Among the isis fighters, the truth is often ephemeral. Many of them lie either to their captors or to themselves, a senior U.S. commander involved in Syria told me. Sulejmani recounted having a hard time fitting in, refusing to go to the front lines because of back problems, scrounging to feed his family, and spending time with a group of Albanians who joined isis.
I asked if he still supported Baghdadi, who appeared only once in public, to declare the Islamic State, in 2014. Since then, the self-appointed caliph has issued only a handful of audio messages. The last one was in August, when he admitted that isis was losing ground. “Right now, to be honest with you, and you don’t have to write this down, for me he’s been dead for over two years,” Sulejmani said. “I did not hear from him. Do you know if he’s alive?” When I said I didn’t, he mused, “It’s been a disappointment. It’s been a betrayal of, the way I see it, for people that were called to make hegira.” U.S. and S.D.F. officials believe that Baghdadi may be in the desert region along the Iraq-Syria border.
If given the chance to live in another caliphate, I asked Sulejmani, would he do it again? “I would,” he said. “For me, at this point, everything is religious. This world, sooner or later, will end, like it ends for everybody. For me, it’s important what comes after. I had a mother—she passed away. Father, passed away. Had a daughter—she passed away. We all die. My belief is that we’re put in this world to worship Allah. So, Inshallah [God willing], there will be Jinah, or paradise, after it.” So, I asked, why hadn’t he become a martyr, or shahid, in the language of jihadists? “I like life,” he said. “I did not come to die here. I came to live under Sharia. I mean, it was open enrollment.”