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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hostage taking paris 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrorism as the Short-Term Psychological “Fix” for Mental Illness

sydney siege hostage

A sixteen-hour siege in Sydney, Australia ended today with the gunman and two hostages killed, three others seriously injured. The suspect identified by New South Wales police as Man Haron Monis is a fifty-year old self-proclaimed cleric who came to Australia on asylum from Iran in 1996 and was currently out on bail with a lengthy criminal sentence. His previous lawyer refers to Monis as “a damaged goods individual who’s done something outrageous.”

Monis, like Tamerlan Tsarnaev before him—who attacked in Boston with his homemade bombs—were both asylum seekers legitimately granted asylum from parts of the world where torture, war, killing and mistreatment are commonplace. Each over a period of years of unsuccesfully integrating into their new country fell prey to the lure of terrorist ideologies and there are likely others like them.

It’s clear that ISIS, whose flag Mr. Monis demanded be brought to display in the Lindt chocolate café that he overtook, is more than happy to use such mentally deranged and “damaged” individuals to act in place as lone wolf terrorists to advance their campaign against Western nations. The October 2014 Parliament attacks in Ottawa were also staged by a habitual offender and drug addict, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, from Montreal who was thought by his circle to have mental illness issues.

Indeed, terrorist groups do not often recruit their regular cadres from among the mentally ill, as to do so would mean they rely upon unstable actors. But for lone wolf and self organized suicide attacks mentally ill people do just fine—and the short term fix that the terrorist group offers them in terms of deranged purpose and directed hate serves the group while offering short term psychological “first aid” to individuals who usually die as a result.

So how can we head these kind of attacks off? As Western countries who open their doors to asylum seekers we need to be aware of the mental health burdens of those who legitimately seek and receive asylum and that these are persons who are particularly vulnerable for mental illness and for terrorist recruitment as they are confused about identity, belonging and purpose.

In the case of Australia, five percent of asylum seekers come by boat and are held in grim circumstances when they arrive. They can take over a year to be processed, often in abysmal conditions, that greatly exacerbates their mental suffering and may even turn them against the country that grants them asylum. During the time that they are held in detention—often in close quarters and overcrowded conditions—their mental health often rapidly deteriorates. And in the time they are held, they often also mix with others who may hold extremist ideas who may influence them.

Mental health professionals who work with such populations know that if asylum seekers were tortured in their home country their rates of psychiatric diagnoses and medication seeking sharply increase even over a period of only three months of being held in detention and that for asylum seekers being held over six months puts them under deep psychiatric strain.

Thus an important lesson to be learned is that asylum seekers often have been deeply wounded—thus their reason for fleeing their home countries—and are in need of quick processing and mental health support. If they are giving out such signals are Mr. Monis was of criminality and hatred—or mental instability as Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was—or of failure to succeed and attraction to extremist groups as Tamerlan Tsarnaev was—one can assume that they are easy prey for a group like ISIS or al Qaeda to convince to “act in place” as a lone wolf terrorists.

While ISIS holds sway and has a strong social media presence with its heady and utopian claims of a caliphate, these kind of cases are only going to increase. And in the case of American recruits they can be especially lethal as a result of easy access to assault rifles and other types of weaponry.

The answer to preventing such acts—in addition to defeating and delegitimizing ISIS—is that if we are going to allow asylum seekers into our countries we also need to be aware of their mental health needs and offer them real and meaningful help so that they don’t accept psychiatric fixes in the form of hateful ideologies that capture their minds and direct them to act out their mental illness upon all of us.

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.

Islamic State, Sex Jihad and Sexual Slavery

Stories of Jihad al nikah or “sex jihad” have surfaced repeatedly since the uprising and conflicts in Syria. These stories include accusations of young women being recruited to rebel groups including, al Nusra and now Islamic State, for servicing the fighters via multiple short-term (muta) marriages and basically prostitution. Although echoed last year by a high level Tunisian official, it appears, the jihad al nikah stories are lacking evidence and may have arisen as Russian media propaganda efforts in support of the Syrian government-to discredit the rebels.

That said, the Islamic State has been more than willing to make use of women for the sexual service of their cadres. These women however, are captives, not voluntary members who come to join. The IS leaders have allowed their men to gang rape Christian and Yezidi women claiming that according to their interpretations of Islamic scriptures and tradition, their religion allows them to used the captured women to be sexually exploited, raped and sold as concubines and wives to Islamic State men. And the IS leaders have used them as a reward and appeal to their men’s baser instincts—making claims that the spoils of war are many-including sexual.

Indeed a recent pamphlet put out by IS and translated by MEMRI details the Islamic rules, as interpreted by IS, including full permission to rape captured women… “If she is a virgin, he [her master] can have intercourse with her immediately after taking possession of her…”

The Islamic State has also made concerted efforts to recruit women to their cause using Western women already there to Tweet out the “advantages” to potential female recruits of living in so called marital “purity” in the the claimed Utopian state. Marrying a jihadi fighter is glorified by these women who state that women are coming to support the men fighting there in behalf of the “Caliphate”, create families and community along the lines of the original Companions of the Prophet. While not at this point being called into the battle, these women are led to believe they can gain their highest honor by supporting a fighter who dies in battle as a “martyr”.

And Western women are answering the call. Similar to young men from the West who have joined the hundreds of youth from European and Northern American countries to join IS, Western women who have gone also appear to be off their track emotionally, occupationally and are generally lost in their daily lives. They appear to be pulled into the “jihad” in Iraq and Syria in a desire for life meaningfulness, adventure, purity and for love. In a process of social contagion, they are also often following brothers or men they already know who left before them.

It still remains to be seen if the roles of women voluntarily joining the movement will transition over time. Many conservative Islamic groups have found that when they were boxed in and under heavy security scrutiny that it was to their advantage to send women as suicide operatives across checkpoints that their men could not as easily pass. This happened in the Palestinian conflict and also in the first iteration of al Qaeda in Iraq and may again occur. Thus as the conflicts unfold we watch in interest for what the roles of women in the Islamic State will be. Likewise how Western females attracted to IS feel when they see their non-Islamic sisters being raped and forced into sexual slavery also remains to be seen. Hopefully it will cause them to think again.

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 Eur

The Canadian Parliament Attacks, ISIS, and Echoes of the Toronto 18

For many, the shooting attacks in the Canadian parliament this week are a horrific surprise. Canada is a viewed by most as a very open, tolerant and friendly society, having welcomed many waves of immigrants from all over the world. However there are elements of extremism that have plagued Canadian society for some time.

For instance, in 2005, the Toronto 18, a terrorist group spanning the U.S., Canada, and the UK plotted to storm the Canadian Parliament with assault rifles, take it over and behead the Prime Minister and members of Parliament until Canadian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. While many thought the attacks could never have been actualized, part of the group was serious enough to have managed to build a working remote detonator and order tons of fertilizer for truck bombs to be placed around Toronto—attacking various sites in what would have been a series of catastrophic attacks. It was only the actions of two undercover agents—Mubin Shaikh, primary among them—that saved Canadians from the disastrous effects of such a series of attacks. Our new book, Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18—al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Extremism in the West detailing the inside story of the terrorist plotters is released this week—chillingly, just as we see their very terrorist plots actualized.

“We’ll attack the Parliament buildings of Canada,” the ringleader of the Toronto 18, Fahim Ahmad crowed to his cadres. “First we’ll distract the police with bombs going off all around the city. That will take all the security forces attention away from the Parliament,” Fahim continued. “And when they are responding to the car bombs, we’ll storm the Parliament buildings!” He went on to tell his cadres that they would take the Parliament members hostage and behead first, the Prime Minister and then the Members, one by one. His plan, thought by many to be far-fetched, now sadly has been shown, in part at least—conceivable.

And while the Toronto 18 members were rounded up resulting in eleven convictions, Canadian extremism did not disappear. Indeed, with the conflict in Syria and the rise of al Nusra and now ISIS, Canadians are presently overrepresented among Westerners in the fight. The number of fighters from Canada (over one hundred) that have gone to fight the Assad regime in Syria—many now also joining al Nusra and ISIS—have been equal to the number of those from the United States, and have kept pace also, with that of the UK. But Canada’s population is only half of that of the UK, and the Muslim population is only a third of the size, yet Canada currently has as many foreign fighters joining ISIS. So the fact is, that Canadians represent a disproportionate number of Western fighters in Syria and Iraq. Clearly extremism has a foothold in what we often think of as peaceful and peace-loving Canada.

And the ideology of ISIS is fanning the flames. Their claim of having created a real caliphate and having anointed a legitimate caliph (al Baghdadi), along with their call to an idealized version of being a Muslim (to live like the original Companions) speaks to the inner needs of many Canadian first and second generation Muslim immigrants who are somehow failing in their lives, as well as religious seekers who have converted and sought out an extremist form of Islam. For them, this call to ISIS resolves any issues of identity. And if they go on “hijra” that is migrate from Canada to the land of Sham and Iraq where ISIS is in charge they believe it will provide them with a “safe” place to practice their extremist form of Islam. Sadly they don’t realize that they actually have their highest religious freedoms inside Canada and will forfeit nearly all of their rights in joining ISIS.

But unlike al Qaeda, joining ISIS is easy. There is no vetting process—everyone is welcomed, and it is not so difficult to get there. And ISIS, in its social media outreach claims “We are all ISIS” thereby creating a community of belonging. Indeed their films and social media outreach make a big point of the international gathering, that those of all skin colors and ethnic descent are welcomed with open arms. All Muslims belong and everyone is accepted.

Not only that—with ISIS, everyone also has a part to play, and is significant to the shared vision. And according to ISIS, and Anwar al Awlaki, who was the ideologue (killed finally by a U.S. drone) that laid a lot of the groundwork for embracing their vision of Islam—all Muslims are obligated to take part in militant jihad. The belief among those who drink the “kool-aid” proffered by ISIS and formerly by Awlaki, who lives on via the Internet and continues to inspire beyond his death, is that they are engaging with a powerful compact with Allah. They may have to kill and die for it—but it is their Muslim identity and duty to do so—even inside Canada.

And ISIS has simplified things. Travel is not required—you can act in place. But for those wanting adventure there is a real and accessible place to come to—and that place, Sham and Iraq, is held sacred in the apocalyptic vision of the end times and strongly resonates with the shared vision, that ISIS is ushering in the new age of Islamic victory.

For Canadians lost in their path of self actualization, failing somehow in their lives, and looking for some way to redeem their manhood, womanhood, their sense of self, or to bolster a failing identity or belonging, ISIS offers them a compelling vision for a path forward—to bring about the final Caliphate. It just requires a commitment to violent action.

While it is still unclear who organized the attacks on the Canadian Parliament and the thinking of now killed, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau who carried them out, the fact that they mirror an attack that was already plotted by the Toronto 18 is indeed chilling. Given the instigation of ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al Adnani ash-Shami stating, “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever … including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be,” it’s likely that we will learn that this too was an ISIS plot.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry and of Security Studies at Georgetown University in the Medical School and in School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She 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. She also was responsible in 2006-2007 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.

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

al baghdadi

In the summer of 2007 I was given the task of designing the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of a “deradicalization” program for the U.S. military that came to be known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program. This program was to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. And now I am learning, the current leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was apparently among those detainees held in Camp Bucca.

This July al Baghdadi declared himself the “Caliph Ibrahim” of a new fundamentalist Sunni state stretching from western and northern Iraq to northern Syria and his group has shown a ruthless bent for carrying out militant jihad.

But Baghdadi was not always an extremist killer. Before U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003 he was known as a quiet, studious young man who was earning his degree in Islamic studies.After the invasion however, he somehow ended up in Camp Bucca—either for actually being involved in the insurgency or in terrorist activities, or as a result of wide sweeps in which those who were around an IED explosion often ended up arrested and detained in a U.S. controlled prison.

It is unclear when Baghdadi radicalized, either before landing in Camp Bucca or inside of it. But it’s clear now that once inside Camp Bucca he hand picked top military men—former Baathists who were also detained there. This group of top Iraqi military leaders that al Baghdadi chose during his time in Camp Bucca, who now serve alongside him leading ISIS have provided invaluable military insight and training that al-Baghdadi and the former al Qaeda in Iraq lacked. They have augmented his group with traditional military skill combined now with terrorist techniques—making ISIS a formidable hybrid—of terrorists and an army. And it all happened underneath our noses—while we were trying to run a program to deradicalize these very individuals.

On my first visit in November 2006 to Camp Cropper outside of Baghdad to discuss with General Garner his wish to start a “deradicalization” program for the then fourteen thousand detainees he was shuffling between Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper—trying to prevent extremists from recruiting more—he and his staff admitted their frustration over being able to detect who were the true extremists, who was devoted to militant jihad and who had simply been caught up in sweeps and or were economically motivated for terrorist and insurgent activities and had no jihadi bent.

The estimates at that time were that only fifteen percent of the detainees were true extremists and adherents to the al Qaeda ideology. General Garner asked me, and my associates, to help design a program that might take the militant jihadists out of their extremist mentality. The need was urgent because the military leadership was well aware even then, that the true militant jihadists inside the prison were quickly radicalizing those they were exposed to and teaching them basic IED know how right inside the open air prisons. Baghdadi may have been among the students or one of the teachers at the time—now one knows for sure.

General Garner had a truly innovative spirit and was determined to create a program to address this problem however General Garner’s time was short so he passed the baton to Major General Douglas Stone who took up the task. I was later hired to help create this program under General Stone through a contractor who was tasked to carry out the program.

In beginning it, I was pleased to find that there were three al Qaeda operatives inside the prison who were all high level Salafi imams who had been working for the propaganda arm of al Zarkawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq but who had now turned against al-Qaeda and were eager to help fight it. These three—after being carefully vetted by both the CIA and the DIA—agreed to join our team and help reach the worst of the worst. They were released from Camp Cropper and free to return to their families, but instead they were so devoted to fighting al Qaeda in Iraq that they came back to Camp Bucca to work. Their job was to try to talk those who were ideologically committed out of believing that al Qaeda in Iraq had anything good to offer their country and that the militant jihad was justified by Islam.  They were totally disgusted by al Qaeda in Iraq and very enthusiastic about it.

My design was to pair these imams who had incredible street credibility and the Salafi mindset with talented and trained psychologists to also be able to find the hooks inside the person that the militant jihadi ideology had resonated to. We hoped to reach the most hardcore al Qaeda members by sitting with them consistently over weeks and days and addressing their Islamic beliefs as well as their psychological “hooks”. I knew that there had been Islamic Challenge programs before in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia and one starting up in Scotland Yard, but this was to be the first “deradicalization” program to take a two pronged approach—pairing psychologists and imams together to try to bring those committed to the militant jihad and already far along the terrorist trajectory back down off of it and out of al Qaeda. We knew we wouldn’t turn them all but we were determined to try and turn some.

But as it turned out our program never got the chance to address the hardcore. Under General Stone’s leadership the military began doing quick releases of detainees putting them through a four-day program that basically checked a lot of boxes and only engaged them superficially, if at all. That may have been fine for the eighty-five percent who were not adhering to the militant jihadi ideology. The mass releases satisfied Sunni tribal demands at the same time that we were engaging in the Awakening and trying to stamp out al Qaeda in Iraq. The tribal leaders, on their side, were committed to making sure the released detainees who were not among the hardcore did not return to militant activities.

As I told General Stone about the program at the time—“it will only work if the politics of Iraq support it. A man who joined the militant jihad because you killed his sister may agree to give up engaging in violence, but if you kill his brother next, he’ll go right back to it.”

Unfortunately, as we have seen since exiting Iraq, the politics of Maliki’s ascendance and the Shia security forces bias in going after Sunnis—profiling and arresting them and even targeting top Sunni politicians—has recreated the original biases among the Sunni tribes that led them to harbor and support al Qaeda operatives during the U.S. coalition invasion. Now ISIS is simply al Qaeda in Iraq 2.0 with the Sunni population having recently the same motivations for tolerating and even encouraging them. No prison “deradicalization” program working in isolation was going to be able to address that.

Even so, as far as the hardcore went, it seems we dropped the ball. The prison staff apparently did not know for sure who they were and the U.S. military leadership’s sentiment was more inclined to keep them locked up—throwing away the key—than engage them. That unfortunately now seems shortsighted—given the keys were ultimately handed over to the Iraqis. Likewise many like al Baghdadi and his former Baathist military officers may have been radicalized versus deradicalized during the time we held them.

James Skylar Gerrond, a former US Air Force officer and a compound commander at Camp Bucca in 2006 and 2007 agrees, stating that he believes Baghdadi’s stay at the prison contributed to his radicalization—or at least bolstered his extremism. Gerrond tweeted this summer after al Baghdadi declared his caliphate, “Many of us at Camp Bucca were concerned that instead of just holding detainees, we had created a pressure cooker for extremism.”

Likewise when I interviewed former prisoners of Camp Bucca in Jordan in 2008, Sunni extremists there told me about their experiences of going through what became known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program—a program I had designed but did not implement. They laughed and said it was not a real engagement and that in fact imams stood outside the fence of the prison in order to “check the boxes” and these imams read Islamic verses to them while the detainees spat and mocked them. This was not the engagement I had envisioned.

Now reading about the ascendance of ISIS, I find it incredibly frustrating that we had al Baghdadi and many of his group’s top military brass in our hands. They may have been radicalized right under our noses. Instead of carefully and meaningfully carrying out a program that could have possibly engaged them in what might have been a life changing exchange with highly credible sheiks and talented psychologists who could have made a difference in their thinking—as I had envisioned, we apparently did nothing.

Now we wait to see if al Baghdadi’s alleged words upon departing Camp Bucca, reported by the then camp commander Colonel Kenneth King—“I’ll see you guys in New York,”—will in fact come true.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and in the Security Studies Program. She is author ofTalking to Terrorists and wrote about designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in her book. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Jordan, Iraq, and many countries in Europe.

ISIS and the Social Media Call for Female Jihadis: Love & Romance as Strong Motivators

Female Palestinian suicide bombers attend a news conference in Gaza

“Love” and romance are often underestimated motivators for joining the militant jihad as recently witnessed in the case of Denver teen, Shannon Maureen Conley who was arrested April 8, 2014 while trying to board a flight in Denver with the goal of traveling to Syria to join ISIS. 

Nineteen-year-old Conley, who converted to Islam while a junior in high school, had struck up an online romance with a thirty-two year old Tunisian ISIS fighter who she communicated with via Skype. 

Self-educated in militant jihad ala the “University of Jihad” presently available to all via the Internet, Conley had come to believe that Islamic jihad and fighting with a group like ISIS was the only way to rectify the so called injustices being done against the Muslim world. Conley came to believe that she was called to wage war against “Kafirs” (non-Muslims) and that U.S. law enforcement, government employees and military targets along with any civilians who happened to be on a military bases were legitimate targets for terrorists attacks. 

Conley had in her possession and had studied Al-Qaida’s Doctrine for Insurgency: Abd Al-Aziz Al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerilla War which included passages underlined by her regarding motorcade attacks and waging guerilla warfare. She also had in her possession DVDs of sermons by Anwar al Awlaki—a charismatic hater of the U.S. who still successfully promotes militant jihad via his Internet presence that lives on long after his death in September 2011 by U.S. drone attack. Al Awlaki is also credited for having influenced Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s militant jihadi beliefs and hatred for the U.S. 

Previous to converting to Islam, Conley had dreamed of joining the U.S. military, but once donning a hidjab and nikab and taking on militant jihadi Muslim beliefs she feared she would not be accepted. Thus, Conley diverted from serving in the U.S. military to receiving training in the U.S. Army Explorers in order to learn U.S. military tactics and train in firearms—skills she hoped to put into use in behalf of ISIS. ISIS for her had gained legitimacy in its euphoric declaration of an Islamic caliphate and was branded for aspiring jihadi Muslim women as a place to go for love and adventure.

Young women like Conley have also gone to join ISIS from France, the UK, and elsewhere.


Two twin sixteen-year-old Somali descent schoolgirls from the UK, Salma and Zahra Halane, each abruptly abandoned their plans to train as doctors and left to join their brother who was already a fighter for over a year in ISIS. Officials feared that the girls who left their parents home in the middle of the night may have had their trips bankrolled by ISIS fighters who wanted them as brides.  In June, Britian’s interior minister, Theresa May, stated that of the four hundred UK lined individuals who have gone to Syria, about a dozen of them are women. Two French girls—aged only fifteen and seventeen were also reported to have been captured by security previous to leaving the country to join the jihad. 

An imam to the diaspora Somali community in Minneapolis also recently warns that ISIS has stepped up its social media campaign to attract young women and potential brides to come join the group. Clearly the men there need brides as horrifying news reports abound of hundreds of Yazidi women abducted by ISIS being handed out or sold to members of the group—many of the women forced to convert to Islam in order to be married to the fighters. 

It’s not only potential suitors luring women into the battlefield–it’s also other women already there who tweet and blog from the battlefield on the joys of jihadi family life and the “honor” of giving birth and raising the future mujahideen (warriors). “I will never be able to do justice with words as to how this place makes me feel” Umm Layth (mother of Layth) tweets as she writes about her cherished relationships living among “her fellow sisters and brothers in the Islamic state.”

And while traditional wives everywhere have enjoyed the earned statuses of their husbands, women how have swallowed the militant jihadi ideology eagerly look forward to the potential death of their husbands knowing that his attaining “martyrdom” ensures their exalted status as widows of “martyrs” forever after. Umm Layth tweets “Allahu Akbar, there’s no way to describe the feeling of sitting with the Akhawat [sisters] waiting on news of whose Husband has attained Shahadah [martyrdom]”. 

Conley was trained as a nursing assistant and expected to marry her suitor upon arrival to Syria. She told FBI agents that she wanted to wage war there but if she were prevented, as a woman, from joining the fighters on the battlefield she would put her medical skills to work in assisting her fellow jihadis. Essentially she was going to exchange a boring life here of changing bedpans and living a quiet existence as a covered woman to the exciting life of being married to a fellow jihadi while putting her medical skills to serious use on an active battlefield.

When warned by FBI agents of potential criminal charges if she continued on her path to militant jihad, Conley answered that she would rather “be in prison that do nothing” to help the militant jihadi cause.  Like many young people she was totally filled with the dream of an adventure—in her case with the exhilaration of a love affair occurring with the backdrop of war surrounding them, with the possibility of Islamic “martyrdom” being achieved for either or both of them.

While romantic love, adventure and the call of jihad beckoned Conley overseas, she also admitted to FBI agents that she thought it possible for her to plan a motorcade attack inside the U.S. but that she thought U.S. security would prevent her from successfully carrying it out. This is the worrying factor when it comes to social media and Internet reach inside the U.S. from members of militant jihadi groups like al Shabaab in Somalia and now ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Through relationships struck up over the Internet—particularly romantic ones that have a high motivating factor—but also through relationships that existed between jihadis who have gone overseas and kept in touch via social media with the “homies” back home—ISIS fighters can have a very long reach right inside the U.S.

And through Conley’s example, and many others, we see that the ISIS reach into the minds and hearts of U.S. citizens can motivate them to abandon home, family, even their own children, and careers to go overseas to join groups like ISIS or even more chillingly to plan an attack right here on native soil as Conley admits she briefly considered.

Conley and her Tunisian suiter asked her father, John Conley, via Skype-for permission to marry. Mr. Conley refused.  The refusal of a bride’s father in Islam should have prevented her from perserving, but ISIS and other similar groups have found a way around that—they appoint a guardian in the group to give her permission. 

In the online social conversation with women already inside ISIS, the hurdle of overcoming parental opposition is discussed in earnest. Umm Anwar, a western woman who joined ISIS tweets that in her case the emir (leader) of her prospective husband was appointed and he phoned her father “to ask for my dad’s consent by phone.” 

Umm Layth who has over two thousand Twitter followers warns that it is difficult to go ahead in the face of family opposition, “Even if you know how right this path and decision is and how your love for Allah comes before anything and everything, this is still an ache which only one [who] has been through and experienced it can understand. The first phone call you make once you cross the borders is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do…when you hear them sob and beg like crazy on the phone for you to come back it’s so hard.” 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK based group even reported that in July the Islamic State opened a marriage bureau the Syria for women who want to wed its fighters. 

In Conley’s case it was her father that thwarted her plans—he called the FBI when he saw his daughter’s one-way ticket to fly to Turkey. He likely saved her life and perhaps many more lives of whoever she was planning to attack, and also urge onward into militant jihad.

Conley has since been charged with trying to provide material support and resources, including personnel and expert advice, to a foreign terrorist organization—in this case ISIS. Had Conley made it to Syria, she would have been one of at least one hundred people from the United States who have thus far joined ISIS.

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

Foreign Fighters, the Home Security Threat & ISIS—How to Deter them from Going and How to Deal with Returnees: Long Prison Sentences are not the Answer


The million dollar question over the past couple of years has been will foreign fighters—two to three thousand estimated from Europe, and lesser numbers from Canada and the United States—who have gone to fight Assad in Syria become a security threat when they return home? They are likely to have learned military skills and potentially been exposed to extremist ideologies and groups—and even more so now with the ascendance of ISIS.

Indeed, now with the emergence of ISIS and their euphoric declaration of an Islamic caliphate, the question also comes of how to stop the flow of those going and what to do with those who wish to return?

The first question of what drives young people to go and join the fight in Syria, and now Iraq, is multi-pronged but it involves for young, disillusioned, marginalized, unemployed or underemployed and discriminated against young Muslim men—particularly in Europe—a deep upset over American and European foreign policy. These young men, and sometimes women as well, believe that Muslims worldwide are suffering—with the West either complicit or doing little to nothing—under totalitarian oppression in places like Syria or under overwhelming force as in Gaza. Going to Syria to fight Assad or now joining ISIS offers a way to fight back and stand up for downtrodden Muslims—an identity that unfortunately many of these young men strongly identity with.

Those who become foreign fighters have become convinced by local imams or twitter feed coming right out of the warzone that in going to join the fight against Assad, and now joining ISIS, they will be embarking on a heroic adventure, a journey to manhood, a path to a positive identity and doing good for oppressed others. And if they die they’ve been led to believe that they will earn all the rewards of “martyrdom” which sure beats any deadbeat life they are currently living. And while women are few in the ranks of foreign fighters there are many young women at home egging their men on telling them they want to marry a jihadi or be the widow of a “martyr”.

Those first fighters who went to fight in Syria against Assad before ISIS was even on the ascendancy often did so with pure hearts and a genuine wish to help their Muslim brethren. Eric Harroun was likely one of these. He was discharged from the U.S. military after a traumatic brain injury. Lost without his military career and after converting to Islam, Eric decided he wanted to use his military skills to fight against Assad for oppressed Muslims in Syria—but he had no extremist bent. Arriving there he told his Free Syrian Army compatriots that he feared al Qaeda and didn’t want to meet any of their ranks. However, in the chaos of war he ended up retreating into what is believed to have been an al Nusra jeep after a firefight in which his FSA fighters were killed. The al Nusra guys—who Harroun at that time may not even have known had been declared by the U.S. as a terrorist group—argued with him to stay—“we are fighting the same enemy, no?” and Harroun did. Later he turned himself into the U.S. consulate in Turkey and was completely open about his time in al Nusra. He ended up flown back to the U.S., arrested and was ultimately convicted. Harroun plea bargained for a lesser sentence but spent six months in prison, some of it in solitary confinement. Upon his release he committed suicide. Not a great advertisement for returning and honesty with one’s government.

Abu Saif from Belgium also went to fight Assad but has now decided to join the ranks of ISIS telling a journalist that his decision to stay after two years of fighting Assad’s troops has a lot to do with Belgium’s policy of imprisoning returnees. “I’m better of in Syria than in prison in Belgium” he states comparing his case to a relative who returned and was immediately imprisoned.

Bilal a Muslim who spent time in Syria also argues that across the board prison sentences are a simplistic and nonsensical approach to returnees, some who went to fight only Assad and not join in any al Qaeda related group. Bilal states that governments exacerbate the situation by saying, “We don’t care if you are with ISIS or Crisis, or this one or that one, whether you’ve been saving lives or taking lives. We are going to jail you when you come back and don’t expect to see the light of day for the next twenty years.”

Indeed, imposing a punitive approach upon all foreign fighters who wish to return—gives them only a bleak choice – prison or keep fighting. Most will prefer to keep fighting and they will, by doing so, attract more to their cause. Terrorists from Chechnya to Palestine told me they preferred to “martyr” themselves, be “martyred” or keep fighting rather than ever end up inside a prison cell—particularly if they had ever been inside one.  Bilal feels this way and I found the same in interviewing terrorists in my book Talking to Terrorists—many fighters faced only with prison will keep on fighting to the death, but amnesty and rehabilitation programs can turn them around.

From his time in Syria, Bilal states, “There are some Brits there that wanted out, I know they wanted out, but they don’t have any place to go. Where are they going to go to exactly? The issue is if they were to leave the ranks of ISIS, so they are going to trade that for a UK jail cell?”

Bilal states that we need to determine “What is a hardcore jihadist-is it anyone with a beard fighting in Syria? Or is it those who have pledged their allegiance to ISIS?”  Indeed that is what a good assessment and rehabilitation program would do—sort through the returnees and decide who is not likely to pose any risk.

And much as they are problematic to deal with, we do want our foreign fighters to return rather than deepen their commitment to the militant jihad because it is not only a question of danger from IF they return. We must keep in mind that foreign fighters are active on Twitter and other forms of social media, have phones and email and can egg on the guys at home to act. They didn’t live in a vacuum before they left and have many “boys” back home to attract to the cause. This happened in Minnesota with al Shabaab and it will happen again with ISIS.

As long as they are active in the militant jihadi mindset they can still influence their disillusioned friends back home from abroad to come and join them OR more threating to us—to commit acts of terrorism at home with their help and encouragement. Witness the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev who took his bomb-making instructions and much of his ideological indoctrination from Internet actors far outside of the United States.

Keep in mind also that Westerners in the ranks of terrorist groups are often given prominent public positions, as the terrorists understand that using a Western voice to promote the narrative goes far further than a local voice. Witness the previous cases of Adam Gadahn speaking for al Qaeda central and Omar Hammami who carried out a twitter campaign for al Shabaab. We can expect western voices to also arise from within ISIS.

Long prison sentences may deter some from ever embarking on the cause, but will also trap the rest overseas and likely ensures they will go deeper into the militant jihadist and “martyrdom” ideology. Better to let them return if they wish, put them in a rehab program, assess them well for who has gone beyond just fighting Assad and who has innocent blood on their hands and then decide who to punish and who to release and keep watch over those released wherever they return to. This is better than simply offering them all the same alternative—prison or keep fighting. Most will prefer to keep fighting and attract more to their cause.

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


Four Boys Killed in Gaza & the Need for a Cease Fire

Palestinian boys with guns Fall 2004

When I traveled through the West Bank and Gaza conducting research interviews with Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP and other terrorist leaders, operatives, and in the case of dead suicide bombers—their families, for my book Talking to Terrorists I was often more frightened of the Israelis than of the Palestinians. In fact I stopped going across for research interviews after a trip to Israel where my laptop was taken from me and not returned for days and I received a particularly grim warning from a member of the Israeli police force. He told me that despite my being married to an American Ambassador and my own work consulting on counter-terrorism in behalf of NATO, the U.S. Department of Defense and the UK Home Office and that I had been invited by the Israeli National Defense University to present my research on terrorism in Israel, I was under suspicion by the Mossad. He said the Mossad was worried because I routinely came and went in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon and in Brussels where I was living at the time and spoke with all the terror groups. They feared that somehow I could become sympathetic and carry messages or money to aid terrorist groups—something I would have never done. I was studying them and trying to understand their motivations and what had put them on the terrorist trajectory and what might also take them back off it.

I did however, as the Mossad feared, feel sympathy for Palestinians when I walked and lived among them for research forays into the West Bank and Gaza. Dressed like a Palestinian I was often hauled off of mini-buses at Israeli gunpoint, held for hours at checkpoints, and threatened in multiple ways by soldiers. I also was held for hours at the Ben Gurion airport and the Mossad physically threatened one of my students on one of my research trips. I think they were afraid to directly say to me what they said to him.

The police officer that threatened me on my last trip in, told me that I would be arrested, held in interrogation for a minimum of two weeks and that my family would have no idea where I was and that I would come out a changed person—psychologically traumatized. I knew how the Palestinians described interrogation so I had no doubt he was right about that. He told me I had to stop crossing over for my research interviews. When I said I was committing no crime researching how terrorists think he searched for ways to make his threats hurt more. He asked how it would affect my husband’s career as a U.S. Ambassador if I were arrested by the Israelis—I told him it wouldn’t. He told me that the collaborators would plant money or messages in my luggage or on my person. I said, “Let them.” And then he went for the jugular and asked who would care for our children while I was under interrogation and no one knew where I was—my husband was then serving the U.S. State Department in Iraq and not at home to care for them.

After uttering a few expletives I went back to my hotel and called my husband who without hesitation told me “Go to Ramallah tomorrow as planned. Let them arrest you. You haven’t committed any crime. Continue your research.” But I didn’t want to go missing when he was in Iraq. I didn’t feel that was fair to my children who were mostly grown at the time but who would likely not handle that well. And I remembered Rachel Corey—an activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer she had tried to block. I didn’t want to share her fate.

And I had already sat with Zakaria Zuebedi, a sender of suicide bombers, in his hideout interviewing him, knowing full well he was on an Israeli hit list. During our time together he received a phone call. “Hello?” “Hello?” he had repeated four or five times into his phone while I thought, Oh geez, they are triangulating his position and running voice recognition—we’re going to get the missile!

I didn’t want to be the cat facing its ninth life.

But that’s all about me. What I can say having interviewed and even stayed overnight in the homes of Palestinian terrorists when they offered me a place to stay due to the checkpoints hampering our free travel—is that Palestinian militants and even the normal population will do anything for their children. If one child is unjustly killed it activates hundreds to volunteer to do and sacrifice anything to express their outrage, grief, sorrow, anger and to enact revenge for injustice.

The four children killed on the beach today thus for me send out a dire warning of worse to come. Nearly all of Palestinian terrorism is driven by trauma and revenge and it is a cycle that keeps repeating itself endlessly. Until Palestinians feel some hope for their future and security, and certainly while their children are being killed in significant numbers they will keep up the fight—even to their last self destructive breath. And while we can blame their leadership for much of it, we also must understand the psychology of overwhelming traumatic loss and pain—it drives even normal people to become ruthless killers.

While I certainly believe every country has the right to defend it’s boundaries and there should be an end to the Palestinian missiles firing upon Israel, I’m sure engaging in any activities that mistakenly takes the lives of Palestinian children—by accident or otherwise—is only going to make things much, much worse. I hope the Israelis can find a way to broker a cease-fire or even offer a long unilateral one to see if things can calm down in the meantime. Continued hostilities as we are witnessing today are unlikely to achieve anyone’s security. And it’s likely only Israel that can put a stop to it by taking the higher road and calling a cease-fire, at least for the time being.

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. She traveled extensively through the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada.