March 26, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1385

The Islamic State's Struggle To Prevent Desertion And Win Back Those Who Have Left

March 26, 2018 | By R. Green*
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1385

Faced with enormous pressure from the global coalition, and following its defeats on the battlefield, recently numerous Islamic State (ISIS) fighters who operated in Syria and Iraq have deserted. Some have returned to their families in Syria and Iraq. Others, from countries outside the Middle East, have either left for other countries in the region or returned home.

At first taking an aggressive stance on this phenomenon, ISIS made various approaches to those who have left and appealed to them to return. It released videos harshly criticizing them, describing them as deserters who abandoned the front at the height of the campaign, and warning them about the punishment that awaits them in the hereafter. In one video, a speaker expresses astonishment that members of ISIS could leave and return to "countries of unbelief" that are beyond ISIS control. One of the videos implies that deserters are considered to be among those who have denied their religion, supplying a quotation from the Quran that condemns those who leave Islam, which reads: "Oh you who have believed, whoever of you should revert from his religion...[Quran 5:54]". The message conveyed is that those fighters have committed a serious crime by abandoning the campaign. The expectation was that they would fight to the death.

However, several weeks later the organization softened its stance, apparently so as not to completely sever its connections with those who leave and to ensure that they still have the option of returning to the fold or to work for ISIS in a different arena. Thus, an editorial in the official ISIS weekly Al-Naba' stated that those who left should not be seen as apostates, as long as it has not been proved that they have transgressed the principles of the faith. This is a further indication of the Islamic State's lack of manpower, which is apparent in a recent video posted by the organization in which women are seen participating in the fighting against the Kurds in Syria. The video is meant to pressure the men who are unwilling to take up arms.[1]

The following is a review of some of the most prominent ISIS references to the phenomenon of desertion:

ISIS Operative: The Deserters Want To Save Themselves Even At The Price Of Harming Islam And Women's Honor

On February 1, 2018, ISIS Al-Khair Province (Deir Al-Zour, Syria) published a video praising the steadfastness of its fighters, the main message of which is a condemnation of the fighters who have deserted.[2]

As the video begins, the narrator says: "Adhering to the straight path is grace that Allah bestows upon His believers. Since Allah, with his ancient wisdom, knows that there are those who will abandon His religion, he informed them [the believers] that this will not harm Allah in the slightest, because He does not need them but they need Him, and the faith that they have adhered to is no more than the grace that he bestows upon them. [As it is written in Quran 5:54]: 'Oh you who have believed, whoever of you should revert from his religion – Allah will bring forth [in place of them] a people He will love and who will love Him [who are] humble toward the believers, powerful against the disbelievers; they strive in the cause of Allah and do not fear the blame of a critic... '"

ISIS fighter rebukes those who desert the battlefield.

Later, an ISIS fighter shown against a backdrop of the ruins of one of the organization's strongholds rebukes his comrades in arms who abandoned the fighting: "There are many reasons to retreat, although they all stem from diseases of the heart. Lust and doubt. It may be that many of those who retreated prefer the life in this world and love the pleasures and delights and hate death. Rather than mention the true reason for retreat, they fabricate excuses that they know in themselves are not legitimate religious excuses, so as to justify their retreat and their turning to the land of polytheism and abandoning the land of the Muslims. It is possible that some of them say that they retreated because of the wrongdoing of some commander or an error by some senior officer. Did you discover this wrongdoing or this error only when the [Islamic] State started shrinking and finds itself in a difficult situation and you have no choice but to face Allah's enemies face-to-face? Every time that a commander errs will you break your oath to the imam from the tribe of Quraysh [i.e. your pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who is considered to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad], leave for the land of the polytheists[3] and flee the battle? Who made this decree? It can only be that the devil and his helpers decreed that you do this."

The narrator continues to condemn those who left ISIS territory for "the lands of unbelief," saying: "Today we see the convoys of those in retreat setting out again, as they abandon the Muslim community in fear of the polytheists [i.e. those retreating fear death at the hands of the infidels] and in pursuit of a life that does not gladden the righteous people. To the crimes of breaking the oath of allegiance and abandoning the battlefield many of them have added a journey to the lands of unbelief. These are supporters who slander the Islamic State, its path, its commanders and its soldiers, only to justify their retreat and refusal to come to the aid of Islam and to defend the Muslims, after resting in its shade for a while and experiencing the taste of honor when they were among its soldiers, and enjoying the security and the benefit it provides, and eating from the Muslim treasury."

As the rebukes are heard, the photographs of several fighters who deserted appear onscreen, among them deserters who gave television interviews and recounted their experiences as ISIS fighters. The one photograph that stand out in this lineup is that of ISIS operative Thomas Barnouin. Unlike the other members shown here, Barnouin held senior positions in the organization and could still be connected to its inner circle. [4]

ISIS deserters: ordinary fighters (left) and Thomas Barnouin.

The fighter filmed against the backdrop of the destroyed building rebukes those who have left, saying that they both harm the religion and the honor of women: "Some of them... in their perception [that the Islamic State] is under threat, and that have no choice but to wage jihad and sacrifice themselves, preferred to go the lands of the polytheists, and to break their oath to the imam from the tribe of Quraysh [Al-Baghdadi], and to flee from the jihad for the sake of Allah. They imagined that the [Islamic] State was destroyed and that whoever could jump off its chariot would be saved, even if by doing so he would defile [women] and harm the religion and disrupt the work."

Video From ISIS Al-Barakah Stronghold: Deserters Will Be Punished In Hell

On February 15, 2018, a video was published from ISIS Al-Barakah Province (Al-Hasakah, Syria) warning that abandoning the battlefield is a sin, and the punishment for it is hell.[5] The video quotes Quran verse 8:15-16: "Oh you who have believed, when you meet those who disbelieve advancing [for battle], do not turn to them your backs [in flight]. And whoever turns his back to them on such a day, unless swerving [as a strategy] for war or joining [another] company has certainly returned with anger [upon him] from Allah, and his refuge is Hell – and wretched is the destination." The video emphasizes that abandoning the battlefield is one of the seven sins defined by the Prophet as the most serious, because "it is likely to adversely influence the other soldiers in the battle, since this is an act of abandonment, which encourages division, weakness and defeat." The narrator adds gravely that whoever commits this sin can expect "the wrath of Allah and hell." These two phrases appear onscreen against a black background.

The narrator goes on to say: "Islam is a religion of honor and might, and does not accept surrender or contemptibility from those who adhere to it. The believer yearns to die a martyr's death for Allah, that is the height of his aspirations. How can he turn his back on the despicable infidels?"

ISIS video warns that deserters should expect "the wrath of Allah and hell."

The video concludes with the following voiceover:

"Stand firm like the brothers before you. Die a thousand times but don't consider flight or retreat. Don't allow weakness, which is love of life and abhorrence of death, to win you over. Purify your hearts of [love of] life in this world, for you are the people of suffering and bloody wars, the people of the firm stand and endurance. Through you Allah will bring the victory, for victory is achieved through steadfastness for an hour."

An Appeal In Song To The Deserters: "How Could You Choose To Turn To The Enemy?"

Another ISIS approach to its members who are leaving is through a song produced by its Ajnad media division that composes nasheeds to accompany the organization's videos. The song "You Were Free" reproaches ISIS members who chose to leave for the lands of enemies and infidels, while apparently forgetting the flavor of honor and pride that they tasted under the ISIS regime. This song also emphasizes the great sin of abandoning the battlefield and the Islamic state:[6]

"You were free, head held high, proud / In a land where the Master increased its virtues

"How could you choose to turn to the enemies / And abandon all the goodness there?

"Oh, brother of Islam, do not accept the humiliations / How can you accept them and bring disaster near?

"How can you leave a land of honor where you lived / And forget the comrades who gathered on behalf of destiny?

"How could you leave and travel far / Turn your feet toward the infidel land?

"How can you agree to live in humiliation / As a refugee who makes do with leftovers and crumbs?

"Wandering friendless in an infidel land / Drowning in the depths of the sea in your sins

"In disgrace you become a slave / You abandoned the straight path and sold your purpose [that you fought for]

"You are disgraced and scattered / In a land ruled by evil intentions

"You were the best of all creation in every way / How did you become the symbol of tragedy?

"He who sees a religion other than Islam someday / Will be humiliated and secretly disappear

"Return to religion, religion is the might / Request the might in the arming of the companies."

ISIS Weekly Takes A Softer Position: The Deserters Erred, But Are Not Infidels

An editorial in the official ISIS weekly Al-Naba' reads: "Every Muslim knows that not undertaking jihad and fleeing battle are among the most severe sins that anger the exalted God, and that they are a great sin of those who commit them. However, despite the severity of this sin, Allah can forgive it, if He chooses, and he who commits it may repent... Some of the best have committed this sin [fleeing from battle], including the Companions of the Messenger of Allah, as occurred in the Battle of Uhud, where many stumbled, and Allah, may His Name be praised, rebuked them... Those who committed this serious sin among the Companions of the Prophet, who allowed the devil to take over their souls in the sins they committed, and he caused them to fall from the firm stance alongside the Messenger of Allah, and they were defeated by the polytheists. But Allah treated them with tolerance, and did not rush to punish them for fleeing, but withheld [their punishment] and in the end forgave them. This is how the exalted Allah treated his faithful believers. He is the forgiving and the forbearing.

"It is proper that the Muslim should treat his brother Muslim in the same way, even if the devil caused him to stumble and he sinned one of the gravest sins, such as deserting on the day of battle. This sin does not mean that he is not a believer, according to what can be seen from the outside, which is the basis for all conduct among believers.

"Even if these days the devil has caused some of the believers to stumble and they abandoned their jihad, or reneged on their hijra [i.e. returned to their countries after fulfilling the obligation to move to the area of the Islamic State], or if they broke their promise and their oath of allegiance, while all these are undoubtedly severe sins, and we disavow them before Allah. But despite this, we remain loyal to those who have committed them as long as they are defined as believers and don't cancel out the foundation of their religion for abusing the laws of shari'a [in their supremacy] which they acknowledged, or because they assisted our enemies the polytheists, or because they displayed their unbelief after behaving with secret hypocrisy.

"Every Muslim should view them as he views any other sinner, and endeavor to remind him about Allah, and preach to them to repent and return to Allah. The hearts of most of them, praise Allah, lived long remembering Allah, and if they were taken over for a time by love of life in this world and hatred of death, then it won't be difficult to purify those hearts and to rekindle the memory of Allah and reverence for Him, so they will once more beat with love of that religion and its people and yearn for jihad for the sake of Allah and will request to die as a martyr and to achieve the highest levels of paradise... Allah said: 'Indeed, those who fear Allah – when an impulse touches them from Satan, they remember [Him] and at once they have insight [Quran 7:201].'"


*R. Green is the director of MEMRI's Jihad and Terrorism Threat Monitor

[2] Wikalat Nashir News, February 1, 2018.

[3] ISIS believes that any territory not held by the organization is held by infidels.

[4] Barnouin, aka Abu Ahmad Al-Faransi and Abu Omar Al-Madani, is being held by Kurdish YPG forces in northeastern Syria. It may be that his photograph is included in the video to create the impression that he defected from ISIS. However, there is reason to believe that Barnouin is still connected to the organization and close to its leadership. See MEMRI JTTM report Profile Of Top French Jihadi Ideologue: Scholar, Religious Authority, Media Operative, And A Leader Of The Extremist Faction Within ISIS, January 14, 2018.

[5] Wikalat Nashir News, February 15, 2018.

[6] Wikalat Nashir News, March 8, 2018.

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