In the Shadow of Daesh: An ethnography of ISIS atrocities

In the Shadow of Daesh: An ethnography of ISIS atrocities
Book Club: Seldom do we read a first-hand account of the deception, radicalisation and atrocities of the Islamic State group. In the Shadow of Daesh by Sophie Kasiki is just that, unveiling the insidious work of IS from the perspective of a returnee.
5 min read
02 November, 2022
In the Shadow of Deash is the miraculous account of one outreach worker's descent into Daesh captivity [First Draft Publishing GmbH]

“The foreigners were virulently contemptuous of the Syrians,” Sophie Kasiki observed in an ISIS-run hospital in Raqqa.

“I saw one of the foreign volunteers insult a young Syrian woman, sobbing as she woke from her anaesthetic in a terrible state.”

In the Shadow of Daesh by Sophie Kasiki and translated from French by Liz Harris is a rare memoir of an ISIS returnee.

Kasiki, a young French social worker and convert to Islam, left her life in Europe and went to join Daesh in Syria only to become disillusioned and escape. While much has been written about the so-called Islamic State, In the Shadow is believed to be the first published account of a returnee told in their own words.

"In the Shadow of Daesh is a gripping and terrifying read and provides important insight into life under ISIS’s violent rule"

Before joining Daesh, Sophie’s life was not marked out as particularly difficult, an immigrant from Cameroon who married a white atheist school teacher, her pre-radicalised life is that of a well-adjusted individual.

On her conversion to Islam, Sophie notes, “my journey contradicts the notion that proselytising imams are at work to recruit the good people of France. I met my first Imam after I’d already decided to become a Muslim.” Sophie’s decision to join ISIS was influenced by the guys she grew up around who left for Syria, having a new faith and feeling isolated, she made the choice to head to Syria with her 4-year-old son.

Upon arrival in Raqqa, Sophie felt the city peaceful but was shocked to see Niqabi women carrying machine guns. ISIS offered her a large apartment which they claimed to have rented from a Syrian family who had gone to Turkey for medical treatment.

Sophie expresses doubts in the book about this claim as she notices an unmade bed, food crumbs and open jars as if the family had left suddenly. The building complex did have Syrian families too, “I understood later that living among the Syrians was part of the Islamic State’s strategy; they spread themselves out in the city to escape the coalition’s targeted bombing. There weren’t any buildings occupied exclusively by foreign fighters. If the Syrian families were allowed to stay in their homes, it was because their presence protected the foreigners.”

Indeed the extent to which Syrians were regarded as second-class citizens comes across quite clearly in Sophie’s account and she observers, “The prejudices I’d heard from the boys [Daesh foreign recruits] were widespread: The Syrians were dirty, lazy, they were bad Muslims who loved nothing more than smoking the shisha’ and drinking alcohol.” The colonial attitude towards locals is one of the reasons Sophie starts to turn against ISIS.

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Escape from the clutches of ISIS control proved difficult and Sophie's initial attempt ended in failure. To go from follower to prisoner resulted in death for many, but not for Sophie who eventually manages to get away from her ISIS captives and leaves Syria.

Through the help of French authorities, she arrives back in Europe and is then detained and imprisoned in Paris.

Sophie is sentenced to 4-months imprisonment by a court which comes as a surprise to her, “I couldn’t believe my ears: I was sure I’d be leaving straight away. I had nothing to apologise for, except for what I’d put my loved ones through. I’d been a victim of grooming, I’d been abused, I’d got myself out of there at the risk of my life.” By the summer of 2015, Sophie is released from prison and reunited with her child and husband.

Sophie Kasiki’s account will make many uncomfortable, after all the atrocities of ISIS are well known and it seems obvious to many of us they were a violent organisation, how can anyone join them and not know they were like this?

I think that’s a fair question but given social media bubbles, group psychology and the ways individuals invent fantasy worlds for themselves, it is not hard to see how someone could see an alternative reality, where they see none of that or give them a different meaning.


In the Shadow takes us into the world of someone who lived in an alternative reality for a while and then witnessed the harsh realities they were initially blind toward.

Returnees offer important insight into life under the terror of ISIS, they can answer questions about how people become attracted to these types of groups in the first place, which we cannot get easily get elsewhere. Whether or not Sophie deserves sympathy is up to the individual reader, but to try and understand experiences like hers is of great value. In the Shadow of Daesh is a gripping and terrifying read and provides important insight into life under ISIS’s violent rule.

Usman Butt is a multimedia television researcher, filmmaker and writer based in London. Usman read International Relations and Arabic Language at the University of Westminster and completed a Master of Arts in Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

Follow him on Twitter: @TheUsmanButt