Syria has been at war for seven long, deadly years. President Bashar al-Assad’s government is fighting both rebel groups and the jihadists of Islamic State. The northern city of Raqqa has been a key battleground for many factions in the conflict. This is the story of how one peaceful protester there got sucked into the spiralling bloodshed, and became a killer.
Warning: This piece contains descriptions of torture which some readers may find upsetting. Some names have been changed or removed.
Khaled did not simply wake up in Raqqa to the smell of death and dust, and decide to become an assassin.
He was sent a special invitation.
Six men were ordered to report to an airfield in Aleppo, in north-western Syria, where a French trainer would teach them to kill with pistols, silenced weapons, and sniper rifles.
They learned to murder methodically, taking prisoners as their victims.
“Our practice targets were detained soldiers from the regime,” he says. “They put them in a difficult place so you need a sniper to hit them. Or they send out a group of detainees and ask you to target one without hitting the others.
“Most of the time assassinations are done from a motorbike. You need another person to ride the bike and you sit behind him. You ride next to the target’s car – then you shoot him and he cannot escape.”
Khaled – not his real name – learned how to follow people. How to “buy” targets he could not reach through those close to them. How to distract a convoy of cars, so a fellow assassin can pick off their mark.
It was a bloody, inhuman education. But in mid-2013, soon after the Syrian army retreated from Raqqa, it suited the leaders of Ahrar al-Sham – a hardline Islamist group striving to rule the northern city and eliminate its rivals.