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Report Compiles Stories Of Islamic State Defectors


What happens when you leave the militant Islamist group ISIS? A new report might give us an idea. Researchers at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization compiled the stories of dozens of people who were part of ISIS but then left. Their reasons for leaving varied. But many of them said they hadn't given up on jihad. They just didn't like the way ISIS goes about it. Peter Neumann wrote the report and joined me from London. I asked him how he found these defectors and who they are.

PETER NEUMANN: Me and my team - we've done research on foreign fighters going to ISIS for a number of years. And it occurred to us that quite a lot of them who had gone two or three years ago were actually quite unhappy now. And there were a number of cases of people who had come out and talked about their experience, so we started collecting the cases of people who had come out. And we found 58 of them.

MCEVERS: And who are these 58 people?

NEUMANN: Well, about half of them are from the Middle East. About 10 are from Western countries, and the rest is from all over the world. They are quite typical ISIS recruits. They are people who went over there for a mix of motivations. Some wanted to fight against the Syrian President Bashar Assad. Some were extremists to begin with, and they thought the ISIS state was the logical consequence of their beliefs. Some of them were lured by material incentives, by the promise of adventure and heroism. So that's quite typical for the mix of people that we've seen the past few years going over there.

MCEVERS: But then people decided to leave ISIS. What are some of the common reasons that you found for why they left?

NEUMANN: So we found four narratives that were quite strong and consistent across all of these cases. The first was that ISIS wasn't really fighting Assad, that most of the energies were consumed by fighting against other Sunni rebel groups. And they said that's not the kind of jihad that we came here for. We don't want to fight our brothers.

Second narrative was about brutality and atrocities - not necessarily against minorities - Yezidis, Christians, Shiites - they didn't care so much about that - but against their own people - the Sunni people - of Syria and Iraq.

The third narrative was about corruption on Islamic behaviors. And the fourth narrative - a lot of these promises about luxury goods and cars and money and about action - did not materialize.

MCEVERS: And you argue that governments could, you know - officials could use the stories of these defectors to dissuade people from joining ISIS in the first place. How might they do that?

NEUMANN: Yes, they can. And they are potentially very powerful because not least they show that ISIS is not the sort of jihadist utopia that some of the recruits are hoping for. The important thing is that governments don't necessarily need to do anything. They just need to create the conditions for these stories to come out. A lot of people want to hear these stories, so governments don't need to actively promote them. But they need to make sure that people feel free to speak out.

And right now, for example, a lot of their potential defectors are fearful of their own former comrades. They are fearful of reprisals. So maybe some of them need some protection. On the other hand, they are also fearful of prosecution - the fact that what they say in public may be used against them in court. This isn't to say that they should be given an amnesty, but it is to say that at least it shouldn't be turned against them. If anything, it should be a mitigating factor if they come out and speak out publicly against ISIS.

MCEVERS: That's Peter Neumann. He heads the International Center for the Study of Radicalization. Thank you so much.

NEUMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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