RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. We begin the hour with a look inside the group calling itself the Islamic State from someone who was once one of its fighters. The CIA says there could be as many as 31,000 ISIS fighters.
NPR's Deborah Amos, near the Syrian border in southern Turkey, found an ISIS defector who talked about why he joined and what made him quit.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: He is young and extremely nervous. 26 years old, clean shaven, his hair is gelled. He looks like any other customer in this outdoor coffee shop where he agrees to meet. But just a few weeks ago, this young Syrian man was a rebel with a full beard fighting for ISIS in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. He explains if you turn against them they will kill you, which is why we agreed not to use his name.
Are you afraid of ISIS?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, yeah.
AMOS: Oh yes, he says. He planned his escape for weeks, paid a smuggler to get him to Turkey. Now he hides from ISIS informers he insists are a force along this border. Defectors are punished harshly, he says, beheaded when caught. To quit is to be defined as a nonbeliever by ISIS - no longer a Muslim. A death sentence, he says.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) I was afraid all the time and I was thinking all the time, if they arrest me, if they stop me, they will behead me. When I arrived to Turkey I couldn't believe that I'm here.
AMOS: His journey began three years ago. He joined the rebellion against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Soon after, he was arrested and tortured for almost a year by the regime. Radicalized by the experience, he first joined the Free Syrian Army, but like many young rebels, he migrated to more hard-line Islamist fighters and finally to ISIS, flush with weapons and cash. ISIS paid him $600 a month. That was a fortune in his hometown.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) I had moments and I was happy to be with ISIS in the beginning, yes.
AMOS: His introduction began with a stint in a religious training camp to absorb ISIS ideology. His teacher, a charismatic Saudi, was so convincing he says, he was ready to become a suicide bomber if asked. Then he says something we've heard before from Syrians who lived under brutal ISIS rule - the militants target the young, breaking down traditional structures, the allegiance of family and a tribe.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) They are focusing on the young guys and the kids. They can't change their minds so those kids - yeah, they will fight until death of them.
AMOS: You saw kids in Deir Ezzor who would leave their parents and go off with ISIS?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Yes, there's a lot.
AMOS: The ranks of ISIS fighters swelled for months in his province. Over time, he says, ISIS started to control every aspect of life in Deir Ezzor. The flour mills, the bakeries, the oil wells in the eastern province that the tribes had controlled for profit, after seizing them from the regime. At first he believed the extreme brutality and random cruelty was a mistake by some commanders.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) I started to change my mind about them because I saw a lot of bad things they did. I was witness for many things. But all the time I was convinced that it's individual errors and ISIS is good.
AMOS: The final break with ISIS came over a massacre in Deir Ezzor, he says. ISIS killed more than 700 men from the al-Sheitat tribe for challenging the militants. But rounding up and killing the males of the tribe wasn't the end of the punishment. ISIS also condemned the families of the tribe, a message to all that any challenge would be met by brutal force.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) We found the bodies of women and old men, old women, children.
AMOS: For the first time since he joined the militants, he was moved by loyalty to a tribe rather than a brutal religious doctrine he now believes is wrong. He knows he's lucky to escape, but he says there are new recruits willing to fight and die for the Sunni militants known as ISIS.
Deborah Amos, NPR News, in southern Turkey.
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