Category Archives: Hostage-Taking

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.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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