Skip to main content

Inside the mind of an ISIS fighter

By Arwa Damon and Holly Yan, CNN
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
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
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Put yourself in the shoes (and sixth-century black robes) of ISIS' Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the mysterious boss of the terror group.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1847 GMT (0247 HKT)
Former Kremlin adviser says Obama may be ready to deal with Putin on ISIS.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 2318 GMT (0718 HKT)
The owner of an upstate New York food store funded ISIS, tried to send jihadists to Syria and plotted to do some killing himself.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
By producing the magazine, ISIS is taking a cue from al Qaeda, which has advocated terrorist attacks in its glossy publication, Inspire.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0647 GMT (1447 HKT)
After the beheading of another Western captive by ISIS, an international conference convened in Paris to talk about how to tackle the threat of ISIS.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
The beheading of British aid worker David Haines by ISIS has intensified fears for other Western hostages being held by the jihadist group.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
The atrocious murder of David Haines puts the United Kingdom and in particular PM David Cameron front and center in the evolving battle against ISIS.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0919 GMT (1719 HKT)
CNN's Anna Coren is on the front lines with Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they fight ISIS in Northern Iraq.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1008 GMT (1808 HKT)
Deb Feyerick explores the lives & dossiers of ISIS & Al-Qaeda's top leaders.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 0241 GMT (1041 HKT)
The family of aid worker David Haines is speaking out about his brutal murder by ISIS militants. Nic Robertson reports.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1758 GMT (0158 HKT)
These are the nations involved and what's known about their contributions.
September 14, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
Three brutal executions. Three horrifyingly similar scripts.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
ISIS has captured the minds of a new generation of global jihadists. What does it mean for al Qaeda?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0253 GMT (1053 HKT)
Is it ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State or Daiish?
Here's a look at some of the major instances in which the U.S. military took action against Islamist groups or international terrorism.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1534 GMT (2334 HKT)
Tom Foreman examines what we don¹t yet know about ISIS.
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
To the outside world, they're a force of ruthless yet mysterious insurgents bent on terrorizing civilians and expanding Islamic rule.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2021 GMT (0421 HKT)
ISIS has become the new face of international terrorism in the eyes of the United States and its Western allies.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
As its adversaries regroup, ISIS -- which now calls itself the Islamic State -- may begin to suffer setbacks on the battlefield.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 0325 GMT (1125 HKT)
Will ISIS be the first terror group to build an Islamic state?
A CNN interactive showing the presence of ISIS in the Middle East.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Jim Sciutto explains the similarities and differences between these Islamist jihadis.
ADVERTISEMENT