The man, a 24-year-old single father and college dropout who traveled from New York back to his native Turkey, told NBC what has become a familiar story. Socially isolated and lacking meaning in his life, he was seduced by the jihadis’ promise of a salary, a house, and a wife.
“My life was hard and nobody liked me,” the man, who insisted on anonymity, said while crying. “I didn’t have many friends. I was on the internet a lot and playing games.”
This is a common profile among those recruited by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, who are often young men (and women) seeking purpose and identity. They are drawn to ISIS’ promise of community, along with the glory of potential martyrdom. ISIS’ inclusive rhetoric, combined with its social-media prowess, has allowed the group to recruit more foreigners to its ranks than any other modern jihadist group.
Firsthand accounts of the militants’ brutality from those who have fought with ISIS, such as the one given by the Turkish-American recruit, are still relatively rare, even though an estimated 20,000 foreign fighters have joined the group.
“They told us, ‘When you capture someone, you will behead them,'” he said. “But as for me, I have never even beheaded a chicken … It is not easy … I can’t do that.”
He said he was also instructed to throw homosexuals off of tall buildings and kill female adulterers. He said he decided to leave ISIS after an airstrike killed six of his fellow fighters in the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad.
“I got scared because in my whole life I hadn’t seen anything like this,” he told NBC. “And since I was scared, I threw my pistol away and my legs couldn’t hold me.”
The online radicalization of Muslims has become a security threat for the West: An estimated 4,000 ISIS recruits come from Western countries, and foreigners now make up at least half of ISIS’ fighting force, The New York Times reported in April.
Many disgruntled recruits have tried to return to their home country after traveling to join ISIS and finding that life with the group is less glamorous than advertised, The Independent reported.
“I’ve done hardly anything but hand out clothes and food,” a French recruit wrote in a letter home obtained by Le Figaro. “I’ve also cleaned weapons and moved the bodies of killed fighters. Winter is beginning. It’s starting to get tough.”
The man interviewed by NBC may have escaped the Islamic State. But the interview was conducted in a Syrian prison where he was being held captive by Kurdish forces.
He will only be free in death, the ex-fighter told reporters.
“They burn your life, they leave nothing,” he said. “I can’t do anything now. If I go to them [ISIS], they will kill me. If I go to Turkey, they will arrest me. If I stay here, I will go to prison. I have nothing. The only escape for me is death.”