Islamic State fighter wants to return to Italy, warns of 'sleeper cells'

Reuters Syria Mar 10, 2019, 07.14 AM(IST)

Mounsef al-Mkhayar. Photograph:( Reuters )

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Mounsef al-Mkhayar, a 22-year-old of Moroccan descent who grew up in Italy, spoke to Reuters at a security office in northern Syria in his first interview since surrendering to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) two months ago.

An Islamic State fighter detained in Syria urged Italy on Saturday to let him come home to start a new life, saying said he had abandoned the self-styled jihadist "caliphate" after growing disillusioned with its rulers.

Mounsef al-Mkhayar, a 22-year-old of Moroccan descent who grew up in Italy, spoke to Reuters at a security office in northern Syria in his first interview since surrendering to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) two months ago.

He has been in prison since emerging from Baghouz, a tiny village in eastern Syria where the SDF is poised to wipe out the last vestige of Islamic State rule - which once spanned a third of Iraq and Syria.

Mkhayar gave an account of growing chaos among jihadists on the brink of defeat, and of disputes in the ranks as top commanders fled Syria. But he said Islamic State was also planning for the next phase, smuggling out hundreds of men to set up sleeper cells across Iraq and eastern Syria.

Mkhayar is one of the thousands from all over the world who were drawn to the promise of an ultra-radical Sunni Islamist utopia overriding national borders. Kurdish security officials identified him as Italian and he said he holds Italian citizenship.

"I wish to return to Italy to my family and friends," said Mkhayar, who walks on crutches after shelling injured his leg.

However, Mkhayar was sentenced to eight years in jail by a Milan court in 2017 for spreading Islamic State propaganda and trying to recruit Italians to its cause, Italian media say. As a result, he is likely to have to serve this sentence if he does return to Italy.