Foreign Fighters, the Home Security Threat & ISIS—How to Deter them from Going and How to Deal with Returnees: Long Prison Sentences are not the Answer


The million dollar question over the past couple of years has been will foreign fighters—two to three thousand estimated from Europe, and lesser numbers from Canada and the United States—who have gone to fight Assad in Syria become a security threat when they return home? They are likely to have learned military skills and potentially been exposed to extremist ideologies and groups—and even more so now with the ascendance of ISIS.

Indeed, now with the emergence of ISIS and their euphoric declaration of an Islamic caliphate, the question also comes of how to stop the flow of those going and what to do with those who wish to return?

The first question of what drives young people to go and join the fight in Syria, and now Iraq, is multi-pronged but it involves for young, disillusioned, marginalized, unemployed or underemployed and discriminated against young Muslim men—particularly in Europe—a deep upset over American and European foreign policy. These young men, and sometimes women as well, believe that Muslims worldwide are suffering—with the West either complicit or doing little to nothing—under totalitarian oppression in places like Syria or under overwhelming force as in Gaza. Going to Syria to fight Assad or now joining ISIS offers a way to fight back and stand up for downtrodden Muslims—an identity that unfortunately many of these young men strongly identity with.

Those who become foreign fighters have become convinced by local imams or twitter feed coming right out of the warzone that in going to join the fight against Assad, and now joining ISIS, they will be embarking on a heroic adventure, a journey to manhood, a path to a positive identity and doing good for oppressed others. And if they die they’ve been led to believe that they will earn all the rewards of “martyrdom” which sure beats any deadbeat life they are currently living. And while women are few in the ranks of foreign fighters there are many young women at home egging their men on telling them they want to marry a jihadi or be the widow of a “martyr”.

Those first fighters who went to fight in Syria against Assad before ISIS was even on the ascendancy often did so with pure hearts and a genuine wish to help their Muslim brethren. Eric Harroun was likely one of these. He was discharged from the U.S. military after a traumatic brain injury. Lost without his military career and after converting to Islam, Eric decided he wanted to use his military skills to fight against Assad for oppressed Muslims in Syria—but he had no extremist bent. Arriving there he told his Free Syrian Army compatriots that he feared al Qaeda and didn’t want to meet any of their ranks. However, in the chaos of war he ended up retreating into what is believed to have been an al Nusra jeep after a firefight in which his FSA fighters were killed. The al Nusra guys—who Harroun at that time may not even have known had been declared by the U.S. as a terrorist group—argued with him to stay—“we are fighting the same enemy, no?” and Harroun did. Later he turned himself into the U.S. consulate in Turkey and was completely open about his time in al Nusra. He ended up flown back to the U.S., arrested and was ultimately convicted. Harroun plea bargained for a lesser sentence but spent six months in prison, some of it in solitary confinement. Upon his release he committed suicide. Not a great advertisement for returning and honesty with one’s government.

Abu Saif from Belgium also went to fight Assad but has now decided to join the ranks of ISIS telling a journalist that his decision to stay after two years of fighting Assad’s troops has a lot to do with Belgium’s policy of imprisoning returnees. “I’m better of in Syria than in prison in Belgium” he states comparing his case to a relative who returned and was immediately imprisoned.

Bilal a Muslim who spent time in Syria also argues that across the board prison sentences are a simplistic and nonsensical approach to returnees, some who went to fight only Assad and not join in any al Qaeda related group. Bilal states that governments exacerbate the situation by saying, “We don’t care if you are with ISIS or Crisis, or this one or that one, whether you’ve been saving lives or taking lives. We are going to jail you when you come back and don’t expect to see the light of day for the next twenty years.”

Indeed, imposing a punitive approach upon all foreign fighters who wish to return—gives them only a bleak choice – prison or keep fighting. Most will prefer to keep fighting and they will, by doing so, attract more to their cause. Terrorists from Chechnya to Palestine told me they preferred to “martyr” themselves, be “martyred” or keep fighting rather than ever end up inside a prison cell—particularly if they had ever been inside one.  Bilal feels this way and I found the same in interviewing terrorists in my book Talking to Terrorists—many fighters faced only with prison will keep on fighting to the death, but amnesty and rehabilitation programs can turn them around.

From his time in Syria, Bilal states, “There are some Brits there that wanted out, I know they wanted out, but they don’t have any place to go. Where are they going to go to exactly? The issue is if they were to leave the ranks of ISIS, so they are going to trade that for a UK jail cell?”

Bilal states that we need to determine “What is a hardcore jihadist-is it anyone with a beard fighting in Syria? Or is it those who have pledged their allegiance to ISIS?”  Indeed that is what a good assessment and rehabilitation program would do—sort through the returnees and decide who is not likely to pose any risk.

And much as they are problematic to deal with, we do want our foreign fighters to return rather than deepen their commitment to the militant jihad because it is not only a question of danger from IF they return. We must keep in mind that foreign fighters are active on Twitter and other forms of social media, have phones and email and can egg on the guys at home to act. They didn’t live in a vacuum before they left and have many “boys” back home to attract to the cause. This happened in Minnesota with al Shabaab and it will happen again with ISIS.

As long as they are active in the militant jihadi mindset they can still influence their disillusioned friends back home from abroad to come and join them OR more threating to us—to commit acts of terrorism at home with their help and encouragement. Witness the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev who took his bomb-making instructions and much of his ideological indoctrination from Internet actors far outside of the United States.

Keep in mind also that Westerners in the ranks of terrorist groups are often given prominent public positions, as the terrorists understand that using a Western voice to promote the narrative goes far further than a local voice. Witness the previous cases of Adam Gadahn speaking for al Qaeda central and Omar Hammami who carried out a twitter campaign for al Shabaab. We can expect western voices to also arise from within ISIS.

Long prison sentences may deter some from ever embarking on the cause, but will also trap the rest overseas and likely ensures they will go deeper into the militant jihadist and “martyrdom” ideology. Better to let them return if they wish, put them in a rehab program, assess them well for who has gone beyond just fighting Assad and who has innocent blood on their hands and then decide who to punish and who to release and keep watch over those released wherever they return to. This is better than simply offering them all the same alternative—prison or keep fighting. Most will prefer to keep fighting and attract more to their cause.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.


Four Boys Killed in Gaza & the Need for a Cease Fire

Palestinian boys with guns Fall 2004

When I traveled through the West Bank and Gaza conducting research interviews with Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP and other terrorist leaders, operatives, and in the case of dead suicide bombers—their families, for my book Talking to Terrorists I was often more frightened of the Israelis than of the Palestinians. In fact I stopped going across for research interviews after a trip to Israel where my laptop was taken from me and not returned for days and I received a particularly grim warning from a member of the Israeli police force. He told me that despite my being married to an American Ambassador and my own work consulting on counter-terrorism in behalf of NATO, the U.S. Department of Defense and the UK Home Office and that I had been invited by the Israeli National Defense University to present my research on terrorism in Israel, I was under suspicion by the Mossad. He said the Mossad was worried because I routinely came and went in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon and in Brussels where I was living at the time and spoke with all the terror groups. They feared that somehow I could become sympathetic and carry messages or money to aid terrorist groups—something I would have never done. I was studying them and trying to understand their motivations and what had put them on the terrorist trajectory and what might also take them back off it.

I did however, as the Mossad feared, feel sympathy for Palestinians when I walked and lived among them for research forays into the West Bank and Gaza. Dressed like a Palestinian I was often hauled off of mini-buses at Israeli gunpoint, held for hours at checkpoints, and threatened in multiple ways by soldiers. I also was held for hours at the Ben Gurion airport and the Mossad physically threatened one of my students on one of my research trips. I think they were afraid to directly say to me what they said to him.

The police officer that threatened me on my last trip in, told me that I would be arrested, held in interrogation for a minimum of two weeks and that my family would have no idea where I was and that I would come out a changed person—psychologically traumatized. I knew how the Palestinians described interrogation so I had no doubt he was right about that. He told me I had to stop crossing over for my research interviews. When I said I was committing no crime researching how terrorists think he searched for ways to make his threats hurt more. He asked how it would affect my husband’s career as a U.S. Ambassador if I were arrested by the Israelis—I told him it wouldn’t. He told me that the collaborators would plant money or messages in my luggage or on my person. I said, “Let them.” And then he went for the jugular and asked who would care for our children while I was under interrogation and no one knew where I was—my husband was then serving the U.S. State Department in Iraq and not at home to care for them.

After uttering a few expletives I went back to my hotel and called my husband who without hesitation told me “Go to Ramallah tomorrow as planned. Let them arrest you. You haven’t committed any crime. Continue your research.” But I didn’t want to go missing when he was in Iraq. I didn’t feel that was fair to my children who were mostly grown at the time but who would likely not handle that well. And I remembered Rachel Corey—an activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer she had tried to block. I didn’t want to share her fate.

And I had already sat with Zakaria Zuebedi, a sender of suicide bombers, in his hideout interviewing him, knowing full well he was on an Israeli hit list. During our time together he received a phone call. “Hello?” “Hello?” he had repeated four or five times into his phone while I thought, Oh geez, they are triangulating his position and running voice recognition—we’re going to get the missile!

I didn’t want to be the cat facing its ninth life.

But that’s all about me. What I can say having interviewed and even stayed overnight in the homes of Palestinian terrorists when they offered me a place to stay due to the checkpoints hampering our free travel—is that Palestinian militants and even the normal population will do anything for their children. If one child is unjustly killed it activates hundreds to volunteer to do and sacrifice anything to express their outrage, grief, sorrow, anger and to enact revenge for injustice.

The four children killed on the beach today thus for me send out a dire warning of worse to come. Nearly all of Palestinian terrorism is driven by trauma and revenge and it is a cycle that keeps repeating itself endlessly. Until Palestinians feel some hope for their future and security, and certainly while their children are being killed in significant numbers they will keep up the fight—even to their last self destructive breath. And while we can blame their leadership for much of it, we also must understand the psychology of overwhelming traumatic loss and pain—it drives even normal people to become ruthless killers.

While I certainly believe every country has the right to defend it’s boundaries and there should be an end to the Palestinian missiles firing upon Israel, I’m sure engaging in any activities that mistakenly takes the lives of Palestinian children—by accident or otherwise—is only going to make things much, much worse. I hope the Israelis can find a way to broker a cease-fire or even offer a long unilateral one to see if things can calm down in the meantime. Continued hostilities as we are witnessing today are unlikely to achieve anyone’s security. And it’s likely only Israel that can put a stop to it by taking the higher road and calling a cease-fire, at least for the time being.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. She traveled extensively through the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada.

End Times Brewing: An Apocalyptic View on al-Baghdadi’s Declaration of a Caliphate in Iraq & the Flow of Foreign Fighters Coming from the West


Al-Baghdadi and his group of extremists—ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham)—have declared the establishment of a Caliphate, renaming their organization the Islamic State. They did this on the first day of Ramadan, a holy and symbolic day for Muslims. Already having control of extended territory in Iraq and claiming to have taken at least partial control of various oil revenues, the jubilant fighters now invite western Muslims to stream into Iraq to join them. Whether their claimed victory and caliphate will have the drawing power they hope remains to be seen—although hundreds of western youth have already joined them from the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Declaring a caliphate in Iraq may also have the power to draw the U.S. bombers into action—at least temporarily accelerating armed conflict in the area. Likewise, having now declared themselves the restored caliphate the ISIS fighters will most certainly have Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina squarely in their sights and will want to destabilize Jordan, destroy the government of Israel, and make their march into Saudi. Perhaps such actions are only the “wet” dreams of extremists—yet one must also be aware of the power of apocalyptic dreams in spurring on the violence of men who are completely convinced they are bringing in the final apocalyptic vision of the “end times”.

Most Westerners are aware of Christian views on the so-called “end times” in which conflicts break out; natural disasters become commonplace; weather becomes extreme and finally an anti-Christ appears to rule the world. At that point according to Christian scriptures—believers are raptured—that is taken up in the clouds while still alive. And the rest remain on earth for a period of trials and tribulations under the anti-Christ—until the Messiah, claimed to be the resurrected Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on his white horse, storming through the clouds, his mighty sword raised to battle and ultimately defeat the anti-Christ and his minions. Thereby the final judgment is ushered in and those deemed worthy of eternal life are invited into the eternal heaven that appears and is instituted on earth. According to Christian scriptures, The streets of Jerusalem are at that time lit by an unworldly glow, the streets are paved with gold, man’s “swords are beaten into plowshares and spears turned into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4) and Jesus ultimately reigns forever.

Many fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere look eagerly for these “end times” and now interpret many signs of it being imminent in our time—i.e. the establishment of Israel as a state; armed conflict in the middle east; the emergence of extreme weather patterns; hard economic times and a general state of perceived sin in the world. And they do not welcome military intervention to stop it—they are instead all for the apocalyptic vision and accelerating the final end of the world as we know it.

What most westerners don’t know is that many Muslims also harbor apocalyptic and eschatological views and that their vision parallels with the fundamentalist Christian views. Muslims also expect the end of the world to be ushered in by the establishment of a Jewish state, armed conflict in the Middle East, arbitrary killings, a rise in natural disasters and the rising of an anti-Christ who will have global influence. This will, as in the Christian tradition, ultimately usher in the return Jesus—who in Islamic tradition is viewed as one of the holiest prophets of Islam—who will, as in the Christian traditions, return to the area biblically identified as Galilee. The Muslim tradition says he will return to the mosque of the white minaret, which is believed to be in Damascus. His first task will be to take out the anti-Christ. He will according to Muslim scriptures overtake the anti-Christ at the Gate of Lud believed to be right outside of Tel Aviv, inside Israel proper. Then he will judge the living and ultimately reign over the righteous.

In Islamic tradition there will also be a “Mahdi” who appears shortly before the emergence of the anti-Christ and his battle with Jesus. This Mahdi will be a righteous ruler who will begin the battle with the anti-Christ and then be joined by Jesus. Interestingly, the Shia Muslims believe the Mahdi is already living here among them.

The Mahdi is supposed to be a just and good ruler whereas the anti-Christ ushers in a reign in which blood letting occurs without the people even understanding how and why they are being killed—much like my Iraqi associate’s recent e-mail recounting how Sunnis are daily being randomly taken off the streets, killed for no clear apparent reason and then their families called to recover their dead.

Interestingly, hadith of Saheeh Muslim predicts the anti-Christ to appear on the road between Iraq and Syria. And in the Musnad of Iman Ahmed the hadith says that the anti-Christ will emerge from the remnants of the original extremist groups that were fought by the Prophet. This refers to the original Khawarij who made “Takfir”—that is to declare other Muslims as nonMuslims and justify killing them. This is much like today’s al Qaeda fighters and especially their offshoots who do the same—hence the name Takfiris—which is often applied to those who live by the al Qaeda ideology or a derivation of it.

During the time of the Mahdi those under the black flags will march unto Mecca where they will give allegiance to him at the Ka’bah (the black holy cubic structure at Mecca that marks the direction of prayer) and solidify his legitimacy in the Muslim world. Interestingly al Qaeda groups currently march under black flags (with Islamic inscriptions) although it would be hard to argue that the Mahdi—a just and righteous ruler would emerge from among their ranks. That is unless one believed that group to be ushering in righteousness, as many of them do.

Whether one subscribes to such views or sees them as complete fundamentalist nonsense, it’s important to know that others do take the “end times” seriously. And given the parallels between apocalyptic scriptures in both Muslims and Christians tradition and the current events in Syria and Iraq and the Islamic scriptures referring to end times, these events occurring during holy month of Ramadan and the scriptures supporting it may certainly give fuel to many more of our western youth going to join the newly claimed caliphate in Iraq.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world.

Mubin Shaikh, M.S. is a former Muslim extremist who became an undercover counter-terrorism operative. He has extensive experience in domestic counter-terrorism operations and policing and is now a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology of radicalization and terrorism. He regularly converses with and confronts ISIS members online and is an expert in counter-extremist messaging.


Miranda Rights, “Public Safety” and the Police State


Attorneys in the Boston bombing case are jockeying with the judge over whether or not testimony garnered from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev during thirty-six hours of FBI questioning while he lay in a hospital bed recovering from a gunshot wound—his jaw wired shut and heavily doped up on pain medication—will be admissible as evidence against him in his upcoming trial. The FBI unrelentingly questioned the younger Tsarnaev without reading his Miranda rights to him even though he repeatedly answered in writing that he wanted an attorney present during their interrogations.

Tsarnaev’s lawyers (via the Boston Globe) state that Tsarnaev ““wrote the word lawyer 10 times, sometimes circling it” and that “At one point, he wrote: ‘I am tired. Leave me alone.’ . . . His pen or pencil then trails off the page, suggesting that he either fell asleep, lost motor control, or passed out.”” In the Tsarnaev investigations the FBI justify their unremitting questioning without granting Tsarnaev his right to a lawyer being present on the grounds of protecting “public safety”. While it may have been protective to find out if there were other bombs before bothering with an attorney, the judge is pondering if what Tsarnaev told investigators under duress may be used as evidence against him—a completely other matter. While no one should feel sympathy for a terrorist who attacked our citizenry—we should all be concerned if this same law enforcement tactic can be applied to any U.S. citizen—ourselves included and then the evidence that is obtained under duress without an attorney present can then be used to convict us.

The same grounds of “public safety” were used and accepted by a judge in another case that I was involved in a few years ago where the defendant, Annette Morales Rodriguez, was also clearly guilty of a heinous crime. Rodriguez who had gruesomely cut a fetal child out of another woman leaving her for dead, while she attempted to pass the baby off as her own stillborn child, was questioned under rather unusual duress. While I found her crime horrifying, I also found it extremely disturbing that Rodriguez was picked up and escorted by Milwaukee police to a local hospital and subjected to two gynecological exams, the latter that she clearly, and unequivocally, refused but was subjected to anyway. At the same time—while Rodriguez, a former rape and incest survivor and very mentally ill person, was begging not to be subjected to another gynecological exam, a Milwaukee police official questioned her about her crime. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez, broke under the pressure of having to undergo yet another forced vaginal exam and admitted her crime. While arguments can also be made in her case for aggressively questioning her and not delaying to wait for her attorney, the judge didn’t seem to have any problem with allowing Rodriguez’s confession obtained under this level of duress to be admitted into the court as evidence. I found that so disturbing I wrote a book about it telling her story (Fetal Abduction: A True Story of Multiple Personalities and Murder).

When I hear these cases I begin to wonder about the potential abuses of government power when security services and law enforcement personnel can question us under medical duress—including medication and invasive bodily searches—without a warrant, while we attempt to refuse, and without reading our rights to us or supplying a lawyer if we ask for one. And I find it doubly horrifying that what is gained under this level of forced interrogation methods alongside what some might call “soft torture” –can be used against us in trial—and this all in the supposed service of “public safety”!

It seems to me if this sort of thing is allowed, it is not only our bodies and minds under potential assault by security professionals trying to do their jobs—perhaps at our grave expense if we are innocent—which is why in the United States constitution we have the Fourth Amendment to protect us. In the above examples, innocence is clearly not the case—but the same reasoning and behaviors could have been applied to a wrongly accused and innocent suspect—resulting in questioning under medical duress and even an invasive internal bodily search all without a warrant!

Add to that, it is not only ourselves that can today be interrogated in such a manner, but it appears that our cell phones and electronics can also be searched without warrants. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear two such cases that involve the warrantless searches of cell phones made pursuant to arrest. In the case of Riley v. California, David Riley was arrested for an expired registration at which time loaded guns were found in his car. A warrantless search of his cell phone then led to a further arrest and conviction for attempted murder. The California appeals court claimed that neither search required a warrant and likened the search of a cell phone to the evidence found in wallets and personal papers that have long been subject to examination pursuant to an arrest.

The second case, United States v. Wurie involves the warrantless search of Wurie’s cell phone following an arrest for drug dealing. In his case, the federal court in Boston threw out the evidence found during the warrantless search and Judge Norman H. Stahl wrote in his opinion that, “Today, many Americans store their most personal ‘papers’ and ‘effects’ in electronic format on a cellphone, carried on the person.”

Indeed when current law supposedly protect us from our doors being broken into and our homes being invasively searched without a warrant it seems contradictory that our electronic items are now potentially open to unchecked law enforcement access—akin to breaking down the doors to some of our most privately held information.

Is computer search and seizure the new frontier? That’s what Professor Orin Kerr of George Washington University School of Law and an expert in search and seizure is claiming. When viewed alongside the cases arguing “public safety” as a rationale for questioning individuals while under duress—without reading them rights or granting them access to their attorney, and judges (at least in the case I served on) accepting police evidence obtained under such severe duress as evidence to convict—it seems we are rapidly losing our rights.

If Rodriguez could convict herself through a confession obtained during a refused but, carried out nonetheless, invasive bodily search—all in the name of “public safety”—I wonder have we not effectively surrendered our rights in the hopes of being kept “safe”? And are we not just the opposite of “safe” when our own law enforcement teams can invade our computers, cell phones and even our bodies to obtain evidence that will then appear in court and used against us? For me, this is a harbinger of a police state.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School, forensic expert, researcher, public speaker and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world.



“Bring Back our Girls” – Nigeria’s Struggle with Boko Haram


“Bring back our girls” is the plea of hundreds of bereaved Nigerian parents terrified that their daughters—two hundred sixty-six schoolgirls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist organization and believed to be held in the twenty-three thousand wild acres of the Sambisa Forest of northern Nigeria will be sold to slavery—if they haven’t already been spirited out of the country.

“I abducted your girls,” Abubakar Shekau, the clandestine religious leader of Boko Haram, an Arabic speaker and Islamic scholar, taunted parents and authorities alike in an hour-long video that opens with fighters shooting guns into the air and shouting “Allahu akbar!” “By Allah, I will sell them in the marketplace,” he continues. Shekau’s vow to sell them into slavery is not an idle threat given that trafficked Nigerian girls, forced into prostitution, have previously shown up as far abroad as European brothels.

Boko Haram was formed in the city of Maidurguri, Nigeria in 2002, by the charismatic Muslim cleric, Mohammed Yusuf who originally named the group Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. But locals quickly dubbed it Boko Haram—loosely translated from the local Hausa language to, “Western education is forbidden”.

Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors” is one of the Islamic scriptures claimed by Boko Haram, a militant jihadi group that is attempting to violently overtake Nigeria to create an Islamic state. Boko Haram forbids its Muslim followers to take part in anything that is seen as part of Western society. That includes voting in elections, wearing western clothes or receiving a Western education. And critics of the group—Muslim and Christians alike—are silenced in drive-by assassinations carried out on motorbikes. The group has been responsible for the drive by assassinations of political leaders, police, and clergy. They have also exploded bombs throughout northern Nigeria attacking military barracks, police headquarters and the UN headquarters in the capital. They are also responsible for ruthless attacks on entire villages—razing and burning homes to the ground and killing all the inhabitants and now they have begun killing and abducting students.

What forces empower such a ruthless organization? For starters, Mohammed Yusef, Boko Haram’s founder, understood the socio-cultural forces of disillusionment at play among his impoverished countrymen—particularly Muslims who were unhappy with westernized forms of education. When he founded Boko Haram, Yusuf cleverly also founded a mosque and Islamic school in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters. His aim was to capitalize on long-standing resistance by Nigerian Muslim families to send their children to government run “western education” schools. In a common tactic he understood that through offering Islamic education he could seduce young people into being educated under his tutelage. His goal was to rise up and indoctrinate an army of committed youth to oppose the existing rule and ultimately create an Islamic state. Looking to other African uprisings he likely also understood the power of child soldiers. And like many other followers of al Qaeda ideologies, Yusuf harked back to “better days” and was longing for the idealized Sokoto caliphate, which ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon, but fell under British control in 1903.

Yusuf’s long awaited uprising began in 2009 when Boko Haram militants attacked police stations and government buildings in Maiduguri. Shoot-outs commenced and hundreds of Boko Haram supporters were arrested while thousands fled the city. Ultimately, Yusuf was killed and his body was shown on state television, as the government declared that Boko Haram finished. That was 2009.

But like many victorious statements made against terrorists, this claim would prove premature. Boko Haram supporters reassembled in 2010 and forcibly freed hundreds of their cadres from prison and have since launched an even fiercer campaign of terrorism upon the people and government of Nigeria—most recently kidnapping hundreds of girls from their schools and homes.

The U.S. State Department’s annual report on terrorism, issued last month, estimates the group membership at hundreds to a few thousand, but warned that “the number and sophistication of BH’s attacks are concerning” and that their activities had spilled over Nigeria’s borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. According to the report, Boko Haram, like many al Qaeda affiliates, funds itself mainly through bank robberies and other related criminal activities including kidnapping for ransom.

In 2011, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence cited Boko Haram as an “emerging threat” to the United States. The UN echoed that concern in a 2012 report that cited regional officials claiming that “Boko Haram had established links with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” and that “some of its members from Nigeria and Chad had received training in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb camps in Mali during the summer of 2011.” General Ham, head of the U.S. Defense Department’s Africa Command, also confirmed collaboration among these terrorist groups.

Abubakar Shekau, the group’s current leader hides from public contact and communicates clandestinely with his followers. Shekau is known to be particularly brutal. “I enjoy killing anyone that Allah commands me to kill — the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams,” Shekau declaed after an attack in Kano, Nigeria that killed one hundred eighty. Last week the group attacked the town of Gamboru Ngala on Nigeria’s border with Cameroon killing three hundred residents. In that attack the terrorists set homes and shops on fire and shot at anyone trying to escape.

So far, this year over one thousand five hundred people—both Muslims and Christians—were killed by Boko Haram, and thousands more were killed during the group’s five year history. The group claims that Western influences are corrupting to Muslims and their aim is to create an Islamic state imposing sharia law on the country of one hundred and seventy million, where half the population is Christian.

What is the answer to Boko Haram? When one looks at the reasons for it’s origins some go back to cultural tensions over westernization, but like many hot spots for terrorism—the inequalities and corruption that are rife in Nigeria most likely play the central role. Nigeria is an oil and mineral rich country. Yet, according to UN reports, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal countries in the world with stark poverty especially endemic in the northern regions where Boko Haram has found its following. Until the government of Nigeria addresses the glaring issues of inequality, corruption and poverty and proposes an educational system that is also attractive to Muslims, groups like Boko Haram will likely continue to find supporters for their violent and extremist messages. Disillusioned and beaten down populations often fall prey to the wild claims for a utopian future proposed by insurgents and terrorists.

Although perhaps in February when Boko Haram slaughtered fifty teenage boys, burning some alive, at a college in northeastern Nigeria and now in April when they abducted hundreds of school girls—the population may be seeing that this is not a group likely to bring any real hopes of justice or equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity. They are simply forces of death and destruction wrapped up in a distorted and hijacked version of Islam that advocates violent overthrow of corrupt governments with no clear path of ever achieving its goals.

While Shekau continues to taunt the impotent Nigerian government officials—he threatens to sell and marry off girls as young as nine years old—the abducted Nigerian girls await their fates. Thankfully, the U.S. government has offered, and the Nigerian government accepted, a team of military and law enforcement, hostage negotiating and psychological experts to help recover the girls. Let’s hope these girls find their deliverance sooner, rather than later.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School, forensic expert, researcher, public speaker and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world.


Waterboarding, Sarah Palin and Our Image Abroad as the “Great Satan”


“Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” Sarah Palin told an audience at the National Rifle Association’s Stand and Fight rally last weekend. She would reinstitute the practice, she told listeners, calling it a valuable technique.

What Sarah Palin perhaps doesn’t know is that when al Qaeda was being formed, the middle eastern extremists who were using terrorism to fight their own corrupt governments had finally given up fighting inside their own governments in the face of overwhelming force. Realizing that they couldn’t stop their own governments they began to look for who was on the outside—funding and propping up torturous and unjust regimes. And that led them to begin to question foreign policies carried out by the U.S. and the EU.   Ideologically it led to the budding AQ terrorists labeling the west as the “Great Satan” and to their new initiatives of attacking us. They called that an attack on the “the head of the snake.”

Sarah Palin, like all of us wants that to stop. But is she right about how to go about it?

Waterboarding, a technique in which water is poured over the angled face of a prisoner—so as to fill his nose, mouth and lungs—terrifyingly creates the feeling of drowning. “When performed on an unsuspecting prisoner, waterboarding is a torture technique—without a doubt,” Malcolm Nance, former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego states. “There is no way to sugarcoat it,” he writes, referring to that he personally witnessed and supervised the waterboarding of hundreds of U.S. military trainees who were drilling to resist torture.

“It does not simulate drowing,” Nance states, “as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning … “Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

“Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration” Nance continues. “Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia – meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.”

And horrifyingly, the lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again.

Waterboarding was on the CIA’s list of approved “enhanced interrogation technique’s” for use against high-value terror suspects in 2005, and was included in a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memo released in April 2009 as an approved torture technique. Waterboarding was carried out under the Bush administration but has now been condemned by President Obama as “torture”.

According to journalist Julia Layton, when waterboarding was used in counter-interrogation training for CIA operatives and Navy SEALs, the trainees could not survive it without breaking. According to her sources, CIA members have lasted an average of fourteen seconds before begging to be released.

Being subjected to drowning and feeling that one is imminently about to die is a powerful psychological torture method and it breaks down both our guys, as well as our enemies. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 was water boarded and reportedly managed to last an impressive two minutes. Perhaps his faith kept him steady in the face of overwhelming terror. Yet he too broke and began confessing.

No doubt water boarding works to create terror and an overwhelming sensation of imminent death by drowning. Yet while Palin believes that water boarding is a useful interrogation technique, those who have had it in their arsenal of “torture” tools disagree. CIA officials according to Layton, stated that it is a poor interrogation tool because it scares the prisoner so much you can’t trust anything they tell you as a result.

When Jesse Ventura, the colorful, former Minnesota governor recalls how he was waterboarded as part of his Navy SEAL training to resist torture techniques he states, “It’s drowning. It’s torture,” and that it can kill you. Trying to make the point of how serious waterboarding is and that one will say anything to make it stop, he declared to Larry King, “You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders!”

In September 2006, Senator John McCain, who had been tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam stood up to his party and tried to outlaw torture techniques against all U.S. held prisoners. In 2006, the U.S. military also made it illegal for the any members of the military to use this technique. Shamefully, it took longer for the CIA to catch up.

“The lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again,” Nance writes adding that whoever carries out waterboarding has to move from humanity to hatred and overcome basic human decency to endure causing its torturous effects.

And our use of such methods has now opened Pandora’s box for what may be considered by terrorists as acceptable to be used against our soldiers. Just as now dead, Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basaev stated that he justified the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, because poisons had been used by the Russian government to kill his cadres—terrorists often attempt to justify their acts on the basis of our own.

Nance writes, “Our own missteps have already created a cadre of highly experienced lecturers for Al Qaeda’s own virtual school for terrorists” Indeed, even when we try to keep torture methods classified, convicted AQ members and released captives broadcast widely over the Internet what they were subjected to and how they endured.

While Sarah Palin may believe “soft” torture that leaves no physical marks of harm done is useful, waterboarding is nevertheless psychologically devastating. And that it is a useful tool for interrogating is also not a strongly supported position among those in the know. Just as I learned when I was helping build what became the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for our 20,000 detainees in Iraq, the best approaches to interrogation are to find common ground, rapport and build a relationship where the detainee begins to trust and open up. Terror and pain may make a person “talk” but what they say in order to escape from torture often doesn’t add up.

And the anger in that person over being mistreated and in others—including family members and friends—who learn of it often creates more of a threat than elicits any useful information.

Indeed when the pictures from Abu Ghraib circled the world via the Internet, and now, when burned up corpses of children killed in drone attacks are sent around via YouTube—these powerful images of what the West is all about to those who haven’t yet decided if what the militant jihadi terrorists claim in their anti-Western ideology is correct. And it only takes one or two of these—like the Tsarnaev brothers for example, to jump into the terrorist camp and wreak havoc for all of us.

Images and stories about torture and acts that cross the bounds of human decency can easily be used to push fence sitters into the enemy’s camp ideologically and also to then move them along the terrorist trajectory into finally enacting terrorism.

While Sarah Palin may consider herself a patriot, all we need are more Americans publicly espousing waterboarding, and other unacceptable terror methods, to push even more potential enemies into believing that indeed the West is serving, or is itself, the Great Satan. 

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. 

Honoring Civilian Service in Danger Zones

Today, April 24th, 2014, Dr. Jerry Umanos, a Chicago pediatrician who moved to Afghanistan to treat children and train Afghan physicians was gunned down at a Kabul hospital—killed by an Afghan police guard. While we have become sickeningly accustomed to hearing about “green on blue” attacks on our soldiers as the Afghan people become more and more disenchanted with foreign troops operating on their soil—this was a cold blooded attack on a civilian non-military worker.

A fact that is often overlooked these days, is that our wars are fought not only with soldiers, but with a great number of civilian workers going out alongside of them—military contractors who perform a myriad of tasks supporting military operations; government agency workers representing in the case of the U.S.—the Departments of State, Energy, Labor, Health & Human Services, etc.; journalists; and nongovernmental (NGO) workers performing all kinds of missions—many of them humanitarian.


Most people don’t realize that in 2007 there were actually more civilian contractors in Iraq than combat troops and that in 2009 contractor deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq. According to a 2013 report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR): “In September 2007, the United States had more than 170,000 combat personnel in Iraq as part of the counterinsurgency operation, with more than 171,000 contractors supporting the mission.” These contractors are credited in the report for supporting “the counterinsurgency mission in unstable, yet strategically significant, areas such as Baghdad, Anbar, and Babylon provinces.”

And when contractors, NGO workers and civilians serve in high threat security zones they are often not working with the same pre-deployment training or the same support during and after their deployments that military and government workers receive. Yet they too get injured and killed—like Dr. Umanos—who was trying to train up an Afghan medical force. And even when they return home safely—mission completed—they, and their families can still suffer considerable psychological strain in the months and even years to come. But there is no Veterans Health Administration for civilian workers to turn to for support. And sadly we as a society are still slow to recognize our hundreds of thousands of civilians who have or are now serving abroad in high threat and danger zones.

The dangers for civilians are greater now that the military outsources many of its jobs to civilian contractors just as the dynamics of war have also drastically changed. These days, with guerilla and terrorist adversaries attacking anywhere at anytime, the battlefront “rear” and “front” no longer are clearly delineated. The enemy attacks any and everywhere, placing civilians who assist military operations in the same dangers as the uniformed warriors and often injuring and killing civilian workers who would have in the past been operating in the “rear”.

While our military serviceman returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced shameful delays and nonresponsive replies from the Veterans Health Administration to get their claims covered—civilian contractors who return from the battle space with similar injuries—including limbs blown off, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, depression, traumatic bereavement and the like—have found they too have had to battle with the insurance coverage provided under the Defense Base Act (DBA)—a law requiring insurance coverage for those contracting with any agency of the U.S. government for work outside the U.S.

At present the recording of civilian contractor deaths in conflict zones is thought by many to be underreported and sadly many of these civilians die unheralded. Likewise those who are wounded are finding it difficult to get their needs met.

In terms of psychological well being, a 2013 RAND study, aptly titled “Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Zones” found evidence for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in twenty-five percent of their sample, depression in eighteen percent, and alcohol misuse in over half the sample. And longer deployments and increased combat exposure was associated with higher rates of distress. In our 2007 study of resilience in civilians deployed in Iraq, our research team found similar findings.

Serving in a combat zone, high threat or danger zone is just that—dangerous—and it’s time we recognized the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are doing just that. A new organization We Served Too (WS2) has been formed with the mission to raise awareness; conduct research; develop education materials; support resilience, health and well-being; and create a web-based community, support network and information resource for those who are serving or have served in conflict and high threat security zones. Currently an oral history project collecting lessons learned from civilians who deployed into conflict and high threat/danger zones is underway. Volunteers and civilians who served are welcome to join.


Today colleagues of Jerry Umanos told CNN that Jerry “loved the Afghan people, loved the country, and loved to teach”. We need to honor his service and ultimate sacrifice just as we do for our military soldiers, and support all those, like him, who are risking it all to try to make our world a better place.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. She is Co-Director, with Martha Hudson, at We Served Too.