When Mohamed Khweis realized that life in the Islamic State was “really, really bad,” he said he “needed to escape.”
It was a decision not made lightly. The penalty for those caught attempting to escape can be execution. But as an estimated 20,000 foreigners flock to the Islamic State, a trickle are managing to get back out.
Mr. Khweis, a United States citizen from Alexandria, Va., surrendered to Kurdish forces after spending a month in Mosul, the Iraqi city occupied by the Islamic State. He fled, he told a Kurdish television station, because "I didn't agree with their ideology."
His description of life in the Islamic State stronghold and his reasons for escaping echo common themes in the testimony of defectors during the last two years. Those who have left speak of the stark difference between promises made in the Islamic State's sophisticated recruiting propaganda and the “harsh and disappointing” reality on the ground, as well as corruption, infighting, and un-Islamic behavior including brutality even against fellow Sunni Muslims.
The information not only offers a picture of life under the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, but is heartening to intelligence officials who see it as having potential in their efforts to fight the group.
“The defectors provide unique insight into life in the Islamic State,” wrote Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at the King’s College Department of War Studies in London, in a report published late last year. “But their stories can also be used as a potentially powerful tool in the fight against it. The defectors’ very existence shatters the image of unity and determination that IS seeks to convey.”
Khweis is thought to be the first American ISIS recruit captured on the field of combat. But many others have come forward.
'I miss the brotherhood'
Abu Ibrahim, a Western fighter, spoke to CBS News. He said he went to help Syrians and to live under sharia law.
“A lot of people when they come, they have a lot of enthusiasm about what they’ve seen online or what they’ve seen on YouTube,” he told CBS. “It’s not all military parades, or it’s not all victories.”
Executions were brutal – including stonings and crucifixions – and done publicly. But Mr. Ibrahim did not object. "Having the actual Sharia established is what many Muslims look forward to," he said. "It's harsh, it's real but it's the sharia."
"My main reason for leaving was that I felt that I wasn't doing what I had initially come for and that's to help in a humanitarian sense the people of Syria," he said. "It had become something else. So, therefore, no longer justified me being away from my family."
"I'll miss the friends I made and the brotherhood, but ISIS itself – no."
One young Syrian defector who spoke to NPR said he paid a smuggler to get to Turkey.
"I was thinking all the time, if they arrest me, if they stop me, they will behead me," he said. If "you turn against ISIS, they will kill you."
At first, he also had no objection to the harsh forms of Islamic State law. "I saw a lot of bad things they did, but at the time I was convinced it was individual errors and ISIS was good."
But his views changed when the group killed more than 700 members of the al-Sheitat tribe in Syria's Deir ez-Zor Province in 2014.
"We found the bodies of women, and old men, old women, children," the said. And any ISIS rebel that complained about the killing of women and children was also killed, he said.
'They played on my weaknesses'
A mother in her 30s born in Democratic Republic of Congo and raised in Paris took her 4-year-old son to Raqqa without telling her husband. She told the Guardian that she escaped by connecting with Syrian opposition fighters – at one point making a dash for the border on a motorbike driven by a local man.
She said it took her only 10 days in Raqqa to realize she had made a mistake.
"I thought I was in control of the situation, but I realise now they were probably trained to recruit people like me,” she said. “Little by little they played on my weaknesses. They knew I was an orphan and I had converted to Islam, they knew I was insecure …”
She worked in the local maternity hospital and was "shocked by the squalid conditions, staff indifference to patients’ suffering, and a hierarchy in the city that put 'arrogant foreign fighters' at the top of the social heap and Syrians at the bottom," the Guardian writes.
“I looked at my son and knew that I had made a monumental mistake, the worst of my life," she said. "I knew then I had to be strong and do everything possible to get him out of there.”
“Now I must prevent other people being drawn into this horror. What can I say? Don’t go.”
'An intelligence gold mine'
Professor Neumann's report, released by the the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, examined the testimony of 58 former international ISIS fighters – 51 men and 7 women. It shows that the rate of defection among ISIS fighters is growing.
The reasons vary. Usaid Barho, a Syrian teenager, didn't want to become a suicide bomber. "I opened up my jacket and said, 'I have a suicide vest, but I don't want to blow myself up,' " he said, according to the report.
Ibrahim added that "the restrictions on leaving made it feel a bit like a prison."
An anonymous defector summed up life under ISIS like this to the BBC: "If you're against me, then you'll be killed. If you're with me, you work with me. You submit to my will and obey me, under my power in all matters."
As a former fighter, Khweis could offer valuable information to intelligence sources.
"He could provide a window into the ISIS command structure," said Seamus Hughes, a deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, to NBC News. "Who does he report to? What does his daily routine look like? And the most important thing – how did he get there?"
"He would be an intelligence gold mine."