Category Archives: Syria

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

 

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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: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

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 http://www.icsve.org/isis-operative-salah-abdeslam–a-not-so-true-believer-terrorist.html

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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

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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.

 

“Sex Jihad”—A New Role for Extremist Women in Militant Jihadi Groups?

When Ayman Zawahiri’s wife, the al Qaeda successor to Osama bin Ladin, was asked in 2009 about the permissible roles of women in waging jihad she wrote a letter to her “Muslim sisters” encouraging them to leave the fighting to the men and to wage jihad through giving money, Internet support and by training up the next generation of young believers for jihad.  She reminded women of their duty: ‘to goad their brothers, husbands and sons to defend Muslims’ territories and properties … to assist the (male) jihadis with prayers and money.’ She also warned Muslim women not “to abandon [the modesty] of her appearance and covering herself, this is [necessarily] followed by a series of other [neglects] that push her away from her religion.’

While this was the central al Qaeda party line in 2009, it now appears that a new militant jihadi role has emerged for women—at least for Tunisian women who are reportedly going off to Syria to sexually “comfort” the rebels fighting there.

And it’s become enough of a problem that Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi ben Jeddou announced Thursday to the National Constituent Assembly that an alarming number of Tunisian women have gone to aid rebel militants in Syria having “sexual relations with 20, 30, 100 militants” adding that “After the sexual liaisons they have there in the name of “jihad al-nikah’ [translated as sexual holy war] they come home pregnant.”

Following this statement, the Tunisia women’s ministry said on Saturday that they are drawing up plans to counter the growing number of women going to Syria to comfort militants. “The ministry intends to boost its cooperation with both government and non-government bodies on this issue to come up with appropriate ways to thwart the plans of those who encourage such practices,” a ministry statement announced.

While neither ministry gave any figures about the numbers of Tunisian women taking part in “jihad al-nikah” media reports have said hundreds of Tunisian women have gone to Syria for such purposes—some of them perhaps following the hundreds of men who have also been joining militants to battle the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It appears that the practice of permitting extramarital sexual relations with multiple partners via temporary marriage contracts is viewed by militant jihadi groups affiliated with al Qaeda as a legitimate form of holy war.

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Over the past fifteen years thousands of Tunisians took part in militant jihadi battles in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. Interior Minister ben Jeddou stated that in the past six months since he’d taken office he had instituted increased border controls that had thwarted six thousand young persons from traveling to Syria to join the rebels and that eighty individuals organizing travel to Syria had also been arrested.

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While I’ve been studying female terrorists for years now noting the number of roles they often play in militant jihadi groups—from translators of texts that glorify and justify terrorism, to couriers of messages and money, cooks and support roles in militant camps, trainers of the new generation of militants and for those willing to give up their lives for the cause—carriers of suicide bombs, this is completely new to me.

In all of my interviews, with and about female terrorists involved in militant jihadi groups, I’ve always been impressed that despite the many roles they may take on—they rarely—if ever hold leadership roles or wield much power.  Indeed in the Nord Ost siege in Moscow where eight hundred hostages were held for three days the terrorist women took orders from the men.  And despite being rigged with suicide bombs strapped around their waists not one of the twenty women dared detonate before being overcome with gas while their men went out in the foyer to fight the onslaught of Russian Special Forces. In that case the women’s doubt to take initiative may have saved the hostages who survived the gassing that occurred by their own side.

While sexual relations do play a role in militant jihadi groups, often claims are made by opposing forces that militant jihadis coerce women into becoming suicide bombers by raping or compromising them sexually.  However for most of the women I’ve interviewed—or if they are an already dead suicide bomber I talked to their family members or close associates and sometimes also to their senders—most appear to have gone willingly.  They didn’t need to be compromised or coerced inside conflict zones but instead begged their senders to equip them to enact revenge for traumatic experiences they had undergone at the hands of their enemy.  Their own men had no need to use rape or sexual coercion to motivate them.

In non-conflict zones females get involved for more complicated reasons involving converts who may want to purify themselves—like Muriel Degauque in Belgium who appeared to want to cleanse herself from survival guilt and her past by becoming a “martyr”.  Likewise in the Netherlands a small group of girls seduced into a militant jihadi group signed last wills and testaments and offered themselves in informal marriages to young men who promised to become “martyrs” apparently seeing themselves exalted among their peers in the future by becoming widows of “martyrs”.

In the case of the Tunisian girls who are going to Syria it still remains unclear if they are following young men they love and then end up servicing the needs of many, or if they are voluntarily engaging in such acts, or somehow coerced. Despite the strict practice of Islam—one thing clear in Islamic culture is a healthy respect for the sex drives of both males and females.  Perhaps in this case some Tunisian females are finding a way to throw off all fetters and embrace their sexuality? And it is also not clear who takes responsibility for the babies born out of such sexual liaisons and if the girls are accepted back into society when they return home?  If the extremists group’s bonds are strong it may be that extremists at home protect them just as widows and children of “martyred” fighters in Palestine and Chechnya also receive support.

In April, the former mufti of Tunisia Sheikh Othman Battikh speaking about thirteen girls that had been sent to Syria for such purposes, said that Tunisian girls were being fooled into going to provide sexual services and he named these services prostitution—moral and educational corruption.

While their services are likely much appreciated by the rebels receiving them—it does seem it can hardly be good for the women involved.

New note:  Interestingly it appears there may be a campaign of disinformation regarding “sex jihad” having begun with RT who IS DEFINITELY reporting pro-Assad propaganda.  Yet even this article states, “So what then can we make of the Interior Minister’s statements? Dismissing them is not an option, yet questioning them certainly is as ultimately we don’t have enough details about the story from the source itself, Ben Jeddou, whose information more than likely came from within the intelligence service in his ministry and not (hopefully) from online gossip sites.” and “What we do know is that, according to the Tunisian government, at least thirteen Tunisian girls are missing, several hundred Tunisian men have allegedly gone to join Syrian rebels, several thousand have been stopped from going to Syria and we know that sex (especially in terms of sexual violence and exploitation) is an inseparable part of any conflict and war.” For me I would hope the Interior Minister of a country would be a reliable source regarding his own citizens…but perhaps that is hoping for too much…

9-26-2013 more information (via Berto Jongman – thank you Berto!) We have new claimed information in the continuing saga of the so called “sex jihad” reports of Arab reports of actual women who have taken part.  Are these credible sources? Honestly I don’t know, but either way — a propaganda campaign started by RT or for real? –It’s fascinating to follow and if real, very sad for the women involved…. For more on claims of interviews of actual women involved…http://frontpagemag.com/2013/dgreenfield/sex-jihadist-catches-aids-serving-servicing-free-syrian-army-holy-warriors/

Another interesting piece sent by Berto Jongman (thank you Berto!) http://www.humanevents.com/2013/09/25/sex-jihad-and-western-disbelief/

The Syrian Red Line and how Images Change Everything

Last week I wrote (with Raj Persaud) about the deep psychological effects of chemical weapons and invisible stressors upon civilian populations—making the case that their use must be considered outside the red lines of acceptable combat practices because of the pervasive psychological horror they cause.

Today I’d like to acknowledge, as many of the commentaries to that post noted, that Syria is not the only country that has used chemical weapons, and discuss what has changed to make an international community that itself once relied upon chemical weapons now more willing to draw a red line in the case of Assad’s having allegedly gassed his own people.

Indeed, the very countries calling for Assad’s surrender of chemical weapons were once involved in their production and proliferation.  Mustard gas was used in World War One. And even the Americans produced and supplied mustard gas to Europe for potential retaliatory use against the Germans in World War II (although they did not deploy it). Hitler gassed thousands of military and civilian prisoners to death, Iraq used gas against the Kurds, and in the Vietnam war the U.S. used chemical agents—namely spraying Napalm and Agent Orange over heavily forested areas in an attempt to deforest the areas where the enemy combatants were hiding.  And only recently, Israel was accused of using banned phosphorous in its bombs detonated over Gaza.

Is there then a hypocrisy in drawing a red line in the case of Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his opposition forces and their civilian family members?  And what changed in the West for these agents to now be considered crossing the Red Line?

In the case of the recent past and the U.S. use of Napalm and Agent Orange, it should be pointed out that the actual targets for these chemical agents were vegetation, under which enemy combatants were sheltering, not people.  The problem was that the chemical agents did not fall only on trees but fell also on enemy combatants—and much more disturbingly also on innocent civilians.  And the results for some were catastrophic.

But very few here at home knew about it.  That is until a particularly disturbing photo of a naked little girl screaming as she ran helplessly trying to escape the burning Napalm adhered to her backside was published in LIFE magazine.

That one photo brought the horrific realities of the U.S. military’s use of Napalm and the Vietnam War’s unintended effects on innocent civilians home to an American public who increasingly became disenchanted of supporting the ongoing war efforts.  The horror captured in a photo began dramatically to turn the tide of domestic public opinion about the Vietnam War and the U.S. use of Napalm in that war.

While Napalm had immediate horrific effects on civilians during the Vietnam War—and was used for years despite those effects—Agent Orange, another defoliating agent, was also sprayed over these populations. Agent Orange, is now believed to be linked to long-term illness and birth defects among those exposed to it.

Years after the war, Vietnam veterans with health problems linked to their exposure to Agent Orange successfully forced seven chemical firms to accept liability and pay damages that the U.S. government refused to indemnify them for.  U.S. and international chemical companies began to understand that there were real monetary risks to producing chemical weapons—and that damages could be sought for their wartime use.  This caused many of them to refuse to produce new agents when the U.S. government requested them to do so.  Dow Chemical even found its representatives rebuffed at many college campuses in response to their manufacture of Napalm—many young engineers did not want to work for a company that produced an agent that had horrifically burned small children.  Likewise, many consumers boycotted Dow consumer product “saran wrap” in efforts to get them to stop producing Napalm.

During the same time period the American public was also beginning to understand the deep psychological costs of war to our youth sent overseas.  The media began publicizing the newly understood posttraumatic stress disorder that many Vietnam veterans suffered from.  With movies, interviews, and photos of the war infiltrating back home, more than ever before the public began to understand that many of our young soldiers returned home deeply changed and psychologically wounded from their experiences in war.  Immediate and dramatic media coverage of the Vietnam War and its after effects was sensitizing the entire population to the horrors of war—including the use of chemical agents and their potential rebound effect on our own soldiers.  Red lines were being drawn in the minds of many.

Given the U.S. and international community’s previous use of chemical agents during war some now feel justified to ask about the moral grounds of those who are presently decrying Assad’s alleged, and in the eyes of many—established—use of chemical weapons upon his own people.  Are members of that same community not entirely innocent of having used chemicals themselves?  What right do they have to condemn Assad?  What has changed?

In addressing the potential for hypocrisy in decrying Assad’s use of chemical weapons we must point out that there is a crucial, although still disturbing, difference between a state actor that uses chemical agents for an arguably legitimate combat reason—targeting the foliage under which enemy combatants are sheltering, and who inadvertently harms civilians, but does not desist—than one who knowingly sets out to use chemical weapons to cause civilian deaths.

And despite that we see in our own American history that one picture—of a naked little girl screaming as she tries to flee the Napalm that is already melting the flesh of her backside—drew a red line for millions of Americans and turned the tide of public support against its use.

Likewise, now the videos of children, women and civilians choking from the sarin gas used in Syria is so horrifying that anyone watching immediately understands that this type of  act cannot be tolerated—it is too horrible.  Sarin gas is a weapon that is not limited to attacking enemy combatants or the forests under which the enemy shelters.  Instead it chokes the life out of innocents too young to have a side or be involved in a battle and it creates a wave of terror throughout the whole population.  And that creates a red line that all must respect—including those who crossed it before or dare cross it today.