TURKEY— A black scarf wrapped around his head, Okab charged into the dusty town of Sinjar leading a platoon of ISIS jihadis. He felt the familiar sensation of drawing closer to God and the rush of knowing he was just a bullet from paradise.
It was before dawn on August 3, 2014, and the militants were beginning their assault on the ancient home of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq. A veteran of ISIS’s wars, the young field commander expected fierce resistance from the local militia that controlled the town. But the militia had retreated, and the streets of Sinjar, at the foot of the towering mountain of the same name, were empty.
Then his fellow jihadis began to drag Yazidi civilians from their homes, shouting kafir, or infidel. They beheaded men in front of their screaming families. They tied up women and children and dragged them into cars. Scenes of carnage seared into Okab’s mind. In one, more than 50 Yazidi men lay facedown in a roadside ditch, hands bound behind their backs, as his comrades drew their automatic weapons and executed them.
The massacre of the Yazidis was an act of barbarism that sparked outrage worldwide. More than 3,000 civilians were killed, according to one prominent Yazidi rights group, and at least 5,000 more taken hostage, many of them women to be used as sex slaves, as part of what the U.S. has called a genocide. With ISIS pushing on from Sinjar town toward the fleeing Yazidis who were massed on top of the mountain, the U.S. began airstrikes against the militants, drawing America and its allies into a new war. The massacre was a rallying cry for ISIS too — an advertisement for its brutal brand of extremism that brought news headlines and recruits, while at the same time feeding the fervour of the fighters in its ranks. For Okab, though, the massacre was a blow to his conscience that snapped him out of ISIS’s spell.
He was horrified. Who gave this command, he asked the fighters around him. Why are you doing this? Each time he received the same simple reply: These people are infidels.
He realised then that he should abandon the group — and the idea made him afraid. He began to wonder who might detect his newfound dissent. ISIS reserved some of its harshest treatment, he knew, for its own members suspected of wanting to defect. He rushed back to his base in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Then he crossed to his native Syria and returned to Raqqa, the ISIS capital in the country, where he began the long and difficult process of detaching from the group to which he’d pledged his life.
Now Okab is part of a hidden community of defectors scattered across the globe — inside Iraq and Syria, in neighbouring countries like Turkey, and, in the cases of former foreign fighters, back at home. They live in the shadows, fearful of retribution from ISIS on the one hand and, on the other, of arrest, thanks to their history with the terror group. As they reclaim their minds from the grip of fanaticism, they are left to wonder how they could have taken part in such terrible crimes. “Maybe you think they are bad people because they joined ISIS. But for me, they are my brothers,” Okab said. “Because the same thing that happened to them happened to me.”
Since defectors go under the radar, their voices are seldom heard, robbing potential recruits of a reality check against the lure of ISIS propaganda and would-be defectors of the examples others have set. But rare interviews with six defectors, as well as two men working to help more escape, reveal the cracks quietly forming in the ISIS ranks. All have been granted anonymity to protect their safety, both from ISIS and from arrest, and Okab asked to go by an old nickname, which means “eagle,” because it’s known only to trusted friends.
Each spoke from a different stage of a lonely recovery. One had given up the war in the hope of starting fresh in Europe, while another was still in the thrall of ISIS’s calls for sectarian bloodshed. A 13-year-old boy, rescued from ISIS by his family, remained obsessed with the idea of murdering his so-called infidel neighbours and friends.
Their stories offer insight into a lingering question: How has ISIS managed to attract so many men and women to its self-styled caliphate and keep them there? They show how a person’s mind can be pulled into extremism and how it can be won back. They also show the dangers ISIS members face on leaving — and the struggle that follows to move on with their lives.
Okab had been a university student in Raqqa, smoking cigarettes and chasing girls with his classmates, who was radicalised gradually through the civil war — until ISIS’s hardline vision began to seem like a pillar of order amid the chaos. By the time ISIS took control of Raqqa, in the summer of 2013, he was a rebel fighter who had lived through two years of extreme violence, watching as the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad massacred civilians first by firing on peaceful protests and then by crushing opposition-held neighbourhoods with airstrikes. The bloodshed had subsumed his family, his cousins and siblings killed or kidnapped by an ethnic Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a bitter enemy of ISIS that Okab, like many Syrians, considered an Assad ally. ISIS offered him the chance to fight them both as the cause that had first led him to take up arms was eclipsed by the desire for revenge.
He was also drawn to the brute simplicity of its draconian Islam — cutting off the heads of murderers and the hands of thieves, lashing lovers for premarital sex — at a time when it seemed there was little order or logic to be found. The militants put him through their infamous indoctrination courses, which instilled an unexpected radicalism in his mind. He had been living as an infidel, far from God, he learned, and obeying ISIS would bring him close. He was soon marching eagerly toward a violent death. He fought in dozens of battles, gaining a reputation as a fearsome warrior as he rose through the ranks. “I cannot explain this feeling, but they teach us that God is waiting for you, and you must go to him. So go and don’t be afraid of death,” he said. “And we wanted to die. Because when we die, all the hard things in this life will end, and we will start again.”
This mindset was gone by the time he returned to Raqqa in the aftermath of the massacre in Sinjar. As he made plans to follow through on his decision to leave, though, he began to get cold feet. Syria was destroyed, his family had unraveled, and his time with ISIS had tarnished him in the eyes of many of the people he knew. If he leave he wondered, what would he do?
He clung to darker urges too. As an ISIS commander he had status, a weapon and a car, a house and a salary. He was a respected fighter; if he left he would be just another refugee. And he still wanted revenge. He felt responsible for a female relative who had been kidnapped by the YPG in retaliation for his work with ISIS, recalled a friend living in Turkey who was in touch with Okab at the time. “She was kidnapped because of him, and he wanted to get her released before he defected,” the friend said.
Okab made a compromise he would later find hard to justify: Though he had seen the truth about ISIS, he would continue to fight Assad and the YPG under its black flag. Other defectors experienced similar confusion. None described a clean break from ISIS, recalling instead a winding mental journey with echoes of the same uncertainty that had driven them to the group in the first place.
ISIS’s surge to power had given it unique appeal at a time when rival rebel groups struggled to give their fighters weapons and salaries. The militant group boasts around 25,000 fighters, according to U.S. government estimates, and has attracted more than 38,000 foreign recruits in total over the years. After it seized Mosul, in June 2014, and declared its caliphate, it controlled a stretch of territory the size of Belgium with revenue streams from oil sales, extortion, taxes, and ransom from kidnappings. A 27-year-old fighter from the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, an ISIS stronghold, said he had little love for the group when he joined but saw few choices as a fighting-aged male living in its territory. “I knew that they are criminals,” he said. “But it’s very hard to live your life in Syria, especially in ISIS areas, if you don’t join them.”
The militants gave him a house, a car, a monthly salary and even paid for his wedding. He too fell under the trance of extremism and, like Okab, found himself amid a massacre. He took part in the killing, he said, and declined to reveal more. The guilt, he said, eventually drove him to defect — but he feels stained by his crimes. He made plans to flee to Europe but canceled them after he worried other refugees would recognise him and alert the police. So he remains in limbo near the border in Turkey. “There are many people who want to defect,” he said. “But how can they survive?”
Another defector, 28, found that the best way to move on from ISIS was to keep fighting. He joined a rebel group that battles both ISIS and Assad, turning his gun on his old friends. “I thought ISIS would be able to fight the regime if they built their Islamic state, because the regime is a state, and only a state can fight a state,” he said. “But they are just like the regime. They told the Syrian people that if you are not with us, then you are our enemy. And they committed terrible crimes.”
Okab was still caught in his contradiction in Raqqa — knowing he should leave ISIS yet continuing to fight for it — when he received what he saw as a grim chance to make amends. One of his superiors offered to give him a Yazidi slave. He accepted, telling himself he could offer her safe haven, he said when he recalled the episode from southern Turkey: “Just I wanted to protect one Yazidi person at that time.”
The woman was so ill from the sexual brutality she had endured from previous owners that he rushed her to a hospital. ISIS’s use of rape against Yazidi women has been systematic, with at least 3,000 still trapped in bondage, according to the U.N., and stories of horrific suffering told by those who manage to escape. She was also in shock from what had happened to her family — her husband killed in front of her and her two young sons taken away for indoctrination in children’s camps. “I tried to help her feel better and take her mind off what happened,” Okab said. “But how can a woman who had this happen to her forget?”
By the time Okab escaped to Turkey to tell his story, the woman couldn’t be reached, making it impossible to say how she felt about her new captor or what happened to her in his custody. In Okab’s telling, he didn’t touch her during the months they lived together in Raqqa, and though he knew she could never fully trust him, he believed they became friends. Over hours of interviews, he repeatedly expressed horror at what ISIS had done to the Yazidis and in particular to its female slaves. “I was telling people they are human,” he said. “It’s haram” — forbidden — “to rape them and sell them and treat them like this. But their only answer was that they are infidels. They don’t understand human language.”
At the same time, the quest he described to protect the woman was part of a story he was telling himself — one in which, despite all the wrong he had done, he remained the hero. He recalled telling her about his own experience in Sinjar and thoughts about defecting. “I needed to find someone to talk to about this, because I felt I would blow myself up if I didn’t,” he said. “She was the only person.”
She was also a constant reminder of why he’d vowed to leave. He began to set his sights on the border with Turkey, he said, hoping he could find a way to smuggle them both to safety. “We asked him to be careful and to forget the woman, because they might be killed together if ISIS caught them,” Okab’s friend in Turkey said. “But I think he wanted to help her to atone.”
Refugees have passed constantly across Turkey’s 565-mile border with Syria during five years of war, along with fighters, weapons, and aid. Some of the smuggling paths that cut through the desert hills have been used for decades. Although Turkish authorities have cracked down along the border, ISIS can still use veteran smugglers to get jihadis into their territory. To escape is far more difficult.
ISIS prohibits even civilians from fleeing as airstrikes batter the towns and cities it controls. It keeps its own members in a tighter grip. They can’t leave ISIS areas without permission either, and fighters are often isolated in military camps. They are also watched closely by ISIS’s internal security and intelligence branch, the amni, which permeates its territory and has a network of informants beyond. Several defectors said they feared ISIS could kill them wherever they hid, even in Europe. “People can join ISIS, but nobody can defect,” said a Syrian man who worked for the amni before defecting last year.
The man said his tasks had included monitoring other ISIS members. Foreigners, he said, face an even harder time in leaving than locals like Okab. They might speak limited Arabic and often don’t know the terrain. Westerners in particular are spied on extensively. “I know that a lot of them are in ISIS jails because they want to leave,” the man said. “Spies came to me many times, saying this person or that person wants to defect.”
Reserved and imposing in a leather jacket and jeans, he sat in a hotel lobby in southern Turkey, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. He said he found many of ISIS’s Western members to be especially naïve. They came to Syria with an idealised vision of ISIS that came crashing down when they were confronted with reality. He said he had received regular reports from informants about Westerners suspected of wanting to defect — about five every month.
He was supposed to pass the information to his superiors. But he began to keep it to himself, he said, as he too became disillusioned and made plans to escape, believing that ISIS was more concerned with killing civilians and rival rebels than with fighting Assad. He arrived in Turkey last fall and still counts his time away from ISIS by the day.
New dangers lurk for defectors who flee Iraq and Syria. Foreign governments are on high alert over the terror threat posed by ISIS fighters returning home, and operatives posing as refugees. Recent ISIS attacks in Paris, Istanbul, and Brussels involved jihadis who were dispatched by the group from Syria, and authorities in Europe have repeatedly foiled other plots. This puts defectors under intense suspicion and the threat of arrest, said two men working to help defectors navigate their escapes.
Both men are Syrians based in Sanliurfa, Turkey, which sits near the border with ISIS territory and hosts thousands of refugees. Neither has been a member of ISIS. They work independently of one another, but the process is similar for both. They normally hear from a trusted contact in Syria about an ISIS member who wants to defect. Then they contact the potential defector, through an intermediary or online, to determine whether he or she can be trusted. If so, they coordinate with veteran smugglers to sneak the person from ISIS territory and across the border to Turkey, where they must then try to avoid the authorities as well as ISIS spies.
Each man has helped both locals and foreigners. The cases are sporadic. Both said many more people would defect if they could find an easier way. “I think they’re too afraid,” said one, a former rebel commander in his forties. He had just spent two months working to smuggle a European defector to Turkey, who spoke briefly to BuzzFeed News by phone after he arrived, saying only that his journey was complete.
The second man, a decade younger, works with one of the rebel groups that is at war with ISIS; his task is to weaken the extremists by pulling people from their hold. He clicked through photos and videos of some Western defectors on his laptop and criticised foreign governments for doing little to bring their own jihadis home. “I just want these people out of my country,” he said.
Trying to leave ISIS can be as risky as anything would-be defectors faced on the battlefield. Shiraz Maher, a U.K.-based researcher who has tracked ISIS defectors, speaks regularly with the parents of ISIS members who say their sons or daughters want to escape. “I tell them this is the most dangerous thing he or she will do,” he said. “It’s actually safer for them to stay in Raqqa.”
Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College in London, sees defectors as a missed opportunity in the fight against ISIS. “There is no one more compelling in terms of a counter-narrative to ISIS than a defector,” he said. “Because they speak with the greatest authority. No one has lived it apart from these guys.”
Even as the U.S. and its allies work to roll back ISIS on the battlefield, Maher said, they have done little to encourage would-be defectors to leave or to clarify a policy on how they’ll be treated if they come home. “The policy is that if you go to Syria, you die in Syria, or you sort of live your life as a nomad,” he said. “No one has a plan and no one has a strategy. As a result of that, people remain inside.”
This leaves potential defectors with little to support them in the decision to leave and a lot pulling them to stay. “ISIS ultimately operates like a cult. It’s not just a simple process of intellectually disengaging,” Maher said. “You’re also invested on an emotional level — your friends are in the group and it gives you a real sense of purpose. You’re doing God’s work, and everything makes sense. Going from that to a world that lacks that coherence and meaning is a terrifying process.”
A 26-year-old Syrian living in Sanliurfa described his efforts to free his mind from ISIS as something like trying to wake up from a bad dream. Time after time he worked to pull himself from its radical mindset only to be sucked back in. When ISIS had first descended on his native Deir Ezzor, he fought them, as a member of a rival rebel group. Then, after ISIS won, he was captured and given an ultimatum: Fight with us or die. Soon he was on the front doing battle against his old allies.
When he wasn’t fighting, he attended indoctrination courses taught by foreign instructors. After years of war, he found himself drawn to the sectarian hatred they preached. ISIS promotes a fanatical version of Sunni Islam, the religion practiced by most Syrians and almost all of the opposition. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Before the war, he would have considered it “shameful,” he said, to even ask a fellow Syrian his or her religious creed: “We were living together. We were friends.”
But he became convinced that all Shiites and Alawites were responsible for the suffering inflicted by the regime. Anyone standing in ISIS’s way, even a rival rebel, was an infidel too. “Every day, I would wake up in the morning, go to pray, sit with ISIS members and start talking about how we will kill all Shiites and Alawites after we finish our fight with the [rebels],” he said.
During short breaks to visit home, his family would plead with him to leave ISIS and press him with evidence of its crimes. He would be swayed. Then he would return to his military camp and feel his mind swinging back the other way. “We only talk to each other; we don’t watch the media,” he said. “I was always changing my mind.”
He finally made his decision, he said, when an ISIS jihadi in Raqqa publicly executed his own mother, who was an Alawite. He fled shortly after, and by the time he sat down to talk in Sanliurfa, he had been living there for three months. But the hatred ISIS had instilled was hard to outrun. Sipping tea, he said he rejected ISIS, yet he still fixated on the idea of sectarian revenge. “Shiite and Alawite civilians, if they don’t convert to Sunni Islam, we must kill them,” he said. “Because after the war started, they were supporting the regime to kill us. So why can’t we take our revenge?”
He paused to reflect on his continuing struggle. “I’m 26, and I was always changing my mind,” he said. “But what if I tell you about kids inside ISIS? They only want to kill and die.”
A three-hour drive from Sanliurfa, near the Turkish city of Antakya, one such child was now living as a refugee with his family. They had rescued him from ISIS last summer — but the 13-year-old boy had spent the months since resisting their attempts to win back his mind. He had attended ISIS’s indoctrination courses in Raqqa and still considered himself a loyal member. He wanted to return and fight for them in Syria. “I’m not too young,” he said. “Everybody can go to jihad, young people and people more than 100 years old.”
He sat cross-legged on a living-room carpet, looking younger than his age, surrounded by relatives as a television in the corner relayed updates from the war. They kept up a gentle back-and-forth with the boy, challenging him on his violent beliefs, but to little avail. One day last summer, an uncle had brought him to a Turkish beach, hoping to win him over with the sight of young women clad in bikinis. The boy had taken one look and said he wanted their blood to turn the sand red. “He doesn’t listen to us,” the uncle said.
In the living room, when the subject turned to school, the boy said he was doing well and hoped to be an engineer one day. When the conversation turned back to ISIS, he said he hoped to slaughter anyone it would cast as an infidel, even among his neighbours and friends.
“Not all of them,” the uncle prodded him.
“No, all of them,” the boy replied.
“Say at least that you don’t want to kill them, but that maybe ISIS will kill them,” another uncle said.
“No,” the boy insisted, staring deliberately ahead. “I want to.”
On a cold night in southern Turkey, Okab sat around a patio table with an older brother, chain-smoking cigarettes beneath a heat lamp’s orange glare. He wore a sweater and a soft expression that belied his reputation from the battlefield. As he recounted his escape from ISIS, he fought back tears.
In Raqqa, he had offered to smuggle the Yazidi woman to Iraq or bring her across the border with him to Turkey, he said. But she refused to leave without her two sons, both under 10; she’d heard nothing of them since they were separated when ISIS came. He began to ask about them at the children’s camps, he said, careful not to raise suspicions, but turned up nothing.
Then, still debating his next step, he received permission from ISIS to travel to Turkey to get treatment for an old battle wound. While recovering from surgery, he said, he had received a warning from Raqqa that ISIS had discovered his dissent and that he would be arrested if he returned. He stayed in Turkey, leaving the woman behind. He had learned, he said, that he can’t right his wrongs — and is far from a hero. The female relative who had been kidnapped by the YPG was released without his help and now refused to speak to him. As for the Yazidi woman, his brother said: “They probably sold her again.”
Okab admitted that he had considered asking forgiveness from ISIS and returning to Raqqa to live as a civilian, unsure of what to do with himself in Turkey. He hoped instead, he said, to find a way “to live a normal life.”
He was wary of any allegiance or creed, and even less religious than in his university days. “Islam is rules and Muslims must be under those rules,” he said. “I don’t want to be under anyone. I want to be free.”