Author Biography

Dr. Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project for which she conducted these interviews. She also serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University and has interviewed over 700 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East.

Molly Ellenberg is a Research Fellow at ICSVE and coded and helped analyze the data from these interviews. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego.



Subject Area Keywords

Identity, Ideology, Middle East, Psychology, Radicalization, Terrorism / counterterrorism, Violent extremism


Two hundred and twenty Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) defectors, returnees, and imprisoned ISIS cadres were in-depth interviewed by the author, a research psychologist working for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) from 2015-2019. These interviews were conducted in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, the Balkans, Europe, and Central Asia with ISIS prisoners, returnees, and defectors. The purpose was to learn about their recruitment history, motivations for joining, travel, experiences inside the group, disillusionment over time, and defection, return or capture. This article reports on a sample of both male and female former ISIS members representing over 35 countries. It examines their demographics, contextual, and other qualitative variants regarding their psycho-social vulnerabilities and motivations for joining. It then discusses the influences and recruitment patterns drawing them into the group, their roles, experiences, and relationships inside it, variance in their will to fight and support violence, and their disillusionment and attempts to leave (when it occurs)—as well as their advice to others about joining. Although a convenience sample, the findings are consistent with other quantitative studies on ISIS and we believe highly informative on many important topics.


ICSVE wants to give special thanks to the Embassy of Qatar in the United States and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for supporting this project in part and for the Syrian Democratic Forces, Iraqi Falcons, Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services, Kenyan National Centre for Counter Terrorism, Albanian and Kosovar Justice Ministries and other American and European authorities and private citizens who helped the researcher gain access to ISIS prisoners and returnees.