Skip to main content

Inside the mind of an ISIS fighter

By Arwa Damon and Holly Yan, CNN
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • ISIS plans to take over the Arab world and then "go to other countries," an ex-fighter says
  • The man left the radical terror group two weeks ago
  • "Since Western fighters joined ISIS, they consider their home country as infidels," he says

(CNN) -- To the outside world, they're a force of ruthless yet mysterious insurgents bent on terrorizing civilians and expanding Islamist rule.

But as one former ISIS fighter tells CNN, the mentality goes much deeper.

"The main and principal goal of the Islamic State that they tell their new members is to establish an Islamic state that will encompass the Arab world," the man said in Turkey. "And after that, we go to other countries."

ISIS and religious justification
Who is fighting for ISIS?
ISIS video we must show you

Just two weeks ago, the man was in Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold in northern Syria. Like many cities across Syria and Iraq, Raqqa has been overrun by ISIS militants who show no mercy for those who don't follow their hard line.

Crucifixions and public executions take place virtually every day. Women not fully covered in niqabs are lashed with alarming frequency.

Even store owners who leave their shops open during times of prayer can get beaten or sent to prison.

The former insurgent, in his 20s, left ISIS two weeks ago because he said the group is "spreading injustice in the name of justice."

But he still agrees with the ideology of the group that is forcing its beliefs on everyday life, including in education.

"Philosophy is prohibited; they canceled it as a kind of blasphemy," he said. "Many subjects have been canceled, like music and even sometimes sports. All of them have been canceled from the school curriculum."

Perhaps the only thing as disturbing as ISIS' terror rampage is the growing number of foreigners joining its ranks.

Thousands of foreign fighters are estimated to have joined ISIS. And the ex-ISIS militant said these foreigners could carry out attacks when they go home, but security measures in those countries could make it difficult -- at least for now.

"Since Western fighters joined ISIS, they consider their home country as infidels," he said. "If they have a chance, they will carry out attacks."

The United Kingdom is already on high alert, raising its terror threat level from "substantial" to "severe" on Friday. Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed a radical new measure to ban Britons from coming home once they join jihadi ranks abroad.

And the United States got a harsh reminder of ISIS' reach when Douglas McAuthur McCain, a 33-year-old from the Midwest, became the first known American to be killed while fighting for ISIS.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has called ISIS "beyond just a terrorist group."

"They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess," he said last week. "This is beyond anything we have seen, and we must prepare for everything."

ISIS may have wanted to show off its global reach by having a militant with a British accent front the videos of the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

And that kind of tactic could also inspire more foreigners, the former ISIS fighter told CNN.

"It is possible that the goal was to project the image that a European, or a Western person, executed an American so that they can showcase their Western members and appeal to others outside Syria and make them feel that they belong to the same cause."

Where do jihadis come from?

Opinion: Why we must all challenge ISIS

What is ISIS Achilles' heel?

CNN's Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
ISIS
updated 6:32 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
Wolf Blitzer talks to Rep. Ed Royce about the White House's new ISIS strategy that involves removing Bashar al-Assad.
updated 6:36 AM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
Just two weeks ago, Yasir was regularly strapped into an explosive vest and handed a pistol, an AK-47 and a radio to stand guard at an ISIS base in the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor.
updated 5:49 PM EST, Wed November 12, 2014
How did three U.S. teenagers become radicalized? CNN's Pamela Brown reports.
updated 9:26 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Reza Aslan examines the appeal of ISIS and why the group is able to successfully attract so many recruits.
updated 9:10 PM EST, Tue November 4, 2014
Former U.S. Commander Lt. General Mark Hertling (Ret.) says it is tough for him to watch what is unfolding in Iraq.
updated 9:18 AM EST, Mon November 3, 2014
CNN's Nick Paton Walsh takes a look at how ISIS is using media to desensitize children.
updated 7:33 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
A new propaganda video from ISIS features a Canadian ISIS member who died in combat.
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Captured ISIS fighters tell CNN's Ivan Watson of the group's brutality.
updated 9:33 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
British hostage John Cantlie appears from the battle city of Kobani.
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
A captured fighter tells CNN's Ivan Watson: "They gave us drugs... that made you go to battle."
updated 1:20 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
As a U.S. soldier, Jordan Matson never saw combat, yet now he's in Syria, fighting for the Kurdish militia. "All my life, I've wanted to be a soldier," he tells CNN's Ivan Watson.
updated 9:31 AM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
The New York Times reports that James Foley and other ISIS captives were tortured and starved ahead of their beheadings.
updated 5:00 AM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Is ISIS propaganda successful in getting 'lone wolf' terrorists to strike in western countries?
updated 12:48 AM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Ivan Watson explains why the United States' support of a Kurdish fighting group may cause friction with a NATO ally.
updated 9:57 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Another casualty of ISIS' ruthless advance: Iraq's pricelss cultural heritage.
Explore CNN's interactive that explains ISIS' roots, what it controls, and where its support comes from.
ADVERTISEMENT