New Report Reveals Why Fighters Are Quitting ISIS

Accounts from dozens of defectors offer a rare insight.

Tens of thousands of people have journeyed to Iraq and Syria to join Islamic State militants in the past few years, but after experiencing the reality of life in the group’s territory many have come to regret that decision.

In a new report published this week, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization sheds light on what it calls a “growing phenomenon” of defectors, who are beginning to speak out about why they left the militant organization.

ICSR looked at 58 different instances when people have spoke publicly about defecting from the Islamic State, using the accounts as case studies. The defectors whose stories were analyzed are from seventeen countries, and include seven women. The report finds several consistent narratives about what caused the former fighters to quit.

In some cases, the rationale for leaving the group is disillusionment with the way that the Islamic State is run, rather than a rejection of the militants’ ideological extremism that brought the recruits to Iraq and Syria in the first place.

One of the four main reasons former members defected was that they became fed up with the level of corruption from individual commanders, and what defectors referred to as “un-Islamic” practices. This included instances of racism against fighters within the group, according to the director of ICSR and author of the report, Peter Neumann, such as one incident when an Indian foreign fighter was forced to clean toilets.

Another reason fighters say they defected is dismay that Islamic State militants kill civilians, including women and children -- notably they only cited the killings of Sunni Muslims. The Islamic State's war crimes against minority populations, like the Yazidi, which include widespread massacres, enslavement and rape, weren't mentioned in the accounts that ICSR surveyed.

Conflict between the Islamic State group and other militants -- instead of focusing on fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad -- was also cited as a reason defectors left. They also complained about the quality of life in areas controlled by Islamic State. The group's propaganda often makes false promises of a fully functional society based on its interpretation of Islamic law, replete with wealth, socials services and even its own currency.

The Islamic State's propaganda machine has been extremely effective, contributing to luring at least 25,000 foreign fighters into the group's ranks, according to a UN report published in April. There have been numerous stories detailing the circumstances that drove individuals to join the group or of how people were targeted online as potential recruits, but there have been relatively few accounts from defectors.

One possible reason for this could be because it is extremely dangerous to defect, as the ICSR report outlines. Many fear reprisals against family members. Foreign fighters may also face legal repercussions and charges when they return to their home countries, as many states have made moves to revoke passports or criminalize travel to Islamic State-controlled areas.

Those who have managed to escape the group offer a unique perspective and potential antidote to its rhetoric, the ICSR report states. Their accounts present a counter-narrative to Islamic State propaganda, and show how the group can lose appeal even for those with similar extremist views.

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