Shirzad, the 37-year-old militant sitting in a dimly lit interview room at Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, tries to excuse his decision to join one of the most brutal terror groups in the world.

“I immigrated [to Afghanistan] from my country [Uzbekistan] to save my religion,” says the Uzbek national at the Kabul facility controlled by the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service.

Shirzad, a member of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, looks frail and fearful. His small structure, gaunt expression and receding hairline make him look several years older than his actual age.

He is one of about 900 ISIS fighters who surrendered or were caught in the past four months during a massive military operation launched by the Afghan forces in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The ISIS fighter, who now goes by the name Najeebullah, which he adopted when he joined the group in 2015, avoids making eye contact with anyone in the room as he narrates the turn of events that led him to his current state, a prisoner in Afghanistan.

“There was no Islam in Uzbekistan,” he says of the former Soviet territory, all the while staring at his open palm.

“We couldn’t pray or fast [during Ramadan]; people are not allowed to wear scarves, even while praying. They started putting us in jails. They sentenced my cousin to jail for five years [for practising Islam],” he claims in his broken Pashto, a language he picked up in the three-and-a-half years he spent in the eastern provinces of his adopted country.

Although Uzbekistan is a Muslim-majority country, the former Soviet state is known for its strict control of religious expression and practices, what a UN report in 2019 called “extreme surveillance and state control of religious practices,” including laws that criminalise unregistered religious activities.

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