DOUBLE THINK

03.01.16 7:11 PM ET

ISIS Eats Its Own, Torturing and Executing Dutch Jihadists. Or Did It?

Conflicting reports coming out of Syria reflect dissension in ISIS ranks. But how bad is it, really?

AMSTERDAM — Eight Dutch jihadists with the so-called Islamic State are said to have been executed in Syria last Thursday. They were supposed members of a group of 70 Dutch ISIS recruits imprisoned by the fanatics there on accusations of  dissension, according to the anti-ISIS activist group Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered.

RBSS, which is based near the Syrian town of Ma’dan, the area of the reported killings, claims the arrests and subsequent executions are the result of infighting between the Dutch ISIS members and the local ISIS command, which is mostly made up of Iraqis.

But the only source for this information is Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered, and while it has proved a fairly reliable source in the past, its account is being contradicted by the also usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which discards this tale of dissent and executions as “fake rumors.”

If untrue, the story raises the question, what and who prompted this report in the first place? Is it an indication of deep-seated unrest, or was it floated to cause a stir in ISIS ranks? As the U.S.-led coalition, Kurdish forces, Iraqi government forces, and Shia militias step up pressure on the major ISIS capitals of Raqqa and Mosul, part of the game, certainly, is to try to undermine morale.

According to the RBSS account, the trouble started when a member of an exclusively Dutch and Dutch-Moroccan ISIS battalion tried to leave and to convince his fellow jihadists from the Netherlands to go with him. The incident triggered an outbreak of internecine violence, according to Abu Mohammed of RBSS, quoted by the Dutch news site The Post Online.

So far as it goes, that’s a plausible scenario. An increasing number of foreign jihadists or “muhajireen” are said to want to leave. But the self-proclaimed state that proclaims it is “always open to receive” volunteers, is not as eager to let its guests go.

Mohammed from RBSS says that the ISIS local leadership arrested two of the Dutch jihadists on charges of instigating dissent. One of the men subsequently died during interrogation, prompting a revenge killing by the Dutch group.

When Abu Labib, a representative of the local ISIS leader Abu Ahmed Al-Iraqi, was sent to negotiate with the Dutch jihadists, they killed him, forcing the high command to strike back.

The Dutch-Moroccan jihadist group, whose alleged function was to attract more jihadists from similar backgrounds, was said to be holed up in a place called “Nadi al-Furusiyya,” which translates as “Equestrian Country Club,” and where, says RBSS’s Mohammed, they lived in relative isolations.

Looking at the area on Google Maps, a former horse riding club does exist in Ma’dan, and it could be the location in question.

The clash between the provincial leadership of ISIS and the Dutch muhajireen escalated further when the high command in Iraq decided to send troops to arrest the whole battalion in order to find out who killed Abu Labib.

Vehicles reportedly were sent to cordon off the Equestrian Country Club and a shoot-out ensued. Some were killed, others wounded and finally the Dutch jihadists were captured.

Last Thursday, Feb. 26, eight members of the group were executed, RBSS claims. The rest are still held captive in Raqqa and Ma’dan.

Yet the shockwaves from this reported incident have yet to reach the families in the Netherlands of the ISIS recruits who were killed or imprisoned.

“I expected to receive at least two or three phone calls from worried parents or family members,” says Chakib Lamnadi of the Dutch Radicalization hotline, “but nothing yet.”

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Lamnadi tells The Daily Beast that he is used to getting dozens of calls, in fact, when something happens involving Dutch jihadists in Syria or Iraq. “In the two and half years that we've been operating, we get a sense of it immediately.”

This time they heard nothing, and, Lamnadi says, “Combined with the information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it confirms my suspicion that these events may not have taken place at all.”

That is not to say that there is no dissent in ISIS ranks. Indeed, many of the European recruits may want to get out at this point. But that’s getting harder to do.

“Since January last year there has been a decline in the amount of jihadists coming back,” Lamnadi says. Europe is not exactly welcoming its prodigal jihadi sons by threatening to throw them in jail, while at the same time ISIS makes it “extremely difficult for people to leave,” says Lamnadi. “There is a fear to leave.”

Some recruits are still determined to reach the war front. “We talk to the relatives who are in constant contact with jihadist family members,” says Lamnadi. “From what we hear, it is messier in Syria and Iraq now, but we find people are still traveling to get there.”

If the infighting is confirmed, it heralds a new stage in the development of the Islamic dictatorship’s state, a phase in which fighters form splinter groups and infighting could become a serious factor further destabilizing the ISIS “caliphate.”  

If the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights is right, and this incident never took place, then why was this rumor started now?

One possibility is that it was floated as part of a psychological warfare campaign laying the groundwork for offensives by the U.S.-backed anti-ISIS coalition against the major strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul.

If immigrant fighters and local ISIS command are on good terms, the story will have no effect at all. But if there is something brewing, this could help tip the scale toward a major split.

As ISIS is well aware, a contemporary war is not a war just won on the battlefield. These wars take place in part in the media, fought for the hearts and minds of impressionable cannon fodder from around the world.