ISTANBUL — Over beers near Turkey's border with Syria, a prominent human rights activist outlined a plan to commit a grisly homicide.
A Syrian in his thirties, he made his name in 2011's peaceful protests and hadn't committed an act of violence in his life. He'd kept clear of it even as the revolution turned to civil war. But now he was desperate like never before.
Secular, pro-democracy, and natural allies for the West, Syrians like the activist once led the uprising. Now they were depleted and increasingly irrelevant. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, had come to dominate the rebellion and its narrative. Savagery like the beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers got more attention than the activists ever could. ISIS had released a new video showing one of these beheadings days earlier, and the activist considered the victim a friend.
In response, he and some colleagues had come up with a plan — part revenge and part an attempt to reassert their voice. They would go to Syria and buy an ISIS prisoner from another rebel group. Then the activist would behead the man on video and release it to the world.
Or maybe he wouldn't have the stomach for a beheading, the activist conceded as the night wore on. In that case, he'd shoot the man in the back of the head.
The prisoner was already selected: a foreign jihadi said to embody the worst of ISIS's blind extremism. The fee that the activist would pay to buy him, of thousands of dollars, was in hand. The activist and his colleagues would cross the border the next day. "We're at a stage in Syria where our principles aren't going to help us," he said.
He hoped the video would send a message to both ISIS and the West — that Syria's moderates were still there and resisting — even if it meant adopting the brutal tactics employed by the extremists. "When it comes down to it, who's more effective at getting a voice?" he asked. "And I've seen that ISIS is very effective at getting a voice."
Yet he also knew the video could suggest to the world that his moderate movement had lost its soul. "It's saying: Look at us. Look at what we're doing. We know it's fucked up," he said. "But we're in a conflict where no one is paying attention to us."
"We're sort of lost," he finally said. "As an activist, I have no idea what the fuck to do."
One of his colleagues — another young and well-respected activist — was having similar thoughts. "Oh, man. This shit is driving us crazy," he said. "It makes it hard for you to determine right from wrong. I mean — you still want to be a very cool person, a moderate, someone who is passionate about his cause. But at the same time, you feel like there is nothing you can do to change this moment, to change the revolution. This is a desperation move."
Both activists requested anonymity to protect their safety.
The group of activists traveled into Syria as planned. They bought the ISIS prisoner and sat him on a metal chair in a concrete room. They had a handgun and a shotgun, but that didn't seem to frighten the man. He asked what they were planning as they set up their lights and video camera: "Will you put me on TV?"
The activist interrogated the ISIS fighter. As he discussed the extremist views that led him to Syria, the activist began to see him as tragically deluded. But he remembered his rage at the suffering ISIS had wrought. He named the Western journalists the group had beheaded on camera and asked the man how he'd like to suffer the same fate. "I don't know," the man said, staring up at him with a shrug.
The activist found himself boasting that he could do it. Yet he couldn't help but see the humanity behind the man's hardened veneer. His own humanity — which had led him to become an activist in the first place — took over from there. He took the man from the chair and was soon driving him toward the Turkish border. He gave him some money and said he was releasing him on the condition that he leave Syria and never return. The man exited the car without saying if he agreed.
"I couldn't hurt him," the activist said after the ordeal.
He felt that he'd kept his principles — but that this would hardly be enough to keep him and the other moderates from fading from view. "I feel that the world will forget us and forget what we stood for," he said.