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ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate

The following review was graciously submitted to Narrative Exploration by Dr. Karl Kaltenthaler; published on John DeRosa’s Medium page

ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate is a book devoted to telling the stories of those who have experienced life in Islamic State (ISIS)-controlled Syria. The authors, Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla, an American psychologist and a Turkish former police official, interviewed a series of ISIS defectors (although one may not have completely defected) in Turkey, in towns very close to the Syrian border, and Belgium to garner a picture of the nature of life in the self-declared Caliphate.

The book aims to achieve as comprehensive a picture as possible of the various aspects of life under ISIS. Each of the individuals interviewed were not passive subjects of ISIS, but people who had joined the ranks of the group and then later defected. This perspective thus gives the researchers a particularly interesting and important set of questions to ask: Why did the individual join ISIS? What was the nature of the training that they experienced? What was the leadership like within ISIS? What was the difference between the Syrians who joined ISIS and the foreigners who came to be part of the group? What was day-to-day life like in ISIS-controlled Syria? And, perhaps, most importantly, why did the individuals who had joined ISIS risk their lives to escape the clutches of the group?

Each interview is covered in the book in great detail. There are fifteen chapters in the book with roughly a chapter devoted to an individual being interviewed about their experiences. In some chapters, more than one person’s story is explored because of circumstances, such as more than one person being in the interview location at a time. Thus, there is quite a bit of depth of detail in each interviewee’s account.

Perhaps the greatest contribution this book makes is its use of personal narratives of individuals who have lived in ISIS’s self-proclaimed Caliphate and viewed the way the organization operates first-hand. While some of what is revealed in the interviews are things that may be known from press accounts or academic treatments of aspects of ISIS, the interviews not only corroborate these accounts but add depth and detail to what gets reported from the “outside.” The book reveals new information and a richness and authenticity to the knowledge we have about ISIS that is invaluable.

The consistent questions that are posed to the defectors are: Why did you join? What did you experience? and Why did you leave? While the authors ask other, open-ended questions and let the interviews follow their own organic paths, there are several major themes that emerge from the interview responses that are crucial take-aways from the book.

In terms of why people joined ISIS, there seems to be a distinct pattern of difference between those who are Syrians and those were foreigners. The Syrians, known as al Ansar (the helpers) within ISIS, joined because of opposition to the al Asad regime, often first joining the Free Syrian Army first, and/or because ISIS was the only way to feed themselves and their family or keep from being victimized by ISIS. Therefore, there is little starry-eyed idealism driving Syrians to join the group.

Among the foreigners who join ISIS, there is a genuine sense of idealism and belief that they are building something great in the form of the Caliphate. This comes across in the interviews with the Syrians who worked and fought alongside the Mujahideen (jihadis) as the foreign fighters were called. The foreigners are more of the “true believers” and committed jihadis in the group.

Another theme that comes out of the interviews is how the foreigners, both men and women, were treated better than the Syrians in the group. They are given more freedom, better accommodations, and more status within the group. The interviews reveal resentment among several of the Syrian defectors as to their second class status in the group relative to the foreigners.

A frightening aspect of the interviews, among many, is the brutality children in ISIS-controlled territory are subjected to and expected to engage in themselves. Young children are routinely publicly executed and taught to execute others as well. The authors rightly conclude that many of the children being indoctrinated into the ideology of savage violence by ISIS will be both deeply scarred by it as well as potentially dangerous perpetrators of violence in the future.

One thing that comes across nearly universally in the interviews with the Syrian defectors is how their induction into ISIS led to them “learning” about Islam. It seems that none of those interviewed had in-depth religious training before joining ISIS and the mandatory religious instruction by ISIS sheikhs(religious figures) was viewed as a positive experience. The religious instruction is carried out in a kind manner and the content seemed to resonate well with the new ISIS recruits.

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Just as the early religious indoctrination was well-received by nearly all of the recruits, the disillusionment with ISIS actions in relation to their stated religious doctrine was nearly universal. A major theme that comes out of the interviews is the hypocrisy of ISIS actions. Great emphasis is placed on learning to follow the rules of “correct Islam,” but many ISIS members contravened those rules with seeming impunity. The brutality of ISIS toward other Muslims, even Sunni Muslims, is something that is mentioned time and again in the interviews. It is a very important part of the reason why most of those interviewed defected.

Ms. Nadia Murad Basee Taha escaped her enslavement by ISIS and is now UNODC Goodwill Ambassador for the dignity of survivors of human trafficking

Another aspect of ISIS hypocrisy, while less mentioned, but revealing on its own merit, is the practice of taking sex slaves. While it is well-known that ISIS has enslaved and sexually abused scores of Yazidi women, it is less well-known that Muslim women have also been made into sex slaves by members of the group. While this seems to contravene every interpretation of sharia in Islam, the wives of regime soldiers are considered fair game for the practice.

Finally, a theme that the authors point to repeatedly is the relatively seamless continuity between the totalitarian practices of the Saddam Hussein regime and those of ISIS. Noting that many of Saddam’s Baathist thugs became part of ISIS leadership after his regime was vanquished; the authors detail how the brutal methods of ISIS echo those employed by Saddam’s secret policy to frighten the public into acquiescence.

Overall, this book is a very welcome addition to the literature on ISIS. While many books have been written about the group, this is the best account of first-hand experience with the group from the inside. While one could have hoped for more interviews with foreign fighters who defected from ISIS, the authors were forced to deal with those defectors they could access. Perhaps, the main weakness of the book is its analytical quality. A lot more could have been leveraged from the interviews, if they had been guided by central research questions that are relevant to the pressing questions of work on radicalization and terrorist organizations. If the research questioning was not guided by hypotheses, it would have been at least important to draw general lessons from or identify patters in the strategy, tactics, leadership, and followers from the data. Yet, to be fair, the book is intended not as a scholarly piece testing various theories of radicalization, insurgency, or why humans do horrible things to others, but serves as a platform for the public, both informed and relatively un-informed, to understand ISIS better. Given the huge personal risks and dangers that the authors confronted in the completion of this project, the final product is a testament to their tenacity. This is a book that is a must-read for anyone who seeks to gain a better understanding of ISIS.

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