Recent deserters have told researchers they fled the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) group because of a mismatch between the words and deeds of the extremist group.
They expressed anger at the IS militants' practice of marrying widows to other fighters without allowing them to observe the traditional Islamic waiting period following a bereavement. And the deserters say they grew disgusted by the endless stream of gory executions and what they called psychopathic pleasure some fighters took in the killings.
A dozen deserters in hiding in Turkey were interviewed by Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.
“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,” the academics wrote in Perspectives on Terrorism, a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative and the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.
“Charges of corruption and complaints about battlefield decisions that produced unnecessary deaths in their own ranks were also causes of disillusionment,” they said.
Three of the deserters had been commanders; one was chief of security at a base in Raqqa. Another was the emir of an IS-controlled town. One was a 14-year-old who was being groomed for a suicide-bombing mission.
One deserter from Raqqa said, “There is a well by the name of Hute. There they cover the eyes of the prisoners and tell them, ‘You are free now, just walk now, but don’t open your eyes.’ They walk and fall into the well. It smells horrible because of all the corpses inside the well. I know that over 300 people were thrown into that well.”
Another deserter called Abu Shujaa said, “What I don’t like, if someone did something wrong they tried to waterboard him, that I didn’t like. What I don’t like is that if they don’t like someone they just behead him. Or if a woman is not wearing hijab they bring someone to flog her, or if someone doesn’t believe, they cut his ear.”
“In 2014, I realized that Daesh were liars,” said a deserter called Abu Walid. “For instance, there was an IS guy who raped a woman, but got away with it.”
Foreign fighters more committed
Ahmad Abdulkader, who runs a network of anti-IS activists called Eye-On-The-Homeland, says most IS deserters are local Syrians. He told VOA in an interview in May that out of more than 100 deserters his network had helped flee, only a dozen were foreign recruits. “The foreigners include a Frenchman, a French woman, and a Moroccan,” he said.
The deserters Speckhard and Yayla interviewed say most locals do not join IS for ideological reasons. At first, locals joined IS partly out of hope and out of respect for IS fighting power. But as time wore on, most join IS out of desperation and hunger.
The foreign fighters are more ideologically committed.
“Many of our informants stated that Westerners who joined were already heavily indoctrinated in Salafi doctrine before arriving to IS,” note Speckhard and Yayla. “Unlike the Syrians, the Western cadres were, and generally remained throughout their time with IS, ‘true believers.’”
The deserters say IS preachers, mainly from Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are highly effective in indoctrinating recruits.
"ISIS preachers are well educated and impressive,” a deserter called Abu Jamal said. “They persuaded me to be a martyr in just three gatherings, which lasted two hours each ... I was really affected by the preaching of the teacher, so that you can understand how well they choose their teachers.”
Many deserters expressed joy in embracing a strict sharia Islamic course under IS.
Disillusionment in corruption and hypocrisy
IS recruiters and trainers also appear to use techniques employed by other violent cults and street gangs. As part of their initiation, recruits are ordered to carry out a barbaric act.
The study’s authors say, “As one informant told us, ‘Graduation only happens when they feel a student is ready. At that point they demand that the student that is going to become a fighter cut off the head of a prisoner, to demonstrate that he is ready.’”
According to anti-IS activists in the provinces of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, internal dissension has been on the rise since the extremist group failed to seize the mainly Kurdish border town of Kobani. Arguments between foreign fighters and local ones, who resent the higher pay and privileges given the foreigners, especially Europeans, have at times gotten out of hand, prompting clashes, they say.
Abu Mohammed of the anti-IS group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently told VOA earlier this year, “The loss of the city of Tel Abyad has fueled this trend and strengthened the rift that exists between the elements of the organization."
Anti-IS activists with a group called Lift Siege also say there has been a steady stream deserters, including four commanders from the town of Al-Mayadeen. They say Ammar Haddawi, Aamer Al-Naklawi, Mahmoud Al-Khalaf Al-Rasheideh and Abu Obaidah Al-Masri oversaw tax collection in the town, and that they fled with large amounts of cash.
Correction: An earlier version of this report said the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism was based in Britain. It is based in the United States. VOA regrets the error.