By: Sarah Sinno
We in the West have been debating, literally for years, the best way to tackle Islamic State (Isil/ISIS). Key to the group’s success, we are repeatedly told, are its sophisticated online and social media recruitment strategies, providing it with a limitless supply of young foreign fighters.
Yet rather than wring our hands at our impotence in tackling Isil, which has relentlessly spread its reach and influence, we should examine a wealth of new information which documents Isil’s frailties. Crucially, this information has been provided by insiders – defectors from Isil ranks who know better than anyone the reality of life under the so-called caliphate. In dozens of interviews, these fighters, who have risked execution by fleeing the Isil-ruled zone they once rushed to join, give the inside account of Isil hypocrisies and failings, and in so doing, identify the best method of attack for Western governments seeking to demolish Isil’s appeal.
So what do these Isil defectors reveal?
1 – If you feel alienated and isolated in the UK, you will feel alienated and isolated in “the caliphate”
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) has just published a report based on interviews with dozens of deserters from Islamic State. In it, many explained that they originally joined Isil because they felt alienated at home. Isil propaganda, with its romantic idea of the Caliphate, appeals to those looking for a sense of belonging. But, crucially, once in territory under Isil control, many foreign fighters felt just as excluded as they had at home. On first arriving in Syria they were welcomed, interviews reveal, but soon thereafter were told by locals: “You are here to sabotage my country, you are coming to force something on us.”
The fact that foreign fighters were portrayed as liberators by their recruiters but received as oppressors by Syrian people themselves was a powerful influence in providing a cognitive opening for their defection. Instead of being the heroes they were aspiring to be, they found themselves forcing a brutal interpretation of Sharia on people who didn’t want it. Ultimately, those interviewed said that lack of integration and alienation were key drivers of their defection as IS “citizens”, just as they had previously been drivers of their radicalization and departure from the West.
As one defector explained: “The Syrian people once welcomed us, now they don’t.”
2 – If you are joining Isil to fight the enemies of Islam and defend oppressed Muslims, bad luck
The Isil narrative, and that of its predecessor al Qaeda, is based on the idea of protecting the Ummah (Muslim world) – saving the oppressed from both evil, external Western “crusaders”, and the equally evil, internal “apostates”. But the reality, defectors reveal, is that Isil willingly murders pretty much anyone who disagrees with it. According to some Isil defectors, they were even told they would get closer to God by killing other Muslims. This emerges in particular in a series of videos from the Sawab Centre, which offer some testimonies of Isil defectors and sheds further light on what has motivated them to leave the group. What comes up time and again is the terrorist group’s killing of other Muslims. The defectors found this abhorrent and contrary to everything they had previously been taught.
One defector, Abdulla Al-Sahli, made clear the ideological inconsistencies in justifying murder with words from the Koran. Referring to his Isil lieutenants, he said: “They come and say, ‘By his blood we want to get closer to God.’”
3 – The “caliphate” is not utopia, but bloody internecine chaos
Many foreign fighters rushed to Syria to be part of a newly-established utopian society that allows them to fulfil their religious duty. But on arrival these defectors concluded that Isil is actually inciting chaos (or fitnah) among Muslims. That Isil disproportionately fights other Sunni Muslim groups rather than Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is a consistent sore spot for these defectors. That fellow Sunni Muslims who get on the wrong side of the caliphate’s religious police are victim to the same barbaric punishments handed out to Westerners, gay people and Yazidis in Isil propaganda is a key motivating factor for defectors for whom the organisation, its leadership and, on occasion, Isil’s cause has become delegitimized.
Mohamed Al-Suleiti was particularly inspired to leave Isil’s death cult due to the realization that “[it’s] a situation where Muslims are combating Muslims.”
4 – Think the caliphate will be all sex and heroic fighting? Think again
What shines through the interviews with defectors is the gulf between the propagandised fantasy of life under the caliphate and the harsh reality. Isil propaganda conveys the idea that it is both the saviour of all Muslims and can govern a well-functioning caliphate. By giving the impression of a prosperous lifestyle, through images of people celebrating during festivities, children playing, or city renovations, Isil masks the harsh reality of those living under its tyranny. Through the testimonies of these defectors, we now have confirmation of the corruption and the brutality, and also of the dysfunctionality and the boredom that many recruits face.
Ultimately, as Mefrih Al-Khathami said, many defectors like him “had reached a stage where I did not know what I had come to do in Syria”. Isil propaganda may have been a pull to get him to join the group in the first place, but once he was a member that propaganda was exposed as lies.
So how can we use this information to defeat Isil. Certainly it can be hugely powerful, and has obvious value for the intelligence and security services. For the individuals concerned, defection should lead to further disengagement and, eventually, deradicalisation. More importantly, however, their stories can give hope to others looking to leave; personal testimonies can act as counter-narratives and carry equal and opposite weight to the propaganda that is targeting those vulnerable to radicalisation. Quilliam’s report “In and Out of Extremism”, for example, reflects how Maajid Nawaz’s and Dr Usama Hasan’s personal deradicalisation journeys have helped extremists reconsider their commitment to radical groups and further the deradicalisation process for many others.
Counter-narratives come in all shapes and sizes, and are valuable whether political, theological, or emotional. But nothing is more compelling than the personal account of a defector. As the West weighs up its strategy to take on Isil in the long term, it is clear that shattering the Isil myth through the eyewitness accounts of defectors must play a key role.