Islamic State defections are on the rise, U.S. officials report. Over the last month, defections have increased as coalition forces have ramped up their airstrikes, killing over 3,000 ISIS militants since October – and the rest seem to be taking notice. The Islamic State is feeling the strain, though military experts caution it’s far too early to tell if the trend of defections will continue.
Writes USA Today on Nov. 30: “Wholesale defections, sparsely manned checkpoints and elite foreign fighters pressed into mundane duty indicate that the U.S.-led bombing campaign and advances by Kurdish forces are eroding the forces of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, said Army Col. Steve Warren, the top spokesman for the counter-ISIL coalition in Baghdad.”
The rate of Islamic State defections can be traced to a number of causes – one of them the fact that the jihadist extremist group offers nothing of the allure that is promised to new recruits. ISIS propaganda videos tantalize young people with guarantees of wealth, religious power, women and glory to a greater good. In harsh reality however, grunts that join ISIS are underfed and made to do menial tasks. Those who complain are severely punished, often executed.
As the death toll rises, many that are disillusioned with the caliphate are simply walking away. Stationed far from the heart of ISIS, locals who joined are ill-trained, and not prepared to die. Just last week a group of 90 militants near Kirkuk, Iraq gave themselves up to Kurdish forces.
U.S. officials say the Islamic State death toll over the previous 12 months currently stands at around 23,000. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the chief of Central Command who is overseeing military operations in the Middle East, said “the campaign is inflicting maximum pain on the enemy.”
Still, ISIS continues to field close to 30,000 fighters in parts of Iraq and Syria, and they continue to dominate the key stronghold cities of Mosul and Ramadi in Iraq, and in Raqqa, Syria, which serves as the Sunni militant group’s capital.
Michael O’Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution, remains skeptical. “I view those as provisional signs of progress,” O’Hanlon said. “Individual metrics like these can be deceptive, especially given the difficulty of measuring things accurately. I’d tend to agree with [Central Command] that these anecdotes and snippets of information sound promising, but just remain a bit more skeptical until we see some more indicators and see what happens when more time passes.”
Anti-ISIS video: Graphic anti ISIS recruitment video released by State Dept.
The Washington Post wrote an in-depth piece on the ISIS propaganda machine, and defectors revealed just how much marketing and puffery goes into the making of recruitment videos and public executions.
The Post writes: “What [defectors] described resembles a medieval reality show. Camera crews fan out across the caliphate every day, their ubiquitous presence distorting the events they purportedly document. Battle scenes and public beheadings are so scripted and staged that fighters and executioners often perform multiple takes and read their lines from cue cards.”
“The media people are more important than the soldiers,” said one-time ISIS fighter Abu Abdullah al-Maghribi. “Their monthly income is higher. They have better cars. They have the power to encourage those inside to fight and the power to bring more recruits to the Islamic State.”
The rest of the Islamic State front-liners are simply waiting to join the defection – or else waiting to be killed.