Early Detection Key for “Lone Wolves” Acting in Behalf of ISIS


Twenty-nine holiday-makers from Britain as well as tourists from Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Russia made up the thirty-eight people killed in an ISIS inspired terror attack at a popular beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia. The lone gunman, Tunisian Seifeddine Rezgui, emerged with little warning that he was about to become an assassin in behalf of the so-called Islamic State.

Twenty-three year old Rezgui was a master’s degree student in electrical engineering and followed ISIS instructions to either make “hijra,” that is come and join the jihad in Iraq and Syria, or stay at home and bring the battlefield to the so-called “infidels.” Unlike over three thousand of his Tunisian “brothers” who have gone to fight jihad in Syria and Iraq, Rezgui opted for the latter. Rezgui’s apparent “lone wolf” action, is for Britons, the worst act of terrorism since the July 7 bombings in London, when the metro was simultaneously attacked in four different locations in 2005 by homegrown terrorists. Now hailed by ISIS as a “soldier of the caliphate,” Rezgui gave few, but important, signs of his intent.[1]

A “clean-skin” terrorist—that is one with no prior criminal record—is often times the most difficult for law enforcement to detect prior to an attack. Rezgui it turns out traveled to Libya for training but was not known by the police to hold extremist views nor did he have a criminal record. His family also expressed shock that he had carried out his attack.

Rezgui did however, make his views known on what is believed to be his Facebook page where he had posted in support of ISIS since the beginning of last year. Having apparently radicalized at university, the gunman apparently was seduced into ISIS, as have many other young people by claims of a caliphate and new utopian world order in which perceived personal and global injustices would be addressed.

How does ISIS achieve this power of persuasion over others to convince them to carry out violence that often ends in destroying or ending their own lives as well?

In the case of Rezgui, his Facebook page gives some hints. For instance his last posting in January of 2015 states, “May God take me out of this unjust world and perish its people and make them suffer. They just remember you when they die. ” Clearly, Rezgui felt he would achieve some kind of immortality by enacting terrorism and address what he apparently believed were global injustices. His actions make clear that he bought on to the ISIS idea that killing and “martyrdom” was the way to achieve that impact.

The narrative that Islam, Islamic people and lands are under attack by the West has long been a narrative with al Qaeda and is now being furthered by ISIS. And it’s a narrative that finds footholds with many who radicalize by interacting with slick ISIS marketing materials and after being drawn in by Tweets, blogs, text messages and Skype conversations.

The motivations for joining ISIS vary by person and context but the essential elements of the lethal cocktail of terrorism remain the same. There is 1) the group that frames a problem and it’s solution in violent terms; 2) its ideology that wrongly argues that targeting innocent civilians is justified for the cause; 3) some level of social support which these days often comes via the Internet versus face-to-face interactions and lastly 4) the motivations and vulnerabilities of the individuals that link up with the previous three ingredients. In some cases the individual motivations and vulnerabilities are the desire to belong, for adventure, romance, money, status, to escape a dreary life, anger over social injustices such as discrimination or marginalization, secondary traumatization from viewing atrocities in person or by video and photos of conflict zones, a desire for revenge, trauma, social contagion inside a group, and host of other issues that all can interact successfully with exposure to a terrorist group and its virulent ideology.[2]

Shannon Conley, an American girl for instance converted to Islam and then searched the Internet to learn how to live her new Islamic life. She, like many, found the online videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American imam who turned against the U.S. and eloquently preached the requirement (according to him) for all Muslims to constantly engage in jihad either by making hijra or staying at home and acting in place. Al-Awlaki was droned by the Americans in 2011 but manages to live on inspiring beyond his grave, via the Internet. He has been implicated as a terrorist instigator and ideologue in nearly every Western ISIS or al-Qaeda related plot in recent years—including London’s 7-7 attacks, the Canadian Toronto 18, the Christmas underwear bomber and U.S. Major Nidal Hasan’s active shooter attack.

Via social media, chat and Skype sessions with ISIS supporters, Conley (whose case inspired my new book Bride of ISIS) progressed into believing the U.S. should be punished for engaging in airstrikes in Iraq. She briefly contemplated carrying out her own “lone wolf” attack—carrying out a VIP attack inside the U.S. She, like many young women that endorse ISIS, was discovered by a Tunisian ISIS fighter who talked with her over Skype and eventually proposed that she make hijra and come to Syria to marry him. Conley intended to do so but was arrested by U.S. authorities as she departed to travel to Syria.[3]

It should be noted that  Rezgui, Conley and nearly all of those that join ISIS today endorsed ISIS ideology, ideologues or actual ISIS sites on their Facebook or other social media accounts and posted about their new extremist beliefs. This indicates how important identity is to those who begin to take on the ISIS worldview. Rezgui for instance, posted on his Facebook page, “If jihad is a crime, the world shall know that I’m a criminal.” Their new beliefs are so important to them that they feel a need to declare it on social media—a fact that makes it possible to identify at least some of them.

Jeff Weyers, a policeman in Canada (and consultant at BRABO)[4] did just that. He tracked English speaking Facebook and Twitter users who endorsed terrorist groups. Gleaning what he could about them, he then used the Inventory of Vulnerable Persons guidance tool[5] to rate how likely they were to becoming violent extremists. Weyers found that 300 of his sample of 3000 entries from around the world fell into the dangerous category. He alerted law enforcement in the various countries involved. When investigations were made, indeed explosives, guns and nefarious plots were discovered and arrests were made.

Clearly, nowadays many of those who enter the terrorist trajectory and follow ISIS leave clear tracks on social media and can be tracked either by researchers like Weyers or even by automated computer programs to spit out to law enforcement cases that may warrant further investigation—before a terrorist plot is enacted.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles.  She also has interviewed over 400 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.

Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

[1] Morajea, C. F. a. H. (June 27, 2015). Tunisia gunman Seifeddine Rezgui: ‘mixed a devotion for Isil with passion for Real Madrid football team’. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11703376/Tunisia-gunman-Seifeddine-Rezgui-mixed-a-devotion-for-Isil-with-passion-for-Real-Madrid-football-team.html

[2] For a full discussion with cases illustrating this see: Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers and “martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

[3] For a full discussion of this case see: Speckhard, A. (2015). Bride of ISIS. McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC.

[4] See: https://ibrabo.wordpress.com

[5] Cole, J., Alison, E., Cole, B., & Alison, L. Guidance for identifying people vulnerable to recruitment into violent extremism. Retrieved from: http://www.nhserewash.com/safeguarding/IVP_Guidance_Draft_v0.3_web_version.pd

The Difficulty of Predicting ISIS and al Qaeda “Stay and Act in Place” Attacks


In February of 2015 Omar el-Hussein was hunted for thirteen hours and ultimately shot dead by Danish police after killing fifty-five year old documentary filmmaker Finn Noergaard at a free speech event and a thirty-seven year old Jewish guard, Dan Uzan at a synagogue in Copenhagen. El-Hussein, the gunman was known to Danish police. He had a criminal history that included violence and weapons offenses. In fact he had only been released from prison fourteen days previously.

It appears now that he planned his event (which was a simpler copycat of the Charlie Hebdo shootings) in the days after his release, Googling “Krudttonden” the place of the first attack only one to two days before his attack. This was where Lars Vilks the infamous artist who had drawn the Prophet and others were participating in an event organized by Vilks entitled Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression. El-Hussein’s brother allegedly bought a bullet-proof vest for him as well during those days. After the first shooting, el-Hussein escaped in a taxi and hid out in an Internet café where he then began an Internet search for the synagogue where he carried out his second attack.

The speed by which today’s terrorists radicalize into extremist mindsets and take lethal action is mind-boggling and presents a nightmare for today’s security officials. The police chief in Denmark was fired in May, only months after the shootings—after being held responsible for not anticipating such action.

Sadly though, this type of attack is likely to continue in all Western countries and is very hard to predict. Thousands of disgruntled individuals log on to the Internet to find excuses to vent their anger. Youth in particular are searching for identity, purpose, significance and if they are angry about injustices—perceived or real—they gravitate to justifications and equipping to channel and express their rage.

Groups like ISIS and al Qaeda are waiting and willing to provide for such individuals the other three elements of the four making up the lethal cocktail of terrorism that I identified in my four hundred interviews of terrorists and their family members and close associates (reported upon in Talking to Terrorists). These four elements are: 1) a group; 2) it’s ideology that wrongly tries to justify striking out at civilians in violence; 3) social support for joining and believing the ideology and this all combines with 4) the person’s own individual motivations and vulnerabilities.

El-Hussein had just been released from prison and had a violent background and access to weapons. He is also identified as being the son of Palestinian refugee parents, and may have already been exposed to violent ideologies promoting so-called “martyrdom” missions. These should have been red flags to police and if authorities were also aware of his radicalization–which there appeared to be clues too as well, these are all flags to his possibility of enacting terrorism.

Prison is a place where folks can easily be radicalized. Prisoners are generally bored and angered at being locked up, are surrounded by criminal thinkers and may be exposed to extremist thinkers and their ideologies. Many are vulnerable, long for belonging and may gravitate easily to a group that promises them some kind of future—even if it’s only in the afterlife—and even more so if it offers protection in the here and now.  A lot of extremist groups that work in prisons protect one another and if they are Muslim, pray regularly together, so there is a deep sense of belonging, sense of purpose and protection that may have been missing in childhood and adulthood.

We know now that terrorists are acting with less and less lead-time these days. Part of that is because troubled and lost people are getting radicalized over the Internet with the so-called “university of jihad” as my now deceased friend Reuven Paz liked to call it.  Over the Internet, the potential terrorists, i.e. person with vulnerabilities and motivations to strike out in hate can find all they need to radicalize, equip themselves, and strike out. But even before ISIS and groups like them became so adept at social media we saw individuals volunteering themselves to terrorist groups—among Palestinians and Chechens for instance and enacting terrorism very quickly. This is because the ideology of “martyrdom” and violent propaganda has seeped into the wider culture and there has been a wider acceptance of terrorist violence as means for powerless people to strike out in anger against so called oppressors or in the case of Muslim groups against those who insult Islam. We saw a similar attack in Texas only days ago in the U.S., although we still need to learn the radicalization profile there.

The facts are that many people are angry and hurt and can easily expose themselves to a terrorist group and ideology that attempts to justify violent responses to their problems and by glorifying such actions offers them a sense of meaning, significance and purpose along with belonging, perhaps some protection and friendship it can channel all their anger and concern over injustices done to them over their lifetime into a focused hatred and terrorist action. And this can happen fast.

For Muslims who join extremist groups and who have low ego strengths, the unnecessary baiting and provoking actions of drawing the Prophet as a pig, or a terrorist, can also be an overwhelming insult that can trigger him or her to activate quickly into violence if an extremist group is behind them with the “justification” for violent action and suggestions for how to enact violence. In most of our open democratic societies the exposure to terrorist groups and their ideologies are readily available over the Internet and so are weapons that can be easily procured so they can move fast and act in a matter of days or weeks as el-Hussein did. Once a vulnerable person has taken on the extremist mindset and decided he doesn’t mind dying for it he can activate and become lethal nearly instantly. The Internet these days makes finding information so easy, and guns are sadly readily available in many of our societies.

Denmark has been leading the way on trying to de-radicalize and disengage those who take on the ISIS ideology but here we see a case that was not recognized until the actor became lethal. It’s horrible but just underlines the fact that we need to do much more on terrorist prevention—by delegitimizing the acceptance in all sectors of society, but particularly with youth, that using terrorist violence for any cause is ever justified and by identifying those who have taken on such ideologies and intervening in meaningful and effective ways before they act.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. 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.

ISIS, the Euphoria of Jihad and Protecting Muslim Youth


In recent days we’ve witnessed six Canadian youth disappearing into thin air—likely heading for ISIS and three UK girls also recently slipped into Turkey, presumably ISIS bound. Western youth heading out to join the Caliphate is an increasing concern for all Western nations. It started in drips but the stream is increasing as disenchanted Muslim youth begin to believe the ideology that al Qaeda spent years erecting and that ISIS is now building upon.

Utopian fantasies and adventures are always appealing to youth. The euphoria of declaring a Caliphate, invoking end-times beliefs and claiming to build a society built upon Islamic ideals is of course contagious. What can we do to protect those who might answer the ISIS call? Can schools and parents make a difference?

Some might say once you’re indoctrinated, anything your parents tell you won’t help. Kids are strong-willed, stubborn—how many kids listen to their parents? Why is jihad any different than drugs or sex?

But I don’t agree.

The fight against ISIS begins with good parenting and begins at home as much as it does with resolving the political crises plaguing the Middle East, bringing justice to Muslim hotspots and delegitimizing a “jihadi” ideology that is poisonous and destructive to those who swallow it.

While governments are telling parents to warn their kids off of ISIS, it’s not a simple warning parents need to give their teenagers. It’s a whole outlook on life and training to be full human beings that will work.  If parents raise their kids from early on—well before they become teens—to believe that force solves problems then they will automatically respond to calls to use force. If discipline is carried out by striking our children—in anger for instance—rather than thoughtfully and lovingly disciplining them the final outcome will be very different.

A child that is nurtured from an early age to become empathetic, verbal and sensitive will learn to use skills that will make him more prone to peaceful resolutions of problems.  Gentle, kind, loving and sensitive parenting produces a thoughtful child who considers many responses—not just the knee-jerk response of jihad. Mosques and preschools might want to consider lessons in parenting that can pay off as children age..

Likewise giving a child the skills for critical thinking also helps her to avoid becoming easily indoctrinated by an ideology full of holes. And just like drugs and sex, parents need to talk to and be up to date with their young. If you don’t acknowledge the dangers that exist in the outside world—including the false call to “jihad”—it doesn’t make them go away. And Muslim children need to understand their faith—so some stranger doesn’t come and wrongly interpret it for them. In Chechnya for instance we found that those who went for suicide terrorism were much more likely to have not been raised with an in-depth understanding of their faith and were thus more prone to becoming indoctrinated by Wahhabi violent beliefs popular with terrorists at that time.

Schools have also influence and teachers as well as parents need to inculcate early on the understanding that terrorism is always wrong. There is NO cause, anywhere in the world that justifies intentionally targeting civilians and killing innocents in order to advance a political gain. None.

Al-Qaeda skillfully changed a whole generation of Muslim thinkers to believe first that suicide terrorism was justified in certain cases, i.e. for the Palestinians under occupation facing a much better armed enemy, or for Iraqis or Afghanis whose countries were invaded by foreign forces. But we need to teach our children that there is never any place for terrorist acts any place in the world. And when our own government engages in actions where collateral damage outweighs the targeted goal we need to cry out against that as well.

The idea that ISIS can build an ideal Islamic State imposing its violent will upon Iraqis and Syrians is of course ludicrous. Examples of failures in utopia building abound—for instance the Soviet experiment of trying to impose communism at the expense of the blood of millions of its murdered citizens. Utopias never pan out. Whether the terror of a government imposing its will upon its people or the terror of a group enacting political violence, it is always wrong. There are many skilled ways to discuss these issues in school curriculums in ways that can powerfully demonstrate the ideology of ISIS is illegitimate, as too is its use of terror and force. We need to invest serious resources into doing so if we want to save our youth.

That said, once intoxicated with the ISIS seductive call to jihad, adventure, sex and the utopian dream of living under Islamic ideals, no matter what the short term costs turn out to be—watch out.  Adventure beckons and hormones are strong.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. 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.

Sajida al-Rishawi the Woman ISIS Demanded be Released for Slain Jordanian Pilot


In past weeks ISIS has been demanding the release of Sajida al-Rishawi for the release of two Japanese hostages, Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto who were purportedly beheaded and also for the release of Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh who was captured in December, 2014 after his jet crashed in territory controlled by the militants in Syria.  Muath al-Kasaesbeh is claimed by ISIS to have been brutally set ablaze and killed today.

Sajida al-Rishawi is a hero to the Islamic State and al Baghdadi, although unsuccessful to date in obtaining her release, has made her, his cause. Why?

In 2005 she and her husband, along with others from al Qaeda in Iraq detonated themselves in simultaneous suicide attacks in three separate hotels in Amman, immediately killing sixty victims and injuring another one hundred fifteen, many of them seriously. In one hotel a wedding was taking place and the parents of the bride, as well as many guests were killed. Sajida was the only attacker to live—her suicide vest had malfunctioned.

These attacks, although preceded by other attacks in Jordan, shocked the entire nation leaving many with symptoms of acute and post-traumatic stress disorder. They were the worst suicide attacks in Jordan’s history and particularly poignant in that a wedding party had been struck. The shock was that the targets were purely innocent civilians, unconnected to the government and that the Muslim perpetrators felt justified to kill other Muslims. Jordanian civilians did not understand why al Qaeda in Iraq would target them.

The fact that Zarqawi, then leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, had picked top hotels where American servicemen, diplomats, civilians and contractors also stayed on their way into, and out of Iraq, may have been part of that story.

The politics of al Qaeda in Iraq, and now ISIS, have played out in Jordan in an interesting way. When Jordan joined the U.S. led coalition to fight ISIS, many Jordanians were reluctant and thought it’s not our war. However with the taking and now claimed brutal murder of a Jordanian pilot and the invoking of a national traumatic memory in which innocent Jordanians were targeted by Sajida al-Rishawi and her cohorts, Jordanians’ public opinion may shift to more support for fighting ISIS.

Sajida al-Rishawi is now in her mid forties and currently resides as a death-row prisoner in solitary confinement inside a high security prison in Jordan. Rishawi was sentenced to death in 2006 after surviving the attack on the Radisson Hotel in Amman

Sajida as Rishawi is not the first woman that ISIS demanded be released from prison. They previously demanded Aafia Siddiqui, a forty-two year old Pakistani neuroscientist educated in the U.S. who was convicted in 2010 in a Manhattan federal court of trying to kill Americans while she was detained in Afghanistan. American journalist Steven Sotloff was offered in exchange for Siddiqui, but no deal was made.

In both cases, the women are of tremendous propaganda value to ISIS. First, the idea that a Muslim woman, particularly an Iraqi woman one from one of their tribes, would be held in a foreign prison is an anathema to many conservative Muslims. The assumption is that she is being sexually violated. In Iraq, the images of American disgraces at Abu Ghraib are still seared into public memory. Second, to secure either woman’s release demonstrates ISIS as protective to the Iraqi and middle eastern, and really to all Muslim people who side with them.

It could also score Abu Bakr al-Baghdad important loyalties with Iraqi tribes. Sajida is from the powerful Sunni Abu Risha tribe in Iraq’s central Anbar province, an important constituency for ISIS to win favor with. Three of her brothers, one said to be the right hand man of Zarqawi were killed in fighting in Fallujah in 2004.

A cousin of Sajida’s and senior figure from her tribe, Sheikh Mehdi Abdel Sittar Abu Risha, explains that ISIS, “has used this as a political matter to say, ‘We take pride in our people more than you take pride in yours.’”

Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed by a U.S. air strike in 2006 had ordered the attack Sajida took part in and after she was caught, he also vowed to free Sajida. Comparing the rivalry between ISIS and al Qaeda, an Iraqi security official explains, “Whoever fulfills this vow will win the sympathy of all the jihadists loyal to Zarqawi. This will be a point for (Islamic State) against al Qaeda.” Thus if ISIS can secure Sajida’s release they will have one more triumph, including declaring a caliphate last year in land they control in Syria and Iraq, to claim their legitimacy to Muslims and Iraqis vis a vis al Qaeda whose leaders have disavowed ISIS.

Jordan government officials had offered to free Rishawi in return for their pilot, Muath al-Kasaesbeh although they feared that he may not be alive, as ISIS has not provided proof that he is.  And now it appears that ISIS has lashed out in impotent fury–brutally killing him by setting him ablaze inside a cage.

Female terrorists, like Rishawi can play an important role in terrorists groups—often as suicide operatives—precisely because they are rarely suspected and can more easily hide explosives and pass checkpoints. However, they are rarely leaders in terrorist groups. And while Chechen terrorists and other groups used women frequently, ISIS has made little use of women as operatives or fighters yet. And its predecessor group, al Qaeda in Iraq only resorted to using them in a common pattern to many conservative Muslim terror groups—when check points became so difficult to cross, that using women made sense. Robert Pape reported in 2005 that of 462 suicide terrorist histories he had collected, only twenty percent were women. As time goes on we may see ISIS beginning to use more women as operatives, but for now they are simply championing their cause.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. 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.

Confronting ISIS and Rethinking the U.S. Government’s “No Negotiations with Terrorists” Stance


When Diane and John Foley, the parents of American journalist James Foley–who was publicly executed by ISIS in Syria on August 19–accepted (posthumously) the 2014 Oxi Day Award for their son’s extraordinary courage in the defense of freedom and democracy (for which he had been nominated by President Bill Clinton), James Foley’s father had some tough words to say. Speaking to the gala crowd assembled at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in Washington D.C., and recalling his concern for his son and disappointment over how the United States refused to negotiate with ISIS to recover his son, Mr. Foley compared his meeting with European parents who had been reunited with their grown children–after their governments successfully negotiated their release. And John Foley caused nearly everyone in the room to cry when he explained his feelings after those meetings, stating quite simply–“I miss my son.” Then he asked if perhaps it was time to rethink the U.S. government’s stance of no-negotiations with terrorists.

While the politics and policies of non-negotiation with terrorists is firmly rooted in our policies, when one is faced with the grief of a stricken parent it perhaps begs a renewed discussion regarding what the actual costs and benefits of negotiating with terrorists are. Clearly on the benefit side is what Mr. Foley witnessed: hostages that–unlike his son–had survived their ordeal and been released to safety. Indeed, European nations and organizations negotiated the liberation of more than a dozen of their citizens who had been held in the same cell as Mr. Foley, for ransoms averaging more than $2.5 million. But the United States does not negotiate, nor pay ransoms for hostages–so Mr. Foley’s son was beheaded.

On the cost side is the fact that paying ransoms does put money into the coffers of those who hate us. Alongside this is the belief that paying ransoms will also incentivize terrorists to carry out more hostage-takings. Kidnapping and hostage taking has long been a money-making venture for terrorist groups, and ISIS is hardly the first among them. There is evidence that terrorist hostage takings increase when they are seen as lucrative, but less evidence that refusing to pay for hostages dis-incentivizes groups from taking hostages if those hostages are providing other tangible benefits to the organization.

For instance, in the sixties and seventies the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had a hey day of hostage taking via plane hijackings and raked in huge amounts of money as a result–but it was not the refusal to pay for the release of hostages that stopped them from continuing. It was an increase in airport security that put an end to that. Likewise, when the first Somali pirates began earning huge payments for the ransom of kidnapped shipping crews, a huge increase in pirating in the Gulf of Aden occurred. Refusing to pay for the release of such hostages is also not what stopped them. It was military intervention–that is naval counter-piracy operations to be precise.

In the case of ISIS it’s not clear if they need the money they make from hostage takings. They are the richest terrorist group ever, due to bank heists and the oil that they control. We know that squeezing terrorist finances has proven to be a desirable strategy to shutting terrorists down–or least squelching their abilities to mount major operations–but it is not clear if refusing to pay for hostages, especially in the case of the deep pocketed ISIS group achieves that end. Perhaps it just ends in the hostage’s death?

In the case of ISIS, each time they threaten a beheading they dominate world news. And Western news agencies play right into their hands as they post, play and replay the pictures provided by ISIS that show submissive and humiliated hostages dressed in Gitmo orange, fearfully kneeling in front of their captors (see picture above). This propaganda gain of having media all around the world spread ISIS’s message of domination is probably far more valuable to them than any ransom payment they may fail to collect. Indeed Western news outlets should give serious thought to refusing to show ISIS provided pictures and instead show only pictures of the victims of potential beheadings from their pre-hostage, normal lives in order to downplay the disturbing news that they may be beheaded and symbolically strengthen the hand that would carry out such a nefarious deed. This strategy might be far much more useful than refusing to pay ransoms.

Likewise, while the U.S. and other Western countries publically state that they do not negotiate for terrorists, the truth is many countries, including the United States do buy back their loved ones via prisoner exchanges and outright monetary payments–albeit coming via third parties. In recent years the United States has allowed, and even asked at times, for third party “broker” countries to work out the release of hostages. Theo Curtis, an American freelance writer who was held hostage for nearly two years by an affiliate of Al Qaeda in Syria, was for example, freed following extensive mediation by Qatar. Qatar, it turns out has successfully negotiated the release of numerous Western hostages in exchange for multimillion-dollar ransoms–paid by Qatar, not the United States.

The United States also brokered the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the Taliban by releasing five Guantanamo detainees. The Taliban originally demanded $1 million for Bergdahl along with the release of 21 Afghan prisoners and Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist convicted in a U.S. court on charges of attempted murder of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. After Bergdahl’s release, U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) announced that sources told him that the U.S. military unsuccessfully tried to pay a ransom for Bergdahl, despite repeated denials that such a payment was made. Rep. Hunter stated that Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) made a payment that they were reluctant to label as a ransom to Berghahl’s suspected captors and terrorist group, the Haqqani Network, between January and February 2014. In this case the “payment was made to an Afghan intermediary who ‘disappeared’ with the money and failed to facilitate Bergdahl’s release in return.” 

If such negotiating and payment powers carried out by the United States government, and it’s allies working in its behalf, are not applied fairly across the board for all U.S. citizens, one would wonder how the parent–someone like John Foley–of a non-released or executed hostage might feel.

Israel, a country that also holds one of the toughest no negotiation stances also routinely holds behind the scenes meetings and under the table barters with terrorist groups. Most recently, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was released after five years of negotiations between Israel and Hamas in which Israel agreed to release 1027 prisoners.

So the question remains: is there a government policy that can both discourage terrorism and help secure the release of loved ones?

One may look south for an answer. In recent years, the Columbian FARC kidnapped Columbian citizens so frequently that it was common for wealthy Columbians to carry kidnap insurance to secure their potential release if taken hostage. Likewise many major news outlets insure their journalists with kidnap insurance. Perhaps a good answer is to have the American government attempt to stick to its no-negotiations stace while also supporting some type of non-governmental entity to insure and secure the monetary payments and negotiating acumen necessary to release American citizens held hostage by groups such as ISIS–given that withholding payment is unlikely to dis-incentivize their hostage taking operations. Negotiations and payments could then be made and fairly applied to all U.S. hostages held, and lives saved, until military or other interventions can shut the group down.

I know James Foley’s father would have appreciated that. Perhaps we can do better for the other American hostages now held, and those that will continue to be taken, until our governments finds a way to permanently shut ISIS down?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. 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 and their hostages in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

Deep Roots for the Charlie Hebdo Attacks Run back to Terrorist Hubs in Belgium, the UK and France

hostage taking paris 2015

The world watches in horror as alleged gunman Amedy Coulilaby who armed with an Ak-47 gunned down and killed a French policewoman and is now holding Jewish hostages inside a kosher store in Paris. This taking place on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo attack, in which the satirical staff of that publication were gunned down in cold blood in what appeared to be a highly organized and well-planned attack. While it may look to the witnessing world like these terrorists emerged out of nowhere or are the work of new terrorist groups such as ISIS, these terrorist actors have a long legacy of militant jihadi thinking and have built their ideology, groups and recruitment strategies upon years of terrorist activities in Belgium, the UK and France.

Indeed the roots of the Charlie Hebdo attacks appear to reach all the way back to Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada’s hateful preaching and terrorist incitement based out of the Finsbury Park Mosque in the nineties. Morton Storm, a Danish extremist turned undercover was radicalized by the same al Qaeda mouthpieces, as was Richard Reid and Sajajid Badat, the two so called “shoe bombers”. Abu Hamza will finally be sentenced this Friday in New York after being convicted last year of eleven charges of instigating terrorist acts. This after years of legal wrangling that allowed him to incite terrorism openly on the streets of what many were referring to as “Londonstan”. Abu Qatada, the Jordanian born “spiritual leader” of al Qaeda’s European operations was extradited back to Jordan in 2013 after a long legal battle in the UK.

Djamal Beghal, now fifty, is an Algerian who lived both in the UK and France was one of their disciples and “grew up” to become a terrorist instigator himself. In 2001, immediately following the 9-11 attacks, police in Belgium and Netherlands raided addresses linked to Beghal. He was arrested and found responsible for organizing a soon to be carried out suicide bombing attack sending Nizar Trabelsi, a Tunisian living in Belgium to blow himself up in U.S. Embassy Paris among other plots. Included in his heinous list of plots for the cells Beghal had set up in Britian, Germany, Belgium, France and Spain, was a plot to kill President Bush and other G8 leaders by crashing an airliner into the G8 summit held in Genoa, Italy and attacking an American base in Belgium. Beghal was released from prison in 2010, but then rearrested in May of 2011 for allegedly directing a terrorist group. It now appears that Cherif Kouachi—the alleged shooter in the Charlie Hebdo attacks—was among his adherents.

French-Algerian Cherif Kouachi—the alleged shooter in the Charlie Hebdo attacks was jailed in 2008 in France for arranging for jihadists to travel to Iraq to fight the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Kouachi met Beghal in French prison. Upon their release the two regularly met with other formerly convicted and also released terrorists including Ahmed Laidouni—a jihadi recruiter, and Farid Meouk—an Algerian member of the GIA terror group. The Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (GICM) that emerged out of the GIA had ties that crossed between Morocco and Algeria and Belgian and French citizens of Algerian and Moroccan descent. That group ultimately pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Ladin and became Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM). The GICM was associated with the May 2003 suicide attacks in Casa Blanca and an offshoot of that group—Salafia Jihadia—was blamed for the 2004 attack on public transportation in Madrid that killed 191 and wounded 1900.

So we see that homegrown terrorism directed and linked to the group and ideology of al Qaeda active via Muslims of immigrant descent or first generation immigrants themselves, living in Europe have been active and brewing for a long time. And now with the viral power of the ISIS meme is likely to be with us for quite some time.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. 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.

The ISIS “Attack and Stay in Place” Meme and the “Why” Behind the Charlie Hebdo Attacks


While a manhunt is underway for Cherif and Said Kouachi, the alleged assailants in the Charlie Hebdo attacks Wednesday, Westerner are asking themselves what to expect in terms of further such attacks, what actually motivates them, who is behind them and what, if any, the limits of free speech should be. While it is still unclear if the Charlie Hebdo attacks were organized by any terror group—they appeared coordinated and well carried out—or self organized, with the inspiration of groups like al Qaeda or ISIS, it is sure that more such attacks are coming.

The current ISIS meme that is replicating itself virally over the Internet via Twitter, Facebook and other social media, builds upon the ideology laid down by al Qaeda—namely that Islam, Islamic people and Islamic lands are under attack by the West and that Muslims need to band together and enact terrorist attacks to fight back. The current ISIS meme euphorically claims the Caliphate has been re-established, that all are welcome and that all have a duty to jihad.

Jihad according to ISIS, as Anwar Awlaki so persuasively argued, is the never ending duty to fight in behalf of Islam, never ceasing, until the end times—which ISIS claims are right around the corner. (It should be noted that Awlaki was killed by a drone strike but is still alive and well and still inspiring countless acts of terrorism via the Internet). The ISIS meme also offers those who would like to join them to take hijra (i.e. migration) to Syria and Iraq to come to live a “pure” Islamic life and take part in building the new “utopian” state. And unlike al Qaeda that heavily vetted anyone who wanted to come and had many barriers to joining, ISIS welcomes all. Indeed an estimated 15,000 foreign fighters have already joined their ranks, with estimates of 800 from France and 300 from the U.S.

Perhaps most chilling for those of us in the West, is that the current ISIS meme also offers for those who for whatever reason cannot migrate and join them in Syria and Iraq, the possibility to stay and act in place. These are the new “homegrown” terrorists who take part in simple, but lethal, small scale attacks such as in Ottawa where we saw one homegrown terrorist use a car to mow down and kill two soldiers and another to take a rifle into the Canadian Parliament attempting a massacre. Three such driving attacks have occurred in France in the last month.

And as long as the ISIS meme keeps replicating itself in the minds of young disillusioned, marginalized, and even mentally ill Muslims in the West, these attacks will continue to occur and grow in numbers. One should recognize that the strongest memes are those that replicate themselves well—often even at the expense of their host. In the case of ISIS, the meme requires that the host be willing to self-sacrifice in behalf of the group and its cause to supposedly win the ultimate rewards of paradise. And a small number of, but yet far too many, Muslims who can’t find their way to belong to society, feel rejected or lack purpose in their lives, who want adventure or to bolster their sense of manhood, or who are angered by geopolitics and insults to their religion are buying on to that belief. And if left unstopped, they will continue to cause death and destruction in the West.

Motivations for joining terrorist groups in France and all of Europe for that matter have a lot to do with both politics and living conditions. I lived for seven years in Belgium and traveled into the banlieues in Paris and also throughout Belgium, the Netherlands and the UK asking Muslims about their living conditions and the causes of radicalization. In Paris I was told that the French “liberte, egalite and fraternite” (liberty, equality and brotherhood) which is the motto of France does not apply to them. Trapped in the banlieues of Paris they felt the police discriminated against and mistreated them, that jobs, leisure life and housing were not equally available to them.

Indeed my interpreter in Paris, a Ph.D. in psychology told me she could not rent an apartment in any nice area given she was of Algerian descent. As soon as a prospective landlord saw her, the place she had come to inquire about was suddenly no longer available. I heard the same about jobs and I watched in Belgium at least, as young Moroccan descent men coming to dance in the evenings at the nightclubs and trying to integrate into the Belgian clubbing culture were systematically told by the bouncers, “Go home Moroccans.” While discrimination is illegal in the EU, unlike in the U.S. it is a very bureaucratic process to pursue a case and the penalties are negligible. There is no million-dollar settlement like the U.S. “Denny’s case” where a black man was not served coffee in a timely fashion and won a settlement against the firm for prejudicial treatment.

Interestingly, Europe also has more limited free speech laws than the U.S. In many European countries inciting hatred among religious groups or blatant insults to religion are not allowed in the press. Yet the Danish cartoons were not held to that law. And European Muslims have not managed to organize themselves into having an anti-defamation league like the Jewish people have.

In response to the Danish cartoons, Dyab Abou Jahjah, then head of the Arab European League had a cartoonist retaliate by making a cartoon of Anne Frank in bed with Hitler. He felt that might make people understand how he felt and think again about insulting his sacred values. Other Muslims engaged in a boycott of Danish products. Today Abou Jahjah tweeted, “I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so.” That’s something to reflect on as well.

Being insensitive to the sacred values of others is an issue. Muslims are sensitive to their Prophet being depicted at all, much less in unfavorable ways, and their scriptures instruct them to use violence to defend their faith. Sensitivity to the faith of others and holding the laws up in a consistent way as far as prohibiting insults to religion may be as important as other ways of fighting terrorism.

Foreign and military policies are also important. I heard many Muslims in Europe decry the U.S. led invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to think hard about any of our military actions that make it easier for Muslims to buy into the narrative that Islam, Islamic people and Islamic lands are under attack. Drone kills of civilians is one such policy—even if it rids us of some terrorist leaders. Using “ghost planes”, rendition, secret prisons and keeping detainees in Guantanamo is another.

Ultimately the lethal cocktail of terrorism relies on the interaction of a group, its ideology, the social support that exists for both, and the vulnerabilities of individuals who are exposed to the group and its ideology. While it’s unlikely we will defeat ISIS anytime soon, we can work to delegitimize its ideology, poking holes in its claims and showing what is actually happening in Iraq and Syria and de-glamourizing the call to jihad. And we can identify vulnerable persons and begin to redirect them to other ways of answering their needs and concerns. But these things take time, resources and thoughtful approaches. Until our governments commit to spending on thoughtful counter terrorism prevention, intervention and redirection, committing resources as they do for military kinetic solutions we won’t see an end to either ISIS or “stay in place” attacks.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. 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.