An effective approach to countering the savvy propaganda dispatched by the Islamic State (ISIS) may be simply disseminating more truthful accounts of life and legion within the so-called caliphate.
The terrorist organisation has presented its project as the construction of a utopian society by true believers and heroic outcasts from around the world. Sadistic violence grabs headlines but what has largely drawn recruits to ISIS controlled territory is the call to protect the oppressed and the promise of collectively building a community which supposedly offers justice, adventure, belonging and a concerted identity.
None of this is reality, of course. In the last year in particular, examples of the double standards, infighting and discontent within ISIS have emerged. These day-to-day details potentially represent more effective counter-messaging material than theological arguments, particularly when delivered by people with first-hand experiences.
All is not well
Disillusionment is considered to be one of the primary push factors for individuals who decide to leave a terrorist organisation. An extensive empirical study on disengagement from the Basque separatist group ETA found that drop-outs typically left because of discontent over the organisation's internal functioning and a loss of faith in its leadership.
A 2015 report on ISIS defectors revealed that a persistent criticism was internal strife with other Sunni groups in the Syrian conflict, and the leadership's 'obsession' with subversion and suspected traitors. In late February 2016, a dispute between ISIS Iraqi leaders and a cohort of Dutch muhajireen in the Syrian city of Raqqa allegedly spiralled out of control, resulting in eight of the Europeans being executed. The clashes were sparked by allegations of arrogance and discrimination from one side and insubordination and incitement to defect from the other.
Perceived hypocrisy can be a powerful source of resentment among an organisation's lower ranks. Defectors from Syria told researchers in 2015 that ISIS personnel smoked cigarettes while continuing to punish members of the public for their nicotine habits. Another story emerged of an ISIS commander who was found to be having a homosexual relationship with a 15 year-old. The boy was allegedly thrown to his death from a building, while the senior leader merely received a flogging and a transfer.
Double standards appear be a feature of life as an ISIS recruit. Foreign fighters apparently earn double the amount given to their Syrian comrades and residents of Raqqa complain that foreigners 'live like princes' while treating locals like second-class citizens. It also depends where international militants come from; fighters from South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are reportedly considered inferior to Arabs, earn less, and are prone to being 'tricked into suicide attacks'.
One former ISIS security officer described the arrogance among the leadership of his former organisation and the perception among local people that the caliphate amounts to colonial occupation. More recently, a leaked ISIS document revealed that foreign fighters had unjustifiably attacked residents, including healthcare professionals and public service employees.
Despite the severe moral code that ostensibly guides ISIS, psychotropic drugs are allegedly available in the caliphate. One Syrian defector who admitted to feeling scared on the battlefield said he was given a pill which made him feel 'indestructible and unbeatable', but then couldn't sleep for the following four days. 'Many of the ISIS members use this drug', he said. A Lebanese manufacturer of Captagon (an illegal amphetamine-based drug popular in the Middle East) told reporters last year that 'Everything daesh does is because of this pill'.
There have also been reports of corruption. A former fighter revealed how ISIS commanders would scam the system by lodging applications for significantly more salary packages than they had soldiers to pay, and then pocketing the difference.
Finding the ideal messenger
These accounts could be dismissed as 'Western propaganda' but this would be less plausible if detailed stories come directly from those who have managed to escape the caliphate. In 2015 the Quilliam Foundation in the UK established a campaign called #openyoureyes which now features a website comprising piece-to-camera testimonies from a range of people challenging extremist narratives.
Most of the short clips have been watched (on the official website) fewer than a thousand times, while one appeal from a 'British ex-jihadi' has over 66,000 views. Another 'secret filming from inside Mosul' featuring women describing life under ISIS occupation has almost 58,000 views.
These videos prove the pulling power of authentic experience.
Last month the European Union's counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove stated that returning jihadis who do not have 'blood on their hands' have the potential to provide 'a strong credible voice for counter-narrative purposes'. Former MI6 global counter-terrorism director Richard Barrett argued in 2014 that repentant fighters should be encouraged to return home: 'Many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-terrorists', he said.
This argument was made one year ago by Tim Legrand on the ABC. Within a day or two the piece had received a deluge of heated comments from readers who largely demanded an uncompromising approach to dealing with anyone who had left Australia to fight or support jihadi groups in the Middle East.
It is clearly a sensitive issue and emotions run high. Past attacks in Australia — both foiled and executed — have involved individuals with overseas experiences of jihad. Many of those who managed to join ISIS or al-Nusra Front in Syria and Iraq may have committed despicable acts. Others will have played supporting roles.
Crimes should not go unpunished, but if a repentant returning fighter is able to pass the Violent Extremism Risk Assessment protocol (VERA-2) or something similar, and is prepared to publicly reprimand the organisation they once supported, he or she would become a valuable asset.
The truth about the so-called caliphate may be its most destructive weakness in terms of global recruitment and support, but only those who have been there can accurately paint the picture.