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Behind the black flag: current, former ISIS fighters speak

Two Syrian rebels, one formerly with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and the other a current fighter, offer conflicting perspectives on the radical group's advances in Iraq.
Fighters of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant carry their weapons during a parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey January 2, 2014. Picture taken January 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yaser Al-Khodor (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTX170U3

K., 28, is on the line from Aleppo. He speaks to Al-Monitor via Skype, with a soundtrack of barrel bombs and gunfire, but that's no news — and not the source of the disappointment and dismay that mark his voice. A trainee doctor turned sniper, he was long one of about 5,000 men that the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (ISIS), the al-Qaeda offspring currently in the spotlight for its stunning gains in Iraq, is estimated to have deployed in Syria.

ISIS controls a large area stretching across the border and looks stronger than ever. I spent time in autumn 2013 embedded with ISIS fighters in Aleppo, K. among them. K. was initially seduced by the group’s fighting power and the values it sought to represent. He wasn't deeply religious, he says. He joined Islamist groups, fighting with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra before joining ISIS, because they were the only ones to provide real training and oppose rampant looting and crimes of any kind. "They had not only rules, but values."

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