Category Archives: Iraq

ISIS Operative Salah Abdeslam: A Not so True-Believer Terrorist


salah-abdeslam-composite copy

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. & Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

A key member of the ISIS cell and only survivor of nine cadres who are believed to have been directly involved in the Paris attacks was caught alive this past week through a police operation in Molenbeek, Belgium.

When we look at the past of Abdeslam, we can see that his traits fit closely to other terrorist profiles with the exception of the ideological part of the pattern. Terrorist are usually made from four main elements, one which is a group of dedicated people, second the social support they enjoy; third their ideology; and fourth the individual motivations and vulnerabilities that resonate to the first three. Although in actual practice not all of these elements are always present. From time to time we see a lone actor who creates his own ideology and manages to equip and carry out his terrorist act(s) independent of any group. Similarly ideology is not always adopted by everyone in a terrorist group—members may be more motivated on the individual level by physical and monetary gains similar to members of an organized crime group or by other ties and loyalties that for him are stronger than the ideology and bind him in other ways to the actions of the group. Salah Abdeslam appears to us to be one of these.

From the point of view of the terrorist group’s goals, the first and most important factor of recruiting new members to become terrorists is having them become true believers of the terrorist ideology—convinced in the justification for and willing to carry out violence to help win the political goals the group is aiming for. Hence, almost all terrorist organizations have their new members go through a serious ideological training processes, although with the advent of suicide terrorism this ideological training is not always necessary. If a future cadre can be motivated in a short time to carry out a suicide mission the depth of commitment need not be to the group, but to the act itself, since if organized well and carried out to completion it will end in the terrorist’s death and result in maintaining the group’s security while scoring one more for their side. In groups where members will continue to live and interact with one another ideological commitment ensures loyalty, security and longevity for the group.

In terrorist organizations using highjacked and distorted Islamic scriptures to justify their causes, this process is usually called shariah training and lasts around a month of dedicated training and continues as the newly recruited member start to serve as a member of that terrorist group. We confirmed this process through our ISIS Defectors Interview Project, with the exception of one experienced and senior former Al-Qaeda-related terrorist (from Jabhat al-Nusra), all of the ISIS members we interviewed went through such ideological training processes. Furthermore, ideological training alone is not enough for ISIS, as the participants are harshly expected to apply and practice what they are taught in their daily lives and other members and sheiks closely observe if the members of the groups are practicing the teachings of that terrorist organization. This is also true for the leftist terrorist organizations. For example, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) members went through ideological trainings using different books and indoctrinations. Similarly, the DHKP/C (a Turkish leftist terrorist organization recognized in the list of the U.S. State Department Foreign Terrorist Organizations) requires its members to read at least four hundred pages of its Marxist-Leninist literature a day and take notes and make summaries to ensure that the members are well indoctrinated and become true and practicing believers of its ideology during their training process. Indeed they do, and in this latter case we, in Turkey, have found the DHKP/C members extremely loyal to their groups and difficult to break down during interrogation.

Abdeslam’s case, reflects a different trend we begin to see with groups organizing suicide terrorism, and may reflect also a rising phenomenon we will start to see with ISIS, especially with its Western operatives. Abdeslam was a drug user, and along with his brother, was running a bar. First viewing his picture, it did not seem that he could not be a true ISIS operative, as his face and expressions did not quite reflect a true ideological believer. Later after studying his life, we realized that he was not fully indoctrinated and had not became a true practicing believer of the ISIS ideology which requires he practice at the most basic, a form of conservative Salafi Islam, which he was not living.

Most probably Abdeslam rather joined ISIS through his brother who killed himself as a suicide bomber during the Paris attacks, or through the some of the other members of his Belgian cell simply because he was very close friends with them, emotionally tied, angry at local grievances in Belgium and geopolitics and was drawn in by their invitations. In this case, trust issues become an all important factor. We can easily assume that the cell trusted Abdeslam most likely through his brother, although he too was not living a conservative Salafi Islamic life. The two brothers may however have truly hated the West, if they—like many Belgians of Moroccan descent have felt blocked from their true potentials; underemployed and sequestered in Molenbeek—versus accepted into mainstream society. If the brothers were not true believers in the Salafi lifestyle, but vehemently hated, it might have been enough to trust them—especially given that the plan was for them to die anyway, resulting in none of them later being able to speak out about the others (Salah’s suicide vest, it appears was found later on, and he did not ignite his vest—and is now admitting this was by choice).

We can make a few assumptions in this situation. First of all, as a rule of thumb, the Belgian cell of ISIS acted at utmost security and applied the rules of clandestine cell operations. Therefore, they should have been very careful in recruiting members for the attack and approached only the people they knew very closely and whom they could trust, even if they were not ideologically committed to Salafi Islam and as ISIS takes it—even Takfiri Islamic practices. Secondly, they were out of options in terms of finding new recruits and they had to settle with someone like Abdeslam who was not a practicing Salafist.

This second option is highly unlikely because it is a well-known fact that there is no shortage of Salafists in Europe, especially in Molenbeek. Therefore, this cell appears to have not wanted to find new recruits, maybe for two reasons. The first is they did not want to risk their operations simply because any new member might mean a security breach—with moles planted everywhere, there is always a risk. Also, recruiting a new member takes too much time. The second is most probably Abdeslam’s case. He was already around the people in the Belgian cell and they knew him from the past and had close friendship and even family ties with him. Presumably, they offered him to become a “martyr” and cleanse his past sins through the Paris attacks and to become a hero for ISIS while guaranteeing his life here after—based on the ISIS ideology. And they also must have played also upon any hatred and anger he had at the West for any discrimination and marginalization he felt while living in Molenbeek and for Western interventions and lack thereof (i.e. Palestinians) in Islamic countries of recent years.

This kind of recruitment has been experienced with ISIS several times. During our ISIS Defectors Interview Project, several of the interviewees mentioned about ISIS fighters whose past lives were not clean and who became ISIS members to cleanse themselves. The same appears to be true in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers—the elder may have carried out a murder of his drug-dealing friends and wanted to cleanse himself, while—similar to this case—taking his less ideologically committed brother along with him. Actually, it is a tactic of ISIS recruiters, and al-Qaeda before them, to persuade people to join the terrorist organization and commit to “martyrdom” as a way to cleanse themselves and ensure their eternal life in paradise. However, in the ideal scenario (from the terrorist group’s perspective) those members also go through extensive shariah training ensuring they leave their past lives behind. Indeed a lawyer in Belgium told me today that his Salafi clients sometimes even refuse to discuss their pasts saying they are no longer that person. In any case, when an act is going to end in suicide terrorism, the group may be willing to take less ideologically committed individuals who are fired up with hate and who will die anyway. We certainly saw this in the second intifada among Palestinians who routinely volunteered themselves for suicide missions and were at times activated within a matter of weeks with little to no ideological training.

In Abdeslam’s case, the Belgian cell members were both wrong and right. Due to their emotional ties, with this brother and the other members of the Belgian cell, Abdeslam most probably accepted their offer to take part in the Paris attacks—perhaps reveling in the euphoria of a group contemplating going out in a “blaze of glory.” Indeed some research has shown that a “high”—likely endorphin mediated—occurs upon contemplating suicide terrorism and can actually deliver a feeling of blissful peace and empowerment. We know Abdeslam liked to self-medicate so this too would likely appeal. However, since he was not well enough indoctrinated, he did not fully and ultimately commit his life for the cause of the terrorist organization and explode his suicide vest as plans called for, leaving him out there alone without the support of members of his Belgian cell. He appears to have chickened out in the face of murder and suicide.

So, what will Abdeslam do in this case? According to this lawyer, he is cooperating with the authorities as expected by the authors of this report. Terrorists have few options after their capture. Many radical terrorist organizations encourage their members to kill themselves so that they do not have to go through an interrogation process, especially in the Middle East and Russia, where they can expect fierce torture sessions. Many ISIS and al-Qaeda members in such milieu wear suicide vests at all times to ensure that they are not captured alive, and in fact try to kill their capturers along with themselves if they realize their options are coming to an end. This option has been witnessed especially with Chechens and Salafist terrorists including those who carried out the Madrid train attacks, and we have also seen them with some others, including leftist terrorist groups like the DHKP/C.

The second option is not talking at all after capture. Being completely silent is expected from ideologically true-believer terrorists, who dedicate themselves one hundred percent to the ideology and the existence of their terrorist organizations. There are many examples of this option from different backgrounds of terrorist organizations. Most of those kind of terrorists, would not answer any questions, including questions even about their names and who they are, much less give any information regarding their terrorist activities or a terrorist attack. Most of the time they would look at the ceiling of the room where they are being interviewed or interrogated, hiding their gazes from the interviewers. And they would initially resist arrest, using firearms and shooting, and if those means are not available, by fighting back through kicking and biting. Some would spit at the officers when asked what their names were and would not cooperate at all. Those kind of hardcore terrorists are very difficult to break and they would likely not talk or cooperate at all—even after a long time under interrogation and incarceration. Hence we see the soft-torture abuses carried out by frustrated interrogators in Abu Ghraib and in Guantanamo Bay.

The third option is talking but trying to mislead the investigators. Some terrorists depending on their positions in the hierarchy and what they know and try to mislead the investigators by giving false information whether it be about people or places of importance, such as cell locations and where the weapons are etc. There might be several reasons for that. The first is usually gaining and buying time by giving opportunities to the rest of the cell members to flee or clean up the evidence related with a terrorist organization or simply to make the rest of the team aware of the fact that person is taken into custody. The second option in misleading involves traps. The person in question basically misleads the authorities to a secluded area where there are booby traps in the hopes to kill more people. The third reason for misleading is to tell untrue narratives pretending to be cooperating.

The fourth option is giving away small bits of pieces of true information alongside false bits of information basically trying to draw a picture of a cooperating suspect in the eyes of the authorities but at the same time thinking ahead and getting ready for the future in prison where there is good chance he or she has to confess to other members of the terrorist organizations about what was admitted to during his or her police interviews. These types of subjects try to balance their situation by not giving up important information but rather giving already known information so that they do not risk their lives at the hands of their terrorist organizations inside of prison due to any accusations to them of betrayal and treachery. These are not imaginations by any means on the part of terrorists. In Camp Bucca in Iraq, for instance, those who were seen as traitors by the extremists had their arms or legs broken while inside the prison. Likewise with ISIS we find that cadres who get imprisoned in Syria and Iraq fear that reprisals for talking can also be carried out upon their family members who still reside in ISIS territory. Similarly Belgians of Moroccan descent living in Belgian Moroccan communities express concern about the repercussions to family that can occur from “snitching.”

The last option upon capture is cooperating with the authorities completely and giving up all the information they have regarding a terrorist organization and its activities. Terrorists opt for this option for a variety of reasons. The first is of course to get lesser sentences. The second option would be because they lost their belief and trust in their organization. The third option would come from the fear of being harmed personally or their families harmed by the terrorist organization in question either inside prison or later and a belief that authorities can and will protect them.

It looks like Abdeslam is choosing to cooperate for all of the reasons listed above. He must be thinking of getting a better sentence through his cooperation. Also, most probably, because he was not indoctrinated well enough initially and has not become a practicing true-believer he does not have any ideological commitment to help him stay the course. Instead, he gave up very easily upon arrest and decided eventually when he was in hiding, or perhaps in the heat of the actual attacks, that what he did was wrong. Of course, in this case, he would be afraid for his life and it is possible that if he is imprisoned in a common prison, ISIS will reach him there to kill him for his betrayal to the organization, or make his family members miserable. It is interesting that he was hiding out nearby to his family and they either knew he was there or he was likely very much longing to make his presence known to them.

When it comes to implications of ISIS’s using members who are not ideologically aligned with and fully committed to the terrorist groups indoctrination, it is difficult to make assumptions for the future because it makes preventing and countering terrorism more difficult for a variety of reasons. As happened with Abdeslam case, if ISIS and al-Qaeda show increasingly a patter to recruit and use members who are not necessarily ideologically committed, instead capitalizing on their anger, frustration and hate that in Europe often results from discrimination and marginalization, its recruitment angle broadens very widely. All of a sudden unexpected, and maybe not so radical youth, become the target of ISIS as new recruits, dramatically cutting the time and efforts to find new members. And if they can be convinced to carry out suicide missions their commitment only needs to be short-lived. In recent years, with the use of suicide terrorism, it appears that this is the new course that terrorists groups are taking, making the law enforcement and intelligence communities’ jobs much more difficult. Although on the down side for terrorists, cadres who they work with are less committed ideologically and may not carry out their ultimate assignment, and may much more easily talk under interrogation when picked up by police in the case of their second thoughts.

In the case of Abdeslam, if this type of recruitment was preferred because this was a one-time opportunity with the Belgian cell of ISIS and because the cell leader thought that Abdeslam would eventually die in the suicide attack anyway and they need not worry about him talking after the attack, they were not correct in their decision. The circumstances along with his family and friendship bonds might have lured Abdeslam to join the Belgian cell, however it was not enough to get the job done completely, and not for him to give up any more information regarding the ISIS structures that may exist in France and Belgium and linked back to ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Therefore, ISIS most probably will take lessons from this case. The implications for the terrorist organization might simply be ordering its foreign cadres, especially in Europe not to work with anyone who is not trustworthy one hundred percent, or simply to kill any person used in any attacks who cannot be trusted completely—to have an enforcer of sorts. Although this does not look good for ISIS in the eyes of its followers, who want to believe that self “martyrdom” is a glorious act. Or groups like ISIS may simply accept working with less ideologically committed cadres who in the short-term will commit to “martyrdom,” as long as most of them carry out their acts—and organize in ways that those who are less trustworthy do not know the actual leaders of the cells.

Furthermore, Abdeslam’s case shows once again, the opportunity for terrorist organizations like ISIS to target the West, including the United States, without moving its members to the U.S. homeland. If they can tap into the frustrations, anger and angst of disaffected youth in the West and galvanize a few close circle friends or relatives without much prior indoctrination and preparation and get them to act quickly and decisively in self-destructive and murderous acts, they have achieved part of their goals. We have seen that repeatedly played out now in Canada and also in Europe and before that in Iraq and the Palestinian second intifada. Simply, an experienced hardcore member can use different cell structures, which are not ideal in terms of required terrorist structures but readied to be used through different and most of the time emotional factors. This is greatly facilitated at present, as now, with the Internet providing the intimacy of visual and vocal communications, the dedicated hardcore member does not even have to be physically present or later discoverable, via those he is motivating into action.

In addition to the people in the Belgian cell, there were obvious mistakes as well, which lead the police to their cells. In an ideal setting of a terrorist cell, cell members should not have left any leads or evidence that would point the police to their hideouts and previous activities. Among the obvious mistakes of the ISIS cadres attacking in Paris was dumping the mobile phones they used before the attacks, very close to the areas they attacked, renting cars in their own names, not changing the plates of the cars they were driving, staying in hotels with their identities known, and not covering their faces while they were driving around, giving lots of opportunities for video recordings in and out of the cars. Abdeslam also failed to disguise himself by not changing his uniquely orange colored shoes, which was also an important factor in revealing his identity. We see in the San Bernardino case, a higher level of operational security in those actors completely destroying, drowning and locking their devices and Internet trail as best they could prior to acting—although they were likely more closely adhering to al-Qaeda Internet based training than ISIS, which has always been much more cautious.

Of course there were also obvious mistakes made by the police as well. The most important one was the fact that Abdeslam managed to flee at the initial raid in Forest. In such serious cases, it is always the rule of the thumb that all operations and investigations must be carried out as if the hardcore and armed terrorists are going to be countered—so the assumption that the house would be empty was a foolhardy one. For this, in all such investigative and operative activities, the house or the place of the subject should have been surrounded by well-armed officers and controlled the parameters of the place in question, to ensure the safety of the other officers and civilians. Every movement towards the place should be planned as if the armed terrorist would strike back as soon as the door is knocked upon. In fact, many terrorist organizations teach their cadres to shoot first if the knock at the door of a terrorist cell is coming from the police and to booby trap and plant secondary explosives which would be activated after the incidents start, or as the police enters the building, as we have seen in Chechen cells and in the Madrid train bombings. Therefore, in such operations there also needs to be precautionary measures including cutting the mobile phone signals though jammers or preventing communications of the terrorists and their triggering of explosive devices. In Abdeslam’s case, based on the news reports, we can assume that the police went to the scene as if the subject in question was a regular criminal and that the site would be empty.

The quick and lethal mobilization of disenchanted and angered youth in the West is a problem that is going to continue to haunt as long as groups like ISIS can pour gasoline upon the smoldering embers of real grievances—including discrimination, marginalization, frustrated aspirations, unemployment, and anger over geopolitics. The solutions are multi-faceted: to work both against the terrorist groups to discredit their acts and their ideologies, to dismantle them, and to address the real social issues which can decrease the level of anger in the vulnerable populations that are currently resonating to their terrorist calls.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is the Deputy Director of ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Counter-terrorism and Operations Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for countering the threats of terrorism”.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. 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. Website:

Reference for this paper: Yayla, Ahmet S. & Speckhard, Anne (March 21, 2016) ISIS Operative Salah Abdeslam: A Not so True-Believer Terrorist. ICSVE Brief Report–a-not-so-true-believer-terrorist.html

American ISIS Defector – Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations

By: Anne Speckhard & Ahmet S. Yayla

Mideast Iraq Islamic State

This image made from video posted on Twitter by a Kurdish fighter shows a man that the Kurdish military says is an American member of the Islamic State group shortly after he turned himself in to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, Monday, March 14, 2016. The circumstances of the surrender were not fully disclosed but it marked a rare instance in which an IS fighter voluntarily gave himself up to Iraqi or Kurdish forces in Iraq. (Kurdish fighter via AP)

The case of twenty-six-year-old Mohamad Jamal Khweis—the American-born son of Palestinian immigrants living in Alexandria, Virginia—found by Kurdish Peshmerga forces escaping ISIS-controlled territory near Sinjar, Iraq this past week raises many questions, as well as confirms what we have been learning in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project over the past six months—Interviewing dozens of recently defected ISIS fighters.

That Khweis traveled to Istanbul, and was facilitated to enter Syria via the Turkish border by someone he met in Turkey, follows a common pattern according to our research. Most foreign fighters still travel to Istanbul to join ISIS and are met either in Istanbul or along the Syrian border with a facilitator. Khweis arrived in Istanbul as almost all other Westerners who joined ISIS have done.—although we do not know his precise intentions upon arrival.

We still await learning exactly what motivated him the in the first place. Khweis admitted on Kurdish television that he left the United States in December, travelled first to London, then Amsterdam and ended up in Istanbul, Turkey—where he met either an ISIS seductress or pre-arranged facilitator—or someone acting in both roles—who took him into ISIS controlled territory.

What we still need to learn: Was Mohamed Khweis’ original intent upon departing the United States, to join jihad and become an ISIS cadre—or was he seduced by this mystery woman who took him into ISIS?

In a television interview, Khweis explained that he met this young Iraqi woman, whose sister was married to an ISIS fighter, in Turkey and she invited him to travel home with her to the ISIS-controlled Iraqi city of Mosul. “We spent some time in Turkey, got to know each other. She knows somebody who could take us from Turkey to Syria, then from Syria to Mosul. I decided to go with her.” When we analyze his statements, which were made public by the Peshmerga, we can easily understand that he is clearly trying to cast doubt upon his acts and diminish his position with ISIS and basically trying to portray his story of travel to ISIS-controlled territory as a simple act of love.

That ISIS would use its female members to seduce potential members, or enticing men with the promise of marriage or sex is nothing new although using them to seduce in a face-to face interaction would be. Our ISIS defectors tell us a group of Western women go daily to a house in Raqqa to try to seduce others, via the Internet, into joining. According to news sources, over five hundred women on Twitter claim to be residents of ISIS and the ratio of men to women in the group is estimated at ten to one.

The woman Khweis met in Istanbul had most likely been promised to him as his ISIS wife and meeting him after an Internet pledge would have solidified his recruitment—particularly if they then married and consummated their union. Khweis gives no evidence that they were ever married and instead says the two were separated upon arrival to ISIS. It’s possible they met by chance—although unlikely given her brother-in-law was already fighting for ISIS and once traveling in ISIS territory together they would also have had to show a valid marriage certificate or suffer severe repercussions. Thus circumstantial evidence points to an ISIS marriage. If they had married, they still would have been separated as he claims—she going to the safety and shelter of a sisters’ house while he went for his shariah and military training. The most likely thing is their marriage was prearranged and this is why she met him in Istanbul.

Certainly the promise of being set up with a wife, and possibly even being granted a sex slave, is a powerful motivator for some young male foreign fighters to come and join ISIS. We are told the Tunisian foreign fighters and some Turkish males in particular resonate to this promise of what I like to refer to as “sex now” versus the claim of virgins in paradise that await those who “martyr” themselves.

The woman Mohamad Jamal Khweis met certainly seems to have known how to cross into Syria and may have even used an ISIS-controlled smuggler to cross. According to Khweis they traveled from Istanbul to Gaziantep (a Turkish town on the border of Syria) and then on to Mosul by bus and private vehicle. That she met him in Istanbul and they then ended up in ISIS’ self-declared caliphate, makes it appear prearranged and likely to have involved a marriage.

To join ISIS, a foreign fighter would normally have arranged ahead of time to be met by someone on the Turkish side who either takes or who arranges for an ISIS controlled smuggler to take him into ISIS controlled territory. In his case the young female “recruiter” accompanied Khweis and we are not told if he legally crossed the Turkish border—but it’s highly unlikely he did.

Turkish officials claim to have recently tightened security protocols along the border. However, our ISIS defectors tell us its still entirely possible—and even easy—to smuggle oneself across the Turkish border into ISIS controlled areas, and vice versa. Certainly the November 2015 Paris attackers acting in behalf of ISIS found it possible to leave Syria and reenter Europe via Turkey.

In the case of joining ISIS, a foreign fighter should not arrive unannounced, but should arrive with a personal recommendation—someone on the inside who knows and can vouch for him as a true “believer.” Those who arrive without such a voucher are suspected as spies. They may also be accepted over time—ISIS needs all the foreign fighters it can get—but they are, according to our Syrian ISIS defectors reports, held and investigated for some time, or separated from their female family members and sent directly to the front to see if they are sincere in their willingness to join ISIS, fight valiantly or even survive. A Belgian ISIS joiner who I interviewed last month, who had returned from Syria, arrived to Turkey without recommendations. He was still smuggled from Turkey into Syria, but once there was held for some time to be investigated and observed.

Khweis who is currently under investigation by the FBI and American authorities who suspect he plotted to join ISIS, claims he “made a bad decision” and was trying to return to the United States when he was captured by Kurdish forces this week. However, his story seems to indicate that he not only wanted to, but did actually, join ISIS. For instance he appears to have willingly travelled to Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate where he was then put into a house with up to seventy other foreign fighters all also joining ISIS. There, according to Khweis, they were ordered to hand over their IDs and passports and take a bayat, or oath of allegiance to ISIS as happened with all of our interviewees.

This would have been the first of many bayats that Khweis would have been asked to make. He was then given his Arabic kunya or fighting name, Abu Omar, and put into shariah training. This is the normal progression of ISIS indoctrination—according to our ISIS defector reports. And these are the steps by which ISIS begins to take over the identities and minds of those who join—freeing them from past affiliations and loyalties; creating new family ties via arranged marriages; and renaming them while also introducing them into to the ISIS militant Takfiri ideology and mindset to which they must now display absolute loyalty. “Hear and obey,” is the ISIS tenant that all fighters are taught in their training and they are expected to demonstrate complete and total obedience to any ISIS declared order. Sometimes—our defectors tell us—young inexperienced teens are even temporarily put in charge of older battle hardened recruits in order to test them in this principle of absolute obedience.

Khweis was most definitely on the conveyer belt into ISIS foreign fighter or mujahid (holy warrior) status. After making his first bayat, he was put into the ISIS shariah training, but according to him did not complete it. Perhaps he realized late, that upon graduation from shariah training his new trainers would bring to him an ISIS prisoner that he would have to behead as a sign of his complete and total indoctrination and loyalty to the terrorist group.

Khweis claims he fled ISIS control before that occurred. Indeed, just like gangs indoctrinate their young members by demanding they commit a crime, ISIS puts a knife in their new members’ hands and demands they bloody them them early on—behead their prisoner in order to graduate shariah training. And all the while, the video cameras are recording. It’s not a crime one can later easily escape from and evidence of it may appear broadcast over the Internet. ISIS trainers are no fools and know well how to manipulate and control their new recruits.

Khweis also claims he didn’t see or interact with any Americans although two hundred fifty Americans are there according to security estimates. Our Syrian ISIS defectors routinely mention running across American ISIS cadres although language barriers prevent them telling us much about them other than what can be observed. Khweis also recounts being mixed in with a mélange of foreign fighters—many from central and south Asia. There are currently estimated to be twenty-seven thousand foreign fighters from eight-six countries in ISIS with the terrorist organization continuing to draw over one thousand per month into the battle—seducing them from around the world via social media.

The unanswered questions are: Was Mohamad Jamal Khweis one of these? Had he left the United States in quest of joining ISIS? Did he already have a recruiter working with him via the Internet before he departed the U.S. and a prearranged marriage with a young woman who met him in Istanbul and facilitated him into the group? And if he had been fully trained and indoctrinated could he have been turned back to attack inside the United States or sent to attack some other Western target?

It should be extremely chilling for law enforcement officials that Khweis is a “clean skin” jihadi—that is he had no extremism-linked past, nor were law enforcement officials even aware that he had departed the United States much less was being trained inside ISIS. They only learned of his ISIS affiliation after his defection and capture from the group. According to officials his family had not shared any concerns, if they had any, with law enforcement after he left the United States in mid-December 2015. After his arrest, his parents told journalists they thought he was in Canada but the were also aware that he’d travelled to Turkey. By January 16, 2016—only a month after his departure—he was already inside ISIS controlled territory and may have been there as early as December. Khweis had been studying criminal justice in Virginia and only occasionally attended mosques and there is no evidence of him having given any outward signs of radicalization to violent extremism.

Given the fact that as soon as ISIS starts indoctrinating and recruiting someone they have learned now to put extreme emphasis on secrecy and operating clandestinely. Thus it is very viable and expectable that Khweis was told by his recruiters not to change his daily routines and not to let anyone sense that he was flirting with the terrorist group. In fact, his criminal justice education in Virginia may also have provided him some tactics as well to stay out of the radar of the American intelligence. Therefore, he was very successful in hiding his recruitment to the people around him. Often, ISIS operatives are taught to use encrypted means of alternative social media communication methods which makes the job of the law enforcement agencies even more difficult. Furthermore, there is a clear sign that he was instructed how to stay out of the radar of the intel as when we look at his travel arrangements, he did not fly to Istanbul directly, rather changing places and airplanes twice before his arrival in Istanbul.

In terms of the law, Khweis, was not completely “clean.” He did have a record of run-ins with the law for numerous alcohol-related and driving offenses. For instance, he had been cited in Virginia for driving a car with tinted windows, speeding, and driving without a safety belt and in 2010 he was arrested for driving while intoxicated—an incident in which he refused blood and breath tests. He had also been arrested a year earlier for appearing drunk in public. None of these are arrests that one would normally link to an Islamic extremist, although groups like ISIS often appeal to Muslims who are trying to clean up their acts and use an extremist Islamic mindset to do so. The Chattanooga sniper Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, Boston bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as well as plenty of European jihadis share a similar profile in this regard—they were drug and alcohol abusers up to the time they found extremist Islamic literature or a group that offered them the opportunity to reform and possibly even become “martyrs” thereby ensuring their past “sins” would, according to terrorist ideology, all be forgiven.

Had Khweis been fully trained and indoctrinated by ISIS, as many foreigners are—to “hear and obey”—he could very easily have had his “clean” American passport handed back to him and been sent back to the United States by ISIS with orders to attack, without anyone realizing beforehand. Given the easy availability of assault rifles inside the United States, someone like Khweis, after spending time with ISIS and taking on—or already secretly harboring a militant ideology and hatred for Americans—could very easily have mounted a horrific terror attack right here, back home, among us. Furthermore, with the training he received in the ISIS military camps, he could very easily lead a home grown ISIS terrorist cell formed of already established extremist youth here in the United States, which would give ISIS to possibility to carry out a massive, 9-11 type, attack without moving any operatives except him and using Khweis as the commander of a cell here in the United States. Thankfully Khweis did not like what he saw on the inside of ISIS and quickly defected.

As an ISIS insider, and now defector, he joins a chorus of voices that we also have been collecting—of discouraging words for other potential joiners, “Life in Mosul is really very bad. The people who control Mosul don’t represent a religion. Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] does not represent a religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims.”

His case however highlights how we are currently losing the battle—at least in social media space—with Islamic State’s ability to reach out to young men and women all over the world to convince them to travel to Syria and Iraq, believing ISIS has anything good to offer them, or to the world in general. We need to totally discredit both the group and its ideology—something we are working very hard on at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. 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. Website:

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is the Deputy Director of ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Counter-terrorism and Operations Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for countering the threats of terrorism”.

Reference for this paper: Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (March 20, 2016) American ISIS Defector – Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean-Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations. ICSVE Brief Report 



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.

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.


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.