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The villager riding his tractor past a small farm near the outskirts of the Turkish city of Gaziantep on an afternoon in late March had every reason to break out in a cold sweat. The sight to his right — that of a man sporting a black robe, a beard and a machine gun — would have made anyone nervous, particularly as they were just north of the border with Syria. The villager would not have been comforted to learn that the armed man, Sabri al Hereh, had once been a member of the Syrian chapter of Hizb ut Tahrir, a radical group committed to building a global caliphate. It would have helped, though, to know that the gun was plastic, the beard a fake, and Hereh, improbably, was in the middle of his comedy debut.
Days earlier, Hereh, 42, had been asked by a team of Turkey-based Syrian activists to appear in a series of videos ridiculing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He had agreed — and had been cast as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the notorious ISIL leader.
Inside the farm, and out of passing motorists’ view, Hereh, i.e. Baghdadi, alighted on a blue plastic chair near a row of budding apricot trees. On a cameraman’s cue, he began to toy with his mobile phone. Suddenly, his eyes steadied, then grew big. (It was not an Oscar-caliber performance, but it was adequate.) “Infidels!” he yelled out in Arabic. “They’ve blocked me on Twitter.”
A trio of masked, armed fighters, Islamic State’s answer to Moe, Larry and Curly, immediately trotted to his side. Baghdadi, pointing to an icon on his home screen, commanded them to locate “the Twitter,” and take it hostage. The minions complied by capturing a stray chicken and spray-painting it blue. In the next scene, one of them stood over the hapless, cackling bird, knife in hand, and stared into the camera. “This is a message to you, Obama,” he said. “We will kill the Twitter in three days unless you unblock Baghdadi’s account.”
The six young filmmakers behind the sketch starring Hereh, known as the Daya Altaseh collective, have been producing videos, some satirical, some not, about the Syrian civil war since 2013. Initially, their preferred target was Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president. Once in a while, they skewered the country's ineffective, fractured political opposition. “We go after everyone, including the free government,” said Daya Altaseh’s founder, Maen Watfe, 27, referring to the Syrian National Coalition, the country’s main dissident group. “We support them, but we also criticize them because we want them to be better.”
A few months ago, the activists began to turn most of their satirical firepower on ISIL. Their objective was twofold. To the outside world, said Watfe, they wanted to show that the armed group was not the true, or at least not the only, face of the war against Assad. To young Syrians, they wanted to convey the idea that the radicals were hypocrites and their agenda a perversion of Islam. Comedy, a language that most Syrians speak fluently, was as good a weapon against ISIL propaganda as any, they figured. “It affects people the most. It makes them stop being afraid of ISIL,” said Watfe. “Because we make them look silly.”
Hereh, who met Watfe in a Syrian prison, was motivated by deeply personal reasons. Born in Maaret al-Arteek, in northern Syria, Hereh dropped out of high school and joined Hizb ut Tahrir in the early 1990s. Eventually, he said, he rose to the rank of a local leader. In 2003, after a number of arguments about religious doctrine, he and the group parted ways. Hereh was locked up and tortured by Assad’s regime on nine occasions, he said, six times before the start of the civil war in 2011 and three more times since.
Since leaving Hizb ut Tahrir, Hereh has grown more moderate. He renounced the group’s uncompromising commitment to sharia, attended college and forged a political philosophy of his own. “I read books, I saw that what they were doing, what al Qaeda was doing, was wrong,” he said, speaking in English, occasionally groping for the right word. “I don’t care if you call it caliphate or democracy. It doesn’t mean anything for me. What matters for me is justice. That is the country I want to help build.”
Many of Hereh’s friends took the opposite path, quickly warming to ISIL. Some, he said, were swayed by the promise of a new caliphate. Others were guided by more mundane concerns. “So many people I knew, they were in the Free Syrian Army, but they had very few weapons, very few bullets, so they joined Daesh,” he said, referring to ISIL by its Arabic acronym.
Earlier this year, after Hereh refused to pledge allegiance to ISIL, his friends warned him that they could not protect him from the group. “I know what my friends can do,” he said, explaining his decision to flee Syria and settle across the border in Turkey. “They can kill. They don’t think. They get orders and they do what they’re told.”
Attacking ISIL — even through comedy and even from the relative safety of Turkey — is a risky business. According to police sources quoted in Turkish media, the group has about 3,000 members inside the country. The young people running Daya Altaseh appear to be in the fighters’ crosshairs. Threats and insults have poured onto their Facebook page. Earlier this year, said Watfe, the filmmakers decided to move out of their apartment in Gaziantep after “large, bearded men” interrogated their landlord about their work and whereabouts. They happened to have been out of the house at the time. “If not, we’d probably be on a beach somewhere, wearing orange jumpsuits,” said Aya Brown, the lone woman in the group.
In another sketch filmed at the farm, Watfe and friends wore just that — orange jumpsuits. They had kidnapped an ISIL fighter, played by Hereh, whom they held at gunpoint in front of the camera. “This is a message for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” they proclaimed as Hereh, given to fits of uncontrollable laughter, struggled to keep a straight face. “We are the Orange State in Syria and Iraq and we have one of your men. Unless you free foreign and Arab reporters, unless you let people drink Pepsi, smoke the infidel water pipe and eat KFC, we will execute him within 48 hours.”
The day’s filming over, Hereh began to flip through photos stored on his smartphone. He paused at an image of a man in his 30s, beaming as he posed while cradling his baby daughter. “This is my best friend,” he said, “and he is with Daesh.”
To Hereh, many of ISIL’s foot soldiers are normal people who were duped by the group’s leaders and by local imams into embracing a message of hate. “I believe they are not bad, but that they lost the way,” he said. “I still love them.” Hereh compared them to victims of a disease who needed to be cured, not slain. “How many of them did America kill in Syria, in Iraq?” he asked. “They will never finish them like this."
Through comedy, Hereh hoped to provide his friends inside ISIL with a lifeline. Even if they are furious with him for taking part in the videos, he said, it means they were at least paying attention. There was still a chance to engage them. “They can be saved,” he said. “We have to give [them] time to make a choice, to understand. We have to listen to each other, we need books, we need television, we need to joke.”