in bad conditions.
5:32 I regret that I missed out on getting an education and I can’t change that.
5:35 Although I [was] stuck [with a prison sentence], I always recommend others to study, live, and read.
5:41 My life time has passed me by.
5:46 The Truth Behind the Islamic State
5:49 Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism
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Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=78) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website Follow @AnneSpeckhard