Following the expulsion of the Islamic State, or ISIS, from Mosul in Iraq, and with the imminent fall of the group’s de facto capital of Raqqa in Syria, reports have suggested that ISIS fighters are defecting or surrendering en masse. But such bullish appraisals of the collapse of ISIS’s fighting spirit may be over-optimistic.
Most people who have fled from ISIS-controlled areas have done so because they were terrified of the invading Shia militias and Shia-dominated Iraqi government forces. Last month, when Iraqi forces liberated the area around the city of Hawija, north of Tikrit, it wasn’t only ISIS fighters who ran. Those from families who had a member in ISIS, even if dead, did also. Many internally displaced Sunni Arabs we interviewed told us that they left their homes and risked passing through Iraqi army and Shia militia lines to reach the Kurdish Peshmerga because “they are also Sunni” and “don’t want to kill us.”
Although there is some evidence of local ISIS forces in Iraq abandoning the fight, ISIS’s foreign volunteers are much more likely to fight to the death or melt away in the hope of fighting another day. A center run by the Kurdish intelligence service in Dibis, north of Hawija, to screen those fleeing ISIS territory had detected only one foreign fighter, an Egyptian, in recent weeks. The head of the center, Captain Ali Muhammad Syan, said that as many as eight thousand people were screened since the start of operations to retake Hawija in September. Nearly all of them, he said, had links to ISIS, mostly through family connections, but many were not actual combatants.
On October 16, as the Iraq Army and Shia militia forces entered Dibis in their offensive to reassert authority over Kirkuk and the nearby oil fields, the Kurdish forces withdrew. They took with them about a hundred remaining detainees, ranging in age from ten years old to seventy. One was a tired-looking bearded man in his mid-twenties who said he was from Hawija. He had pledged allegiance to ISIS “for only two months,” and then “my father pressured me to leave.” For this, he was punished with imprisonment for twenty days. (A Kurdish security officer suspected him of lying because he had worked for eight months in an ISIS oil refinery, though there was no evidence that he had fought with ISIS.)
The foreign fighters were much more committed, the young man said, because “they believed in the cause; that’s what they came for, and they were willing to die for what they came for.” He also explained that their salaries from ISIS were meager compared to what the Iraqi army and Peshmerga soldiers receive. In the words of one Kurdish soldier involved in the offensive to retake Mosul, “Daesh [ISIS] fights to die.”
Although most men who passed through the screening center were probably not ISIS fighters, ISIS did conscript many locals. The group was defending vast territories and governing multitudes, and so drafted into its ranks a steady stream of local men, regardless of their religious zeal or commitment to the Caliphate. In interviews we conducted in Kirkuk with captured fighters before the fall of Mosul, the men recounted growing up in the failed Iraqi state after the American invasion in 2003: a hellish world of guerrilla war, disrupted families, constant fear, and utter lack of hope. They saw Iran and the Shia as their greatest enemy but they also believed that America had enabled the majority Shia to suppress the Arab Sunnis’ religion and communities.
When we asked the prisoners, “What is Islam?” They answered, “My life,” yet it was clear that they knew little about the Quran or Islamic history, other than what they’d heard from Islamic State propaganda. For these Sunni detainees, religion was fused with a caliphate—a joining of political and religious rule that eliminated nonbelievers.
After US-backed coalition forces retook Mosul in July, we conducted interviews and psychological tests with some eighty Sunni Arab men, aged eighteen to thirty, in camps near the city for displaced people. All of those we interviewed who had lived under ISIS rule in the region told us that nearly everyone among the Sunni Arab population had initially welcomed the Islamic State. They called it a glorious “Revolution” (al-Thawra) that was devoted to implementing Allah’s rule in the form of Sharia law and would protect the Sunni people.
“There was freedom to move anywhere, no identity cards, no checkpoints,” one young man said of the first months of ISIS rule. “The Iraqi army used to humiliate us at checkpoints and take money to let people pass. [ISIS] let young people feel freedom. They rebuilt bridges and schools.”
“But then [ISIS] lied,” he went on. “They told everyone that there would be a general amnesty, that there would be no punishment for people who followed Sharia. Then they broke their promises. They would dig into people’s past. They killed former army officers and police and anyone with an important position in the [former] government, first terrifying them, then taking money from them, later executing them.”
Others we interviewed were more inclined to excuse ISIS, putting its increasingly brutal behavior down to pressure on them from coalition attacks and airstrikes. But nearly all our interviewees saw a clear difference between the foreign fighters’ dedication to the Caliphate and the locals’ lack of commitment.
We even met a number of Sunni Arab militia commanders, currently fighting with the Iraqi army and Peshmerga, who acknowledged initially welcoming ISIS. These commanders, often members of tribal elites, only switched sides when ISIS turned to class warfare, inciting less privileged tribesmen to seize the elite’s property and kill them. Many of these dispossessed elites and their kinsmen want blood revenge, adding to the threat from Shia militias a dangerous potential for internal conflict among post-ISIS Sunni Arab communities in Iraq.
Our research team has been working on the front lines of the fight with ISIS since the beginning of 2015, most recently in collaboration with the Carnegie Corporation, to enhance policymakers’ access to field-based social science. We developed a set of psychological measures to gauge willingness to make costly sacrifices for causes and comrades, including fighting and dying (published last month in Nature Human Behaviour).
In our research with both combatants and noncombatants, we found that although ISIS has lost control of almost all majority-Sunni territory in Iraq, the group has imbued a generation of young Sunni Arabs with a strict belief in Sharia law as the only way to govern society; and this is a value they are willing to fight and die for. They described strict Sharia as the only way to eliminate oppression and corruption, and many believe that ISIS’s foreign fighters truly fought for this.
“If Sharia were implemented in a just and right way,” said one young man in a displaced persons camp, “all problems and disagreements will go away. There will be peace and justice and no one can insult anyone. Sharia is not the rule of humans but God’s.” By contrast, the people we interviewed and tested almost invariably associated democracy with human weakness and perfidy, as well as with living under a Shia majority elected at the Americans’ instigation that had brought only tyranny.
“Democracy leads directly to wars and distrust among people,” lamented another young man. “I don’t want it.… America wants to impose democracy only to divide the Sunni people; [ISIS] gave us hope with Sharia.”
ISIS may have lost its state, the Caliphate, but it hasn’t necessarily lost the allegiance of Sunni Arabs in the region to its core values—above all, the absolute rule of Sharia law. The underlying conditions of political and confessional conflict that originally caused people to embrace ISIS have also not appreciably altered. Unless those conditions change—in the direction of tolerance, which would have to involve adjusting the part religious law plays in Iraq’s Sunni Arab society—the specter of ISIS will continue to haunt the region.