"40 Days Felt Like 40 Years": What It Is Like to Be a Prisoner of ISIS

As the Islamic State's militants planned their brutal videotaped killing of a second American prisoner, one photographer in Turkey was describing for readers and other journalists how he was treated as a captive of the group—and how he almost didn't survive the ordeal.

Bunyamin Aygun, a photographer for the Turkish daily Milliyet, spent 40 days last winter as an ISIS prisoner, threatened constantly with execution and torture, physical and emotional. He described his experience both in the paper and to al-Monitor's Amberin Zaman last week. In the wake of ISIS's killings of American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff, Aygun's account sheds light on who the killers really are, and answers many questions Western observers have held about the group.

Aygun, pictured above, was taken in Syria on November 25, 2013, and for a time was held with another prisoner who was a Free Syrian Army commander.

"40 Days Felt Like 40 Years": What It Is Like to Be a Prisoner of ISIS

[Photo credit: AP Images]

Initially, Aygun seemed reluctant to share critical details about his treatment with Zaman:

Aygun was hooded and blindfolded, his hands and legs bound nearly the entire time. Like Schrier, he was moved from one dank cell to another. Fighters in black tunics, baggy trousers and matching balaclavas would interrogate him day after day. "Are you Muslim, Sunni, Alevi? Recite a prayer. Give us all your passwords. Who are those women on your Facebook page? Do you drink? Who are you working for? Give us some names. What is your real name?" his tormentors would bark. "It went on for so long I could no longer keep track, those 40 days felt like 40 years," Aygun said. Was he tortured and beaten like the American was? Aygun stiffens and refuses to comment. By Aygun's own telling, IS has a strong network in Turkey. Perhaps, he fears that they might come after him again. I decide not to ask.

Aygun was kept bound and blindfolded at all times, except during five-a-day prayers and ablutions, which were required. (A secular Muslim, Aygun had to be shown how to perform the prayers by his fellow prisoner.) He says the ISIS men constantly told him: "If you are a Muslim you have nothing to fear, but if you are lying we will kill you."

Many observers have commented on the supposed sophistication of the ISIS killers who issued English-language messages on professionally cut videos. Aygun's experience with his captors suggests why this is so:

"The fighters were mostly Turks from Turkey and from Germany. Their faces were covered. You could only see their eyes. It was clear from their voices that they were young. Some were university-educated."

Nevertheless, these were zealots of an unbelievable order:

"All they did was fight and pray. They said they went into battle praying to be martyred. This is what they lived for, to die as martyrs and to establish an Islamic state in which all citizens would live as the Prophet Muhammad did, to live by the rules of the Book. They asked me if I wanted to become a suicide bomber or go to battle with them. They gave me a Turkish language Quran to read and a book about the jihad. There was no singing, no whistling, no women, no cigarettes."

Captors told Aygun his case was under review by a qadi, a religious judge, and that he might be freed—or he might be beheaded. "I was mentally and physically drained," he said. And then, an apparent savior appeared in his cell—a savior who claimed to have once been an American detainee:

He said he knew what I was going through. He had fought with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for 10 years where he had been held and tortured in an American detention facility for six months. I could tell he was older than the others. He told me to call him 'Dayi' (the Turkish word for maternal uncle). He said Turkey had strayed from Islam. He would loosen my handcuffs and bring me tea. We chatted normally, he was very kind. He said he was very saddened by my plight, because he knew I was a good person and that he had told the others to treat me well. Sure enough they did.

But this trusted confidant soon darkened Aygun's mood with bad news, and wild thoughts:

It was around my third day there. Dayi told me that the qadi had ruled in favor of my execution because I was working for a newspaper that was working against the interests of Muslims. He was very upset. Had the decision been left to him he would have pardoned me, he said. To spare me the dishonor of being killed by a firing squad he would cut my throat himself. I was a good Muslim, he said. I was paralyzed with fear. I needed to find a way to be shot dead rather than be beheaded.

But on the day of his supposed execution and for several days after, no one came to Aygun's cell. It turned out the fighters had become embroiled in a deadly street battle with rivals. On their return, one of the men asked Aygun if he'd like to see Dayi, his protector, and he said yes:

"They [took] me to a room where they made their explosives. Dayi was lying on the floor in a pool of blood. I saw his face for the first time. He had a bullet mark on his forehead. He was dead. They asked me if I wanted to smell his blood. The blood of martyrs smells good, they said. I knelt by his side. I smelled his blood and stroked his beard. I was devastated. My only friend was gone. They moved to a new place. Now I would be killed for sure."

At some point, soon after, Aygun's ISIS captors struck a deal with Turkish intelligence operatives—it's unclear whether any money or prisoners were exchanged—and he was deposited with authorities, to be spirited home.

His account, if true, explains much about the fighters of the Islamic State: Many are educated, most are young, and they are led not only by a religious zeal but a mastery of interrogative techniques, perfected in the West, that disorient a prisoner, confuse his loyalties, win his cooperation, and reduce his will to resist—or even to choose life.

Aygun says he "has stopped drinking and continues to pray," based on his captivity, and perhaps on his gratefulness to be done with it. But he can never escape his memories, or his captors' promise: "Turkey is next."

[Photo credit: Getty Images]