For the last three years, Priya’s social media feeds have been filled with tiny, lovelorn pleas sent out into the void. Things like: “I miss you, please come back”; “I am waiting for you, please tell me you are okay”; and maybe most tellingly, “After everything… I declare without any shame, or hesitation… I love you… Come what may…”
The 24-year-old hasn’t heard from him since he told her he was being sent to fight in March 2015 — a fight he said he was hesitant to join, but felt as though he had no choice to decline. “Be safe, please” was the last message she sent him. He responded with a simple, yellow smiley face emoji. Months went by, and he seemingly never logged back into Telegram, the encrypted messenger app they used to talk. Nor could she find any news on websites or blogs that indicated what had happened to him.
And so Priya, a pseudonym, spent her nights scrolling through the pictures of him she’d collected. She loved his pale white skin, his flowing brown hair, his dark eyes. The first photo she’d seen of him was a selfie he’d posted on Twitter. The others — the ones he’d sent her directly — were taken by his friends back home and his fellow soldiers. She prayed every night that he hadn’t died. Every so often, she reached out to the few people she knew lived in the same place as him, but she never heard back.
It was all so mysterious because Priya hadn’t fallen for a typical soldier in a typical army. Hers was a foreign fighter in ISIS, the group that places hostages in cages and burns them alive (if they haven’t beheaded them first), rapes as brutally as it kills and justifies this unthinkable extremism as the price for establishing an Islamic caliphate — all the while, documenting it for their social media feeds.
He claimed his name was Hamza Azeri, and that he was 22 years old. His name was a kunya, a historically Islamic name that many fighters adopt both to keep their identities hidden, and to pay homage to the legendary generals of Islamic history. Azeri’s family had lived in Uzbekistan, where his father ran a business selling and distributing auto parts. His homeland was in Nakhchivan, a small, autonomous republic in Azerbaijan, less than 300 miles from the capital of Baku and close to the Turkish border.
On Twitter, Azeri initially referred to himself as Abu Bakr, another common kunya for a military leader who battled alongside the Prophet Muhammad in some of Islam’s most brutal conflicts. At the time, Azeri and his two brothers had just arrived in Al-Bab, a town in northwest Syria that six months earlier had been captured by ISIS — a military victory that led to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declaring the establishment of a new Caliphate in “Syria and the Levant” and calling on all able-bodied Muslims to come and fight for his army.
Priya had watched Baghdadi’s first speech — his only public appearance to date — from her home outside of Calcutta, India’s third biggest city, where she lives with her parents and grandmother. She describes them as a “deeply religious” Hindu family of Kshatriya, a highly respected caste in Indian society. Priya herself is small, with light brown skin, dark green eyes and curly black hair that unfurls just below her waist; she often wears dresses with floral patterns. After getting her degree in law at the University of Calcutta three years ago, she’s worked as an assistant at a small law firm. She dreams of leaving home, hoping to eventually move to England or Canada for better career opportunities. “My village is a small place,” she tells me during one of our many online conversations over the last six months. (I met her while researching a story on ISIS returnees.) Regardless of how good a lawyer she might become one day, in Calcutta, she believes, “There’s nothing for women other than to get married and have children.”
To feed her wanderlust and career aspirations, she’d read international newspapers in cafes near her office and watch the BBC World Service, CNN and Al Jazeera as well as documentaries “about everything” from European general elections, to climate change, to wherever in the world Anthony Bourdain was. Eventually, she became fascinated with the Syrian civil war between the Syrian government (aka the Assads and their supporters), Syrian rebel soldiers (i.e., the loose coalition of groups the U.S. and West are supporting) and jihadi militia groups (a la ISIS), many of which were comprised of volunteer soldiers from across the world.
It was common for members of these jihadi groups, especially if they were young, to use social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr) as well as encrypted messenger platforms (e.g., Kik, WhatsApp and Telegram) to spread their message. There, they’d call on others around the world to make a holy pilgrimage to ISIS territory and to join in on the fight. In fact, if they were “true Muslims,” “it was obligatory” for them to fight. In 2014 then, the largest number of foreign fighters entered Syria, usually through the Turkish border.
Priya saw Azeri for the first time on Twitter when he posted a grainy, clearly edited selfie. In it, he wore a green camouflage jacket over a black turtleneck, with a sand-colored camo skullcap. His face, which looked directly at the camera, seemed surprised — as if the photo were snapped suddenly. He claimed to Priya that it was taken in his Al-Bab home, a compound where he, his brothers and the rest of the soldiers were hanging out on the roof. He captioned the photo, “With the brothers,” followed by two heart emojis. It’s likely that the photo was taken to encourage more people to travel to Syria, promising that not only was the country safe, but better lives awaited them there than in their home countries.
“I immediately thought he was beautiful,” Priya says. “I couldn’t stop staring at his picture. He was so handsome, so sweet. He had such nice eyes. Good eyes. I knew then that he was a good person.” She adds that she wasn’t afraid of him — in spite of everything she’d heard about ISIS, which she disavowed in our conversations. Still, Priya followed Azeri and asked to talk to him. More than anything, she was curious. She wanted to know why a young man would give up his life for such brutality. But she also just “wanted to know him more, to be his friend.”
Priya’s first encounter with ISIS is similar to that of the hundreds of young women who have travelled to Syria to become wives of ISIS fighters. According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College, London, most Western women made the trek to Syria between 2013 and 2015, and many were initially groomed online. (According to the New York Times, at least 2,000 of those women — who travelled from the U.S., Europe and Middle East — have been captured in refugee camps on the Turkish border, after fleeing ISIS headquarters in Raqqa.)
“In many ways, these young women would develop internet crushes on ISIS fighters, in a similar way to any teenager who becomes infatuated by celebrities that appear dangerous,” says Melanie Smith, an extremism expert who has mapped the radicalization pathways of women who join ISIS. She says that in her research, she found that attractive fighters were often used by ISIS as a means of spreading propaganda because they could command more respect and also build their own legions of online supporters. An example, she says, would be Izrafil Yilmaz, the Turkish-Dutch ISIS fighter who was nicknamed a “jihadi dreamboat.” He was among the few fighters who was frequently allowed to openly talk to the press and had a huge following on Tumblr, mostly of young Muslim women who were obsessed with him to the point where they’d “worry about him if he hadn’t posted anything for a few days.”
One female ISIS member from Australia, who on Twitter went by the handle @_BirdOfJannah, tried recruit through her Tumblr account by posting pictures of attractive ISIS fighters and telling women that they’d be able to marry them if they travelled to Syria. Her post was later used by CNN in a package that referred to good-looking ISIS fighters as ‘Jihotties,’” describing them as “men who are displaying the masculinity, what heroes they are and how amazing they are as good Muslim men who are brave and are willing to fight.”
According to Priya, Azeri didn’t ask her to come to Syria when they began talking. The first time he asked was three months into their online relationship, in the summer of 2014. Even then, she says, he’d pose it as an open question: “Would you ever come to Dawlah [Islamic State]?” Priya adds that these requests weren’t a regular occurrence, and it didn’t feel like he was desperate for her to go. In fact, it was his friends who were adamant, even using Azeri’s profile on a Turkish chat room to offer her money and a fixer to escort her via Gizantep, a Turkish town bordering Syria that was a popular route for incoming foreign fighters. She refused every time, saying “she wouldn’t leave her family,” and more importantly, that she didn’t support ISIS.
Not that she didn’t occasionally waver, but only, “when I would be angry or sad, or I’d feel alone.” Per official statistics, a few hundred Indians have left to fight with ISIS, but the implications on their families have been severe (especially for the women), from receiving death threats by Hindu nationalist groups to being shunned and cast out of their own temples and places of worship. “I love Hamza,” she says. “But I could never love ISIS. I wouldn’t have been able to survive there.”
Sometimes, she continues, Azeri’s friends would tell her to stop talking to him, because “non-Muslim women were forbidden from talking to Muslim men,” and in doing so, tried to convert her to Islam. Still, she says, “I didn’t intend to do what they said.” Instead: “I’d ask him how he was doing and if he was safe, and whether he wanted to fight for ISIS or whether he wanted to go home.” Sometimes, she’d send him pictures of old Indian temples and the view from her Calcutta office when it rained. India was a place that “he’d never gone, but said he always wanted to. He wanted to see the Taj Mahal and asked if I’d take him there,” Priya remembers. To her, it showed that his heart might not have been in ISIS after all, and that there was a chance he’d eventually leave them — and Syria.
“We’d talk on Telegram when his friends were asleep,” she says. “He could never sleep through all the bombs and gunfire.” They’d discuss their favorite subjects (him — basketball, her — art) and their mutual love for the water and animals. “We sent pictures of our favorite animals to each other all the time. I’d send him pictures of birds that I found, and he’d send me pictures of big, beautiful lions,” she says. A few months into their relationship, he sent her a picture of a lion he found on the internet that reminded him of her. “Brave, beautiful — like you,” he wrote.
It was the first time Priya had received such a compliment. Like most women from families like hers, she’s never seriously dated or been in a relationship. Her only physical contact with men has been a drunken kiss at a college party, something she hardly remembers. And while she had crushes on other boys she only knew online, she claims none of them matched her feelings for Azeri. “He has been the person who has meant the most to me,” she says. “No one else compares.”
He’d confide in her about his feelings of loneliness and the battles he’d participated in, mostly against Turkish fighter jets. Priya remembers a night when she was woken by Azeri’s messages asking for help. “I need you,” he wrote. He then opened up about the death of his friend, a man she knew as Abdul-Haq. He’d been killed by shrapnel from a shell explosion, supposedly from a Turkish fighter jet close to the border. “It was the first time he’d seen someone killed in front of him,” Priya says. “He didn’t know what to do so he came to me.” Priya wasn’t sure what to say either. “Take a breath,” she ended up replying. “It will be ok, I promise.” He sent her back a yellow, smiley face emoji.
When Priya first started speaking to Azeri, she told two of her friends from university about him. Both were concerned, not just about Azeri being part of ISIS, but also about whether a relationship conducted primarily on the internet was healthy. “They told me I should look to get married,” she remembers. In her culture, women are encouraged to get married young; the average Indian woman, in fact, is married by age 22. (Her family knows nothing of Azeri; her parents aren’t tech savvy and don’t have social media accounts, and she doesn’t accept friend requests from most family members, telling them that her social media is a private place for her.)
Eventually, her friendship with one of the women from university ended, the byproduct of an argument in which the friend accused Priya of being an ISIS supporter. “She couldn’t understand why I had these feelings for Hamza when he was in ISIS,” Priya recalls. “She said that he’s violent, that he kills people — how could I say I love him?” It wasn’t just her friend who made such comments either. When Priya started posting photos of Azeri on her social accounts, her followers asked why she was still sending messages to him. “Are you still calling for him? Stop! He is not coming back!” one friend messaged. “If he’s gone, then let him go. No point watering a dead plant,” another read. Priya responded in the same way she always does whenever she’s asked about Azeri: “It’s not over.”
A 2016 report on “Jihadi Brides” by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism studied more than 1,000 young women who travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. It argues that the process of grooming young, vulnerable women with what they perceive as deep, meaningful relationships with ISIS fighters is a deliberate strategy that can help transition the women into “true believers.” They’re convinced to “dismiss the ruthless bloodshed and sexual violence as necessary for the revolution.” And once they arrive in Syria, they’re encouraged to set up online profiles that “paint a picture of life lived according to Islamic ideals, blissful marriages with ISIS fighters, as they hold the hope for ‘martyrdom’ alongside the sacrifices necessary to bring about the hoped-for utopian state — no matter what violence that may entail.”
Less attention has been paid to women like Priya, who while not travelling to Syria and Iraq, still develop the same kind of intimate relationships with ISIS fighters — something that’s becoming more frequent since it’s become harder to get into Syria and Iraq. For example, earlier this year, 18-yaer-old Safaa Boular from South West London pled guilty to planning a bomb and knife attack on the British Museum. Boular told the court that she’d joined ISIS through a recruiter named Naweed Hussain, who was originally from Coventry. Hussain had groomed Boular for nearly a year, sending her “lovey dovey” messages and romance poems while he was fighting in Syria, all while trying to arrange for her to join him in Raqqa. Boular believed that her relationship with Hussain was authentic, and in spite of likely never being able to meet, they got “married” via Skype by reading verses from the Quran. Boular was reported to have broken into tears when it was revealed in a private hearing that Hussain had been killed. “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh!” she screamed. Moments afterward, in front of the court, she shouted: “Rejoice, he is a martyr!”
“People forget that jihadis are people too with normal emotions and needs,” says Mia Bloom, an Atlanta-based terrorism analyst and author of Small Arms: Terrorism & Children. Given these emotions and needs, Bloom also questions whether Azeri had only a single online relationship: “He might have been in touch with several women cause he was just lonely.”
Bloom’s analysis squares with what I’ve heard from male ISIS members over the years. Specifically, they describe daily life in Syria as largely consisting of doing chores, reading the Quran and learning how to clean their weapons. ISIS had placed restrictions on the leisure activities fighters could partake in during their downtime, which, for many, meant they couldn’t play sports or go to movies. Instead, many men ended up spending time in internet cafes talking to people on social media. Sometimes, those people would be journalists like myself. Other times, however, they’d be women. In an environment where gender roles were strictly enforced and free mixing prohibited, most ISIS fighters cherished the opportunity to talk to a woman.
“There’s definitely a pattern to ISIS’ use of social media platforms and messaging platforms to lure young women from around the globe,” Bloom says, something she believes is still a core component of the organization’s global strategy. For her, though, just as important is recognition of what happens to the young women who are groomed by ISIS, even if they never eventually travel to Syria or Iraq. “My guess is that even when these men are killed — or they vanish — the women are still vulnerable and potentially in distress.”
In March 2015, Azeri told Priya that he was leaving Al-Bab with his unit to go to Baiji, an oil-rich Iraqi city 130 miles north of Baghdad. ISIS’ presence there was growing, particularly from foreign fighters, as it attempted to retake it from the Iraqi Army after its defeat in November 2014. It would be the first time Azeri participated in regular fighting, and he told Priya there was a chance he could be killed. “Do you want to go?” she asked him. “Why don’t you come back?” Azeri didn’t respond — instead, he sent her an old photo of him taken by a friend back home, where he’s without a beard, visibly younger and standing on a cliff overlooking a lake. “It’s very beautiful,” she responded.
Priya hasn’t heard from Azeri since, although she’s noticed that his blue light on Telegram has gone on twice — once in November 2015, and again in February 2016 — indicating that he might be alive. In the meantime, she’s regularly posted on her social media accounts, asking him to come back. In some Facebook posts, she’s declared her love for him, writing that she wanted him to leave Syria, and that she’d “go wherever you would be” once he was somewhere safer. She also started to learn Turkish. She’d picked up some words and phrases from when she and Azeri would talk in Turkish language chat rooms, but her study increased when she heard that Turkey had captured a large number of ISIS fighters. She figured learning the language might help her find out if Azeri was among them.
The last time Priya heard anything concrete about Azeri was early last year. A man who called himself Mansur Ansalov had liked photos of him on her Instagram page. Ansalov, who didn’t respond to my interview requests, has an avatar of a Glock pistol and a black iPhone 5 for his private Instagram account, which is followed by accounts that openly express pro-ISIS and pro-jihadi views. Priya isn’t sure how he found her. When she asked him, he said that he followed people who were interested in the “Syrian Jihad.”
On Instagram, Ansalov claimed to Priya that he’d been a fixer, helping bring fighters into Syria and connecting them to safe houses and weapons suppliers. He said he knew who had brought Azeri to Syria, and that he knew the other fighters Azeri was with. Though he initially asked Priya for money in exchange for this information, she tells me she eventually convinced him to add her to a private ISIS encrypted messenger group on Telegram. When an ISIS soldier died, group administrators would usually post a picture of their face, allowing members to pay respects and offer Islamic prayers. Priya had joined some of these groups before, and she routinely looked through them before bed, hoping she’d hear something about Azeri.
In May 2017, she finally heard something back. Scrolling through the chat, she saw Azeri holding a Kalashnikov, complete with his camo jacket and camo beanie and the long, flowing hair she loved. She messaged Ansalov immediately. “What happened? Is he alive?” she asked. She wrote to Ansalov three more times. But alas, he never responded. All she had left was the image of Azeri, and the rolling messages other members of the messenger group had written for him — the same message they would write for any ISIS fighter who had been reported dead: Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un, which translates to “We belong to God and to Him we shall return.”
Priya says this is the first time she’d ever experienced “true heartbreak.” Gone were all the daydreams she’d entertained — of showing him her favorite places in Calcutta, of taking him to the parts of India he’d only seen in photographs. Moreover, her loss — the most significant in her life — would remain a secret from everyone she knew, especially those she’d lost in deciding to love him. “I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened or who he was,” she remembers. Her social media posts about Azeri became more ambiguous too. She’d post onto her Instagram page pictures of lions that reminded her of him, but without captions. On Facebook, she’d write ambiguous statuses. “You make me smile,” read one from June. “I am thinking about you always,” read another, written in July.
As the months passed, Priya tried to move on. She focused more on her work and enrolled back in university to take extra law classes. She tried to spend less time online, and bought herself a pet parrot. She started going for long walks, sometimes for hours at a time. By September, she felt that she had gotten to a stage where she was ready to move forward with her life.
That changed, however, in December 2017, when she saw that the timestamp from Azeri’s messenger showed that he was active. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. She immediately messaged him. “Hello? Hamza, it is me, are you ok?” Seconds later, the “active now” status under his profile photo vanished.
Priya has remembered that moment every day since. She’s started posting Azeri’s image back on Instagram, hoping that someone who might know him will get in touch, and she’ll find out what happened to him. She has a small, printed photo of him wearing a skullcap that covers his long hair taped inside a drawer in her desk. “Will you come back to me?” she captioned her last image of a young Azeri, standing on a mountain, presumably in Uzbekistan, next to his friend. She’s gone back to checking ISIS chat rooms again, hoping there will be news of what happened to the battalions that fought in Baiji. She isn’t sure if he’s alive, acknowledging that “it could be somebody else” who logged into his account, or maybe his phone was stolen or lost.
Although I couldn’t confirm Azeri’s whereabouts, there’s a good chance he’s been killed or captured. According to U.S. Special Operations Command, at least 70,000 ISIS soldiers have been killed since 2015. It’s likely that the number is far higher as other nations (namely, Turkey, Iran, Russia and France) have engaged in combat against ISIS, too. What’s clear is that if Azeri is still alive, it’s likely that he’s no longer in Baiji, as Iraqi forces recaptured the majority of the city — including its oil refineries — in October 2015. And as ISIS continues to cede territory to both Syrian rebel groups and the Assad regime, almost every ISIS base, including Raqqa and Al-Bab, has been lost.
For Priya, there are days, she says, when “I accept that he’s died, and he’s gone.” Other times, however, she wonders if Azeri, the boy who seemed so reluctant to fight and whose allegiance to ISIS was far from zealous, ended up escaping after all. Though she admits, “I know that even if he were alive, it would be difficult to be with him. His background [in ISIS] means he wouldn’t be able to go anywhere. We wouldn’t have a [normal] relationship.”
Nonetheless, she hopes that Azeri will resurface, and that the hours she continues to spend trying to find him will be worth it in the end. “He’s such a special person,” Priya says when I last speak with her. “I’ll always be waiting for him.”