The Canadian Parliament Attacks, ISIS, and Echoes of the Toronto 18

For many, the shooting attacks in the Canadian parliament this week are a horrific surprise. Canada is a viewed by most as a very open, tolerant and friendly society, having welcomed many waves of immigrants from all over the world. However there are elements of extremism that have plagued Canadian society for some time.

For instance, in 2005, the Toronto 18, a terrorist group spanning the U.S., Canada, and the UK plotted to storm the Canadian Parliament with assault rifles, take it over and behead the Prime Minister and members of Parliament until Canadian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. While many thought the attacks could never have been actualized, part of the group was serious enough to have managed to build a working remote detonator and order tons of fertilizer for truck bombs to be placed around Toronto—attacking various sites in what would have been a series of catastrophic attacks. It was only the actions of two undercover agents—Mubin Shaikh, primary among them—that saved Canadians from the disastrous effects of such a series of attacks. Our new book, Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18—al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Extremism in the West detailing the inside story of the terrorist plotters is released this week—chillingly, just as we see their very terrorist plots actualized.

“We’ll attack the Parliament buildings of Canada,” the ringleader of the Toronto 18, Fahim Ahmad crowed to his cadres. “First we’ll distract the police with bombs going off all around the city. That will take all the security forces attention away from the Parliament,” Fahim continued. “And when they are responding to the car bombs, we’ll storm the Parliament buildings!” He went on to tell his cadres that they would take the Parliament members hostage and behead first, the Prime Minister and then the Members, one by one. His plan, thought by many to be far-fetched, now sadly has been shown, in part at least—conceivable.

And while the Toronto 18 members were rounded up resulting in eleven convictions, Canadian extremism did not disappear. Indeed, with the conflict in Syria and the rise of al Nusra and now ISIS, Canadians are presently overrepresented among Westerners in the fight. The number of fighters from Canada (over one hundred) that have gone to fight the Assad regime in Syria—many now also joining al Nusra and ISIS—have been equal to the number of those from the United States, and have kept pace also, with that of the UK. But Canada’s population is only half of that of the UK, and the Muslim population is only a third of the size, yet Canada currently has as many foreign fighters joining ISIS. So the fact is, that Canadians represent a disproportionate number of Western fighters in Syria and Iraq. Clearly extremism has a foothold in what we often think of as peaceful and peace-loving Canada.

And the ideology of ISIS is fanning the flames. Their claim of having created a real caliphate and having anointed a legitimate caliph (al Baghdadi), along with their call to an idealized version of being a Muslim (to live like the original Companions) speaks to the inner needs of many Canadian first and second generation Muslim immigrants who are somehow failing in their lives, as well as religious seekers who have converted and sought out an extremist form of Islam. For them, this call to ISIS resolves any issues of identity. And if they go on “hijra” that is migrate from Canada to the land of Sham and Iraq where ISIS is in charge they believe it will provide them with a “safe” place to practice their extremist form of Islam. Sadly they don’t realize that they actually have their highest religious freedoms inside Canada and will forfeit nearly all of their rights in joining ISIS.

But unlike al Qaeda, joining ISIS is easy. There is no vetting process—everyone is welcomed, and it is not so difficult to get there. And ISIS, in its social media outreach claims “We are all ISIS” thereby creating a community of belonging. Indeed their films and social media outreach make a big point of the international gathering, that those of all skin colors and ethnic descent are welcomed with open arms. All Muslims belong and everyone is accepted.

Not only that—with ISIS, everyone also has a part to play, and is significant to the shared vision. And according to ISIS, and Anwar al Awlaki, who was the ideologue (killed finally by a U.S. drone) that laid a lot of the groundwork for embracing their vision of Islam—all Muslims are obligated to take part in militant jihad. The belief among those who drink the “kool-aid” proffered by ISIS and formerly by Awlaki, who lives on via the Internet and continues to inspire beyond his death, is that they are engaging with a powerful compact with Allah. They may have to kill and die for it—but it is their Muslim identity and duty to do so—even inside Canada.

And ISIS has simplified things. Travel is not required—you can act in place. But for those wanting adventure there is a real and accessible place to come to—and that place, Sham and Iraq, is held sacred in the apocalyptic vision of the end times and strongly resonates with the shared vision, that ISIS is ushering in the new age of Islamic victory.

For Canadians lost in their path of self actualization, failing somehow in their lives, and looking for some way to redeem their manhood, womanhood, their sense of self, or to bolster a failing identity or belonging, ISIS offers them a compelling vision for a path forward—to bring about the final Caliphate. It just requires a commitment to violent action.

While it is still unclear who organized the attacks on the Canadian Parliament and the thinking of now killed, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who carried them out, the fact that they mirror an attack that was already plotted by the Toronto 18 is indeed chilling. Given the instigation of ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani ash-Shami stating, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever … including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” it’s likely that we will learn that this too was an ISIS plot.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry and of Security Studies at Georgetown University in the Medical School and in School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She 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. She also was responsible in 2006-2007 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.

Al Baghdadi, ISIS, Camp Bucca and the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq—Could we have Changed the Outcomes?

al baghdadi

In the summer of 2007 I was given the task of designing the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of a “deradicalization” program for the U.S. military that came to be known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program. This program was to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. And now I am learning, the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was apparently among those detainees held in Camp Bucca.

This July al Baghdadi declared himself the “Caliph Ibrahim” of a new fundamentalist Sunni state stretching from western and northern Iraq to northern Syria and his group has shown a ruthless bent for carrying out militant jihad.

But Baghdadi was not always an extremist killer. Before U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003 he was known as a quiet, studious young man who was earning his degree in Islamic studies.After the invasion however, he somehow ended up in Camp Bucca—either for actually being involved in the insurgency or in terrorist activities, or as a result of wide sweeps in which those who were around an IED explosion often ended up arrested and detained in a U.S. controlled prison.

It is unclear when Baghdadi radicalized, either before landing in Camp Bucca or inside of it. But it’s clear now that once inside Camp Bucca he hand picked top military men—former Baathists who were also detained there. This group of top Iraqi military leaders that al Baghdadi chose during his time in Camp Bucca, who now serve alongside him leading ISIS have provided invaluable military insight and training that al-Baghdadi and the former al Qaeda in Iraq lacked. They have augmented his group with traditional military skill combined now with terrorist techniques—making ISIS a formidable hybrid—of terrorists and an army. And it all happened underneath our noses—while we were trying to run a program to deradicalize these very individuals.

On my first visit in November 2006 to Camp Cropper outside of Baghdad to discuss with General Garner his wish to start a “deradicalization” program for the then fourteen thousand detainees he was shuffling between Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper—trying to prevent extremists from recruiting more—he and his staff admitted their frustration over being able to detect who were the true extremists, who was devoted to militant jihad and who had simply been caught up in sweeps and or were economically motivated for terrorist and insurgent activities and had no jihadi bent.

The estimates at that time were that only fifteen percent of the detainees were true extremists and adherents to the al Qaeda ideology. General Garner asked me, and my associates, to help design a program that might take the militant jihadists out of their extremist mentality. The need was urgent because the military leadership was well aware even then, that the true militant jihadists inside the prison were quickly radicalizing those they were exposed to and teaching them basic IED know how right inside the open air prisons. Baghdadi may have been among the students or one of the teachers at the time—now one knows for sure.

General Garner had a truly innovative spirit and was determined to create a program to address this problem however General Garner’s time was short so he passed the baton to Major General Douglas Stone who took up the task. I was later hired to help create this program under General Stone through a contractor who was tasked to carry out the program.

In beginning it, I was pleased to find that there were three al Qaeda operatives inside the prison who were all high level Salafi imams who had been working for the propaganda arm of al Zarkawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq but who had now turned against al-Qaeda and were eager to help fight it. These three—after being carefully vetted by both the CIA and the DIA—agreed to join our team and help reach the worst of the worst. They were released from Camp Cropper and free to return to their families, but instead they were so devoted to fighting al Qaeda in Iraq that they came back to Camp Bucca to work. Their job was to try to talk those who were ideologically committed out of believing that al Qaeda in Iraq had anything good to offer their country and that the militant jihad was justified by Islam.  They were totally disgusted by al Qaeda in Iraq and very enthusiastic about it.

My design was to pair these imams who had incredible street credibility and the Salafi mindset with talented and trained psychologists to also be able to find the hooks inside the person that the militant jihadi ideology had resonated to. We hoped to reach the most hardcore al Qaeda members by sitting with them consistently over weeks and days and addressing their Islamic beliefs as well as their psychological “hooks”. I knew that there had been Islamic Challenge programs before in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and one starting up in Scotland Yard, but this was to be the first “deradicalization” program to take a two pronged approach—pairing psychologists and imams together to try to bring those committed to the militant jihad and already far along the terrorist trajectory back down off of it and out of al Qaeda. We knew we wouldn’t turn them all but we were determined to try and turn some.

But as it turned out our program never got the chance to address the hardcore. Under General Stone’s leadership the military began doing quick releases of detainees putting them through a four-day program that basically checked a lot of boxes and only engaged them superficially, if at all. That may have been fine for the eighty-five percent who were not adhering to the militant jihadi ideology. The mass releases satisfied Sunni tribal demands at the same time that we were engaging in the Awakening and trying to stamp out al Qaeda in Iraq. The tribal leaders, on their side, were committed to making sure the released detainees who were not among the hardcore did not return to militant activities.

As I told General Stone about the program at the time—“it will only work if the politics of Iraq support it. A man who joined the militant jihad because you killed his sister may agree to give up engaging in violence, but if you kill his brother next, he’ll go right back to it.”

Unfortunately, as we have seen since exiting Iraq, the politics of Maliki’s ascendance and the Shia security forces bias in going after Sunnis—profiling and arresting them and even targeting top Sunni politicians—has recreated the original biases among the Sunni tribes that led them to harbor and support al Qaeda operatives during the U.S. coalition invasion. Now ISIS is simply al Qaeda in Iraq 2.0 with the Sunni population having recently the same motivations for tolerating and even encouraging them. No prison “deradicalization” program working in isolation was going to be able to address that.

Even so, as far as the hardcore went, it seems we dropped the ball. The prison staff apparently did not know for sure who they were and the U.S. military leadership’s sentiment was more inclined to keep them locked up—throwing away the key—than engage them. That unfortunately now seems shortsighted—given the keys were ultimately handed over to the Iraqis. Likewise many like al Baghdadi and his former Baathist military officers may have been radicalized versus deradicalized during the time we held them.

James Skylar Gerrond, a former US Air Force officer and a compound commander at Camp Bucca in 2006 and 2007 agrees, stating that he believes Baghdadi’s stay at the prison contributed to his radicalization—or at least bolstered his extremism. Gerrond tweeted this summer after al Baghdadi declared his caliphate, “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.”

Likewise when I interviewed former prisoners of Camp Bucca in Jordan in 2008, Sunni extremists there told me about their experiences of going through what became known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program—a program I had designed but did not implement. They laughed and said it was not a real engagement and that in fact imams stood outside the fence of the prison in order to “check the boxes” and these imams read Islamic verses to them while the detainees spat and mocked them. This was not the engagement I had envisioned.

Now reading about the ascendance of ISIS, I find it incredibly frustrating that we had al Baghdadi and many of his group’s top military brass in our hands. They may have been radicalized right under our noses. Instead of carefully and meaningfully carrying out a program that could have possibly engaged them in what might have been a life changing exchange with highly credible sheiks and talented psychologists who could have made a difference in their thinking—as I had envisioned, we apparently did nothing.

Now we wait to see if al Baghdadi’s alleged words upon departing Camp Bucca, reported by the then camp commander Colonel Kenneth King—“I’ll see you guys in New York,”—will in fact come true.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and in the Security Studies Program. She is author ofTalking to Terrorists and wrote about designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in her book. 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, Jordan, Iraq, and many countries in Europe.

ISIS and the Social Media Call for Female Jihadis: Love & Romance as Strong Motivators

Female Palestinian suicide bombers attend a news conference in Gaza

“Love” and romance are often underestimated motivators for joining the militant jihad as recently witnessed in the case of Denver teen, Shannon Maureen Conley who was arrested April 8, 2014 while trying to board a flight in Denver with the goal of traveling to Syria to join ISIS. 

Nineteen-year-old Conley, who converted to Islam while a junior in high school, had struck up an online romance with a thirty-two year old Tunisian ISIS fighter who she communicated with via Skype. 

Self-educated in militant jihad ala the “University of Jihad” presently available to all via the Internet, Conley had come to believe that Islamic jihad and fighting with a group like ISIS was the only way to rectify the so called injustices being done against the Muslim world. Conley came to believe that she was called to wage war against “Kafirs” (non-Muslims) and that U.S. law enforcement, government employees and military targets along with any civilians who happened to be on a military bases were legitimate targets for terrorists attacks. 

Conley had in her possession and had studied Al-Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerilla War which included passages underlined by her regarding motorcade attacks and waging guerilla warfare. She also had in her possession DVDs of sermons by Anwar al Awlaki—a charismatic hater of the U.S. who still successfully promotes militant jihad via his Internet presence that lives on long after his death in September 2011 by U.S. drone attack. Al Awlaki is also credited for having influenced Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s militant jihadi beliefs and hatred for the U.S. 

Previous to converting to Islam, Conley had dreamed of joining the U.S. military, but once donning a hidjab and nikab and taking on militant jihadi Muslim beliefs she feared she would not be accepted. Thus, Conley diverted from serving in the U.S. military to receiving training in the U.S. Army Explorers in order to learn U.S. military tactics and train in firearms—skills she hoped to put into use in behalf of ISIS. ISIS for her had gained legitimacy in its euphoric declaration of an Islamic caliphate and was branded for aspiring jihadi Muslim women as a place to go for love and adventure.

Young women like Conley have also gone to join ISIS from France, the UK, and elsewhere.


Two twin sixteen-year-old Somali descent schoolgirls from the UK, Salma and Zahra Halane, each abruptly abandoned their plans to train as doctors and left to join their brother who was already a fighter for over a year in ISIS. Officials feared that the girls who left their parents home in the middle of the night may have had their trips bankrolled by ISIS fighters who wanted them as brides.  In June, Britian’s interior minister, Theresa May, stated that of the four hundred UK lined individuals who have gone to Syria, about a dozen of them are women. Two French girls—aged only fifteen and seventeen were also reported to have been captured by security previous to leaving the country to join the jihad. 

An imam to the diaspora Somali community in Minneapolis also recently warns that ISIS has stepped up its social media campaign to attract young women and potential brides to come join the group. Clearly the men there need brides as horrifying news reports abound of hundreds of Yazidi women abducted by ISIS being handed out or sold to members of the group—many of the women forced to convert to Islam in order to be married to the fighters. 

It’s not only potential suitors luring women into the battlefield–it’s also other women already there who tweet and blog from the battlefield on the joys of jihadi family life and the “honor” of giving birth and raising the future mujahideen (warriors). “I will never be able to do justice with words as to how this place makes me feel” Umm Layth (mother of Layth) tweets as she writes about her cherished relationships living among “her fellow sisters and brothers in the Islamic state.”

And while traditional wives everywhere have enjoyed the earned statuses of their husbands, women how have swallowed the militant jihadi ideology eagerly look forward to the potential death of their husbands knowing that his attaining “martyrdom” ensures their exalted status as widows of “martyrs” forever after. Umm Layth tweets “Allahu Akbar, there’s no way to describe the feeling of sitting with the Akhawat [sisters] waiting on news of whose Husband has attained Shahadah [martyrdom]”. 

Conley was trained as a nursing assistant and expected to marry her suitor upon arrival to Syria. She told FBI agents that she wanted to wage war there but if she were prevented, as a woman, from joining the fighters on the battlefield she would put her medical skills to work in assisting her fellow jihadis. Essentially she was going to exchange a boring life here of changing bedpans and living a quiet existence as a covered woman to the exciting life of being married to a fellow jihadi while putting her medical skills to serious use on an active battlefield.

When warned by FBI agents of potential criminal charges if she continued on her path to militant jihad, Conley answered that she would rather “be in prison that do nothing” to help the militant jihadi cause.  Like many young people she was totally filled with the dream of an adventure—in her case with the exhilaration of a love affair occurring with the backdrop of war surrounding them, with the possibility of Islamic “martyrdom” being achieved for either or both of them.

While romantic love, adventure and the call of jihad beckoned Conley overseas, she also admitted to FBI agents that she thought it possible for her to plan a motorcade attack inside the U.S. but that she thought U.S. security would prevent her from successfully carrying it out. This is the worrying factor when it comes to social media and Internet reach inside the U.S. from members of militant jihadi groups like al Shabaab in Somalia and now ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Through relationships struck up over the Internet—particularly romantic ones that have a high motivating factor—but also through relationships that existed between jihadis who have gone overseas and kept in touch via social media with the “homies” back home—ISIS fighters can have a very long reach right inside the U.S.

And through Conley’s example, and many others, we see that the ISIS reach into the minds and hearts of U.S. citizens can motivate them to abandon home, family, even their own children, and careers to go overseas to join groups like ISIS or even more chillingly to plan an attack right here on native soil as Conley admits she briefly considered.

Conley and her Tunisian suiter asked her father, John Conley, via Skype-for permission to marry. Mr. Conley refused.  The refusal of a bride’s father in Islam should have prevented her from perserving, but ISIS and other similar groups have found a way around that—they appoint a guardian in the group to give her permission. 

In the online social conversation with women already inside ISIS, the hurdle of overcoming parental opposition is discussed in earnest. Umm Anwar, a western woman who joined ISIS tweets that in her case the emir (leader) of her prospective husband was appointed and he phoned her father “to ask for my dad’s consent by phone.” 

Umm Layth who has over two thousand Twitter followers warns that it is difficult to go ahead in the face of family opposition, “Even if you know how right this path and decision is and how your love for Allah comes before anything and everything, this is still an ache which only one [who] has been through and experienced it can understand. The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do…when you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back it’s so hard.” 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK based group even reported that in July the Islamic State opened a marriage bureau the Syria for women who want to wed its fighters. 

In Conley’s case it was her father that thwarted her plans—he called the FBI when he saw his daughter’s one-way ticket to fly to Turkey. He likely saved her life and perhaps many more lives of whoever she was planning to attack, and also urge onward into militant jihad.

Conley has since been charged with trying to provide material support and resources, including personnel and expert advice, to a foreign terrorist organization—in this case ISIS. Had Conley made it to Syria, she would have been one of at least one hundred people from the United States who have thus far joined ISIS.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and in the Security Studies Program. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and 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.

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.