Islamic State defections are on the rise as military officials estimate that 23,000 fighters have been killed since 2014. Islamic State defectors are leaving at a rapid rate while it is believed that there are 20,000 to 30,000 fighters still in Syria and Iraq, according to USA Today.
Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institute, said “these anecdotes and snippets of information sound promising, but just remain a bit more skeptical until we see some more indicators and see what happens when more time passes.”
U.S. military officials say the U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State is causing the mass defections and forcing elite fighters to take on roles usually reserved for low-ranking militants.
As Islamic State defections continue, Army Col. Steve Warren said surveillance drones have captured footage showing checkpoints with fewer fighters, and because of weakened checkpoints, more civilians have been able to escape from ISIS-held territory; recently, 22 people were able to flee from Ramadi, Iraq. Checkpoints are also increasingly being manned by foreign militants who are trained to seize land and engage in battle, not inspect people and vehicles.
There’s also talk of more defections in places like Kirkuk, Iraq; last week, 90 ISIS fighters there — local men who were coerced into joining the group — surrendered to Kurdish peshmerga forces.
But some people warn of spies. Earlier this month, an Islamic State fighter, posing as a defector, befriended two journalists, one of whom was with the Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) media campaign in southern Turkey. The activists took the alleged defector in to their home. He returned the kindness by beheading the two activists in the apartment.
The murders of the two activists, “among the best from A-Raqqa,” is a harsh reminder of the risk posed by any sort of encounter with an Islamic State sympathizer. Defectors may well be spies, says Furat al-Wafaa, a member of Reporters Without Borders and former activist with RBSS.
In September, a survey by a London-based research center that relied on the public statements, named 58 people known to have left the Islamic State since 2015. That number has risen.
For most, the defectors from the Islamic State group quit the organization because they felt it was too brutal or corrupt, or because it made war too frequently against other Sunni Muslims.
Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence and the report’s author, said its initial findings shatter the image of unity and determination that Islamic State seeks to portray.
The defectors surveyed, Neumann said, constitute just a “small fraction” of the growing number of fighters who have turned against Islamic State. If given wide circulation, he said, the defectors’ complaints could deter future recruits from joining the militant group, which has seized large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq and become notorious for mass killings, beheadings and abductions.
The survey found common narratives among defectors, including disappointment that life under Islamic State is excessively harsh and that it commits atrocities against other Sunni Muslims.
And, though the organization in June 2014 formally proclaimed the establishment of a caliphate, or a state governed in accordance with Islamic law, some defectors accused Islamic State of being corrupt or un-Islamic.
Defectors also complained that Islamic State is more interested in fighting fellow Sunnis than the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Some of the former fighters complained of being victims of racism, or that their experiences with Islamic State failed to meet their expectations of action and heroism. Some complained they didn’t get the cars or luxury goods they were promised, or that as foreign fighters, they were exploited as cannon fodder.
Current estimates suggest that more than 25,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq since the conflict began, including over 250 Americans who have either travelled to or attempted to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS since 2012.
The Islamic State’s very effective use of social media as a recruiting tool has made it difficult for Western powers to stem the slow and steady flow of disenfranchised youth to the battlefield. What is of greatest concern is that these Islamic State defections, by mostly radicalized youth, will likely return to their home nations, similar to the outward flow of mujahideen after the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan. We all know how that story ended.