New Zealand ISIS runaway Mark Taylor: I feel betrayed by the group I joined and the country I left behind

Campbell MacDiarmid interviews the Kiwi militant whose government says 'he's made his bed, he can lie in it'

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Mark Taylor, the New Zealander who joined ISIS five years ago, now languishes inside a crowded Kurdish prison in northern Syria.

The middle-aged militant is much thinner than in the gun-toting photos he shared online before fleeing ISIS ranks in December as coalition forces closed in. Now, he says he feels betrayed by not only the group he fought for, but the government that has declined to help him return home.

In an interview with The National in a Kurdish security forces office on Tuesday, the man who goes by the name Muhammad Daniel after his conversion to Islam, said he left because there was "no point" in staying and fighting to the death for ISIS.

Taylor then described feeling let down by New Zealand after hearing that the country whose passport he once destroyed would not be assisting his return. “I asked the government to help me. But then eventually, they just stabbed me in the back.”

His softly spoken manner was a far cry from his once bombastic online persona. In June 2014, he posted an image showing the charred remains of his black passport, the silver fern still visible on the cover, with the caption that his trip to Syria was a “one-way trip, no going back”.

But now, the 42-year-old wants a return ticket. “I was hoping at least a government agency would at least pick me up and take me home. I was expecting that,” he said.

Taylor gained notoriety in 2015 when he inadvertently revealed his precise location by geotagging his social media posts, which showed him to be in a house in the Syrian town of Al Taqbah. The blunder earned him the moniker the “bumbling jihadi” by western journalists and, he says, a 50-day stint in an ISIS prison.

He is still aggrieved by the incident – both by the media coverage and the way he was punished by ISIS after breaching the group’s security.

New Zealand ISIS supporter Mark Taylor inside a Kurdish security facility in northern Syria, March 5 2019.  surrendering to Syrian Democratic Forces. Campbell MacDiarmid
New Zealand ISIS supporter Mark Taylor inside a Kurdish security facility in northern Syria, March 5 2019. surrendering to Syrian Democratic Forces. Campbell MacDiarmid

Dressed in a greasy brown jacket, his eyes sunken and his stubble a far cry from the long wispy beard he once sported, Taylor recounted the incident that put him afoul of the group.

“I was on holiday. I wanted to voice my freedom of speech,” he said of the incriminating social media posts. “It turns out that freedom of speech was not allowed in the Islamic State.”

That he expected Western values to be upheld under the fundamentalist rule of ISIS is illustrative of the contradictions of a man who deserted everything he knew to join a listed terrorist organisation while remaining fascinated with what those back home were saying about him. A man who describes himself as a loner, whose relatives say was brain damaged as a child, and who former friends remember as a lifelong follower.

In ISIS’s austere interpretation of fundamentalist Islam, Taylor found a rigid prescription for living that he could understand. But beyond self-pity, he seems to have little capacity for compassion. He expressed few regrets about joining the hardline Islamist group, and no remorse for their crimes.

He described the murder of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff – which occurred in the months before Taylor joined ISIS in October 2014 – as “not really my problem”.

Both men were kidnapped while covering the war in Syria and were beheaded by ISIS militants in 2014, as the group was asserting its power through a string of brutal killings.

“I didn’t have concern about these situations,” Taylor said.

After witnessing public executions and crucifixions in Syria, Taylor seemed most concerned that he might have also ended up a victim. “I was kind of devastated, that this could have happened to me too,” he said.

Turning to the group’s murder and enslavement of thousands of Yazidis, Taylor became evasive. “They [ISIS]  were kinda harsh,” he reflects. But “I wasn’t involved directly in that.”

Taylor, however, continues to defend the concept of slavery. Thousands of Yazidi girls and women were ripped from their families in August 2014 and sold into slavery. Survivors’ first-hand accounts of rape and forced labour galvanised much of the international response to the group’s brutality.

Many missing Yazidi have never been found. Slavery though, is “not much of a problem really,” according to Taylor. “As long as you treat the slave as equal according to the Shariah law, you don’t treat them as subhuman.”

Despite saying he wanted to leave ISIS for three years, Taylor remained with the group until last December. By then, he said, he was reduced to “scavenging through junk, rubbish tips – basically begging.”

It was when the group’s proto-state was sliding towards destruction that he surrendered to advancing Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, who are now on the verge of retaking the final pocket of ISIS territory in eastern Syria.

“I decided just to give up,” he said. “I was forced to get out with no food, no basic facilities, bombs dropping everywhere.”

Taylor’s surrender marked the closure of another chapter in a lifetime spent searching for belonging, but never quite fitting in.

Now, he is more concerned that the New Zealand government will not be expending resources to assist him in his return to the country, leaving him stranded in a Kurdish prison like hundreds of other foreign nationals who joined ISIS. “Gee, that’s pretty hard,” Taylor said after hearing the news.

Back in New Zealand, a relative told local media that Taylor experienced learning difficulties after suffering a seizure as a two-year-old, and later mental health issues.

After dropping out of high school, Taylor had stints working on fishing boats and starting a builder’s apprenticeship before joining the New Zealand army in the 1990s. Logan Bartlett served with him and described him to Radio New Zealand as a “lost little lamb” who sought acceptance while struggling to think for himself.

At the time he was a born again Christian, he said, which did not win him friends in the military.

He was an atheist for a time, Taylor said, and then in 1999 while living in Brisbane, Australia, he discovered Islam and was soon drawn to its radical fringe.

In 2009, Taylor was detained in Pakistan while attempting to travel to the Al Qaeda stronghold of Wana, near the Afghan border. Two years later, he was on New Zealand’s terror radar. Despite this, he was issued a new passport. He travelled to Yemen, he said, before settling for a time in Indonesia where he married a local woman and taught English.

By July 2014, he had left his wife and travelled to Syria, first joining Al Qaeda-linked group Jabhat Al Nusra before defecting to ISIS.

He would need to make his own way to a country where New Zealand has consular representation – something that in his current situation will be difficult to do

“I’ve abandoned all international laws and only practice Islamic Shariah laws. NZ laws are the worst of time. Sorry Johnny, here to stay in IS,” he wrote that year from a Twitter account that has since been deactivated.

In 2015, he appeared in an ISIS propaganda video urging terrorist attacks in Australia and New Zealand on ANZAC day, the shared remembrance date for military veterans on April 25.

“I called for attacks, but it wasn’t for specifically ANZAC Day,” he said. “But you have to realise that there are even more hardened people and hardened criminals have been kicked out of Australia due to violent crimes and sent back to New Zealand and they are much more worse than me.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says no agency will be helping Taylor leave Syria.

"New Zealand has made it very clear that New Zealanders should not travel to Syria,” she said at a press conference on Monday. “Further, it is clear that it is unlawful to join and fight with a terrorist organisation as Mark Taylor has done.”

With no diplomatic representation in Syria, the ability of the government to assist its nationals in the war-torn country is severely limited, Ms Ardern said. "He would need to make his own way to a country where New Zealand has consular representation – something that in his current situation will be difficult to do.”

While Taylor would not be stripped of his citizenship, he would be prosecuted should he manage to return home and could face up to life in prison on terrorism charges.

Fires burn inside the last ISIS redbout in Baghouz, Syria, 2 March 2019
Fires burn inside the last ISIS redoubt in Baghouz, Syria. Campbell MacDiarmid / The National 

After being bailed out previously by the New Zealand government in Pakistan, he seemed surprised to hear that help would not be forthcoming.

“The thing is, I thought New Zealand was going to give me a fair go,” he said. “I know New Zealand helped me before in Pakistan, by getting me out of Pakistan, but they had a consulate in Pakistan. They helped me out when I was in Australia when I complained about [the] Australian government cancelling my visa.”

If he returned home, he seemed to expect to spend at most a few years in prison, after which time he would like to start a company producing medicinal cannabis.

“I was looking at going home to do some business. There might be a chance of legalising marijuana,” he said. “I was looking at a business idea where I can do a plant and food business with marijuana.”

Despite his apparent naivety, and his claims to have only ever served as a teacher and a guard for ISIS, a Kurdish security official said he believed Taylor was a hardened fighter. “When he was first arrested he said he was only newly arrived in Syria,” said the official, who asked to remain nameless in order to discuss Taylor’s case.

“So obviously, he will lie. Most of them will, they will say they were only a driver, a nurse, or a cook. But we had information about him already from our sources, we knew he was in Jabhat Al Nusra before,” the official said.

Images of Taylor posted on social media show him posing with a large black machete and an assault rifle while making ISIS’ notorious one-fingered salute. Whether he ever did more than pose for photographs with weapons is unclear.

Although he is the only New Zealand ISIS supporter known to be held by the Syrian Kurds, his case is far from unique. In the past few months, as the SDF advanced on the final ISIS pocket, the Kurdish-led militia has captured thousands of foreign ISIS fighters and supporters like Taylor.

With makeshift prisons and detention camps close to overflowing, the US-backed force is anxious to see foreigners like Taylor repatriated.

“We would very much like to hand him over to the New Zealand government,” the official said.

As Taylor was returned to prison in manacles on Tuesday, the enormity of his situation and the fact that he was on his own were now dawning on him. “How can I get out of here when there is... no one to even help me at all. I’m just one person. What can I do? What can I do now in life? I have to stay indefinitely in some prison cell that I don’t know.”