The Return: Can Rehabilitation Work for IS Defectors?

              On September 2015, The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) came out with a report detailing the experiences of Islamic State (IS) defectors.  The study analyzed the accounts of 58 defectors.  The Centre mentioned that these 58 defectors likely represent a much larger group that have yet to share their experiences and opinions publicly.[1]  The Centre gave key recommendations on how to deal with returning fighters.  Though the recommendations would be helpful, they fall short in one key regard: addressing the specific rehabilitation needs of returning fighters.

              Through the course of the study the researchers identified four key narratives that prompted individuals to defect.  The first main narrative made by defectors was that that the Islamic State was more interested in fighting Sunni Muslims (Sunni opposition groups) than the Assad government.[2]  Many of the defectors felt that fighting against other Sunni groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army was wrong, counterproductive and illegitimate.[3]  The second key narrative described in the report was that IS committed brutality against Sunnis.  Atrocities described by defectors included instances of “collateral damage” during military operations.  Defectors also described instances of random killing of hostages and mistreatment of villagers.[4]  The third main narrative was that many defectors felt that individual commanders and “emirs” within IS displayed corrupt or un-Islamic behavior.  The final main criticism that defectors had was that living conditions and quality of life under IS were less than ideal.[5]

               In the face of these narratives, the Centre made four main recommendations.  They recommend that governments and activists realize the value and validity of defector narratives.[6]  In addition to this, they recommend that governments and activists provide defectors with outlets to speak out; assist them with resettlement (with many returning to their home-countries in the Middle East and Europe); and ensure their safety and remove legal disincentives that prevent them from going public.[7]

            Though it is important to assist certain defectors and the recommendations provided are all valid and would greatly help in combating IS, they fall short in one respect.  The report admits that the majority of the 58 defectors framed their critique of IS in jihadist or sectarian terms.[8]  Peter Neumann, ICSR director and the report’s author stated that “None of the defectors talk about Christians or Yazidis being executed, they don’t care about that.”[9]  In one telling account reported in the New York Times, one defector mentioned that he did not approve of aid workers, journalists and other noncombatants being beheaded, but considered it just when IS authorities stoned a couple to death for adultery.[10]  Neumann admits that “we don’t think all defectors are saints, or supporters of liberal democracy, or model citizens.”[11]  Furthermore, he mentioned that “what we are saying is not that people should necessarily be given an amnesty…. That would be stupid, because some may have committed crimes.”[12]  The importance of these testimonies is to combat and counter the glossy propaganda transmitted by IS.  Neumann argues that the testimony of defectors should be counted as “mitigating factors” when these individuals face sentencing.

            As mentioned earlier, the recommendations could prove useful by encouraging more defectors to come forward and combat IS propaganda.  The main problem with the recommendations provided in the report is that they don’t sufficiently address the jihadist sympathies many of these defectors still have.  Whether these defectors will be sentenced to life in prison, lengthy jail time, remain under surveillance/enhanced supervision, or go free, specific policies that make former IS fighters undergo a mandatory rehabilitation program should have been added and detailed in the recommendations.  Encouraging returning fighters to attend programs aimed at tempering/eliminating extremist attitudes could go a long way in helping them reintegrate into the societies they re-enter.  It would be useful to look at the plethora of programs currently being used in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Denmark.  The useful components of these programs should be identified and synthesized into an effective model that can be utilized by countries that lack rehabilitation programs or have ineffective rehabilitation models.[13]  One facet of Saudi Arabia’s program that should seriously be considered employs a team of clerics, theologians and Shariah experts that help correct distortions spread by jihadist ideology.[14]  Structured, mandatory meetings between returnees and experts in Islamic jurisprudence and history could go a long way in changing an individual’s perspective on jihadi claims.  It would be important to make these sessions discussion-based (and not a rigid lecture based format) in order to encourage an interactive environment.  One aspect of Denmark’s program is the provision of free psychological counseling to defectors.  While each program has its short-comings (Denmark’s program has repeatedly been criticized for being too lenient), picking out the strong and effective aspects from each program and formatting them into a structured curriculum could potentially bear fruit.




[2], pg 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pg 13.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.




[12] Ibid. 

[13] and