ISIS Defectors Reveal Frustration Over Corruption, Atrocities and Sunni Infighting: Study

Islamic State Middle East Defectors
An Islamic State militant uses a loud-hailer to announce to residents of Tabqa city that Tabqa air base has fallen to Islamic State militants, in nearby Raqqa city August 24, 2014. Reuters/Stringer

An increasing number of ISIS fighters are becoming disillusioned with the group and defecting from its ranks, according to a new study published on Monday. Furthermore, Western governments should protect these defectors from reprisals and legal "disincentives" to encourage them to speak out about the group, the study says.

A report published by the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) at King's College London, entitled Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors, argues that governments and activists should "recognize the value and credibility" of defectors speaking out against the group and should assist in their "resettlement" and "safety."

The jihadi monitoring think tank, which has tracked foreign fighters traveling to and from the terror group's self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, has recorded 58 defectors in total but says that these only "represent a small fraction" of the total number as there are many more who are unwilling to come forward for fear of reprisals or imprisonment.

The four main narratives given by the defectors for leaving the group's ranks were that the terror group was now more interested in battling fellow Sunni Muslims than fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that the group commits "atrocities" against fellow Sunni Muslims, that the group is "corrupt and un-Islamic" and that life under ISIS is "harsh and disappointing."

"The defectors' voices are strong and clear: 'ISIS is not protecting Muslims. It is killing them,'" the report said.

One German defector, identified only as Ebrahim B. and not included in the overall defector count, told ICSR researcher Shiraz Maher: "Muslims are fighting Muslims ... Assad's forgotten about. The whole jihad was turned upside down."

The terrorism think tank believes that using the voices of defectors, governments could dissuade other would-be jihadis from travelling to Iraq and Syria to fight for the group. "Their stories can also be used as a potentially powerful tool in the fight against it," the report continues. "The defectors' very existence shatters the image of unity and determination that IS seeks to convey."

Peter R. Neumann, author of the report and professor of Security Studies at King's College London, warns, however, that the defectors have not become pro-Western overnight since leaving the radical group.

"The defectors' experiences are diverse. Not everyone has become a fervent supporter of liberal democracy," he said in an op-ed for CNN. "Some may, in fact, have committed crimes. They were all, at some point, enthusiastic supporters of the most violent and viciously totalitarian organization of our age. Yet they are now its worst enemies."

The largest nationality represented in the 58 defectors is Syrian (21), followed by Saudi Arabia (9), and Indonesia and Tunisia (both 4). The think tank recorded two British defectors from the ultra-radical terror group and nine in total from Western Europe and Australia.

The defections highlight a growing split between home-grown members of the group and its foreign recruits, with Syrian defectors leaving because foreign nationals were privileged for no reason based in Islam, Neumann adds.

Two thirds of the defections occurred in 2015 and one third took place in the summer months alone, a sign that the group is fast losing its appeal to a section of its members despite victories in the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra in the same month.

Figures released by the center in January revealed that more than 20,000 foreign nationals had traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for extremist groups since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011. Of these fighters, 3,950 were western European citizens - the highest number originating from France (1,200).