American ISIS defector charged: Will his story keep others from joining?

Testimony from an American who joined ISIS in Syria and then defected could be used to persuade others to stay out of the fight. 

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images/File
A wounded peshmerga fighter in is driven to hospital in a truck as Iraqi Kurdish forces push the frontline forward against ISIS forces in the Tal al-Ward district 20 miles southwest of Kirkuk, Iraq, on March 13, 2015. Testimony from an American who joined ISIS in Syria and then defected could be used to persuade others to stay out of the fight.

American-born Mohamad Khweis travelled to ISIS-controlled Iraq because he was taken with the group's propaganda, but he left after reality proved quite different.

"I stayed there about a month, and I found it very, very hard to live there," Mr. Khweis told Kurdistan 24 news. "I decided to return home."

His story of disillusionment is doubtless unwelcome to the media-sensitive terrorist group, but it is growing more common. Some are suggesting the stories of defectors such as Khweis be strategically employed to dissuade Americans who might consider joining the Islamic State, as Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes wrote in a December 2015 report by George Washington University's Program on Extremism:

There is a largely untapped opportunity to leverage American ISIS recruits who have become disillusioned with the cause. These individuals have dropped out for a variety of reasons, whether experiencing the brutality of life under ISIS firsthand or finding a more positive outlet for the quest that led them to ISIS in the first place. US officials would do well to provide avenues for their stories to be amplified to help dissuade would-be recruits.

The challenge lies in deciding whether to distribute such information – and how. Law enforcement is accustomed to using a defector's information against secret organizations such as Al Qaeda or IS.

"We did not know Al Qaeda existed until we actually started to interview people who had been part of Al Qaeda," says Kenneth Gray, a retired FBI agent and coordinator of the National Security Studies Program at the University of New Haven. "That is very helpful – to have insider information."

Turning insider information against a terrorist organization is a regular part of law enforcement, as is prosecuting lawbreakers, whose testimony then enters the public record. 

"Getting the word out to the public is very much more in [the media] than it is part of law enforcement, Mr. Gray says. "The press role is a very important part of disclosing the truth about what is actually happening in ISIS, and the truth about what is happening to the people under their control." 

Some are suggesting that a more active media role by government operatives could help dissuade Americans considering a trip into IS-controlled territory.

"The government should consider, within reason, limited immunity for some returning foreign fighters, as their messages are more likely to resonate than those delivered by most other counter-messaging programs," wrote the authors of the Program on Extremism report, "ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa."

Using defectors' stories to try and prevent IS sympathizers from acting would, however, represent a shift in law enforcement strategy, if the government began leveraging its prosecuting power to persuade reformed terrorists to speak out.  

"Perception management – is that a role of law enforcement?" Gray asks.

Some have suggested the State Department share defectors' stories on social media, perhaps styling their efforts in parody of IS propaganda. 

"By participating in Twitter, Facebook and other social media conversations begun by ISIS and al-Nusra, using text and videos, the State Department’s CSCC can make ISIS and its ilk look incompetent or hypocritical. They could highlight cases in which other Westerners came away disillusioned by what they found in Syria," wrote the State Department's Dafna Rand and Anthony Vassalo in a policy brief for the Washington-based think tank Center for a New American Security.  

The Iraqi Kurdish forces have already shown their interest in using defector narratives against IS, as a Kurdish news channel published a lengthy interview with Khweis before returning him to the United States. He describes his journey into IS-controlled Iraq and his disillusionment once he arrived and saw how IS would tightly control his life and activities within a violent paradigm that he said "does not represent a religion." 

"At the time I made the decision [to go to Iraq], I was not thinking straight," he told the Kurdish news. "On the way there, I regretted. I wanted to go back home."

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