Dealing with Daesh defectors

Originally commissioned October 2015

Daesh defectors’ voices represent a strategic asset if handled appropriately, however, they may well contain tacit confessions of serious crimes, in turn bolstering their credibility; governments will have to weigh up the usefulness of the narratives against the need to use punishment as a deterrent.

  • Defectors’ narratives provide an authentic voice which will resonate with at-risk individuals and they will be likely embedded in relevant networks.

  • That the defectors are still sympathetic to violent ideologies and not necessarily converts to liberal democracy will make them more credible.

  • While governments will want to punish former fighters as a deterrent to others, this must be balanced against their usefulness as a strategic asset.

The number of Daesh defectors has been steadily increasing, and their stories provide a powerful tool to undermine Daesh’s narrative. Such narratives have been thus far lacking in the fight to counter the appeal of Daesh to foreign recruits with the group previously able to more effectively control the release of potentially negative information. These defectors’ stories provide an authentic voice, sympathetic to Daesh’s appeal, but which is nonetheless speaking out against the group. Returning fighters will likely already be embedded within circles sympathetic to such violent ideologies, hard to penetrate organically, that likely contain people at risk of recruitment.

That these defectors are not necessarily supportive to everything associated with liberal democracy is in fact helpful. It places their stories outside the normative anti-Daesh narrative. The effect of such messaging on otherwise unreachable audiences should be considered in the presentation of initiatives which utilize these assets. A lot of defectors cite their reason for defection in the discrepancies between Daesh’s stated ideology and its actions on the ground.

One recurring motivation for defection is disapproval of the killing of innocent Sunni civilians, as opposed to all civilians in general. Defectors may well still hold sympathy for violent ideologies but such inclinations can likely be dealt with as a separate issue. Promoting their narrative may therefore still be problematic, potentially containing elements that justify or even glorify violent extremism. However, those currently at greatest risk of recruitment are likely already sympathetic to violent ideologies, so this will resonate more strongly with them.

To be taken as genuine, these stories will have to be taken in their entirety and may well contain tacit or even direct confessions of very serious crimes. While there is a clear argument to be made for high-profile prison sentences to serve as a deterrent, this may also deter future terrorist ‘dropouts’ from making themselves known. The potential effectiveness of the defector’s voice as an asset must be balanced against the severity of crimes they have committed. Promoting such content comes with significant levels of risk. However, there remain few if any viable and equally powerful alternatives to directly attack the flood of propaganda being disseminated daily by Daesh.

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