Chapter 9 - Why do people leave ISIL?

Many foreign fighters who joined ISIL to fight against the Assad regime, or take part in jihad, have become disillusioned and sought to return home. There have been many causes, rooted in the difference between expectations and harsh realities on the ground. A high proportion did not want to engage in the internecine battles among jihad militias. Many were repelled by ISIL’s brutality and disregard for human life. Others found discrimination against races or nationalities instead of utopian social harmony and equality, and complained that their group was used as cannon fodder. Some judged ISIL leaders to be corrupt and hypocritical and indifferent to suffering, rather than humanitarian champions. The existence of foreign fighters willing to discourage others from joining ISIL opens up possibilities for damaging ISIL’s recruitment appeal.

In many respects, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has become a victim of its own success. Since it has come to dominate the conflicts in both Syria and Iraq, much has been made of the remarkable fashion in which the group has been able to mobilise tens of thousands of recruits—men, women, and entire families—in support of its cause. These migrants to the so-called Caliphate are attracted to the group’s millenarian cause for a wide variety of reasons. However, quite often these causes create unrealistic expectations and migrants expect to find a political panacea, a religious utopia and flawless racial harmony. As is common to all such projects of idealised perfection, the chasm between expectation and reality proves corrosive over time.

ISIL is highly susceptible to these shortcomings not just because of the expectations it has created among supporters and members, but also because of the constantly changing nature of Syria’s civil war. Perspective is important when considering the latter issue: at different times, different individuals have travelled to Syria for different reasons. It is important to contextualise and understand these varied motivations, as well as how they have shifted over the last five years. This paper will explore a variety of themes, highlighting key areas of ISIL’s narrative where a significant gap exists between promise and reality, fuelling defections from the group.

Fighting injustice

Narratives of fighting injustice have resonated particularly strongly in jihadist propaganda relating to the Syrian crisis. These views were particularly pronounced at the start of the conflict when the situation was more credibly arranged as a battle between the Assad regime and anti-government forces (whether secular or religious). Fighters who travelled in the initial phase of the conflict often framed their participation in it in terms of wanting to “help” and “assist” the Syrian people. During an interview with British foreign fighters who were members of ISIL, some of them told the author, “the truth is many people left to help the Syrian people, then we got labelled as terroristsFootnote 95 ’’.

As is common to all such projects of idealised perfection, the chasm between expectation and reality proves corrosive over time.

This statement highlights one of the first areas that posed a dilemma for foreign fighters. In the early phase of the war, many Western migrants to the conflict did not regard their participation as being either contentious or morally ambiguous. For them, the war was a national liberation struggle sharply focused against a tyrannical despot. There were no extraterritorial ambitions expressed by any of the major fighting groups at that time, and Western governments were both declaring the Assad regime to be illegitimate while also supporting (often materially) armed rebel factions. These early fighters therefore liken ed themselves to those who had participated in the Spanish civil warFootnote 96 . Indeed, when The Guardian journalist George Monbiot made that very comparison in an op-ed for his newspaper, foreign fighters contacted the author of this paper and asked him to convey their gratitude to Monbiot because of their belief that “his piece really helped the brothers out hereFootnote 97 ’’. When Western governments began pursuing these fighters through counter-terrorism legislation, it had a profound effect on their outlook towards the conflict. Prosecutions coupled with strong public pronouncements from officials raised barriers to participation by compelling aspirant fighters to first consider the potential implications of their endeavour.

This dilemma was further accentuated when different opposition factions began fighting among themselves in early 2014, a period often referred to as the fitna (discord). Groups such as the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusrah and Ahrar al-Sham began fighting ISIL, and intra-group factionalism and violence have continued in years since. The idea of fighting other Sunni Muslims for unclear or ostensibly partisan reasons prompted some foreign fighters to re-examine their role in the conflict. “Muslims are fighting Muslims; I didn’t come for that”, a disillusioned British fighter from London told the authorFootnote 98 .

Concerns over infighting exacerbated tensions on other issues too, such as ISIL’s lack of humanitarian concern towards civilian populations and its preoccupation with fighting other jihadist groups instead of the Assad regime. From a database collected by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), at King’s College London, of 60 public defector narratives, at least 21 individuals (35 per cent) cited this as a reason (sometimes in addition to others) for leaving the groupFootnote 99 . “I wasn't doing what I had initially come for and that's to help in a humanitarian sense the people of Syria”, said an Australian defector called Abu IbrahimFootnote 100 . Other fighters stated that the group “is not protecting Muslims, it is killing themFootnote 101 ’’.This broader campaign of fighting against other Muslims has also fuelled disillusionment about the group’s priorities, with one defector stating that his colleagues “were no longer targeting Assad forces, but rebel factionsFootnote 102 ’’. During the peak of intra-group rivalry and factionalism in early 2014, one defector even went as far as warning others against travelling to Syria. “I want to tell all the mujahideen not (to) come to Syria”, he said. “This is not jihad; you will find yourself killing other MuslimsFootnote 103 ’’.

Islamic unity

One of the strong utopian aspects of ISIL’s message is its claim that it is capable of creating a perfect society. Its propaganda clearly states that while issues like racism or class division riddle Western states, everyone is equal in their society. Indeed, the only distinction between one person and another arises around the issue of piety and devotion to GodFootnote 104 . The underlying corollary is that ISIL is able to resolve tensions around identity and belonging that many of its recruits experience by offering a supra-cultural identity that transcends geography and race. It is an intellectual identity where membership is achieved through a fraternity of the faithful, providing recruits with resolution and purpose.

A strong sense of brotherhood is consequently presented in ISIL propaganda, particularly in non-combat videos and pictures reporting istirahat al-mujahideen—militantsdrinking tea and singing with one anotherFootnote 105 . ISIL therefore fosters a sense of unity by urging Muslims to relocate to the “land of Islam,” which they argue is the natural home of all MuslimsFootnote 106 .

Defector testimonies once again highlight the chasm between expectation and reality, with 8.5 per cent of all those who left the group citing ethnic or racial tensions as their reason for doing soFootnote 107 . A number of fighters have explained, for example, how they felt one group was given preferential treatment over another, and how the group they belonged to was being used as little more than cannon fodder. Various groups make this claim, each one accusing the other of having secured a more favourable deal for itself. Thus, Syrian fighters have accused ISIL of neglecting Syrians who first struggled against the Assad regime and initiated the revolution that gave rise to the so-called Caliphate. They also feel that Syrian civilians are not being looked after sufficiently well, despite suffering tremendously in the ongoing conflict. Others complain about the apparent racism of Arab ISIL fighters towards non-Arabs. Perhaps the best known case in this regard is of an Indian fighter who alleged that his Asian background resulted in him being given menial and degrading tasks, such as being ordered to clean toilets.

Corruption and barbarism

The final substantive area of defector disillusionment stems from the arbitrary and random nature of the group’s behaviour, particularly with regards to corruption and barbarism. Given that the group derives its legitimacy from claims to Islamic authenticity and the institution of the ‘caliphate’, ongoing support is contingent on the movement maintaining an ostensibly religious character. ISIL regularly falls short in this regard. Many of its fighters are religious novices, motivated to join the group primarily to seek adventure, prove their masculinity and gain redemption. They lack a deep knowledge of Islam and do not have an established religious pedigreeFootnote 108 . When they are seen to fall short of these utopian ideals, disillusionment can grow (particularly among more religiously‑motivated fighters).

The dataset on defectors shows that just over 21 per cent of them cite corruption and barbarism as their reason for leavingFootnote 109 . A Syrian fighter named Saddam Jamal had been a drug dealer before the uprising and joined ISIL because of its growing power and strength, before he chose to defect. “They think nothing of bringing down a whole building with women and children inside, just to kill one person,” he arguedFootnote 110 . Another fighter, a Tunisian, noted that the group has become so barbaric that it is simply killing for the sake of killing. “It's not a revolution or jihad, it’s slaughter,” he saidFootnote 111 .

There are a number of issues relating to the hypocrisy of leaders who do not practice what they preach, or others who seems to be indifferent to the suffering of ISIL’s enemies. Given that a substantial portion of ISIL recruits cite humanitarian concerns as being one of the main initial factors that caught their attention with regards to the Syrian crisis, this is a crucial area to consider when exploring (and communicating) ISIL’s shortcomings.


Totalitarian movements create the conditions for their own failure when they promise to realise utopian ideals. ISIL is no different from any of the millenarian movements that have preceded it in this respect. The gap that exist between reality and expectation therefore provides opportunities for encouraging disengagement and defection while also fomenting further disillusionment. Many pressure points exist beyond those identified in the broad themes of this short paper, including the difficulties of everyday life in the ‘caliphate’ or the boredom recruits experience after migrating. Given that many of those who embrace such movements do so for non-ideological reasons, and are often guided by peer-networks or emotive considerations, there are unique opportunities to intervene in the debate. This would help damage the group’s appeal by highlighting its inability to live by the standards it likes to project and its persecution of the very people in whose defence it claims to act, namely ordinary Muslims.

“People want to come back”, a British foreign fighter told the author during an extensive interview about disillusionment within the ranks of ISIL. “They found out jihad is not what they thoughtFootnote 112 ’’.

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