Exclusive:Islamic State fighter wants to return to Italy, warns of ‘sleeper cells’

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QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – An Islamic State 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 jihadist “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 U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) two months ago. Reuters interviewed him at a security office in northern Syria in the presence of an SDF official.

Mkhayar gave an account of growing chaos among jihadists on the brink of defeat, and of disputes in the ranks as top commanders fled Syria. But he said Islamic State 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 was sentenced to eight years in jail by a Milan court in 2017 for spreading Islamic State 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.

As it nears victory, the SDF has struggled with the dilemma of holding fighters who traveled from abroad to join Islamic State along with women and children. 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.

Mkhayar said his wife, a Syrian Kurdish woman from Kobani whom he had married three years ago, helped convince him to leave.

“‘That’s it,’ we said, ‘we’re getting out.’ I saw my little daughter turning weak. I was scared my children would die.”

Mkhayar said he could not sleep thinking about his wife and two daughters in a camp for displaced people in another part of northeast Syria. His wife is due to give birth in a month. He said he still believed in the idea of a caliphate for Muslims, but accused Islamic State rulers of governing their land like “a mafia”, seeking only to make money and violating their own rules with impunity.

“This is my belief and I won’t change it, but here in Islamic State, in reality this doesn’t exist … There is no justice,” he said.

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