LONDON — A small but growing number of defectors from the Islamic State are risking reprisals and imprisonment to speak out about their disillusionment with the extremist group, according to a research organization that tracks former and current militants.
The Islamic State considers defectors as apostates, and most of the hundreds thought to have left the group have gone into hiding.
But 58 defectors, nine of them from Western Europe and Australia, have gone public with their testimonies since last year, according to a report to be published Monday by the International Center for the Study for Radicalization at King’s College London.
According to the report, some of the defectors said they disapproved of the Islamic State’s hostility to other Sunni rebel groups that opposed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and its indiscriminate killings of civilians and hostages. Others grew weary of what they saw as favoritism and mistreatment by commanders, or were disappointed that the life of a militant was far less exciting, or lucrative, than they had imagined. Two left after they found out that they had been selected as suicide bombers.
The researchers urged governments to give defectors more incentives to speak out so that their narratives could be used to dissuade potential recruits. The 58 defectors, seven of them women, spoke on separate occasions to various news organizations, including The New York Times, and the report compiles their testimony while providing context and analysis.
“The defectors provide unique insight into life in the Islamic State,” the report says. “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 I.S. seeks to convey.”
Some of the Islamic State’s “shininess is wearing off, and it’s starting to look less impressive,” said Peter Neumann, director of the center and professor of security studies at King’s College. “So a lot of people are becoming more confident in coming out,” he said.
Many are speaking out in hopes of getting favorable treatment from prosecutors and judges, Dr. Neumann added. But “if you’re a government you’d want more to come out,” to create more momentum and incentive for others to do so. The testimonies, he said, could be used to counter the Islamic State’s slick recruiting methods, and he urged governments to “remove legal disincentives” that deter defectors from going public and to try to resettle rather than imprison them.
In the last two years, an estimated 20,000 foreigners, about a quarter of them European, have joined jihadist groups in the Middle East, the majority of them filling the ranks of the Islamic State, Dr. Neumann said. Between 25 percent and 40 percent have already returned to Europe, he said. British officials estimate that more than 300 have returned.
Defectors have said that life under the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, was far from the utopia they had been promised.
“ISIS wants to kill everyone who says no,” a 26-year-old Syrian fighter told NPR last year. “Everyone must be with them.” The defector said he had paid a smuggler to take him to Turkey, where he had to hide from Islamic State informants who prowled towns along the border. “I was thinking all the time, if they arrest me, if they stop me, they will behead me,” he said.
In another case, a Western fighter named Ibrahim said he had initially joined the group because he wanted to give humanitarian assistance to Syrians and to have a chance to live in a caliphate under strict Islamic law. But he eventually left, he told CBS. “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 said. “It’s not all military parades, or it’s not all victories.”
The fighter said he saw a couple being stoned to death for adultery, and considered that just, but he did not approve of aid workers, journalists and other noncombatants being beheaded.
“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.”
As disillusioned as a recruit might become, he or she must go to great lengths to leave the Islamic State, Dr. Neumann said. In one case, a fighter defected by fooling militants into thinking that he was luring his sister from Germany, even faking conversations on Facebook to show that his efforts were succeeding. He managed to flee to Turkey after telling the militants that he would pick her up on the border. “To get out of ISIS, you have to be quite shrewd,” Dr. Neumann said.
One of the first to recognize the value of such narratives was the United States’ Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, Dr. Neumann said. One of its successes included a YouTube video released last year that “welcomed” recruits to the Islamic State by showing images of the group’s atrocities. The video has been seen 865,000 times. The unit also runs a similar campaign on Twitter under the handle @ThinkAgain_DOS.
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