Eyewitness Accounts from Recent Defectors from Islamic State: Why They Joined, What They Saw, Why They Quit

Anne Speckhard, Ahmet S. Yayla


This research note reports on preliminary results of the Islamic State Interviews Project, based here on a sample of thirteen Syrian IS defectors who spoke on life inside the “Islamic State”(IS). . A fuller and more systematic account will be published in early 2016 in book form. According to what we learned, all IS cadres undergo Shariah training in which they are imbued with a Takfiri ideology that allows them to deem all others, including Muslims, who disagree with IS’ extreme ideology, as apostates who should be killed. Despite this indoctrination, all of our informants (all are Syrians) experienced their Shariah trainers as a positive influence since they allowed them to deepen their own religious understanding. In this sense, these disengaged defectors remained radicalized “true believers”. They also had been given military training–learning to handle weapons, explosives, and undergoing exercise. Following these compulsory courses, they were sent to the front. Syrians who join IS are rewarded with salaried jobs which for young men translates into the ability to marry and for young women the money allows them to save their families from literal starvation. Foreign fighters are receiving additional rewards: wives, sexual slaves, and sometimes homes and cars. Daily life was punctuated by brutal practices – including floggings, torture and beheadings. Defections were the result of exposure to extreme brutality, disgust over the slave trade, observations of deep hypocrisy–a total mismatch between the words and deeds of IS. Charges of corruption and complaints about battlefield decisions that produced unnecessary deaths in their own ranks were also causes of disillusionment . Our informants all had come to hate IS and warn others not to join what they gradually came to see as a totally disappointing, ruthless and un-Islamic organization.

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Perspectives on Terrorism is  a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies

ISSN  2334-3745 (Online)

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