LONDON — At least 58 people have gone public after defecting from the Islamic State, and their voices could help deter others from joining, according to a new report.
The testimony of defectors shatters the Islamic State’s image “as a united, cohesive and ideologically committed organization,” says the report, published Monday by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College London.
ICSR urged governments to remove “legal disincentives” that dissuade defectors from going public and to help with resettlement and safety issues, arguing that defectors’ voices can be a powerful counterweight to the Islamic State’s slick propaganda.
“We don’t think all defectors are saints, or supporters of liberal democracy, or model citizens,” said Peter Neumann, the head of ICSR. “But their narratives and arguments are still valuable because they are speaking from a position of authority and experience and credibility that no one else has.”
Titled “Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors,” the report relied on previously published accounts of several dozen people who have left the organization, including testimony from seven women.
According to the researchers, the defectors who have opted to go public represent just the tip of the iceberg, with the vast majority who manage to leave simply walking away quietly. Authorities here estimate that half of the 700 Britons who have left to join the Islamic State have returned to the United Kingdom. Of the defectors surveyed by the researchers, two were British.
The reasons for leaving are varied, the report said. Defectors expressed outrage over brutality toward Sunni Muslims and frustration about infighting and behaviors deemed un-Islamic.
Others found their duties “dull” and lacking the kind of glamorous heroism they expected the battlefield would bring.
Still others were disappointed by daily life in the Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate,” which covers large swaths of Iraq and Syria and where issues such as electricity shortages represent a reality markedly different from the paradise peddled by the Islamic State’s propaganda.
“A small but significant number of the defectors expressed disappointment about living conditions and the quality of life. They were typically among the ones who had joined the group for material and ‘selfish’ reasons, and quickly realized that none of the luxury goods and cars that they had been promised would materialize,” the report said.
The researchers said they were concerned about the accuracy of the accounts, given that defectors may conclude that anything they say could come back to haunt them in court — or worse. But the researchers said that for the most part, “their narratives have been so strong and consistent that we are confident that our broader assessments remain valid.”
One defector, a 33-year-old Iraqi identified as “Hamza” by the Independent newspaper, told the paper in March that he quit ISIS after being asked to help with executions and being offered 13 Yazidi girls for sex.
“These scenes terrified me. I imagined myself being caught up in these shootings, executions, beheadings and raping, if I stayed where I was,” he told the paper.
An Indian man named Areeb Majeed reportedly spent much of his time in the Islamic State performing menial jobs such as cleaning toilets.
“There was neither a holy war nor any of the preachings in the holy book were followed,” he told investigators last year, according to the Times of India.
It’s not easy to leave the militant group, the report says, with defectors well aware that there could be deadly consequences if they are caught.
Neumann, of ICSR, praised the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications for its Twitter campaign that highlights stories from defectors.
But he said that many of the disillusioned are not speaking up because they fear reprisals. If lawmakers want to undercut recruitment, he said, they should offer defectors more protection.
“What we are saying is not that people should necessarily be given an amnesty. That would be stupid, because some may have committed crimes,” he said. “But at the very least, it should be counted as a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing.”