CATF Reports Apr. 21, 2016, 4:08pm


Since the end of 2015, there has been a steady increase of news reports highlighting the varied experiences of former takfiri fighters who defect from ISIS. Despite the imminent threat of beheading for absconders, in the past month alone we heard a diverse group of voices speaking out about why they decided to flee. There is the story of Abu Mohammad, a self-described mercenary who stole a flash drive, full of records containing background information of ISIS recruits dating back as far as 2014, so that he could later barter for a better life in Turkey; the slightly incredulous story of Mohamad Jamal Khweis, a young Palestinian-American who travelled to Turkey before being seduced by an Iraqi woman into joining ISIS only to be later abducted by Kurdish forces while trying to escape ISIS territory in Mosul; the story of Okab, a Syrian university student turned ISIS field commander who was said to have joined ISIS to establish a sense of order after the chaotic outbreak of the Syrian civil war; and then there’s Um Mohammad, a Syrian woman who worked for the ISIS version of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, policing women’s clothing in public.

Their reasons for joining ISIS are as different as their social backgrounds: power, finance, hatred for the Assad regime (and by extension all Alawites and Shia), and sometimes even religious utopia. But their reasons for leaving ISIS all contain similar elements: violence, corruption and, the near-ubiquitous motive, lack of monetary compensation. Nearly all ISIS defectors make some reference to their salary whether it is to decry financial corruption within ISIS, to complain about the lack of monetary compensation, or to note that ISIS money once allowed them to live a better quality of life than regular Syrian citizens. Inevitably the information provided by these interviews lead to the following questions: to what degree are ISIS fighters in it for the money? And can the increase in defection be explained by the fact that ISIS is in financial trouble?

In the beginning of 2014, at the height of ISIS’s financial prowess, reading news stories about defection was rare. Then, ISIS controlled a large stretch of territory with revenue growth from oil sales, taxes, kidnapping for ransom, and extortion. A (now defected) 27 year old fighter said that, at this time, he joined ISIS because it was hard to live otherwise. ISIS gave him a house, a car, a salary and paid for his marriage. During those days, there would be the odd article about a woman who joined ISIS to experience the power of patrolling the streets of Raqqa, ensuring women were dressed according to ISIS standards, before becoming fearful of her growing lack of humanity. She might mention her salary but the story of defection is marked by a moral concern over ISIS’s violence and cruelty. By the end of 2015, however, as coalition forces began hitting ISIS strongholds and attacking ISIS oil reserves, stories of defection start increasing. And many of these stories either mention money as a motivation for joining ISIS or cite financial corruption as a reason for leaving. The now famous defector Abu Khaled, interviewed by The Daily Beast in a series of articles starting in November 2015, mentioned that ISIS recruits are complaining of unequal pay. “Foreigners in the organization earn twice as much pay as local fighters. Foreign fighters receive better living accommodations in ISIS controlled cities.” By the beginning of 2016, these defector stories expressing dissatisfaction show up in the news at least once a week.

Defector Um Mohammed mentions that joining ISIS once meant living “better than Syrians who did not join ISIS,” mentioning that her family “ate roast chicken and lamb.” There are many stories of teenagers, both young men and women, joining ISIS to provide for their families. Last week, The Guardian published the story of Abu Ali who joined ISIS in the hope of getting a desk job rather than a job as a fighter. The same story also covered another defector, Abu Hassan, a former thief, who initially joined ISIS to make some money. According to The Guardian, “ISIS paid him a monthly salary of $150 at first, and then stopped. [He] was repeatedly promised a salary for months, and paid a grand total of $50.” Corruption and favoritism among high ranking ISIS figures were, instead, the reasons adduced by Abu Abdullah, who once served in the ISIS’ security ranks and defected in 2015.

Mohamad Jamal Khweis, the ISIS American fighter who was captured near Sinjar by Kurdish forces while trying to escape.
Mohamad Jamal Khweis, the ISIS American fighter who was captured near Sinjar by Kurdish forces while trying to escape. | Fazel Hawramy

The fact is that these defections coincide with a period of time in which ISIS is hurting. According to a recent report by IHS Inc., a security consultancy firm, U.S. and Russian forces are the cause of a 30% revenue drop for ISIS in the last year. In addition, ISIS lost 22% of its territory. There are fewer businesses to tax, less land to confiscate, and more fighters are defecting. No doubt threatened by the upswing in ISIS defection, and pressured by the financial loss, ISIS now turns to what it does best: violence. Only now they are turning against their own. The self-proclaimed caliphate has taken to the global media to announce that they have just made an example of a prominent ISIS commander who tried to defect. The senior commander, Abu Mustafa, was publically beheaded last Friday in Aleppo after being captured trying to flee to Turkey and tried in a sharia court of law. The switch in ISIS tactics, from financial incentives for recruits to a fear of death for defectors, means that ISIS is scrambling to maintain control.

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