By Mike Giglio & Munzer Al-Wad
SANLIURFA, Turkey — A black scarf wrapped around his head, Okab charged into the dusty town of Sinjar leading a platoon of ISIS jihadis. He felt the familiar sensation of drawing closer to God and the rush of knowing he was just a bullet from paradise.
It was before dawn on August 3, 2014, and the militants were beginning their assault on the ancient home of the Yazidi religious minority in northern Iraq. A veteran of ISIS’s wars, the young field commander expected fierce resistance from the local militia that controlled the town. But the militia had retreated, and the streets of Sinjar, at the foot of the towering mountain of the same name, were empty.
Then his fellow jihadis began to drag Yazidi civilians from their homes, shouting kafir, or infidel. They beheaded men in front of their screaming families. They tied up women and children and dragged them into cars. Scenes of carnage seared into Okab’s mind. In one, more than 50 Yazidi men lay facedown in a roadside ditch, hands bound behind their backs, as his comrades drew their automatic weapons and executed them.
The massacre of the Yazidis was an act of barbarism that sparked outrage worldwide. More than 3,000 civilians were killed, according to one prominent Yazidi rights group, and at least 5,000 more taken hostage, many of them women to be used as sex slaves, as part of what the U.S. has called a genocide. With ISIS pushing on from Sinjar town toward the fleeing Yazidis who were massed on top of the mountain, the U.S. began airstrikes against the militants, drawing America and its allies into a new war. The massacre was a rallying cry for ISIS too — an advertisement for its brutal brand of extremism that brought news headlines and recruits, while at the same time feeding the fervor of the fighters in its ranks.
For Okab, though, the massacre was a blow to his conscience that snapped him from ISIS’s spell.
He was horrified. Who gave this command? he asked the fighters around him. Why are you doing this?
Each time he received the same simple reply: These people are infidels.
He realized then that he would abandon the group — and the idea made him afraid. He began to wonder who might detect his newfound dissent. ISIS reserved some of its harshest treatment, he knew, for its own members suspected of wanting to defect.
He rushed back to his base in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Then he crossed to his native Syria and returned to Raqqa, the ISIS capital in the country, where he began the long and difficult process of detaching from the group to which he’d pledged his life.
Now Okab is part of a hidden community of defectors scattered across the globe — inside Iraq and Syria, in neighboring countries like Turkey, and, in the cases of former foreign fighters, back at home. They live in the shadows, fearful of retribution from ISIS on the one hand and, on the other, of arrest, thanks to their history with the terror group. As they reclaim their minds from the grip of fanaticism, they’re left to wonder how they could have taken part in such terrible crimes. “Maybe you think they are bad people because they joined ISIS. But for me, they are my brothers,” Okab said on a recent night near the border in southern Turkey, where he lives today. “Because the same thing that happened to them happened to me.”
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