By Graeme Wood
dawn on a warm september morning in 2013, a minivan pulled up to a shattered villa in the town of Azaz, Syria. A long-bearded 29-year-old white man emerged from the building, along with his pregnant British wife and their three children, ages 8, 4, and almost 2. They had been in Syria for only about a month this time. The kids were sick and malnourished. The border they’d crossed from Turkey into Syria was minutes away, but the passage back was no longer safe. They clambered into the minivan, sitting on sheepskins draped on the floor—there were no seats—and the driver took them two hours east through a ravaged landscape, eventually stopping at a place where the family might slip into Turkey undetected.
They disembarked amid a grove of thorny trees. Signs warned of land mines. The border itself was more than an hour’s walk away, through the desert. They’d forgotten to bring water. Tania dragged the puking kids along; Yahya carried a suitcase and a stroller. Midway, Tania had contractions, although she was still several months from her due date. They continued on. At the border itself, while the family squeezed through the barbed wire, a sniper’s bullets kicked up dirt nearby.
Yahya had arranged for a human trafficker to meet them, and when the trafficker’s truck arrived, Yahya pressed a few hundred dollars into the man’s hand. Yahya and Tania had been married for 10 years, but they did not say goodbye. Satisfied that his family would not die, Yahya turned and ran across the border, back into Syria—again under gunfire—without even a wave.
The trafficker drove Tania and the kids a short distance into Turkey, then dropped them by the roadside without food or water and sped off. Tania carried the children and luggage toward the nearest town. The day ended with the intercession of a stranger on a motorcycle, who helped carry their things to a bus station. Tania started to leak amniotic fluid due to the journey, and she spent the next weeks recovering in Istanbul, and then with family in London. Six months pregnant, she weighed 96 pounds.
As his family traveled to London, relieved to have escaped the worst place on Earth, Yahya felt relief of his own—he could now pursue his dreams unencumbered by a wife and children. He felt liberated. He carried visions of the caliphate yet to be declared, and ideas for how to shape it. These thoughts were not idle. Yahya, by then, had a small but influential following, and his calm erudition had won him the respect that his teachers and parents had withheld during his youth. His own destiny seemed to be converging with that of the world’s. It was the best day of his life.
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