ISIS: Defectors Expose Group's Deficiences

A new study of 58 recent Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) defectors—many of European and Middle Eastern descent—reveals clues and countermessaging themes that can likely deter individuals from joining the group in the first place. Four key narratives are identified as driving defectors to leave ISIS: group infighting; brutality against Sunni Muslims; corruption and “un-Islamic” behaviors; and poor quality of life. The former members also claim that ISIS has failed to live up to its central pledge to create a “perfect” Islamic society.

  • The narratives outlined by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), a British think tank, dispel ISIS’s self-proclaimed image as an “Islamic paradise” and instead reveal the hypocrisies inherent in the group’s radical brand of Islam. Of the 51 men and seven women interviewed, all expressed nearly identical narratives of ISIS failing to live up to their political, religious, or material expectations.
  • ICSR recommends eliminating legal obstacles that prevent some individuals from publicizing their defections. Almost all returnees face legal proceedings and extensive prison sentences, which the think tank argues provide few incentives for defectors to share their experiences. 

The defector testimonies indicate that while returnees reject ISIS’s strategy and tactics, many still hold extremist views and some have not renounced violence.According to ICSR, two-thirds of recorded defections from ISIS took place this year, and that number is expected to grow—posing challenges for home countries to incorporate these individuals into counterradicalization programs.   

  • According to a UN report published in April, roughly 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 nations are fighting with militant groups like ISIS in Syria and Iraq. This figure includes approximately 200 Americans.

For more information, please contact NJOHSP's Analysis Bureau at or 609-584-4000.