Ali Hashisho / Reuters An Islamic State flag hangs amid electric wires, January 19, 2016.

Cracks in the Islamic State

The Fighters Who Fell Away

The U.S.-led operation to reclaim Mosul has created a religious rift within the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Of course, the terrorist group has always had a complicated relationship with Islam—much of the Muslim world disavows the group. But now, faced with the pressures of impending defeat, some fighters have abandoned ISIS’ strictures, such as bans on alcohol and cigarettes, which has irked those who are more dogmatic about the enforcement of sharia law. This has created a deep split over the group’s doctrine. 

The ISIS members most affected by the impending collapse of Mosul are foreign fighters. As their forces crumble, they have few options. Unlike local members, they cannot remain in Iraq because they stand out among locals and do not speak the language. For the same reason, it is difficult for them to blend in with refugees. They understand that they will most likely die, and soon. As a result, some foreign fighters have responded to this grim reality with a renewed religious fervor, as they believe doing so will allow them to die a shaheed, or one who has died fulfilling a religious commandment. A popular theological book among the Russian-speaking ISIS community, for example, is the Book of Jihad, which teaches, “If you will be killed in jihad, all your sins will be forgiven.”

But their religious turn has put them at odds with other members who are drinking and smoking to relieve the pressures of war. According to civilians we spoke to in Mosul, some fighters are now openly smoking on the streets of the self-proclaimed caliphate (although it is still strictly forbidden for civilians). Iraqi military forces told us that they have noticed an increasing prevalence of empty whiskey and beer bottles on captured ISIS bases. And neither is ISIS settling for cheap, local varieties. At one abandoned ISIS safe house in Mosul, the forces found White Horse whiskey, a Scottish brand that costs around $44 a bottle in Iraq.

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