Review of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate

By Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla

The following review was graciously submitted to Narrative Exploration by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Unlike other books about ISIS on the market, Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla have drawn exclusively for their original research on the extensive testimonies of Syrian defectors from the organization, Europeans who returned to their home countries, and the families of these people in an attempt to shed light on the inner workings of ISIS. By relaying these testimonies, the authors hope to dent ISIS recruitment through exposing the grim realities of life under the self-declared Caliphate that demands the allegiance of the world’s Muslims and ultimately strives for global dominion.

To their credit, Speckhard and Yayla demonstrate a clear aptitude for interviewing their subjects, winning their trust and teasing out much information while showing clear awareness of issues of sensitivity and ethics surrounding this line of research, such as posttraumatic stress problems for those who underwent horrific experiences during their time in ISIS, whether in witnessing brutal executions or the phenomenon of sex slavery and mass rape.

In addition, the authors do not take all the testimony at face value, but rather compare different accounts to understand when an interviewee’s testimony may be inaccurate or withholding the complete picture for whatever reason. For instance, when interviewing an ex-ISIS cadre going by the name of Abu Walid, the authors point out, based on other sources they have, that he only refers obliquely to joining ISIS and fighting for the group, leaving the details of the course of events rather murky (pp. 77–8). In a similar vein, Speckhard and Yayla assess that one of their other defectors- going by the name of Ibn Ahmed- is wrong in downplaying ISIS recruitment in the refugee camps in Turkey, relying on other accounts they have of the problem (p. 259).

Particularly interesting nuggets of information turn up occasionally in the interviews. For example, one of the Syrian defectors references the use of mannequins as decoys to mislead coalition aircraft as they are dressed to look like IS fighters (p. 130). As it so happens, this practice was reported only recently by Reuters in light of the ongoing operations to retake Mosul, ISIS’ main holding in Iraq. Likewise, references turn up later on the controversy over whether ISIS uses females as suicide bombers (pp. 229–232). The testimony gathered by the authors suggests that this phenomenon exists. Its existence is corroborated by documentary evidence in an internally distributed propaganda series known as Qisas al-Mujahideen (“Stories of the Mujahideen”) that attests to at least one female suicide bombing carried out in the Kobani area, whereas the externally distributed propaganda consisting of dozens of items released daily on the Internet does not advertise female suicide bombers.

Stylistically, the book’s prose is easy to follow and at times makes for a highly compelling read, borne out above all in the tale of Laila, the French woman of Palestinian descent who joined ISIS along with her husband but then fled following his death while still pregnant, making a perilous journey with local help from al-Bab in north Aleppo to Turkey.

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However, these merits should not blind the reader to the book’s multiple and considerable shortcomings. There are a number of serious errors in the book that primarily occur in the explanatory sections of the text. The estimate figure of 30,000 foreign fighters does not refer to the number of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS (p. 21), but rather the total number of Sunni foreign fighters that have entered the Syria-Iraq arena of conflict, many of whom will have joined other groups that feature foreign fighters in their ranks, such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the Turkestan Islamic Party. Haji Bakr- ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s right-hand man who helped plan the initial expansion strategy in Syria- was not killed by U.S. forces (p. 80) but rather local rebels in north Aleppo who did not initially appreciate his significance. The leaked ISIS personnel files do not consist of data on 22,000 foreign recruits (p. 87): 22,000 is rather the approximate size of the original data dump, consisting largely of replicated files.

The designation Khawarij- a common Arabic derogatory term used by Sunnis to denounce ISIS as extremist- does not refer to a renegade tribe from Prophet Muhammad’s time (p. 90) but rather a sect that emerged in the decades after his death. Tel Abyad, a key town on Syria’s northern border with Turkey that served as an important point of entry for supplies for ISIS, was not captured in June 2014 (p. 104), but rather in January 2014 from the rebels, with whom ISIS had previously worked to expel Kurdish militias from the town in August 2013. The account of the North Caucasian jihadi outfit Caucasus Emirate’s relations with ISIS is very confused (p. 145). While large contingents of the Caucasus Emirate within the North Caucasus (which certainly did not have 15,000 members in total) have defected to ISIS, the Caucasus Emirate still survives and commands some loyalty among North Caucasian jihadis operating in Syria, not all of whom have joined ISIS.

Mistakes also arise in recording of the testimony: most notably, the authors translate the name of the powerful rebel group Ahrar al-Sham as “The Army of the Levant” (p. 91): in fact, the group’s name means “Free Men of al-Sham.” Moreover, in the main text the authors appear to confuse the term mujahideen (“holy warriors”) with muhajireen (“migrants”) (pp. 166 ff.): the former term is not used to refer in particular to foreign fighters, but rather any fighter within ISIS. The latter term is the one that is used to contrast with the ansar (“supporters”), referring to local Syrians and Iraqis who either support the group or are active members/fighters. That said, the distinction of terms is correctly made in the glossary provided by the authors at the end of the book (pp. 345–8).

Thematically, some of the issues raised are less original and in so far as they might be used to formulate a case against ISIS, they can be quite easily dismissed. Repeated reference is made to sale of oil by ISIS to the Assad regime (p. 161 and pp. 327–8), as though it were some deal of the devil. In fact, there is nothing surprising or unusual about this phenomenon in the environment of a war economy. Since ISIS controls the main oil reserves in Syria, it can generate significant revenue from sale of oil to territories controlled by all sides in the Syrian civil war, despite being at war with all other factions. Indeed, the idea that sale of oil can occur outside of ISIS territory is sanctioned in an internal text known as Principles in the Administration of the Islamic State.

In this context, it should also be pointed out that the authors use references erroneously in stating that “three quarters of the oil wealth that ISIS is thought to have brought in during 2015, according to captured documents, came through trades with those close to the Assad regime” (p. 327). The Abu Sayyaf computer records captured by the U.S. actually suggest that over a period of six months ending in late February 2015, 72% of ISIS Diwan al-Rikaz (“natural resource department”) revenues came from Abu Sayyaf’s division of Syrian oil-producing areas, going by the Wall Street Journal’s reporting on the records to which the references can be ultimately traced. The original source does not state that this 72% of revenue generated for the Diwan al-Rikaz came from sales to the Assad regime.

More generally, too much space is given for interviewees to indulge in unconvincing conspiracy theories where the biases become apparent. To be sure, the authors do not necessarily accept these ideas wholesale, like Abu Zafir’s claim that ISIS is heavily infiltrated and manipulated by Shi’a (pp. 159–161), but for a book that is trying to dissuade people from joining ISIS, poorly grounded conspiracy theories only risk throwing the credibility of the defectors’ testimony into doubt. At one point, the authors even speculate that “for those sectarian haters seeking to destroy each other, some Shia may want to use ISIS or any other means, to destroy Sunni populations” (p. 161). This sort of speculation is irresponsible, especially in light of the heavily sectarian charged atmosphere that pervades the Middle East today.

More than once, space is given to the notion that ISIS has somehow been deliberately yielding territory to Kurdish forces in a manner that suggests collusion (p. 104 and p. 164), an idea that is given more credibility than the Shi’a infiltration notions. In fact, the relatively quick loss of Tel Abyad is explained by the fact that ISIS cannot commit with intensity on every front at once, and simply has too many enemies arrayed against it. The campaign to conquer Kobani proved disastrous in the face of hundreds of coalition airstrikes, with ISIS effectively wasting considerable manpower and weaponry. This contributed to a weakening of the northern front against the Kurdish forces, and thus the rapid losses that culminated in the fall of Tel Abyad. A somewhat similar scenario has emerged in north Aleppo countryside, where fierce battles over Manbij with Kurdish forces meant that ISIS has not been able to withstand the Turkish-backed rebel offensive that began in late summer this year, effectively withdrawing from Jarabulus, a key border town, without a fight.

Although as mentioned above, the authors do engage in some critical analysis of the various accounts handed to them by defectors, there are occasions where such analysis is needed but lacking. Had the authors perused internal ISIS documentary evidence, they would have been able to check certain claims made in the testimonies that are simply incorrect. For example, one defector called Abu Ahmed asserts that “under ad-Dawla [ISIS], the girls don’t go to school. There is no education for them. Only their mahrams can educate them” (p. 102). In fact, documentary evidence shows that girls can and do go to school under ISIS rule, albeit in a segregated environment.

Another defector called Abu Jamal is quoted as saying that “there is no Internet inside ad-Dawlah and it is not allowed” (p. 144). A parenthetical note inserted after these remarks to clarify that Internet is only allowed at ISIS “post offices.” On the contrary, private Internet access in the form of wi-fi and satellite connections existed for a considerable period of time in a number of areas. The trend now is to ban such private access and restrict Internet access to licensed “Internet halls” and cafes, undoubtedly driven in part by ISIS concern that information has been leaked to the coalition through private Internet access, such that multiple high-ranking personnel have been taken out in coalition airstrikes and raids.

In conclusion, though the authors deserve praise for the impressive amount of original research in recording and compiling testimonies, with Yayla standing out as a particularly brave figure in light of the dangers he faced in southern Turkey with the threat of assassination at the hands of ISIS and his criticism of Turkish government policies, the book’s flaws mean that it cannot be seen as the definitive refutation of ISIS propaganda it purports to be. In any case, the group’s appeal has already been significantly diminished through territorial and other losses at the hands of the coalition that have undermined its statehood image, in addition to much improved Turkish border security. These developments have done more than any counter-narratives of interviews, discourse and books to undermine ISIS. Even so, regardless of whether this work fulfils its agenda, many of the accounts provided are well-worth reading from the perspective of general reader or specialist.


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