skip to Main Content

The best weapon to defeat ISIS: Use testimonials from disillusioned recruits who’ve defected against them

Op Ed in New York Daily News by ICSVE Director, Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

July 6, 2016

Since establishing its reign of terror, or “caliphate” as they prefer to call it, ISIS has unleashed an unprecedented social-media recruiting drive that has attracted upward of 30,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries. Watching news out of Istanbul, Baghdad, Paris and Brussels, the risk to New York City can’t help but linger in the backs of our minds, particularly as the terrorist movement has been escalating its calls for attacks on Western targets.

As ISIS continues to stretch its reach beyond borders, breeding homegrown militant jihadi killers wherever possible, discrediting the group’s ideology is essential — right now. We can’t afford to wait for a military conquest or political solution in war-torn Syria and Iraq.

I believe there’s a powerful tool at our disposal that we have yet to use effectively: the voices of disillusioned ISIS recruits themselves. ISIS issues thousands of recruiting videos, memes and tweets with little online content countering them. Real-life ISIS defectors — and there are many of them — who speak from personal experience about what life is really like as a fighter for the Islamic “caliphate” are the most influential means to dissuade others from falling captive to its message.

I believe this not just because I am a research psychologist and security expert who has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists and their families, but because I have gained recent access to ISIS defectors from Syria, the Balkans and Western Europe. I’ve heard the traumatic stories and profound disenchantment that has led them to a complete rejection of ISIS.

In partnership with a Turkish colleague, Ahmet Yayla, I have interviewed 37 ISIS defectors thus far, and most agreed to be videotaped. From the 13-year-old child soldier who watched other young boys behead prisoners as a part of their induction as ISIS fighters (and he likely did the same), and left because children were being tricked into dying in suicide bombings, to a European bride of ISIS who, widowed while pregnant, was rescued by her father when ISIS demanded that she give up her baby to the “caliphate” before leaving — they have all have described the horrific realities of life inside ISIS.

Some told of captive women being forced into sexual slavery and of institutionalized mass rape. Others spoke of devil’s deals with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in terms of oil sales and exchanging territory.

Their stories paint the picture of a corrupt, brutal, hypocritical and un-Islamic world, and they have recorded video warnings directed toward anyone who might be falling under the ISIS spell. These authentic voices can be a critical factor in reaching young men and women on the brink of ISIS radicalization.

That’s why Yayla and I are quietly slipping short video clips of these interviews into ISIS chat rooms and elsewhere on the internet, so that those being pulled in by ISIS propaganda will accidentally click on our interviews and hear the voices of defectors whose lives have been destroyed.

It’s a start, but the West has got to step up its game to counter homegrown radicalization. We need professionally run helplines so that family members and friends of those moving along the terrorist trajectory will have a safe way to report their concerns. Though the FBI reports that in 90% of cases families have some idea that their relative has radicalized, it should come as no surprise that fewer than 50% alert law enforcement for fear of arrest and reprisals.

We need rapidly deployable, face-to-face intervention teams to counter the “swarming” ISIS does when someone begins to show interest in its messages on social media and across the internet. We can’t win against an enemy that will pay careful and near constant attention to the people it wishes to activate against us, unless we are willing to put similar resources into pulling these individuals from the brink and back into American society.

Despite ISIS’ success in drawing new members to its “caliphate,” 10% to 30% of foreign fighters leave ISIS conflict zones. When we have access to defectors who will raise their voices and risk their lives to speak out against ISIS, the U.S. needs to put resources into making sure they are heard, if we are serious about fighting ISIS in the social media age.

That means packaging the 45 interviews we already have and the many more we are continuing to collect right now into sophisticated, internet-friendly clips and memes and strategically blasting them across the ISIS-dominated internet and social media space. For the price of a handful of tanks, we can engage those who can speak firsthand of the horrors of being a soldier, bride or child of ISIS.

Speckhard, co-author of “ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate,” is adjunct associate professor of psychiatry in the Georgetown School of Medicine and director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism.

Back To Top