Monday, November 16, 2015

Defecting from the Islamic State

The recent attacks that appear to be the work of ISIS show that the group may well be capable of wider-reaching international terrorism.  While the Islamic State publicly appears to show a unified front, in fact, a recent study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence provides us with a glimpse into why defectors are leaving ISIS and how the group is less unified than it may appear.

As we are aware, thousands of foreign fighters have joined the ranks of ISIS.  Estimates suggest that more than 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq since the conflict began, including over 250 Americans who have either travelled to or attempted to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS since 2012.  The Islamic State's very effective use of social media as a recruiting tool has made it difficult for Western powers to stem the slow and steady flow of disenfranchised youth to the battlefield.  In the most recent edition of the ISIS online glossy magazine, Dabiq, we find stories of this nature:

What is of greatest concern is that these radicalized youth will likely return to their home nations, similar to the outward flow of mujahideen after the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan.  We all know how that story ended.

As background, to understand the current conflict in the Middle East it is important to understand the historical Shia-Sunni divide.  This fourteen century old religious division has, in large part, been the fuel that has fed the Syrian civil war and the violent divisions in post-war Iraqi society.   Of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, 85 percent are Sunni (Saudi Arabia which is 90 percent Sunni among others) and 15 percent are Shia (predominantly Iranian).   Each group regards the other with distrust and antagonism and Sunni Muslims, in particular, feel that Shias are not Muslims as shown on this graphic:

This division has led to sectarian violence that was particularly prevalent during the Iraqi war when the two groups battled it out after Saddam Hussein's Sunnis were removed from power and replaced by Shias.  More than any other event, this was the catalyst that created the Sunni Islamic State.  More recently, the problems in Syria have also been caused by the Sunni-Shia split.  The regime of Bashar al-Assad relies heavily on the Alawi sect, part of the Shia side of Islam. Even though Alawis make up only 13 percent of Syria's population, they dominated the military and security services in Syria and are the backbone of the military forces fighting in the civil war against ISIS in support of Assad.

Here is a timeline showing key events in the Sunni-Shia "war":

The Sunni members of ISIS believe that Shia Muslims are apostate and that they must be killed so that a pure form of Islam can be forged.  While the killings of Shias by ISIS is quite common, as we can see from the reports by the defectors from ISIS, Sunnis suffer at the hands of Islamic State fighters as well.

The study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization looks at the experiences of the 58 individuals who have left the Islamic State between January 2014 and August 2015 and who were willing to share the reasons for their defection.  Of the defectors, 51 were male and 7 were female and came from 17 different nations with 9 coming from Western Europe and Australia.  Here is a table showing the defectors country of origin and the month and year in which their narratives were published:

These defectors have been willing to share the reasons for their disillusionment with ISIS, providing us with significant insight into life within the Islamic State and a tool that could potentially be used to both discourage other foreign fighters from joining and encourage other fighters to leave the group.

Now, let's look at the key reasons why defectors from ISIS chose to leave.  There were four main reasons:

1.)  Infighting within ISIS: This is one of the most persistent criticisms of ISIS by the defectors.  The group's leadership often considers the Free Syria Army (anti-Assad) and Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) to be the enemies,  a viewpoint that is not shared by many grassroots members who hold the viewpoint that infighting against other Sunni groups is wrong.  The defectors also share the viewpoint that ISIS has not taken a strong enough stance against the Assad regime and that very little was done for the Sunni Muslims who were targeted by Assad.  The defectors noted that the Islamic State leadership was obsessed with rooting out spies and traitors within the group rather than fighting against Shia Muslims.

2.) Brutality against Sunni Muslims: The defectors noted that there were many atrocities committed against innocent Sunni civilians.  Military operations that were undertaken by ISIS had no regard for collateral civilian casualties that led to the deaths of Sunni women and children.  There were also complaints about the killing of hostages, mistreatment of Sunni villagers and execution of ISIS fighters by their own commanders. 

3.) Un-Islamic Behaviours: The defectors regarded certain of their fellow fighters' behaviours as unjust, selfish or contrary to the group's ideals.  These incidents of corruption centred on how ISIS commanders favoured some fighters and mistreated others.  Senior members of ISIS were accused of failing to live up to the Islamic State's goal of achieving a perfect Islamic caliphate.  Defectors from Syria noted that foreign fighters were often given privileges by Islamic State leaders that they were not privy to.  One defector noted that ISIS' leadership seemed more interested in making business deals (i.e. for their oil assets) with the people that they were supposed to be fighting against. 

4.) Quality of Life: A small number of defectors became disenchanted when they realized that the material goods that they expected to acquire on the battlefield as fighters did not materialize.  Western fighters often found it difficult to cope on the battlefield since they often faced shortages of basic goods and electricity.  As well, defectors noted that their duties were often boring, rather than being deployed as front line warriors, their duties were mundane.  In some cases, foreign fighters complained that they were being used as "cannon fodder" by their commanders and in two cases, fighters left the group when it became apparent that they were going to be used as suicide bombers.

It is not particularly easy to leave the Islamic State.  Defectors are considered to be apostate and are viewed as enemies of the true Islam.  If the defector should happen to gain the attention of ISIS' internal police, they could be executed as a traitor or spy, a fate that has been that of dozens of fighters.  As well, there is the threat of prosecution by their country of origin when they return from the battlefield.    

As I noted above, the narratives of these defectors from ISIS forms an important foundation on which Western and Middle East nations can base a program to discourage their citizens from joining the Islamic State.  By shedding light on the internal discord within the group and by using the example of defectors to encourage others to leave, the ability of ISIS to export its brand of terrorism around the world may be blunted to some degree.  

In case you wondered, this is what happened to the young man pictured above:


  1. Ya one thing I don't get is ISIS glorifies the deaths of their fighters. I saw a video of ISIS fighters in Yemen and the guy had a go pro on his helmet and the video was edited like it was a game. I guess if you buy into whole Muslim thing death is what your after so you can go get your virgins. But ISIS certainly isn't afraid to show their members being killed.

  2. "disenfranchised youth"

    BULLSHIT! They are radicalized by the koran and example of the 'perfect man' muhammad.
    Stop lying- ISLAM is the real issue!