Exploiting ISIS' Contradictions
23 Sep 2015
A new report from the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation identifies four key factors that drive jihadis to defect from ISIS. Exploiting them will help to build counter-narratives.
ISIS' claim to a caliphate has seen thousands lured from around the world to join the ranks of the group in Iraq and Syria. Its propaganda projects an image of a utopian society embodying justice, equality, fairness, and all that is Islamic. But a new report shows how the stories of defectors can help to undermine the group's appeal.
The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) has studied common reasons for militants to defect from the group. Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors, released on 21 September 2015, draws on the public statements of 58 ISIS defectors from different countries about their experiences. The study suggests that the rate of defections from ISIS is rising, highlighting that as its infamy grows, so does disillusionment among its members who have not found what they expected.
Understanding the ways in which ISIS, and other jihadi groups, use their propaganda to attract recruits is essential in building counter-narratives, but so is understanding why members of the group wish to leave. The accounts of defectors can be used to reveal the weaknesses, failures and hypocrisies of ISIS, and inform counter-extremism programmes that prevent further recruitment.
From the stories of the defectors in the report, four key narratives were identified as playing a significant role in driving defections: the group's targets; its brutality; its corrupt and un-Islamic behaviour; and the disappointing reality of life under ISIS.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war, a common propaganda tool for many Sunni jihadi groups has been the perception that they are defending oppressed Sunni Muslims in Syria from the tyrannical Assad regime. ISIS is no exception: it builds on the concept of the universality of the (Sunni) ummah (Muslim nation) to persuade young Muslims from around the world to join its fight.
ISIS fails to live up to its own stated values.
Yet defectors in the report contrasted this with ISIS' obsession with pursuing other Sunni jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham, rather than fighting the Assad regime. Several defectors described the fight against other Sunni groups as being fitna, a Quranic term used extensively in Islamic history to refer to sinful internal division and conflict. In the eyes of the defectors, ISIS placed greater importance on wiping out competitors than serving oppressed fellow Sunni Muslims, or toppling the Assad regime.
Much of the criticism levelled by the defectors appears to be targeted as ISIS' failure to live up to its own stated values. Sectarianism among the defectors appears to be largely assumed: there are few complaints about the group's brutality towards religious minorities or 'apostates.' Nevertheless, the level of violence perpetrated against fellow Sunni Muslims was a significant factor in decisions to defect. The testimonies speak of ISIS' scant regard for 'collateral damage' that resulted in the killing of innocent civilians, including women and children. Defectors also attacked the killing of hostages, the systematic mistreatment of villagers, and the grotesque executions of fighters by their own commanders.
For fighters attracted by the projected Sunni Islamic utopia in ISIS propaganda, the realisation of the group's indifference to the deaths of Sunni Muslims as well as its active pursuit of rival groups stands in stark contrast.
ISIS' claim to religious legitimacy rests upon its supposedly authentic – and unique – Islamic credentials. In assigning itself the role of a renewed Islamic caliphate, ISIS claims to be the sole holder of Islamic authority and legitimacy. Yet a repeated narrative in the statements of the defectors was the corrupt and obviously un-Islamic behaviour that they witnessed.
A prominent theme was racist discrimination that defectors faced at the hands of commanders and emirs who would give preferential treatment to Western jihadis over Syrians, felt to be not only un-Islamic, but flagrantly out of line with the unity and equality that ISIS emphasises in its propaganda.
Though less prominent than the other factors, the harsh reality and disappointment of life as part of ISIS was also behind some defections. The material difficulties were typically only challenging for those that had initially been attracted to the group with the intention of material comfort. Western defectors in particular spoke about the difficulty of coping without access to amenities they had grown accustomed to in their home countries, including electricity and basic household supplies.
ISIS is more concerned with rival groups than helping oppressed Syrians.
There was also disappointment with the experience that the ISIS jihad offered. Far from the Hollywood-inspired battle sequences that make up much of the group's propaganda, defectors found that the reality of battle did not match their visions of heroism and action. Defectors labelled the experience as "dull" and claimed that ISIS systematically "exploited" the fervour of foreign fighters by using them as cannon fodder.
The testimonies of the defectors give an insight into the realities of life with ISIS. Studies of the group's propaganda and ideology can reveal the weaknesses of its worldview, allowing counter-narratives to gain traction. But these testimonies also reveal that its actions fail even to match up to its ideology. For many fighters, the initial attraction fades away as soon as the brutality, corruption, and inequality become evident. These contradictions can be exploited to undermine the group's recruitment.
The report may be read in full here.
This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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