Matthew Hall speaks with two researchers who have interviewed numerous ISIS defectors and discovered what really goes on inside the world’s most infamous terrorist organization.
Stories from defectors of the world’s worst terrorist group
THEY CALLED THE KID OMAR*.
He was 14 years old and had a story that no 14-year-old should ever have to tell.
“They wanted to make me a button,” he says. He was not being cute. His teachers, who he trusted, had made a compelling case for a mission no child should ever have to consider.
They would give him drugs. They would tell him to drive a truck toward a building. He would follow instructions: “You push the button, you won’t feel a thing, and then you’ll be straight in paradise.”
The teachers had trained Omar to be a suicide bomber. Boom. Welcome to life inside the Islamic State.
Omar’s experience is one story told by a group of Syrians who last year defected from IS – the most-feared terrorist organisation in the world today. IS is a death cult that has waged a brutal war to carve out chunks of territory in Syria and Iraq, terrorized communities across the Muslim world, and made high-profile attacks on restaurants, cafes, rock concerts, workplaces, train stations, and airports in the West.
The defectors who told their stories now live in Turkey and were interviewed by academics working on behalf of the Washington Dc-based International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. The research will be published as a book in mid-2016.
Their experience of the defectors reveals the reality of life inside IScontrolled sections of Syria as a daily diet of violence, drugs, fear, and conflicting morals – all at odds with what they actually believed to be the true interpretation of Islam.
According to the defectors, all IS fighters have volunteered for military service but for many Syrians, years of civil war has left limited civil infrastructure, a crippled economy, and the breakdown of social structure. A big chunk of the population is desperate and vulnerable to exploitation.
“At the third class, I declared that I was ready to be a suicide bomber as I was really affected by the preaching of the teacher,” explains another teenager recruited to be a “Cub of the Caliphate”.
“There were 300 students like me,” claims Abu Jamal*. “The classes lasted two hours per day. They usually lectured about the political problems Muslims are facing around the world and about how Muslims were assimilated and how their lands and wealth was imperialised. They spoke about how [Syrian President Bashar al-assad’s] soldiers were raping our sisters and that we should be sending birth control pills to our sisters if we chose not to fight Bashar.”
According to the defectors, military training for recruits includes bombing and weapon tactics and survival training. In what sounds like a plot from an apocalyptic movie, recruits who were identified as having psychopathic traits or who took pleasure in cruelty were selected to become executioners.
Abu Walid*, one of the defectors, says fighters are typically given “one pistol – a Glock, a Colt, or a Smith and Wesson; one rifle – an M-16 or an AK-47; at least two hand grenades; a backpack with medical supplies, food and water; and at least 500 bullets”.
Abu Jamal*, a former IS commander recalls: “The weapons are coming from everywhere but mostly we take them from other groups and from the battles we win. We had obtained a lot of [Assad’s] army warehouses as well. They left all the weapons.”
In a video recording of his interview, 14-year-old Omar looks almost comical if you ignore that his testimony is that of a former child soldier. Dressed in keffiyeh-style headscarf and over-sized dark sunglasses wrapped around his head to cover his face, Omar sits in a plastic chair against a white wall backdrop and describes weapons training in a military camp.
He recalls classmates as young as six years old, how recruits were told to behead a captured “infidel” as part of their initiation, and how other prisoners were drowned when the cages they were held in were intentionally dropped underwater.
“They are not real Muslims,” Omar says of his experience with IS. “They are infidels killing innocent people, just here for the money. They train children to blow themselves up and say they will go to heaven – but none of it is true.”
Dr Anne Speckhard (pictured, right), one of the interview project’s researchers, has spoken with over 500 terrorists during her career. A psychologist, she worked with Professor Ahmet Yayla, a Turkish academic, to locate and interview the 25 Syrian defectors hiding out in Turkey.
Those interviewed had undergone Sharia law and military training and sworn allegiance to IS before becoming fighters for the group, some active in the IS military wing for 18 months. Some had been commanders, others ordinary soldiers – including Omar, the 14-year-old groomed to become a suicide bomber.
Conducting the interviews proved difficult. Besides logistic and language issues, the defectors live in fear of reprisals from IS. Speckhard, Yayla, and their local fixers and interpreter were also at risk. Midway through the project the danger was brutally highlighted. They learned an IS fighter had crossed into Turkey, won the trust of two activists, Ibrahim Abdulqader and Fares Hamadi, working for the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, and then murdered and beheaded them in their apartment in the city of Sanilurfa.
“We’d heard a lot of stories of other defectors that were killed trying to leave,” says Speckhard explaining the additional danger to the Syrians. “They’re immediately beheaded. But they leave Syria because of the corruption, the brutality, the double standard, the criminality, and the things that they know are not right and are not Islamic and they don’t want any part in it.”
‘AT THE THIRD CLASS, I DECLARED THAT I WAS READY TO BE A SUICIDE BOMBER.’
IS RECRUITS FIGHTERS BY EITHER IMPOSING ITS WILL on the population of captured Syrian or Iraqi towns and cities or by luring vulnerable and desperate people to its ranks with a promise of a better life than the one they now live. For recruits from outside Syria and Iraq, especially many from Europe, a common thread is discrimination and isolation at home and the promise of adventure in a far off land.
“It used to be the virgins in paradise but now it is sex,” Speckhard says of the extremist’s promises. “You’ll get a partner now; you’ll get a sex slave now. For a young man, that’s a powerful motivator. You’ll get a job. So if you’re in Molenbeek, Brussels, and you’re facing 30 per cent unemployment and a lot of marginalisation and discrimination, come [to fight in Syria]. You’ll be very respected as a Muslim, you’ll have a high social status, you’ll be given a job, you’ll be able to marry, and you’ll be sexually gratified. Of course, you’ll be in danger and you’ll have to fight – but that is romance.”
One defector confirmed that marriage is also a strong lure for foreign fighters who come from economically poor regions of several Muslim countries including Tunisia – a country that has delivered a large number of young foreign fighters to IS – and Turkey.
“‘Come take our 10-day Sharia course!’” explained Abu Walid*, mocking an IS call to arms. “After you graduate you can be in IS. ‘You can have money, a gun, a car! Now you will be important’.”
The defectors claimed that female slaves, usually women and girls captured when IS takes territory, are given to Westerners who do not have wives. The slaves live with the fighter until he gives or sells her to another fighter.
“If the man wants to marry the slave he can,” explains Abu Nasir*. “She can come in the presence of other men to serve chai and coffee. She does not require a chaperone. When you have one, it’s like your wife. Although unlike wives, there is no limit on the number you