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ISIS and Foreign Fighter Returnees – Prosecute or Raise their Voices against ISIS?

by Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Grace Wakim

“The Chechen fighter next to me shot and killed an old man who was walking toward us with two baskets,” shared a recently interviewed ISIS returnee imprisoned in the Balkans in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project, a project in which we have thus far interviewed 43 individuals who have been part of the group—most who defected but some who remain supportive of the group and its ideology (NH, Interviewed by Speckhard, June 2016, Balkans). “No, he didn’t know the old man was carrying explosives in the baskets. He only found that out later, when we went up to his dead body. That Chechen shot any civilians who came near us,” he added.

N.H. claimed to have witnessed multiple acts of brutality, yet continues to question his decision to defect from ISIS, and whether or not he would like to return to it—if he ever could. For our project, his video interview is useful. He told us about the extreme brutality of ISIS, the lies and cover-ups inside the group, and his disillusionment and reasons for defecting from the group. These are authentic words from an ISIS insider captured on video that can be used in a short video clip to denounce the group and fight their online recruiting. Such individuals are knowledgeable about the inner workings of the group, and their voices are invaluable to raise against the group. But, should this young man be released simply because of his willingness to speak out against ISIS?

Most would argue that individuals such as N.H. should serve their time and that their voices should not be used to denounce the group. The argument here is that they served in a terrorist group and possibly took part in atrocities, which most courts will find difficult to prosecute due to lack of evidence of what actually happened in the battle zone. Arguably, individuals like N.H. need to pay the price of their time inside a terrorist group. Likewise, in the case of N.H., he seems to have not been a psychologically healthy person when he left for ISIS and he is even more psychologically unhealthy now. He also may constitute a serious potential threat to society given that he has been ideologically indoctrinated, has according to his statements taken part in brutality, and is weapons trained—not to mention the traumas of having lived in a war zone and the stresses of dealing with prison now. Individuals such as N.H. need help, and we hope countries dealing with such invidivuals will put together effective prison programs to provide for successful rehabilitation and reintegration of such individuals before they are released back into society—two years from now in many instances. Certainly, on video, N.H. can explain his disillusionment and why he defected, but he should not be released from prison to do so in person just because he is willing to make those statements. He is not psychologicaly and socially healthy enough to be trusted, and he has very likely committed real and serious crimes.

This is what the 100 countries that ISIS cadres left from, and are now returning to, are struggling with—what to do with returning foreign fighters? Just prosecute and put them in prison? Put them in prison and then try to rehabilitate and reintegrate them back into society? Or just use them right from the get-go as voices to raise against the group—that is, if they are willing to denounce it? What is the best way to go?

These are difficult questions about which each country is forging their own unique policies. In Jordan, for instance, during our interviews with officials we learned that foreign fighter returnees are not welcome and will be shot if they try to illegally cross the border to return home. Jordanian authorities are also considering the idea of defector videos but remain skeptical that such videos may send the wrong message: you can go and return alive. Is that a useful message? Arguably, yes, if it also tells the story of ISIS not being an Islamic State in any sense of the word, namely portraying it as corrupt, brutal, and entirely disillusioning. Comparatively speaking, in Kyrgyzstan we learned that Kyrgyz foreign fighters participating in Iraq and Syria are prosecuted as mercenaries upon their return while Uzbekistan has passed the law that strips foreign fighters of their citizenship, a move that Kyrgyz officials were also contemplating. Also, prison sentences are long in both countries. It may mean that their foreign fighters will go elsewhere to fight another day—also a dangerous possibility—but at least this way they will not be living freely inside the country.

There are many categories of foreign fighters. Some went to fight and others to live under the dream of the so-called “Caliphate.” Taking repressive measures and placing everyone who returns in long prison sentences means discounting accounts of manipulation and victimization on the part of ISIS. It also means ignoring initial and tacit approval of travel to Iraq and Syria on the part of many governments, specifically invoking humanitarian appeal to fight what was often dubbed “the repressive Assad regime,” but then retroactively applying laws that were passed after the foreign fighters went to the conflict zones. Secondly, threatening the use of long sentences means that 1) foreign fighters will have an incentive to stay off the radar and 2) not volunteer evidence that is so needed. For the practitioners in the field and dealing with Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts this translates to a missed opportunity when it comes to prevention. Long imprisonments and refusal to return due to the threat of imprisonment may translate into unexploited chances for prevention and presentation programs.

The United States struggles with the same. When Mohammed Khweis, an American who had been seduced into travel first to Istanbul where he seemingly married into ISIS and then to Iraq where he went through ISIS training only to quickly realize he wanted out, escaped ISIS to turn himself into the Kurdish Peshmerga, American authorities debated whether they should prosecute or use him as a voice to raise against ISIS. They decided to prosecute.[1]

In Belgium, however, a female returnee was prosecuted but not jailed. She regularly goes out to address high school students, telling them how she was tricked into believing ISIS’ promises of wealth, housing, nurses-training, and diamonds even, and as a result married and traveled there only to find it was all lies. She described trying to escape, getting caught, how she lived under house arrest after trying to escape, and how she finally made it out pregnant and with her young son in tow. “Don’t go there, it’s all lies,” (LP, Interviewed by Speckhard, February 2017, Belgium) she effectively warned. While she is doing good work, neither she nor another returnee who is also allowed free in society, Younes Delefortrie, who continues to publically support ISIS, appear to be mandated to any kind of psychological treatment or other type of rehabilitation program.[2]

Defectors willing to denounce the group may be one of the best tools we have to win against ISIS’ prolific online recruitment because they know the inside story of the terrorist group and, if judged to be authentic by their viewers, can powerfully delegitimize the group and its ideology. In our Breaking the ISIS Brand – the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project we are trying to do just that: raise defector voices against ISIS to break their brand. Raising awareness and diminishing ISIS’ ability to seduce its recruiters is a potent tool and for that defectors are our best asset. Their voices as they speak out from their own disturbing experiences are likely to resonate in vulnerable minds prone to join the Islamic State and warn them off. By raising the defectors’ voices, we help those young people see the naked truth surrounding the group and help prevent them from joining.

In our to date, 43 interviews with those who have been inside the group, we have heard horrific practices of bringing prisoners to Shariah training graduates for them to behead, meaning many that made it through only the first stages of ISIS indoctrination already have blood on their hands. They have murdered in the first weeks of their ISIS training and indoctrination. While we might feel sympathetic for those who were tricked into the group, and we might understand that ISIS coerces and forces their actions under threat of death of its cadres once in, it is still of utmost importance to draw attention to the fact that most defectors voluntarily joined this terrorist organization and likely committed serious crimes that they may never admit to. They are offenders by virtue of the first point in most countries and in many cases unlikely to admit why and how they really joined ISIS, much less speak of the atrocities they themselves committed. In this regard, we must be cautious, and we must not be deceived by their willingness to speak out against the group.

In our experiences, we find that defectors will talk about how they had been lured into joining the terrorist group, how they were seduced by the religious aspect and commitment of the group, and so forth, but they will rarely reveal anything about their own criminal actions (we warn them not to incriminate themselves) or even the criminal networks that functioned to get them into the group, particularly if they are facing stiff prison sentences for anything they might admit to.

Thus, when using defector voices, governments must consider whether they are trying to draw sympathy and compassion towards their cases through statements and interviews to prevent their prosecution and procure the chance to live a free life. They also must consider whether they are really repenting by denouncing and helping their communities fight ISIS. In the event they are allowed to live freely in exchange for denouncing the group, they must consider if this a good message to send to society: that one can join a terrorist group, take part directly or indirectly in atrocities as long as they remain unknown, and return home to live freely as long as one denounces the group. Most likely not. As more ISIS defectors return to their home countries, there will increasingly be pools of those less guilty of atrocities who may choose to testify and provide evidence against the most heinous of their former ISIS cadres. This may provide a means of sorting through who could be trusted to speak out in person to vulnerable populations.

Defectors also may convey their message to the world from the standpoint of victims by which they draw sympathy to their cases, and some even attribute themselves as allies to the governments who fight against ISIS’ image. Government approaches to the situation in most cases, but not always, is the condemnation and prosecution of defectors, although some organizations push for granting the defectors a peaceful transition in return for their testimonies against the terrorist group. But some important questions need be asked if they are willing to answer, which many will not risk answering: When did they join? Why did they join in the first place? Why did they defect? Were they accomplices in the murders, beheadings, and rape of thousands of people? Were they enjoying their lives at ISIS camps before they felt threatened by their own command, ISIS, or by the regime, thus felt the urge to defect? Are they really repenting? Can they be trusted, especially be trusted to speak not on video, but in person with young and vulnerable audiences?

If we do not prosecute returnees, we send the message that there are no consequences to their criminal behaviors, especially true in the case of those who left during the consolidation of terrorist groups and formation of the so-called Islamic State in 2014. Some have committed or facilitated the most horrific crimes but will not be likely to admit it. For instance, Harry Sarfo who spoke to the New York Times denouncing ISIS pleaded innocence until the article was published and ISIS retaliated by releasing films of him involved in crimes that he seems to have been hiding.[3] So much for being the innocent he portrayed himself as.

In a 2015 report by Peter Neumann of ICSR entitled “ Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narrative of Islamic State Defectors” it was stated that the U.K. government should “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.”[4] While it may make counter ISIS messaging stronger, this may be perceived as a dangerous message in that it might also lead to more recruitment as one sees that there are no consequences to joining the organization once defecting. On the other hand, condemning returnees and putting legal disincentives may prevent those who can hide from talking about their experiences publicly and helping others, and it might also discourage them from defecting.

This is a serious double-edged sword. The con of both approaches, however, condemning or sympathizing, is that it is extremely challenging to prove in a court of law what atrocities the defectors have or have not committed and the defectors are unlikely to ever speak truthfully of what they have really done while serving ISIS. Our view is that anyone who has served in ISIS, whether they were tricked or forced into joining, likely needs help and many will avoid getting that help unless they are forced to do so by being prosecuted and sentenced in ways that puts them on a path toward rehabilitation and eventual reintegration. The prosecution can serve that purpose—that is, to force defectors into effective treatment to make sure they have really dealt with what they have been through and can be healthy enough to reenter society. Likewise, prosecution and serving time in prison, especially if there is a good rehabilitation program in place, sends a message that one can defect and return after a price for having joined and supported a terrorist organization has been paid, and one will only be released when judged to no longer be a threat to society.

Meanwhile, as this debate rages on, we will continue to raise the voices of defectors denouncing the group. We prefer to use them speaking out on carefully edited video clips while serving their time and hopefully rehabilitating, rather than appearing in person in front of vulnerable audiences. In person, they may appear waffling in ambivalence about the terrorist group they once served, as many need time and treatment to get out entirely. One must keep in mind that these are psychologically unstable and potentially dangerous persons after being weapons trained, ideologically indoctrinated, traumatized, and having taken part in, or at least witnessed, extreme brutality. Similarly, once returned to the ennui of life away from the battle field, they may also see that all the reasons why they left in the first place are still there and find that they are even less well-equipped after serving in a terrorist organization and enduring the traumas of the battlefield to deal with those challenges. In this regard, they will need help. Moreover, their being easily freed to publicly denounce ISIS poses a serious danger to society by sending the message that there are no repercussions for joining and serving a terrorist organization. Prosecution as a means of a strong message to society of delivering justice and sentencing that ensures that returnees are pushed into good rehabilitation and reintegration programs prior to release so that they do not return to terrorism needs to be considered. In the meantime, we can continue to capture the voices of ISIS defectors on video, as we are currently doing, as the best compromise between compassion and justice, including the best way to raise the voices of defectors against the group.

[1] Anne Speckhard, “American ISIS Defectors—Mohamad Jamal Khweis and the Threat Posed by “Clean Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations,” The Hufington Post, March 21, 2016; URL:

[2] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

[3] Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet, “ Militant Who Denounced Islamic State Faces Murder, War Crimes Charges in Germany,” The Washington Post, January 3, 2017; URL:

[4] Peter R. Neumann, “Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narrative of Islamic State Defectors,”The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2015; URL:

About the Authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, and co-author of the newly released ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate, Undercover Jihadi, and Warrior Princess. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists, their family members, and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, West Bank, Russia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and many countries in Europe. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. For a complete list of publications for Anne Speckhard see: and

Grace Wakim, is a Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).  She is a native Arabic speaker and has a BA in English with a concentration in Linguistics from George Mason University. She has a background in media where she worked as a promotion producer for many years for different Arabic channels including news channels. She is interested in the study of terrorism is working toward a Masters degree in International Security. At ICSVE, Grace has been working on the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project and is a subject matter expert on the region.

Special thanks to Haris Fazilu, ICSVE Research Intern, for translating and his research support in the Balkan ISIS Defectors Research Project.

Reference for this article is Speckhard & Wakim (Feb 28, 2017) ISIS and Foreign Fighter Returnees – Prosecute or Raise their Voices against ISIS? ICSVE Brief Reports

[1] Anne Speckhard, “American ISIS Defectors—Mohamad Jamal Khweis and the Threat Posed by “Clean Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations,” The Hufington Post, March 21, 2016; URL:

[2] Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet, “ Militant Who Denounced Islamic State Faces Murder, War Crimes Charges in Germany,” The Washington Post, January 3, 2017; URL:

[3] Peter R. Neumann, “Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narrative of Islamic State Defectors,”The International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, 2015; URL:

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