Probing into the Mind of the Chattanooga Attacker for Clues on his path to Violent Extremism


Just as Ramadan is ending—a time when ISIS had called for an increase in terror attacks—one has occurred in Chattanooga. Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a naturalized citizen of the U.S., born in Kuwait and also carrying Jordanian citizenship carried out what appears to be an ISIS inspired, active shooter attack at two military recruiting centers on July 16, 2015. Abdulazeez who had won awards for high grades in high school, was a 2012 electrical engineering graduate from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and well liked in his community appeared an unlikely candidate for terrorism.

Abdulazeez, however fired from what a witness called a high-powered rifle out of a silver Mustang into a military recruiting center in a Chattanooga strip shopping mall. He then carried on to another military facility operated by the U.S. Navy where he shot and killed four Marines and injured at least two others. The actual weapon was according to law enforcement officers an AK-47 style rifle and Abdulazeez was also carrying thirty-round magazines when he opened fire. The silver Mustang turned out to be rented.

An ISIS affiliated account tweeted about the shooting around the same time as the shooting was occurring. The tweet read “O Americans Dogs soon YOU Will see wonders #Cahttanooga #USA #ISIS”. This follows a similar pattern to the tweet sent out moments before the ISIS-inspired attacks on the “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas last May. The time stamp on the Chattanooga tweet is under dispute, but it looks as though there may have been some foreknowledge of his attack.

Abdulazeez was like many recent “stay and act in place” lone wolf attackers a “clean skin”—meaning he was not previously known to law enforcement as a potential violent extremist. He may or may not have been directed by ISIS, and simply self-radicalized online, like many ISIS followers now do. All of the ingredients of the lethal cocktail of terrorism that I identified in my book, Talking to Terrorists, based upon interviews with over four hundred terrorists and their family members and close associates are all present 24/7 nowadays over the Internet—the group, its ideology and social support are all there readily available to hook in a vulnerable person to move him along the terrorist trajectory, while no one suspects a thing.

What were Abdulazeez’s possible vulnerabilities to radicalization and resonating to a hateful ideology such as ISIS propagates? Well first off, it appears Abdulazeez grew up under the influence of, and witnessing, violence.

According to the Chattanoogan, Abdulazeez’s father, Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez was a violent abuser. Court papers document that he repeatedly beat his wife, Rasmia in front of their five children. Her complaint states that Youssuf, who is a city of Chattanooga public works employee, repeatedly beat her, once so badly that she went to a crisis center. It also claimed sexual assault while the children were present in the home and that Youssuf planned to take a second wife back in their native home of Palestine. Rasmia sued her husband for divorce in February of 2009 but like many victims of domestic abuse, later withdrew her request.

The complaint also said that Youssuf beat his children as well “striking and beating them without provocation or justification” and that he was verbally abusive to his wife in front of the children and to them as well. It also documented that Youssuf, like many domestic abusers, controlled all the money and property in the family. The abuse was bad enough that Rasmia’s brothers flew in from Kuwait and Washington, D.C., but they apparently could not stop his abuse, as the complaint documented their visits only made Youssuf more abusive and that he sexually abused Rasmia again after her brother from Washington, D.C. visited.

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, twenty-four-years old at the time of the attack would have been eighteen in 2009 when his mother’s request for divorce was withdrawn. So he was a minor during the times written about in the complaint and clearly grew up witnessing what appears to be horrific scenes of family violence. Psychologists know that as young sons grow up powerlessly witnessing the abuse of their mother at the hands of their father an inner rage boils and often it boils over in late adolescence—often when the son stands up to his father and threatens violence if he doesn’t stop. Likely, Abdulazeez was wrestling with shame, humiliation and anger over seeing his mother beaten and humiliated by his father and the children also being included in the abuse—according to the complaint.

Perhaps he turned to alcohol or drugs to numb out that pain. Clearly he was showing troubles with mind-altering substances as Abdulazeez was arrested April 21, 2015 in Hamilton, Tennessee for driving under the influence. He was scheduled to appear in court later this month on that charge. That would lead to more shame as Muslims are not supposed to drink, and during Ramadan he would likely be atoning for that and trying to clean up his act. Abdulazeez admitted to the police officer of having being around friends who were drinking and smoking weed and he accounted for crushed white powder under his nose as crushed caffeine pills that he claimed having snorted. He refused blood testing. Abdulazeez was interestingly living back at home at the time of his attacks.

On July 18, the Abdualzeez family released a statement saying that Muhammad struggled for years with depression. As with all active shooter attacks, he likely also expected to be killed—and was thus aiming for suicide (by cop) if not “martyrdom” in his action.

Abdulazeez was, according to the divorce filing document, of Palestinian origins and it appears his family had gone through what many Palestinians have—moving from place to place and living without a homeland. Nidal Hassan the military psychiatrist who became an active shooter attacking his base in Texas in protest of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was also of Palestinian origin. Palestinians often feel affinity with the collective struggle to establish a Palestinian state and we still don’t know if Abdulazeez was exposed to relatives, friends and rhetoric supportive of terrorism—but it would be more likely given his heritage.

Abdulazeez would have been in his teens during the Second Intifada and may have, like many of Palestinian origins, believed that suicide terrorism was the only choice for standing up to the might of the Israeli Defense Forces. That would have made him vulnerable to at a later date buying into the al Qaeda and ISIS narrative that Muslims, their land and even Islam itself is under attack. And those feelings might have intensified when the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and now when ISIS declared their caliphate while receiving military air strikes from the U.S. and other Western powers. He certainly would have been aware of the recent Israeli poundings in Gaza. His father was also briefly on terrorist watch list for giving charity to a terrorist related organization affiliated with Palestinians in Nablus and the West Bank. His case was subsequently closed.  Palestinian groups have for the most part resisted infiltration from al Qaeda and ISIS, but these groups constantly try to gain a foothold among Palestinians and often use their case as an example to further their violent narrative and call for all Muslims to join jihad.

Abdulazeez appears sensitive about his Muslim identity and unsure about belonging to his new country. In high school he put the following quote next to his photo in the yearbook: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?” Abdulazeez’s sister, Yasmeen recalls being harassed for taking Muslim holidays off and wearing a headscarf, once being refused the right to take part in a volleyball match by a referee who objected to her headscarf.

According to the SITE Intelligence Group, Abdulazeez kept a blog where he posted on July 13th that “life is short and bitter” and that Muslims should not let “the opportunity to submit to Allah … pass you by.” The New York Times notes that Abdualzeez also only recently grew his beard and that he started regular Friday worship at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga only in the last two to three months.

Abdulazeez visited Jordan in 2014 and Kuwait and Jordan in 2010, both times when he may have crossed paths with violent extremists and have had the plight of Palestinians, Iraqis, and others brought more into focus and in a way sympathetic to groups like ISIS.

Abdulazeez had guns according to a friend and would shoot as a hobby, although friends and neighbors remember him as a “good kid” and not as an angry or threatening persona. One friend claims Abdulazeez changed dramatically after his travels to the Middle East.

It is still uncertain how and when Abdulazeez began radicalizing and decided to carry out an attack and if he was inspired by ISIS, but it is looking that way. Chillingly, Abdulazeez is reported to have worked at the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio for ten days in 2013, as an electrical engineer right outside the reactor. FirstPower said he left because he did not have the minimum requirements to remain employed. With that in mind we may have to be thankful that Abdulazeez didn’t do far more damage than kill four innocent Marines, which in itself is a horrible tragedy.

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  Bride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender.  She had interviewed in the field and in prisons over four hundred terrorists, their close associates, family members and hostages. Website:

Lifting the U.S. Military Transgender Service Ban: Lessons from the IDF


In September 2011, U.S. military policy finally caught up to current scientific views and repealed its military policy of banning LGBT members from service. Despite these forward strides, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) did not end the prohibition on transgender service in the U.S. military. This is because the military medical code still labels “transsexualism” and “transvestism” as disqualifying “psychosexual” conditions for military service, although finally that will be changing with the Pentagon’s announcement that it will be lifting its ban on transgender military service. For those with any doubts that this was a good decision they have only to look to Israel.

Chris in Afghanistan in gear

(Kristin Beck serving in Afghanistan as Chris Beck in the U.S. Navy SEALs)

Israel is one of the United States’ closest allies and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is considered by many as one of the fiercest and best-prepared militaries in the world. The IDF has faced decades of serious threat from neighboring countries, fought in numerous wars and border skirmishes, and routinely runs security operations in the Palestinian occupied territories. Because of the constant threat to Israeli security, the IDF is required to be in a constant state of readiness.

Yet, the IDF has for more than a decade allowed transgender service with no apparent loss of military readiness. In 2014, my Israeli colleague, Reuven Paz and I, with funding from the Palm Center, conducted interviews to examine the practice of allowing transgender individuals to serve in the Israeli military and compare how the IDF’s stance toward transgender service is nearly the polar opposite of the U.S. military’s stance.

Our report, based on six in-depth interviews of experts on the subject both inside and outside the IDF: two in the IDF leadership—including the spokesman’s office; two transgender individuals who served in the IDF, and two professionals who serve transgender clientele—before, during and after their IDF service gave insights into how the IDF deals successfully with transgender individuals. In our interviews we found that the effects of allowing transgender service in the IDF had no negative effects upon military unit cohesion, morale and military readiness and we made recommendations for how the U.S. military may be able to benefit, as Israel has, from accepting transgender service.

We found that the IDF’s policy reflects a much more accepting cultural norm toward gender identity differences, demonstrating both the willingness and successful accommodation of transgender individuals. Since 1998 transgender individuals have been successfully serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Up until recently transgender persons could opt out of enlisting or be discharged simply on the basis of being transgender, with the excuse of psychological distress. Now however, being transgender has become such a non-issue in the Israel Defense Forces that everyone who is drafted—no matter what their gender identity issues are—is expected to serve.

Transgender issues and the need to transition are accommodated inside the IDF sensitively and without compromise to military readiness, morale or unit cohesiveness. Clearly the IDF, one of the fiercest and most capable militaries in the world, has found solutions to the transgender service issue that the U.S. military might also want to consider. Therefore we were pleased to learn this week that the U.S. military will soon also lift its ban on transgender service. It’s about time.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and Bride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender. Website:

0 Warrior Princess Front Final Cover

ISIS, Mental Illness and Stopping “Stay and Act in Place” Lone Wolf Attacks

pressure cooker

A mentally ill person has once again been recruited into plotting for an ISIS “stay and act in place” attack in the West. This time it’s the mentally ill son of a Boston policeman, Alexander Ciccolo who was allegedly plotting to execute college students.

Mental illness, one should be clear, is not the same as impaired intellectual capacity. Ciccolo, it appears, was smart enough to study online how to collect and possibly prepare to make a bomb out of a pressure cooker (bought at Walmart). He had the pressure cooker, a variety of chemicals, two partially constructed Molotov cocktails, and an alarm clock alongside “attack planning papers” and his “jihad” paperwork”—all items found in his apartment when police searched it—according to an FBI affidavit released on July 13, 2015

Ciccolo had taken the name Abu Ali al-Amriki and was according to his neighbors a recent convert to Islam. According to the FBI, Ciccolo was first planning to make a pressure cooker bomb to conduct a terrorist attack on civilians, members of the U.S. military and law enforcement personnel. Later he changed his terrorist target to a university town and planned to attack, according to the FBI affidavit “college dorms and cafeteria, to include executions of students, which would be broadcast live via the Internet”.

Ciccolo was caught in an FBI undercover sting operation. The son of a Boston police captain who had responded to the Boston Marathon terrorist attacks, Alexander Ciccolo told the FBI undercover operative that he was inspired by those attacks and like the Tsarnaev brothers also planned to use a pressure cooker bomb. Ciccolo’s father was aware that his son was not well and alerted counter-terrorism authorities a year ago that his son “was going off the deep end” and “spouting extremist jihadist sympathies.”

Indeed, according to the FBI, Ciccolo praised the recently ISIS inspired Tunisian terrorist attack on Westerners at a beach resort calling it “awesome” and “impressive”. He also posted on his social media, according to the FBI affidavit, a picture of a dead American solider with the caption “Thank you Islamic State. Now we won’t have to deal with these kafir back in America,” (kafir referring to unbelievers).

Alexander Ciccolo told the FBI undercover operative that he was “not afraid to died for the cause”. He referred to America as “Satan” and “disgusting. As he planned for his attack he bragged to the undercover agent saying, “Allahu Akbar!!! I got the pressure cooker today.”

FBI director, James Comey announced last week that agents had arrested more than ten people with suspected ties to ISIS, foiling planned Fourth of July attacks. Officials now admit that Ciccolo’s arrest was one of these. Twenty-three-year old Ciccolo of Adams, Massachusetts was arrested on July 4th after buying two pistols and two rifles from an undercover FBI informant.

We see from this attack and others a pattern in ISIS “stay and act in place” plots that ISIS is more than happy to recruit the mentally ill into action. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau a gunman who shot a guard at a national memorial and went into the Ottawa Parliament attempting to shoot Parliamentarians was a habitual criminal offender, drug addict and mentally unstable.In June, the New York Times exposed the case of a mentally impaired girl that ISIS recruiters targeted.  Ciccolo, also was mentally ill.  After his arrest he was taken to hospital for treatment where he stabbed a nurse in the head with a pen.

Likewise, this case again highlights that relatives of violent extremists are often aware that their loved ones are radicalizing and becoming dangerous. In this case it was Ciccolo’s father who alerted the FBI that his son might be dangerous and planning a jihadi attack. I recently wrote Bride of ISISinspired by the real case of Shannon Conley—a Denver girl who also attempted to join ISIS and who contemplated carrying out a VIP attack inside the United States. Her father called the FBI to stop her from leaving the country to become a jihadi bride resulting in her arrest.

As the FBI works to shift through hundreds of online braggarts, we need to remember that parents, friends and relatives often know, well before authorities, who might be readying to launch an attack. And this highlights the need for hotlines as well as imams and psychologists to be on call to offer help in disengaging a potential terrorist before he carries out an attack. This makes it far easier for relatives to make an intervention than phoning authorities.  And it might also make way for interventions other than undercover sting operations that sadly may move a sick person further into committing to terrorism only to be imprisoned for long periods afterward.

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. Her newly released book is Bride of ISIS. Website:

Why I wrote Bride of ISIS

Bride of ISIS Cover Small - June 1 2015 Final Version

I was completely fascinated when I first heard about Shannon Conley, a Colorado, white, Christian teen–the quintessential “girl next door” who decided to become an ISIS bride. Converting at age 17 she fell under the influence of Internet jihadi ideologues–Anwar al Awlaki among them. We droned him in 2011, but he lives on via the Internet, inspiring countless acts of terrorism from beyond the grave, including hers. I was intrigued with how Shannon Conley apparently fell in love with her ISIS boyfriend and what compelled her to consider becoming his bride and joining ISIS. I could imagine that a young nurse’s aid who was praised by her ISIS boyfriend could have visions of glory as a medic to the cadres–moving from bedpans to the battlefield. And love makes us all do crazy things and take risks… I was also horrified that she openly admitted to FBI agents that she had studied how to and seriously considered launching a VIP attack right inside the United States–a “stay and act in place” attack that ISIS is now getting well known for.

Unable to forget Shannon Conley I first searched for all the material I could find on her case and I attempted to interview Shannon, her family and her lawyer. Unable to gather enough information to write a nonfiction book I couldn’t let it rest so I decided to take what I know about terrorism from the more than four hundred cases of terrorists, their family members and close associates I’ve interviewed around the world and put together a composite story matching and inspired by hers. The result is Bride of ISIS.

Bride of ISIS reads like a thriller but is painstakingly end-noted and includes an author’s note that explains to the reader where every detail in the book matches the crazy reality we all live in today. I hope you like it, please remember to give it loads of stars on Amazon!

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles.  She also has interviewed over 400 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. Website:

Stopping ISIS: Social Media, Identity and Creative Solutions

FBI director

Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director James Comey announced that ISIS is using Twitter and encryption to recruit thousands of English-language followers and send out orders. According to Comey, ISIS reaches 21,000 followers on Twitter, some that are then moved onto encrypted messaging platforms as they are pulled into the terrorist group.

“Our job is to look at a haystack the size of this country to find needles that are increasingly invisible to us because of end-to-end encryption,” Comey told the Senate committee. “This is an enormous problem … we are stopping these things so far, but it is incredibly difficult.

This is exactly as I included in my latest book, Bride of ISIS, describing a Colorado Fusion Center’s staff—Homeland Security analysts and FBI agents and analysts working side by side—as they really do, to try to figure out who are the braggarts on the Internet. They struggle and race to sort through them, to determine who is signaling serious intent to move into violent extremism.

One of the best ways to do this is to use tools like University of Liverpool, Jon Cole’s the Inventory of Vulnerable Persons to rate individuals that endorse ISIS to learn what other signs they are showing of vulnerability to becoming violent extremists and then investigate and intervene with the serious ones. This has already been done and works well. Jeff Weyers, a Canadian researcher identified 300 such persons who appeared very vulnerable to becoming violent extremists and turned them over to law enforcement. When investigations were done police found explosives, guns and other evidence of terror plots that were thankfully thwarted.

One of the downfalls of movements like ISIS are that those who get drawn into them often do so because of identity issues. They want to consolidate lagging egos, show their bravado as “men” or purity as women, or be “jihadi cool”. This means that when they begin to go down the terrorist’s trajectory they cannot resist bragging about it on social media—giving out valuable clues to those who can stop them.

Although prevention along these lines also brings up issues of sting operations and potential for entrapment as well as the potential to miss real terrorists who are staging for an attack. In Bride of ISIS, inspired by real cases, one young man is the target of a sting operation and is caught trying to bomb the U.S. Capitol with the help of undercover FBI agents. Troubling to some is that he may have been moved more deeply into terrorism by agents that offered him social and material support for engaging in terrorism—without that he may have remained only a braggart. But without them he may also have carried out a successful and lethal attack.

The main character in Bride of ISIS, inspired by the real case of Shannon Conley, converts and finds extremism on the Internet. Once deep in it she considers carrying out a VIP attack inside the U.S. but decides instead to become a bride of ISIS. The FBI tries to intervene but the agents lack the skills to understand her underlying painful motivations and to dissuade her. Ultimately they lose track and she progresses on the terrorist trajectory. I’ll leave it a surprise what happens in the book. Shannon Conley was arrested.

All of these cases beg the question of what can be done and how can we track violent extremists and figure out who are the dangers?   Just as the problem is complex so are the answers for how we can stop ISIS. A multifaceted approach is needed.

For one, we need hotlines and imams and psychologists that can be called on to intervene early on. Shannon Conley for instance was on the FBI’s radar and agents spoke to her more than once but were unable to dissuade her. Finally her father called and alerted them that she had a one-way ticket out of the country (to hell?) —to join ISIS. Family members often realize when a loved one is radicalizing but they need easier alternatives other than calling law enforcement that can result in something other than arrest—early prevention if possible.

We can also inoculate youngsters against violent extremism by teaching them about violent ideologies in civics classes before they encounter them on the Internet. Giving them a baseline of knowledge and teaching that there is no cause that justifies framing problems and their solutions in violent terms including justifying attacking innocent civilians in terrorist attacks is ever justified—no matter the cause.

Many believe we need to wait for Muslims to delegitimize terrorists claims. In fact we can use our own Madison Avenue persuasion skills to fight the terrorist ideologies. We just need to be as slick, emotional based, knowledgeable and savvy as they are.

And using tools like the IVP we can track and rate vulnerability of individuals moving into extremism and stop them before they attack. The important thing is as ISIS gets more sophisticated, we must have the will and the smarts to get out in front of them and prevent and thwart potential attacks

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles.  She also has interviewed over 400 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. Website:

The Greek ‘Oxi’, or No vote – Will They or Won’t They?

Greek flag

After five years of austerity and facing the equivalent of the U.S. Great Depression, the current Greek government has called a referendum to vote on the EU, Central Bank and IMF austerity measures and bail-out plan, urging votes to say no, or ‘oxi’, to the referendum. While putting the question to the populace, versus having the backbone to make the complicated and painful decision themselves—as the elected government leaders, Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, took the easy path—possibly to the great detriment of the Greek people. This amidst banks closing, pharmacies running out of medicine, layoffs and massive psychological chaos.

When facing such a momentous national decision, collective psychology naturally comes into play. Every people has a national ‘story’ and mentality that covers their joint history and particularly their joint honor and suffering. Greeks are no different in this matter. In the case of the Greeks there are numerous factors that come into play in consider a no, or ‘oxi’ vote.

For instance, the Greeks are proud people. They survived four centuries of Ottoman rule without giving up their Christian faith or traditions, carefully keeping Hellenism alive by secretly educating and baptizing their children.

Greeks are immensely proud of being the cradle of democracy, philosophy and ancient civilization. Despite the fact that their recent governments have been known for corruption, Greeks frequently hark back to their collective pride over the historic greatness and achievements of the ancient Greeks.

Saying no, or ‘oxi,’ also has particular significance to the Greek people whose Prime Minister said oxi in 1940 to Hitler’s Axis forces, a historic gesture that is now proudly celebrated annually in Greece and by Greeks around the world in Oxi Day commerations. According to the Washington Oxi Day Foundation the historic significance of Oxi day harks back to when: “The free world watched as one by one countries across Europe surrendered to Hitler’s Axis forces. At 3:00 a.m. on October 28, 1940, a representative of the Axis forces arrived at the Greek prime minister’s residence and demanded Greece’s surrender. The prime minister replied with one single word – Oxi – No. A few hours later, the Axis forces descended on Greece, expecting that it would quickly fall, but the Greek resistance forced Hitler to change his plans. News of Greece’s victory flooded the radio airwaves and covered the front pages of newspapers around the globe. A grateful world celebrated – no one expected such a small nation to derail the seemingly unstoppable Axis forces.”[i]

As a result the Greeks were drawn into the war and suffered massive losses. Churchill credited the Greeks saying, “If there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do no know which outcome of World War II would have been.” Stalin likewise stated, “[We] thank the Greek People, whose resistance decided WWII… You fought unarmed and won, small against big…You gave us time to defend ourselves.”[ii] Even Hitler’s chief of staff credited the Greek ‘oxi’ with delaying the German attack against Russia stating, “if we did not have this long delay, the outcome of the war would have been different.”

The Greek Prime Minister’s historic words are still celebrated to this day in celebrations where others are now honored for having the backbone and courage to stand up to dictators and other forms of government suppression, if not outright evil. The words of Franklin Roosevelt are at times read out to in such celebrations, “When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of freedom.”

Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras in his speech on Friday, July 3, spoke of democracy, dignity and standing up to the European oppressors, urging an oxi vote.

This spirit of resistance and history of Greek defiance in the face of danger from the stronger German powers is what Tsipras is once again invoking in the collective Greek memory. And it’s not hard to do. While the Germans of today are nothing like the Germans of the Nazi era, these collective memories of standing up to Nazi Germany are still alive in Greek mentality and can easily be called up once again.

Greek mythology also harks back to resisting greater powers—even at great cost. Prometheus said no to the all-powerful Zeus, tricking him for the good of humanity. He ended up in chains and daily torment, but was in the end, freed again.

While polls show the vote will be close and a yes vote ascendant, given their collective history, stiff-necked pride, desire for dignity and sheer exhaustion in the face of years of austerity measures that have not delivered freedom, a no or ‘oxi’ vote would not be an altogether surprising outcome from the Greek people.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She is married to Daniel Speckhard, former U.S. Ambassador to Greece, and spent three lovely years serving alongside him in Athens, Greece from 2007-2010.  Website:



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 juveniles.  She also has interviewed over 400 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.


[1] Morajea, C. F. a. H. (June 27, 2015). Tunisia gunman Seifeddine Rezgui: ‘mixed a devotion for Isil with passion for Real Madrid football team’. The Telegraph. Retrieved from:

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

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

[4] See:

[5] Cole, J., Alison, E., Cole, B., & Alison, L. Guidance for identifying people vulnerable to recruitment into violent extremism. Retrieved from:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

ISIS, the Euphoria of Jihad and Protecting Muslim Youth


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

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

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

But I don’t agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.