Islamic State report: How fear keeps disillusioned defectors in check

Survey of defectors' stories finds common themes, including opposition to brutality, corruption, and the Islamic State's preoccupation with its Sunni jihadi rivals.

Associated Press/File
Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle in Mosul, Iraq.

The Islamic State's violent methods and violation of its own purported ideals are spurring people to try to leave it, according to a new report on defectors from the jihadist group. But the threat of reprisal by IS and punishment by potential defectors' home governments is stopping them from speaking out and potentially widening the group's internal divisions.

The report, titled "Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors" and released Friday by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King's College London, summarizes the common themes in the stories of 58 different IS defectors, as they have been reported in the media from January 2014 to August 2015.

ICSR found that the common reasons for disillusionment fell into four categories.

First, many were dismayed by how much the IS agenda appeared to be focusing on fighting other Sunni jihadist groups, rather than the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was at least nominally the primary enemy of IS. The report says that:

Many defectors argued that fighting against other Sunni groups was wrong, counterproductive and religiously illegitimate. Several described the infighting as fitna – an emotive term which is mentioned in the Quran and has been used throughout Islamic history to refer to periods of internal division and civil strife.

The defectors also criticized IS leadership for being "consumed by the quarrels with other rebel groups and the leadership’s obsession with alleged ‘spies’ and ‘traitors.’ "

The report also found that defectors were appalled by the group's brutality toward innocent civilians. Many criticized IS for inflicting unnecessary "collateral damage" on women and children, as well as "the random killing of hostages, the systematic mistreatment of villagers, and the execution of fighters by their own commanders."

Many defectors also complained about the "un-Islamic" or "corrupt" behavior of IS leaders. The "corruption" was not so much a criticism of the purported philosophy of IS rule, but rather how it was carried out: "Incidents of ‘corruption’ had to do with the conduct of individual commanders and ‘emirs’ who had mistreated their fighters and favored some over others," the report says. "While many [defectors] were willing to tolerate the hardships of war, they found it impossible to accept instances of unfairness, inequality, and racism, which they said went against everything the IS claimed to stand for."

Last, the report says a small number of defectors found that IS did not provide the "better life" that was promised to them during recruitment. Some of this was material – defectors said they had been promised "luxury goods and cars," and Western defectors found the lack of basic goods and electricity intolerable – but it also included their role in the jihad. While they had hoped to experience fighting on the front lines, they were instead assigned "dull" or undesirable tasks, including suicide bombing.

However, leaving the group is not easy. IS has its own internal police who crack down on dissent, and leaving the group is seen as a form of apostasy, which is punishable by death. Furthermore, even if a defector can escape IS territory, he or she is frequently from a provincial background, thus lacking family and friends any place other than their home, which is already known to IS. As such, defectors either must start a new life alone, or risk returning home where they are an easy target for reprisal by the group.

Furthermore, many countries are worried about returning jihadis and either forbid their reentry or imprison them for terrorism-related crimes. Thus defectors are forced to go underground and remain silent about their experiences within IS.

That, the report says, is a problem. In an article for CNN, the report's author, Peter Neumann, writes:

These stories matter. The defectors' very existence shatters the image of unity and determination that the group seeks to convey. Their narratives highlight the group's contradictions and hypocrisies. Their example may encourage others to follow, and their credibility can help deter wannabes from joining.

But the threat of reprisal, both by IS and their own governments, keeps defectors silent. Mr. Neumann argues that instead "governments and civil society should recognize the defectors' value and make it easier for them to speak out. Where possible, governments should assist them in resettlement and ensure their safety."

He notes that "Not every defector is a saint, and not all of them are ready or willing to stand in the public spotlight." Many defectors, the report adds, still hold jihadi ideals and reject liberal democracy. It is also unclear how many such potential defectors there are within IS – the report described the 58 known cases as "a sizable number but likely only a fraction of those disillusioned, ready to defect, and/or willing to go public."

But "they need to be heard," Neumann writes.

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