The Narrative of Islamic State Defectors

About the author(s):

Katharine Fortin is an Associate Professor at Utrecht University where she teaches IHL and IHRL. Before joining Utrecht University, she worked at the ICTY, ICC and Norton Rose Fulbright. She is the author of The Accountability of Armed Groups under Human Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2017) which won the 2018 Lieber Prize. She has written widely about the framework of law that applies to armed groups in non-international armed conflicts and is one of the editors of the Armed Groups and International Law blog.

There was an interesting report published today on the defectors from the Islamic State by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. The report concludes that defectors from the Islamic State are a new and growing phenomenon. The authors of the report interview 58 defectors and analyse the information these interviews provide about the group and the territory under their control. Interestingly, the report identifies three major narratives for people to join the group:-

The first relates to the Syrian conflict and the atrocities carried out by the Assad regime;

The second relates to faith and ideology and the opportunity to be part of a perfect Islamic State; and

The narrative is a response to personal needs or material needs such as the promise of brotherhood or financial reward.

Identifying these narratives is important because the report shows that they are often reflected back in the reasons that fighters leave the group. The main narratives that were identified to explain members’ defection from the group were as follows:-

Infighting between the Islamic State an other Sunni groups and the failure of the IS to confront the Assad regime;

Brutality against other Sunni Muslims (but interestingly no comment regarding brutality against non-Muslims);

Corruption and un-Islamic behaviour such as unfairness, inequality and racism;

Quality of life and harsh realities of battle

The report details the obstacles which defectors face leaving the group and the risks they face in terms of reprisals and prosecution. The report ends by identifying the value of these narratives which shatter the image of unification of the group. It ends with the following recommendations:-

For governments and activists to recognize the value and credibility of defector narratives;

To provide defectors with opportunities to speak out;

To assist them in resettlement and ensure their safety;

To remove legal disincentives that prevent them from going public

It concludes that the 58 defectors that it interviewed were only a fraction of those who are ready to defect or who have defected but who are, as yet, unwilling to share their experiences.

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