An ISIS defector explained a key reason why people continue joining the group

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ISIS Hunts Citizens Exposing Terror Group

Despite ISIS's claims of ruling over a Islamic "caliphate" in line with Sharia law, a large number of the group's fighters joined for reasons having little to do with religion, according to a defector from the group that The Daily Beast's Michael Weiss interviewed in Istanbul, Turkey.

Instead, people are joining the organization because they are desperate for money and are struggling to find a way to survive in Syria, where four years of civil war have decimated the economy.

The ISIS defector, who goes by the pseudonym Abu Khaled, spoke with Weiss about the group's internal dynamics, and what it was like to live under ISIS's rule.

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An ISIS defector explained a key reason why people continue joining the group
A civilian woman carries her child during a battle with Islamic State militants, east of Mosul, Iraq, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
Civilians walk past Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) during a battle with Islamic State militants, east of Mosul, Iraq, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
A displaced man, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, carries a woman in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants in the Mithaq district of eastern Mosul, Iraq, January 3, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
An Iraqi soldier is seen during a battle with Islamic State militants, north of Mosul, Iraq, December 30, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
Iraqi people flee the Islamic State stronghold in the town of Bartella, east of Mosul, December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi people flee the Islamic State stronghold in the town of Bartella, east of Mosul, December 28, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Iraqi rapid response forces cook food in their headquarters during the war against the Islamic state militants east of Mosul, Iraq, December 21, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
Mohammad Hassan, whose hand was chopped off by Islamic State militants, sits outside a house at Nimrud village, south of Mosul, Iraq, December 13, 2016. Picture taken December 13, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Displaced Iraqi boys, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, warm themselves by a fire in Khazer camp, Iraq,December 15, 2016.REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Displaced Iraqi woman, who fled the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, bids her relatives farewell as she leave Khazer camp to go home, Iraq December 10, 2016.REUTERS/Ammar Awad
Iraqi Christians come to visit the heavily damaged Church of the Immaculate Conception after Iraqi forces recaptured it from Islamic State in Qaraqosh, near Mosul, Iraq, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad
An Iraqi father (L) mourns the death of his son, who was killed during clashes in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, in al-Samah neighborhood, Iraq December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
An Iraqi girl, who was wounded during clashes in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, lies on a bed at a field hospital in al-Samah neighborhood, Iraq December 1, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
Displaced people who fled the clashes transfer to camps during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, November 30, 2016 REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani
A member of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) gestures in military vehicle during a battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq, November 30, 2016 REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man gestures as other men sit on the ground as an Iraqi Special forces intelligence team check their ID cards as they search for Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Two men hold hands as an Iraqi Special forces intelligence team searches for Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq November 27, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters are seen in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq November 23, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Boys stand in front of oilfields burned by Islamic State fighters in Qayyara, south of Mosul, Iraq November 23, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Civilians flee fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic State fighters in Mosul, Iraq, November 20, 2016. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Smoke rises from clashes during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of Shi'ite fighters carries a weapon during a battle with Islamic State militants at the airport of Tal Afar west of Mosul, Iraq November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A displaced woman from the outskirts of Mosul covers herself in a blanket in the town of Bashiqa, after it was recaptured from the Islamic State, east of Mosul, Iraq, November 18, 2016. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily
A girl attends classes after the city was recaptured from the Islamic State militants in Qayyara, Iraq, November 17, 2016. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
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According to Abu Khaled, a large number of people are joining ISIS because they need money. After joining the militants, people are paid in US dollars instead of Syrian liras. Abu Khaled said that ISIS also runs its own currency exchanges.

ISIS members receive additional incentives to fight for the group. "I rented a house, which was paid for by ISIS," Abu Khaled, who worked for ISIS's internal-security forces and "provided training for foreign operatives," told Weiss. "It cost $50 per month. They paid for the house, the electricity. Plus, I was married, so I got an additional $50 per month for my wife. If you have kids, you get $35 for each. If you have parents, they pay $50 for each parent. This is a welfare state."

And those financial benefits are not just limited to the organization's fighters. According to Abu Khaled, any member of ISIS, ranging from construction workers to doctors, receives similar compensation. In war-torn Syria, these salaries are a powerful lure for people who might not otherwise be able to support their families — or for people just hoping to get rich.

"I knew a mason who worked construction. He used to get 1,000 lira per day. That's nothing," Abu Khaled told Weiss. "Now he's joined ISIS and gets 35,000 lira—$100 for himself, $50 for his wife, $35 for his kids. He makes $600 to $700 per month. He gave up masonry. He's just a fighter now, but he joined for the income."

Amwal al GhadOther Syrians who have fled from ISIS's rule have corroborated Abu Khaled's reports, confirming that one of the only ways to accumulate wealth and status under ISIS's rule is by joining the organization. Yassin al-Jassem, a Syrian refugee from near ISIS's de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, shared his experience with The Washington Post.

"There is no work, so you have to join them in order to live," al-Jassem told the Post. "So many local people have joined them. They were pushed into Daesh by hunger."

According to Newsweek, there is a widening gap in living standards for those under ISIS rule. Members of the organization have access to food, free medical care, and desirable housing. In contrast, people who aren't ISIS members suffer under a barely functioning economy with rapidly increasing prices.

ISIS can afford to pay people seeking to join its ranks through four main sources of income: oil, the sale of looted antiquities, taxation, and kidnapping ransoms.

The militant group either controls or has an operational presence around a number of oil wells in Iraq and in the majority of oil-producing areas in Syria. This allows the group to earn a steady income from oil production and smuggling that helps it to continue its daily operations.

The New York Times estimates that ISIS can make upward of $40 million a month through oil-related activities. In a bid to cut the group's income, the US conducted its first airstrikes against ISIS oil trucks on November 16.

Amwal al GhadISIS's main source of income is significantly more difficult for the US and other coalition partners to target by air. According to Foreign Policy, ISIS makes the majority of its money through extortion and taxation of people living under the group's rule.

ISIS taxes nearly every possible economic activity, with the revenue ultimately covering the expenses of waging continuous war along multiple fronts. Foreign Policy notes that taxes are put in place for militants who loot archaeological sites. Non-Muslims must pay religious taxes, and all ISIS subjects pay a base welfare and salary tax in support of the fighters. All vehicles passing through ISIS territory — which may carry the only food available to those living under ISIS control — must pay taxes often totaling hundreds of dollars.

This ad hoc war economy means that ISIS has little money to spend on improving the lives of those who are forced to live under its rule. But as Abu Khaled's account confirms, it still finds the money for conducting military operations and incentivizing militants to join the group.

That money and the other benefits that ISIS fighters receive means that Syrians join ISIS out of desperation — and not necessarily out of religious or ideological conviction.

Pamela Engel contributed to this report.

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