New York: Syrian defectors from Islamic State – including top commanders and a child groomed to be a suicide bomber – have described their experience inside the cult terror group including little known details of slave markets, drugged soldiers and how promises of sex and money have replaced paradise virgins as recruitment incentives.
Interviews with 13 ex-IS members, conducted in a secret location in Turkey by American and Turkish academics, revealed the terror group runs a regulated slave trade of women while child soldiers – so-called "Cubs of the Caliphate" – are given drugs before embarking on suicide missions. The defectors claimed the situation inside parts of war-ravaged Syria is so desperate that many civilians believe joining IS is the only way to survive.
In one interview, a defector – who admitted to being heavily involved in the regulated slave trade – said the enslavement of Yazidi women had been widely reported but wives of defeated enemy soldiers from the Iraqi army, Free Syrian Army, and Syrian government forces were also traded.
"There are special places in Raqqa where they sell slaves," said the defector who used the pseudonym 'Abu Nasir'. "The [female morality police] are in charge of everything about the slaves".
The defector described how only IS soldiers can buy women as slaves.
"[An IS soldier] needs documents from the emir or the governor of IS in that region granting permission to him to buy a slave and only after getting this permission he can go to [the morality police] and the slave market to buy slaves. They are sold by dollars. The minimum price is $US1000 and the maximum is $US3000," said Abu Nasir.
"The slave girls can be sold between fighters, but only to the mujahideen, and there are rules. You cannot take mother and daughter slaves sexually at once, as you can only be with one of them".
"The slave women have different rules in terms of covering themselves. It's like a wife, although unlike wives there is no limitation on the number you can have. If you are with her and have a child with her, and she becomes a Muslim, she can become your wife."
The defectors described how new IS recruits learn Islamic law and are indoctrinated with extremist Takfiri ideology – a belief system that declares any Muslim who does not adhere to a rigid interpretation of Sunnism is an apostate who should be killed.
According to the defectors, Syrians who join IS are rewarded with jobs that, for young men, open a coveted door to marriage. Young women are given money – in scarce supply in Syria – that allows families to eat. Foreign fighters receive additional rewards: wives, sexual slaves, and sometimes homes and cars.
"If you do not fight for IS, you die from hunger as they would not feed or support you, or let you work," said one defector using the name 'Abu Jamal'.
"Eventually, you either fight for them or die. If you fight for them, they pay $US200 per month and also supply all your needs. You do not need to spend any money. Two hundred dollars is a lot more than a high-ranking judge can make in Syria. When I joined, they told me I need to go to fight in Ramadi for a year and then I will be free to go anywhere in the caliphate. They also give you a free house, furniture, all your needs – even the money to purchase slave girls." Abu Jamal defected during his first year.
Some IS recruits joined the organisation in an attempt to absolve themselves from what they considered past sins.
"Some people join IS in order to become 'martyrs' so that their past sins are forgiven," said a defector. "[One said] 'I am from Saudi Arabia. I was very rich and I had committed most of the sins. I thought that I had to do something big to be forgiven, so I left everything behind to fight here to cleanse my soul.'"
At the time of the interviews in late 2015, the defectors were living in Turkey in hiding, fearing retribution from IS. They include 12 men and one woman including IS commanders, regular soldiers, a prison guard, and a 14-year-old child groomed to be a suicide bomber.
Some of their accounts, contained in a report published in the academic journal Perspectives on Terrorism, are the most recent of life inside IS by defectors. The report's authors expect to publish a book of interviews with at least 27 Syrian and European defectors this year.The interviews took place in secret locations in Turkey amid an atmosphere where an IS agent posing as a defector had recently murdered and beheaded two journalists researching life under IS in the city of Raqqa.
The research was conducted by Anne Speckhard, director of the International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and Ahmet Yayla, a former chief of counter-terrorism with the Turkish National Police and now Chairman of the Department of Sociology at Harran University in Turkey.
"The current idea being sold by IS is the caliphate and alternative-world governance," Dr Speckhard said, explaining reasons why recruits join IS.
"If you're not happy with your life, if you're off track in your life in any way, and you start logging on to the internet and getting into the ISIS world, they're offering you an alternative reality and a different conception of your place in this reality. If you're Muslim, you'll be honoured, you'll have an important place, you'll have significance, purpose, honour, adventure, romance, sex, money."
Dr Speckhard said during an interview in New York that she had spoken with 500 terrorists and extremists of many colours during her academic career. She has advised the US and British governments and met with Australia's government to discuss terrorism.
"[Inspiration] used to be the virgins in paradise," Dr Speckhard said. "Now, it's sex. You'll get a partner; you'll get a sex slave. For a young man, that's a powerful motivator. You'll get a job. If you're in Molenbeek, in Brussels, and you're facing 30 percent unemployment and a lot of marginalisation and discrimination, come here, you'll be very respected as a Muslim, you'll have a high social status, you'll be given a job, and you'll be able to marry, and be sexually gratified."
A child soldier, using the pseudonym 'Abu Shujaa', revealed children were given drugs before launching suicide attacks. Dr Speckhard told of another child soldier who said "they wanted to make me a button". According to Dr Speckhard, the 14-year-old child was told, "You push the button, you won't feel a thing, and then you'll be straight in paradise."
A former IS commander described battlefield use of amphetamines.
"There were loud sounds of explosions all around me and I was very scared," said 'Abu Said'. "This guy from IS, he looked at me and realised that I was scared… He gave me a tablet. I swallowed it. I became a different man – as if I am a hero. I went forward, and said, 'No, I want to die!' It gave me so much power. I felt as if I am indestructible and unbeatable."
Communities under IS control are patrolled by groups of women who have been appointed 'morality police' or 'hisba'. A hisba comprising Western women who carry AK-47s are perceived to have more power and authority than regular hisba.
"If there is a woman with no niqab and no socks, or if a colourful garment under the niqab is showing, [the morality police] take her to court and she receives a sentence from ten to 40 lashes," said 'Abu Walid'.
The defectors denied claims by pro-Assad and Russian-backed groups that women take part in 'jihad al-nikah', an alleged practice where women offer themselves as 'temporary wives' to IS fighters – effectively acting as prostitutes.
"We heard about jihad al-nikah," said 'Abu Nisar'. "Muslim girls coming and giving their body as prostitutes for the mujahideen? It is absolutely not true."
Defectors said Syrian fighters rarely came into contact with Western recruits but it was understood Westerners received more incentives to fight than locals including the promise of homes, wives, female slaves, and cars.
Foreign fighters came from many countries, according to those interviewed: the US, Britain, Germany, France, Russia, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, China, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
Russians – many who said they were former Russian soldiers who had converted to Islam – were treated with suspicion while Saudis had a reputation for brutality.
"The worst of IS are the Saudi fighters," said Abu Jamal. "They are very brutal and violent."
The defectors grew disillusioned with IS for several reasons. One claimed he was angry that a fighter was not punished for a rape.
"In 2014, I realised that Daesh were liars," said 'Abu Walid'. "For instance, there was an IS guy who raped a woman, but got away with it."
Yet another considered it hypocritical to sell oil to the Assad regime. Continual exposure to extreme violence was also given as a reason for defection.
In a separate 2015 study of 58 IS defectors, Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London, found four themes among the reasons disillusioned fighters gave for defecting. One was the extent of fighting with other Sunni rebel groups and that "toppling the Assad regime didn't seem to be a priority".
"It causes them a lot of pain," Dr Speckhard said. "They have terrible nightmares and terrible self-doubt about what they were involved in. At one point they were true believers and they went through their training, they did behead. Some of them make the point of telling us, 'I never killed civilians. I only killed in battles'. They make that point because they do feel guilty."