The Iraqi government has announced it is leading a major military push to retake Iraq’s Anbar province from ISIL, which controls two of the province’s major cities, Ramadi and Fallujah. Clearing ISIL from Anbar is no easy task. As President Barack Obama recently noted, ISIL has dug in among innocent civilian populations in the urban areas under its control.
But as local forces take on ISIL militarily, it is also important for ISIL sympathizers in Iraq, Syria and beyond, to hear the stories of those who were once attracted to the propaganda promulgated by ISIL, but have come to reject it. As President Obama has said, to ultimately defeat terrorist groups like ISIL, it is necessary to discredit their ideology – “the twisted thinking that draws vulnerable people into their ranks.” Who can do that better than those who have seen it from the inside, at close quarters?
Take for example, a former ISIL fighter from Fallujah known as Hamza who volunteered to join ISIL last summer, but who defected after six months. He told the Independent newspaper he joined the group for religious reasons, but was appalled by the beheadings, by being asked to execute Sunnis whom he knew, and by being offered captured young Yazidi women for sexual pleasure.
“At the beginning I thought they were fighting for Allah, but later I discovered they were far from the principles of Islam,” he said. “The justice they were calling for when they first arrived in Fallujah turned out to be only words.”
Or the Syrian teenager Usaid Barho, recruited by ISIL to be a suicide bomber, who eventually gave himself up to Iraqi authorities. He told the New York Times last year he joined ISIL willingly because he “believed in Islam” and had been was convinced by ISIL that if he didn’t join the group, Shiites would come and rape his mother. Soon, however, he said ”I noticed things that were different from Islam.”
He noted, for example, that ISIL inflicted severe punishments on men in the city who were caught smoking cigarettes, yet in camp he saw fighters smoking; he witnessed homosexual encounters between the fighters; and he became increasingly disturbed by the killing of innocent people.
President Obama has said that the international fight against ISIL is a battle against terrorists who distort Islam and whose victims are mostly Muslims. Those who have experienced ISIL first hand and have turned away, say the same.