‘Don’t Join ISIS:’ Canadian Islamic State Star Disses the Caliphate as He Strikes Out on Own

"I am a defector from this fake caliphate, and lots of men around me have done the same thing," Elabi told a Quebec news agency this week. He vowed to continue the fight against the Assad regime on his own.
January 6, 2016, 7:05pm
Sami Elabi

A Montreal man who left Canada to join the Islamic State in 2013 — and starred in two of its propaganda videos — has abandoned the "stupid" militant group that he says is incapable of protecting Muslims on their own territory.

"I am a defector from this fake caliphate, and lots of men around me have done the same thing," Sami Elabi told a Quebec news agency this week. He vowed to continue the fight against the Assad regime on his own, and is encouraging others to do the same.

Elabi travelled to Syria in April, 2013, and claims to have fought alongside both al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, as well their rivals in the Islamic State (known as IS or ISIS).

In recent weeks, however, Elabi has pulled back from the competing factions.

Elabi, who has also gone by the nom-de-guerre of Abu Safwan al-Kanadi — the Canadian — began publicly telling his 197 Twitter followers in December: "don't join ISIS."

But while the terrorist groups may have fallen out of favor with Elabi, that doesn't mean he has renounced violence altogether. On the contrary, the fighter has become a sort of freelance fighter in western Syria, redoubling his commitment to battling the Assad regime and pushing his brand of radical Sunni Islam.

"Join any other group," Elabi's tweet continued.

Elabi's Twitter account bills him as "exISIS, exJN," the latter being the acronym for Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as "ExFSA," referring to the Free Syrian Army, a supposedly moderate band of rebels that received support from the American government that has been severely sidelined in the ongoing civil war.

The Twitter account says Elabi is now an "independent fighter fighting for the truth, fighting against all forms of oppression."

It's not clear exactly what led to Elabi's disenchantment with the militant groups, although he told a Quebec news agency that IS "is drowning in its absence of science and Islamic ways.

"The Islamic State's stupidity is limitless," Elabi said in an interview with QMI reporter Andrew McIntosh, published in the French-language Journal de Montreal. "No one is happy. We're all mad at this gang, this so-called Caliphate, which is unable to protect Muslims on its own turf."

According to QMI, Elabi is now stationed near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, which remains under the control of Assad's forces, and which houses a Russian military base from which Moscow's air force has been pounding various rebel-held areas throughout the country.

VICE News has reached out to Elabi, but he has yet to respond.

Elabi told QMI that he felt "lost" back home in Canada, where he spent time in prison. He was convicted of assault in 2010, after a violent bar altercation and a subsequent break-and-enter. He was charged and convicted of assault and weapons charges again in 2013, but when he was supposed to be in court, he was already en route to Syria.

Elabi's Twitter profile is styled with an Aboriginal chief as his display picture, to celebrate his family's indigenous heritage and supposedly to distance himself from his identity as 'al-Kanadi.'

Elabi told QMI he chose not to post a picture of himself because he had been disfigured by a Russian-made rocket launcher.

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While Elabi's falling-out with the radical groups would initially seem like a win for counter-radicalization efforts, his continued commitment to armed jihad underscores the continued attraction to the fight in Syria.

Elabi's Twitter account is littered with graphic images and testimony of death, injury, and torture at the hands the Assad Government, the American-led anti-IS coalition, and Russian warplanes.

"We hav no choice other than put enemie's wifes and husband in front of our wife & kids so that they stop the massacre," Elabi tweeted in November.

Despite his newfound lone wolf attitude, Elabi became enmeshed in the militants' propaganda efforts to convince a generation of disaffected Western youth to board a plane to Syria and join the fight.

Elabi was, ostensibly, the star of two propaganda videos — one showing a fighter burning and shooting a Canadian passport. The second claims to show Elabi blowing up what looks like a small house. Those sorts of videos, usually full of swashbuckling and explosions, are a hallmark of IS recruitment efforts.

They've proven remarkably effective thus far. More than a hundred Canadians have traveled — or attempted to travel — overseas to join extremist groups, including a disproportionate number of teenagers from Elbai's native Montreal.

In 2015 alone, eight Montreal youth left the country to join IS, though two are believed to have returned. Ten more tried to leave in May, making it all the way to the airport before being intercepted by police, and several others have faced terror-related charges.

"Lots of young Montrealers have left for Syria? Why haven't I seen any, yet?" Elabi wrote in September, and confirmed to QMI that it's still the case today. Although, he added, he's seen lots of French citizens.

*Related: *Canada Has Paroled a Convicted Terrorist— And He's Headed to Grad School

Canada has tried various tactics to counter radicalization domestically, although it's unclear how successful those efforts truly are.

The previous government opted to deal with the issue of foreign fighters by simply revoking their citizenship and barring their ability to come back to Canada. Former Defence Minister Jason Kenney singled out Elabi in particular, telling the National Post: "I think it's bizarre in the extreme that he should be able to show up at a Canadian embassy … and that we should then be obliged to issue him a new passport and welcome him back to Canada.

Stéphane Berthomet, a former counter-terrorism police officer in France and the author of The Jihad Factory, says Elabi's public stance against the Islamic State could put his life at risk.

"We know that IS doesn't give its recruits the option of leaving. Many defectors have been eliminated on the spot because they had tried to leave," he cautions. "So there is that risk."

He says killing Elabi would be a way to warn others against betraying the Caliphate, although he adds that he's skeptical that they would assassinate Elabi too far outside their borders. "For ISIS, it's all about image and communication, so [killing him] could be part of their communication strategy."

He says Elabi's defection shows how misleading ISIS' recruitment propaganda can be. "It shows the dichotomy, the difference between the ideology that's sold by these organizations in their recruitment networks and the reality these recruits find once there on the ground," he says.

"From the point of view of counter-radicalization, it's missing efficacity. We need to produce alternative systems and solutions other than prison sentences, like participation in [treatment] programs and in rehabilitation research."

Follow Justin Ling and Brigitte Noel on Twitter: @justin_ling @Brige_Noel

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