Growing number of ISIS defectors speak out

LONDON • A small but growing number of defectors from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are risking reprisals and imprisonment to speak out about their disillusionment with the extremist group, according to a research organisation that tracks former and current militants.

The ISIS considers defectors as apostates, and most of the hundreds thought to have left the group have gone into hiding.

But 58 defectors have gone public with their testimonies since last year, said a report published yesterday by the International Centre for the Study for Radicalisation (ICSR) at King's College London.

According to the report, some of the defectors said they disapproved of ISIS' 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 favouritism 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 organisations, including The New York Times.

"The defectors provide unique insight into life in the Islamic State (IS)," 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 IS (another name for ISIS) seeks to convey."

Some of ISIS' "shininess is wearing off, and it's starting to look less impressive", said Professor Peter Neumann, director of the centre and professor of security studies at King's College.

"So a lot of people are becoming more confident in coming out."

Many are speaking out in hopes of getting favourable treatment from prosecutors and judges, Prof 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 ISIS' 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 terrorist groups in the Middle East, the majority of them filling the ranks of ISIS, Prof Neumann said. Between 25 per cent and 40 per cent have already returned to Europe, he added. British officials estimate that more than 300 have returned.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2015, with the headline 'Growing number of ISIS defectors speak out'. Print Edition | Subscribe