Defections from “Islamic State” Reasons, Nature, and Impacts

Defections from “Islamic State”

Reasons, Nature, and Impacts


October 2015

Prepared by

Faisal Dahmoush Al Mashhour

Issued by

JFL Observatory in Deir Ezzor

Syrians for Democracy



The “Islamic State” affiliated members represent the major pillar for the execution of its policies and planned goals, especially that the organization attracts large numbers of the fighters from all over the world; where the number of the organization members has reached 45-50 thousand fighters ([1]), while many people underestimate the number to 25-30 thousand fighters ([2]). Half of those fighters are foreigners as they have come from approximately fifty countries. The victories that the organization has achieved against its rivals, the media policy adopted by the organization that aims to attract the fighters by tempting them with “Khilafa” model, the capacity of the organization for manipulating the contradictions and conditions of the area, the reality of marginalizing the “Sunni” component in general, and the dominant sectarian and ethnic tension in the area are the main motif for many young people to join the organization of “Islamic State”. Nonetheless, some defections of members recently emerged in the organization that foretells a new stage which made those young men to reprioritize and reconsider their calculations. Also, it indicates that there are arguments in the very hierarchy of the organization and led to such non-relative stability and emergence of these cases.

 This paper looks into the defections, investigates the reasons behind those defections, most defected figures in Deir Ezzor particularly, and evaluates the impact of the defections on the structure of the organization.

This paper differentiates between two types of defection; the first one is horizontal that resulted by the absence of the motivating reasons for joining the organization. This type is divided into defection and fleeing. The second type is vertical which is ideological-based defection.

First: The Structure of “Islamic State” Organization

The structure consists of a combination of duality of ideology and structure; mental and doctrine ideology that shaped by “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”, which is blending, later on, with the right Baathist[3] ideology that is considered as the ideological core for the organization, and the organizational structure that was formed by an accumulated former experience along with administrative divisions and structure that required by the new reality after the declaration of transforming from Jihadist organization into “Khilafa” state with vast territorial area.

Given the organizational structure of “Islamic State” organization, we – from our perspective-can divide it according to the ideological structure into four levels as the first and second levels are considered as the hard core of the organization:

  • The First Level: this level includes “Khalifa[4]”, his deputies, “Shura council”, “ Ahl Al Hall wa Al Aqed”[5],the commanders of security apparatus,and “Al Haya Al Shareyya[6]”; who are controlling on the strategies of the organization ,designing its policies, and determining its objectives.
  • The Second Level: it includes the “walys[7]” , senior “Shareyen[8]” , and senior military commanders who enjoy with a space of relative centralization in making decisions and prioritizing under the umbrella of the general policy of the organization.
  • The third Level: it includes “Shareyen”, military “Umara[9]”, administrative staff for the “Dawaween”[10],”and Umara of the cities , districts and subdistricts . The majority of those positions are foreigners with a minority of local loyalists who believe in Salafi ideology and attracted to the notion of Khilafa.
  • The Fourth Level: it includes the executive apparatus that occupied by administrative personnel, “Al Hisbah”[11]members, and Islamic police. Most of them are newly joined local loyalists.

The first two levels include the founders who enjoy a Jihadi long career in the organization and high discipline. The last two levels include the newly joined foreigners who carry the Salafi mentality, local Free Syrian Army troops, and tribes’ members who voluntarily or involuntarily joined the organization. These two levels are impure with a sort of disorder that resulted from administrative centralization due to the vast expansion that dominated by the organization, and the high diversity of nationalities, languages, and non-harmonized cultures. This led to regional clusters such as “Iraqis” cluster that control the critical positions in the first two levels, in addition to other clusters in the third and fourth levels such as Chechens, Arab Gulf based, Turks, and Tunisians which affect relatively on the consistency of the organization.

The Defections in the Structure of the Organization

Numbers, Nature, Reasons, and Impact

  1. The Numbers of Defected Members:

There are no accurate figures for the defected members due to disinformation that imposed by the organization on the dominated areas, and the difficulty of obtaining confirmed information by its sources. But, the estimated numbers in Syria are approximately 450[12] defected members – locals and foreigners- most of them defected from Al Raqqa province. While in Deir Ezzor the number is about 70[13] members, and less in Aleppo countryside and al Hasakeh.

  1. The Reasons:

The reasons behind the defection are various; the subjective reasons related to members and objective reasons related to the contradicted conditions that aroused recently inside the structure of the organization. In general, they are the opposite reasons for joining which are:

  • The brutal practices and policies of the organization and the harsh unfair penalties on the locals.
  • The increase of targeting operations against the members that conducted by unknown people for the sake of revenge.
  • The increase of airstrikes conducted by US-led coalition, the repeatedly frequent defeats with heavy losses, and the inability of the organization for restoring the lost areas which led to loss of confidence in the part of its members.
  • The decrease of financial capabilities which was negatively reflected on livelihood of its local members.
  • The tension of the military operations and the increasing need for new fighters which led to make their administrative staff fear their lives and flee.
  • The feeling the pointlessness of the Jihadi project that led to absence of the motif for fighting.
  • The arguments between foreigners on the spoils and control on fortunes, the emergence of competitive clusters inside the organization. In addition arguments between the locals and foreigners due to the privileges and positions that reached to the limit of fighting.
  • The doctrine arguments between the “Shareyen” and the contradicted “Fatawa[14]” due to the diversity of references. In addition to absence of ideological consistency within the organization after joining of members for the sake of personal purposes.
  • The reality of the organization that differs from what promoted on the organization media in terms of stability and administration.
  • The autocratic nature of the organization along with the absence of top leader due to security circumstances.
  • The expanded “Takfeer”[15] to includes all people who disagree with the organization policies, fighting the Islamic groups who share the same ideology with different applied policy like “Jabhat Al Nusra” , “ Al Jabha Al Shameyya”, and “ Ahrar Al Sham”.
  1. The Nature of Defections:

Most of defections are horizontal ones that reach the fourth level primarily, and the third level at less impact. These two levels are considered as peripheral structure which includes the newly joined members after the declaration of Islamic State. Where the members of the four level do not carry the ideology of the organization as a final reference ideology, but they joined the organization due to ignorance, poverty, or for the sake of personal purposes. Whereas the members of the third level are believers of Salafi ideology and were shocked by the reality of the “Islamic Sate” that is different from the propaganda of the organization and what is imagined in their minds.

The defections of the third level are related to the objection on the organization policies, contradictions of “Fatawa” and different points of view such as the defection of “Abu Hajar Al Tunisi” and “Abu Hurayra Al Lybi[16]”.

Whereas the defections of the fourth level are related to the members fear of revenge that may be committed by the locals due to the violations conducted by these members such as “Ammar Haddawi and Amer Al Naklawi”[17] . Some other reasons like the fierce battles and recent defeats of the organization; the fleeing of some loyalists[18] or fleeing after benefits are done such as “Abu Al Waleed Al Masri” and Abu Yusuf Al Masri”.

  1. The Defections Impacts:

Any defection from the structure of any organization shall result a sort of fuddle even a slight one. Eventually, when it becomes a phenomenon, the organization starts to collapse gradually.

Although the numbers of the defected members are small but it caused disparate socks to its members. The defections of the fourth level are considered as relatively marginal ones and able to be compensated. On the other hand, these defections promote the idea of defection in the minds of the local loyalists and motivate them to flee. The defections of the third level are relatively affective on the consistency of the organization and the ability to attract the foreigners, but they will not affect on the general policy since the members of this level have no power on this policy, but it is resulted as reaction for it.

Until now, these defections seem to be not dangerous on the apparent consistency of the organization or the ideological structure. However, these defections shape a kind of scruple that consumes the organization in terms of security, and plant the seeds of doubt among the members.

The ideological defection is still the most dangerous one that feared by the organization since there is risk to collapse due to this type of defection. Yet, no vertical defection that reaches the ideological core was recorded.

The Strategy of the Organization in front of Defections:

The Organization of Islamic State follows various methods and manners in order to confine defections and flee cases;

  • Intensifying the security: where the organization observe the movements of its members along with their communications especially who are characterized with doubts. The observation is performed by a vital security network.
  • Invitation and Intimidation: the organization does not underestimate the attempts of defection. The organization arrested and executed many members who tried to defect[19]. At the same time, the organization grants more privileges to its member in order to guarantee their loyalty.
  • Reinforcing the Internal Environment: throughout disinformation, isolating its detainees, and intensifying the Shareea courses for newly joined members, former revolutionists, and locals for the sake of convincing them with the organization ideology.
  • Media Policy: throughout promoting the sectarian tension since the conflict in the area serves the policy of the organization of mobilization.
  • Distributing Members: the organization moves the local fighters to other areas where they do not know its geography in order to prevent them from defection and to reduce the chances of fleeing[20].
  • Plant the seeds of doubt: the organization casts the doubt of his defected members throughout recruiting members to play the role of defected members in order to collect information about the activists and objection fighters who live in Turkey[21] along with assassinations[22].

The Destination of the Defected Members:

The destination of the defected members varies depending on the reason and the nature of the defection. Where the majority of the fleeing members after stealing cash amounts, or members who fear the revenge of the local people, they flee towards Turkey then to Europe. These members use IDs and passports that belong to Syrian and Iraqi detainees and victims. Whereas the defected members due to the organization policies and doctrine arguments, they flee towards other Jihadi groups that share their ideology like “Jaish Al Muhajereen wal Ansar”, “ Jund Al Aqsa” , “Jabhat Al Nusra”, and “ Ahrar Al Sham”.

We can call these movements as “re-alignment of the foreign Jihadists”, whereas little of defected members back to their home country.

The Porepects of Collapse

These defections reveal the failure of “Islamic State” to convince its members, and the inability to merge people from different origins under its flag. At the same time, it cannot be considered as enough reasons for fast collapse.

Nevertheless, in the shed of current facts, the increasing airstrikes of US-led coalition, the revealing of the organization fact, and the irate feelings of population against the organization make us expect that defections will increase, likely in gradual manner, in the third and fourth levels in a way it become a phenomenon that effects directly on its domination on the ground. Nonetheless, the hard core of the structure will stay consistent and back gradually to the status of Jihadi organization that preceded the status of a “state”. The possibility of vertical defection still exists in a way that minor groups defect from the organization and control on territories within the limits of the organization since there are ideological arguments inside the hard core of the organization. This kind of defection needs relatively long time.

We see that the military operations and counting on organization collapse are not enough for eradicating the organization. We notify that the final desired eradication can not be made without a political solution which terminate the roots of terrorism with all its forms particularly Assad Regime’s one. Where the political solution shall guarantee the vital political participation by all components and social justice is done for the marginalized and poor classes. Likewise, we emphasize on the importance of cultural criticism in the way to understand the ideology that is considered as the foundation for such organizations.

It is worth note that it is too important to document the numbers and identities for the detainees in the jails of “Islamic State” organization as its members use the IDs for fleeing, in order to pursuit those members since they are dangerous terrorists who threaten the whole world.

([1]) Estimations of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

([2]) Estimations of International Intelligence Agencies.

[3] Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party

[4] Caliphate

[5] This term refers to those qualified to elect or depose a caliph on behalf of the Muslim community

[6] Shareea Committee

[7] Governor of province

[8] Islamic Judges

[9]  Plural of Amir which means governor of Sub district

[10] Departments

[11] is an Islamic doctrine which means “accountability”.[1] Hisbah is the divinely sanctioned duty of the ruler (government) to intervene and coercively “command right and forbid wrong” in order to keep everything in order according to Sharia

[12] According to media agencies that covers IS-held areas, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

[13] According to JFL Observatory in Deir Ezzor

[14]Plural of Fatwa which means the  term for the legal opinion or learned interpretation

[15] Refers to the practice of excommunication i.e. one Muslim declaring another Muslim as kafir (infidel).

[16] Abu Hajar Al Tunisi is the Ameer of the western side of Al Booukmal countryside. Abu Hurayra is military commander for foreigners fighters.

[17] Two fighters from Deir Ezzor who played a major role in supporting the foundation of the organization in Deir Ezzor province.

[18]The fleeing of group of fighters from “Al Bkayer” tribe who joined the organization

[19] Abu Obieda or abu Yusuf is an employee in Zakat department. Abu Al Waleed is the Ameer of Omar oil field, they fled after stealing cash amounts.

[20] Many people who work in media confirmed the execution of 280 members due to their attempts to defect.

[21] Group of 6 members stayed for one month in Gaziantep- Turkey pretending that they are defected members, then they back to the organization

[22] Two activists, who worked in the campaign entitled “ Al Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently” that document the violations committed by the organization, were killed by defected members.

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