ISIS defectors could provide potent narrative, says UK think-tank
London - Islamic State (ISIS) defectors should be legally protected and used to undermine the terrorist group, a British think-tank says.
A report from UK-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) called on global lawmakers to remove legal “disincentives” to former ISIS members wanting to speak out against the group.
The report — Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: the Narrative of Islamic State Defectors — studied 58 defectors and their reasons for leaving ISIS, positing that their stories can be a “potentially powerful tool” in the fight against the group.
The report explicitly recommends that governments “reorganise the value and credibility of defector narratives; provide defectors with opportunities to speak out; assist them in resettlement and ensure their safety; and remove legal disincentives that prevent them from going public”.
Ironically, this is an approach that ISIS has used to recruit followers from other jihadist groups, allowing it to secure a stranglehold on Islamic jihadism. The West must follow the same tack to tackle ISIS, ICSR says.
ICSR Director Peter Neumann, the report’s author, said governments must introduce legal frameworks to actively support and encourage defections. “It seems to me to be wrong that if someone is helping to deter people to join ISIS by casting a negative light on the group, that he is then being punished for it… People right now are being actively punished for speaking out and I think that needs to change,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
Analysts estimate that many of ISIS’s most veteran fighters defected to the group from other Syrian rebel or jihadist groups, notably al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked rebel group. New recruits are often motivated to join ISIS over other groups by propaganda that is being disseminated by these same fighters.
ISIS fighter Abu Sa’eed al-Britani, who made headlines in the West after complaining about his ISIS comrades, is a defector from al- Nusra and wrote an eight-part blog explaining why he left the group to join ISIS.
The ICSR report outlines four main narratives for why defectors left ISIS, including feeling that the terror group was more interested in battling fellow Sunni Muslims than fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad; that the group commits “atrocities” against fellow Sunni Muslims; that the group’s emirs were “corrupt” and “un-Islamic”; or that the quality of life under ISIS was not what they had imagined it to be.
These narratives intersect with some of the reasons Britani and others have listed for leaving other jihadist groups and joining ISIS. “Nearly every brother who left al- Nusra Front has a story to tell of why he left and what he experienced and I am just another random brother who had had enough free time to come online and tell mine,” Britani concludes in his blog.
But questions remain as to how viable this approach will be in the fight against ISIS with the West only now taking tentative steps to utilise defectors to promote a counter-narrative to ISIS recruitment.
“Our conclusions are simple. The defectors’ testimony can be important in helping to prevent young people from being radicalised and recruited. No one has more credibility in challenging the [ISIS} narrative and giving a realistic impression of the group and the totalitarian society it seeks to create than the people who have experienced it,” the ICSR report said.
A US State Department-run Think Again, Turn Away Twitter account is devoted to disseminating anti- ISIS messages but has fewer than 23,000 followers. The account has created the #whytheyleftdaesh hastag, which carries personal stories of ISIS defectors.
The UK-based counter-radicalism group Quilliam follows a similar approach, posting a report In and Out of Extremism that features testimonies from former extremists who were de-radicalised. Quilliam Chairman Maajid Nawaz, a former extremist, said it is important that the group’s counter-extremist efforts serve as a “source of active support for those seeking to leave extremist organisations”.
In an op-ed entitled The defectors’ handbook to destroying the Islamic State published in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, analyst Sarah Sinno wrote: “Counter-narratives come in all shapes and sizes and are valuable whether political, theological or emotional.
But nothing is more compelling than the personal account of a defector. As the West weighs up its strategy to take on ISIS in the long term, it is clear that shattering the ISIS myth through the eyewitness accounts of defectors must play a key role.”