Tag Archives: al Qaeda

The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism: The Four Necessary Ingredients that Go into Making a Terrorist & Fifty Individual Vulnerabilities/Motivations that May also Play a Role


I recently returned from an interview trip in Belgium, the European country with the highest per capita rate of foreign fighters going to Syria, young men and women who travel there sometimes for good, but mainly to join groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (the Syrian franchise of al-Qaeda). With over five hundred Belgians having gone to fight “jihad” and over one hundred foreign fighters now having returned (half of them put in prison, half returned into society) authorities there are struggling with the staggering numbers of Belgians that have been attracted into militant jihadi groups. They are wondering why and how that comes to be as well as what can be done to prevent and turn back those already entered onto the terrorist trajectory.

After interviewing almost five hundred militant jihadi terrorists, their family members, close associates, and even their hostages, from places ranging from Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Russia, Chechnya, Israel, Canada and Western Europe I think I have a pretty good idea of how and why some people get onto the terrorist trajectory. This is my explanation of the necessary ingredients for the lethal cocktail of making a terrorist along with an explanation of the individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role—depending on the context and the individuals involved.

  • First there is nearly always a group. Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber) and Chris Dorner (the former LA policeman and shooter) each formed their own manifestos and attacked on their own, but these types of true lone wolves are rare indeed. There is usually a group purporting to represent some faction of society and offering terrorism as an answer.
  • Second the group offers an ideology—one that always wrongly attempts to justify terrorism and the attacking of innocent civilians for the cause.
  • Third there is some level of social support that can vary widely by context. A youth thinking about joining a terrorist group in Gaza for instance is likely to have many friends who are also part of Hamas or Fatah and may chose his group the way other youth in other countries chose a football team. Whereas a youth growing up in Boston, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev did, will have to dig deeper in his community to find other like-minded individuals. Although these days with the Internet, having a phone or computer handy, means that one can quickly and easily tap into social networks supportive to terrorist groups. ISIS currently maintains a 24/7 presence on the Internet; and produces thousands of videos, posters, and memes for individuals to interact with on all the social media sites. When someone shows interest in their activities, they quickly swarm in, providing them with one-on-one attention, care and nurture that is often lacking in their own lives—to recruit them further into the group.
  • Lastly there is some individual vulnerability that resonates with the first three factors—the group, its ideology and the social support provided by the group. This paper identifies fifty such factors that have to do with individual motivations and vulnerability (see Table One). And we can break these into two cases: by whether or not the person lives inside or outside a conflict zone.

According to my research, those who reside in conflict zones are most often primarily motivated by trauma and revenge as well as frustrated aspirations. They most often have family members who have been killed, raped, tortured, imprisoned or otherwise unfairly treated. They may have lost their home, territory, jobs and resources and may be living under occupation. Often there are checkpoints and conflicts that keep them from engaging in their studies or block them from steady employment.

They are angry, hurt and easily resonate to a group that offers to equip them to strike back. They often want their enemy to feel the same pain they do and even if they know their terrorist act may be futile in every other way, they may be willing to even engage in a suicide attack in order to express their outrage, make the enemy suffer similarly, and sometimes even to end their own pain. If they are highly traumatized a suicide mission may offer them psychological first aid of a short-term nature—they can honorably exit a life overtaken by psychological trauma, painful arousal states, flashbacks, horror, anger, powerlessness, survival guilt and traumatic bereavement. If the group is good at selling suicide they may even believe that they immediately go to Paradise, also earn Paradise for their family members, and that they will reunite with lost loved ones by taking their own lives in a suicide attack.

But what about those residing in non-conflict zones like Belgium? What are the individual vulnerabilities that may contribute to their entering the terrorist trajectory? There are many.

In places like Belgium where the Moroccan second and third-generation still lives uneasily segregated from their white neighbors and find themselves easily able to gain an education but less easily hired and allowed into the mainstream middleclass there can be anger over marginalization and discrimination. Unemployment, underemployment and frustrated aspirations can all lead to feelings of alienation and a longing for personal significance that a terrorist group may offer. In Belgium I found long before ISIS arose, that youth of Moroccan immigrant descent would tell me things like what Jamal said about being told at the nightclubs “Go home Moroccan” and at job interviews that his prospective employer could never hire a Moroccan for the front office, “If this country doesn’t want me I can find one that does,” he told me—referring to joining a militant jihadi movement.

Now with ISIS having declared its “caliphate” this draw is even more powerful to the socially alienated, the person falling off his tracks or unable to succeed in the society in which he lives. In the city of Brussels where the commune of Molenbeek has been labeled a hotbed of terrorism, unemployment levels for Belgian citizens of Moroccan descent hover around thirty percent. Yet, ISIS currently offers any Muslim who is finding it hard to make his life in Europe or elsewhere—a job, a wife, a sex slave, a house, perhaps even a car, and the promise of being a significant part of building the so-called “Caliphate”.

Anger over geopolitics, particularly if it is mirrored on the micro-level in one’s own life can also play a very important part in providing a fertile ground for terrorist recruitment. Hamid in Antwerp, Belgium told me that he answered the call to al Qaeda terrorist recruitment after the recruiter brought the conflict back home to local politics for him—asking if he didn’t live uneasily with his “white” Belgian neighbors and fear what might happen if things rapidly fell apart in Belgium someday as they had in the Balkans when Muslim women became mass rape victims. Terrorist groups today use video, images and the Internet to portray extreme traumas and perceived, as well as actual, injustices in conflict zones such as in Syria, Iraq, Kashmir, Palestine, and Chechnya that they argue are caused by an enemy other that the terrorist group then calls the viewer to fight against to restore justice and defend the defenseless. Al Qaeda for years argued that Islamic people, lands, and even Islam itself, were under attack by the West and therefore people all over the world had a duty to rise up and join a defensive jihad. The same is being argued today by ISIS.

In a sense these groups instill secondary trauma in the viewers of their raw and graphic videos. A Moroccan friend of the Casa Blanca bombers told me, “We all viewed these videos of the war in Iraq and what was happening in Fallujah and we began to shake from the emotions of it all.” He surmised that the terrorist recruiter of his friends referred to what they had all seen on these videos and how they could fight against it. “You see how we have nothing here and will never get jobs or be able to be married. The most we can be is drug addicts as you see us, but their recruiter cleaned them up and showed them another way.” That way was self-sacrifice, attacking in behalf of others, and terrorism. He did clean the youth he recruited of their drug addiction as well as provided purpose and significance and he used the secondary trauma that the video recruiting materials caused to put them on a path that tragically and violently ended their lives and the lives of others.

Empathy and a desire for justice are also real and serious motivators. Many young kids from around the world went to Syria because they felt no one was offering real support to the beleaguered Syrians in their uprising against Bashar Assad. Those who have studied revenge and fairness find that people all over the world will go to great lengths even depriving themselves in order to make things just. Likewise those who study gender differences in the development of values formation find that young females often put a higher value on relationships when evaluating whether or not a specific action is correct or not. When youth are shown pictures and videos that make them believe the world is unjust and they are called into movements that promise to deliver justice, this can be extremely powerful, particularly in the face of boring and insignificant lives. The opportunity to take part in and even fight and sacrifice for something heroic, to help build a utopian state such as the “caliphate,” and the idealism of youth is often preyed upon and captured by such terrorist groups.

We must also remember that for youth, developing a positive identity is one of their developmental tasks. They are in a developmental stage of moving away from their families and into society and they look to peers to give them cues about how to belong and find significance. In many ways we become the company that we keep—and a band of brothers, gang of guys or a sisterhood can be factors to pull one into a terrorist group and its ideology, simply because one wants to belong and find significance and meaning in the personal relationships offered. ISIS is particularly adept at using relationships—offered in person where they are able to use recruiters, such as in certain neighborhoods in Europe—and by offering the same over the Internet via text, chat, phone, Skype and other social media in areas where they cannot reach in person. Belonging is a powerful motivator particularly for youth who are struggling with issues of identity conflicts and perhaps for some—particularly young converts and “reverts” (i.e. those born Muslim but finding new meaning in their religion)—with what it means to be a Muslim.

For youth, the promise and allure of adventure may also beckon them powerfully as does romance and for some even the raw excitement of sex. While many claim that the allure of the virgins in Paradise are a powerful motivator, in truth I’ve never in my years of interviewing any terrorist found the virgins to be such a powerful motivator. Belief in a better afterlife certainly conveys the courage to push the button that releases them into that state of being (or nonbeing), but stronger motivators, I’ve found, are those listed above alongside the very real motivator of what I like to call, “sex now”. When young girls offer themselves as sexual partners in illicit marriages as a reward for becoming a mujahid (holy warrior) as a group of girls in the Netherlands did, and when joining the jihad makes one more attractive to the opposite sex, these sexual rewards become powerful motivators as well. I call this “sex now” and am sure it’s a whole lot more motivating than just the promise of the virgins in Paradise. Likewise don’t forget that ISIS currently offers jobs alongside the offer of wives, and sex slaves, to young men facing high unemployment in their own countries. A young man who is jobless is likely to have trouble getting girlfriends and married and may therefore be blocked from sex. With ISIS all their sexual needs are suddenly going to be satisfied. This is no small thing. And this applies both to third world countries like Tunisia, as well as European countries like Belgium, in areas where youth of Moroccan descent face up to thirty percent unemployment rates in some of their neighborhoods.

We must also remember that conflict zones also exist in microcosms in neighborhoods and even inside individual homes where family and community trauma and PTSD happening on a smaller scale can lead to a desire to escape a painful life, just like inside any other larger conflict zone. When I interviewed in London a youth worker who was pulling gang youth out of an al Qaeda cell he told me that the youth attracted into terrorism were lacking involved parents, were often themselves victims of violence, and heavily involved in drugs and criminality. They were lost, and easily fell prey to an adult who took time to take them camping where he also taught them the al Qaeda ideology. The girls found safety in the hijab, particularly when their male counterparts were told to honor them for wearing it, and both genders found comfort in the promise of Paradise if they were killed in their criminal lives. Their recruiter became a role model to them, a leader, and infused them with purpose, belonging to a greater good, meaning, significance and redirected them onto the path of militant jihad while continuing to justify their criminality against the “kafir” (unbelievers) as works in behalf of the militant group. Only someone who offered similar feelings of care and purpose to their lives could draw these kids back out, as the youth worker had.

Material incentives can also be motivators. To a young girl who does not expect to live in more than a small apartment, pictures of a grand house in Raqqa, or a luxury car, can be alluring—as can the promise of a paycheck. The ability to eat can be powerful motivators to a impoverished Syrian whose area is overtaken by ISIS as we are hearing in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project. One thirteen-year-old girl who had been shown pictures of mansions with swimming pools during her online recruitment to ISIS said she thought she would be going to ISIS Disney land.

Any Muslim who struggles with feelings of shame or guilt over past sins—or things that were done to him or her such as rape or sexual abuse for which their culture may blame them in whole or part, engaging in militant jihad can also be motivating in that one can express anger and outrage at an enemy thereby directing their inner rage at a real target. Likewise the possibility of being “martyred” can be a means of purifying oneself as the militant jihadi ideology teaches that such an act leads to automatically gaining Paradise for themselves and their family members. For a young person who may have done drugs, engaged in illicit sexual relations, homosexuality, had an abortion, etc. the possibility to cleanse oneself totally, attain purity and be sure of the afterlife may be highly motivating.

Youth often also struggle with consolidating their gender identity. Militant jihad for young men can shore up feelings of insecurity over their manhood. There is nothing like being issued a Kalashnikov or AK-47 to instill a warrior identity and thereby increase one’s sense of manhood. Likewise for Western girls inundated with confusing and conflicting messages about how to express their sexuality, a simple traditional life style can be attractive—where everything is clearly defined and marriage, a traditional family lifestyle, and sexual safety is promised (perhaps not delivered, but promised).

Mental health issues can also contribute as motivators. In one ISIS film, a young medical student from Cardiff argues that “jihad is the cure for depression” stating that he too was depressed before he joined ISIS. Indeed action can lighten the load of a heavy depression, even action that is totally wrong-minded. A psychopathic personality may also be thrilled to join ISIS where he or she can give free rein to a desire for brutality.

All, some, or just one of these individual vulnerabilities can be active in a person along with the powerful draw of a group, its ideology and the social support that is offered by the group—either in person, or these days via the Internet. Understanding the factors making up the lethal cocktail of terrorism does not excuse those who chose to engage in abhorrent violence, but it can lead us to thoughtful solutions where we begin to see the value in engaging in and supporting nonviolent civil rights movements for beleaguered communities in Europe for instance, or stimulating employment for areas of high unemployment while also trying to diminish exposure to terrorist groups, their ideologies and whatever support they may offer in person or via the Internet. Many of us spent the last decades studying terrorists to learn to identify and understand how these factors interact to make up the lethal cocktail of terrorism. Now it’s time to engage in action to prevent and deter individuals from ever entering the terrorist trajectory, and if on it, to help change their course to get back off.

Speckhard 2016 The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism Fifty Individual Vulnerabilities MotivationsAnne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. 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 nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters from various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Russia, Canada and many countries in Europe. Her newly released book is Bride of ISIS. Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

Reference for this paper: Speckhard, Anne (2016) The Lethal Cocktail of Terrorism: The Four Necessary Ingredients that Go into Making a Terrorist & Fifty Individual Vulnerabilities/Motivations that May also Play a Role. ICSVE: Brief Report, http://www.icsve.org/the-lethal-cocktail-of-terrorism–the-four-necessary-ingredients.html

The Lure of Becoming a Bride of ISIS

Austrian girl

PIC SHOWS:  Interpol is searching for two Austrian teenaged girls who they believe have been tricked into going to Syria to fight for ISIS.

Samra Kesinovic, 17, and her friend Sabina Selimovic–two beautiful, young Bosnian immigrant girls who left their families in Vienna, Austria in 2014 are reported again today to have been beaten to death after being caught trying to flee the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa

Indeed the fates of those who join ISIS with wide and shining eyes, only to later get disillusioned, is not pretty and often ends in death, beatings, beheadings and more. What makes Westerners, particularly young girls, want to join ISIS?

The allure for Western girls, particularly from Europe, to join ISIS as brides emanates from a number of things. First, if they perceive discrimination and marginalization as standing in their way to finding success in Europe, ISIS is offering a new world order in which race, ethnicity and particularly being Muslim are no longer obstacles. They also offer for Western women a traditional life style, marriage, adventure, a home (taken from others of course) and even a car to be part of the bargain. Likewise when young Western women first express interest in joining they are typically swarmed and/or groomed for hours with painstaking attention paid to helping them buy into the ISIS worldview. Sadly when they get there the facts on the ground don’t match the reality and then they have to risk their lives to escape and may not be able to–facing the prospect of beatings and beheadings as a result.

ISIS in its call to the Caliphate is also offering a new world order in which the current geo-political conflicts will, according to ISIS, be resolved with everyone ultimately living as Muslim in a utopian life governed by Islamic ideals–heady stuff for the young who are disheartened by real injustices in the world and still believe in the possibility of utopias. The violence necessary to get there is dismissed by recruiters as necessary for revolutions to succeed and who point out the current level of violence that many innocent Muslims are enduring living under despotic regimes. Who will save the Muslim world from suffering they ask, if not Muslims themselves? Certainly the West is failing to do so they point out.

To counter the narrative that groups like al Qaeda and ISIS are currently selling, we need to address the conflict zones, particularly in Syria and Iraq with speedy and well-thought out political solutions, and back home we need a civil rights movement–at least in Europe–to encourage the integration of now sidelined second generation immigrant Muslim kids, to help them succeed and be able to see their futures in the West, instead of with a horrific and violent organization–whether or not it claims to be the true Islam. Then their passions to change the world and their desire to be self actualized can happen without the involvement of groups like ISIS or al Qaeda coming into the mix.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS: One Young Girl’s Path into Homegrown Terrorism, 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.To see more on this topic, and to read an account based on an American girl who tried to join ISIS as a bride, see Bride of ISIS.

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: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

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.

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.

Waterboarding, Sarah Palin and Our Image Abroad as the “Great Satan”


“Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists,” Sarah Palin told an audience at the National Rifle Association’s Stand and Fight rally last weekend. She would reinstitute the practice, she told listeners, calling it a valuable technique.

What Sarah Palin perhaps doesn’t know is that when al Qaeda was being formed, the middle eastern extremists who were using terrorism to fight their own corrupt governments had finally given up fighting inside their own governments in the face of overwhelming force. Realizing that they couldn’t stop their own governments they began to look for who was on the outside—funding and propping up torturous and unjust regimes. And that led them to begin to question foreign policies carried out by the U.S. and the EU.   Ideologically it led to the budding AQ terrorists labeling the west as the “Great Satan” and to their new initiatives of attacking us. They called that an attack on the “the head of the snake.”

Sarah Palin, like all of us wants that to stop. But is she right about how to go about it?

Waterboarding, a technique in which water is poured over the angled face of a prisoner—so as to fill his nose, mouth and lungs—terrifyingly creates the feeling of drowning. “When performed on an unsuspecting prisoner, waterboarding is a torture technique—without a doubt,” Malcolm Nance, former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego states. “There is no way to sugarcoat it,” he writes, referring to that he personally witnessed and supervised the waterboarding of hundreds of U.S. military trainees who were drilling to resist torture.

“It does not simulate drowing,” Nance states, “as the lungs are actually filling with water. There is no way to simulate that. The victim is drowning … “Unless you have been strapped down to the board, have endured the agonizing feeling of the water overpowering your gag reflex, and then feel your throat open and allow pint after pint of water to involuntarily fill your lungs, you will not know the meaning of the word.”

“Waterboarding is slow-motion suffocation with enough time to contemplate the inevitability of blackout and expiration” Nance continues. “Usually the person goes into hysterics on the board. For the uninitiated, it is horrifying to watch. If it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia – meaning, the loss of all oxygen to the cells.”

And horrifyingly, the lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again.

Waterboarding was on the CIA’s list of approved “enhanced interrogation technique’s” for use against high-value terror suspects in 2005, and was included in a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice memo released in April 2009 as an approved torture technique. Waterboarding was carried out under the Bush administration but has now been condemned by President Obama as “torture”.

According to journalist Julia Layton, when waterboarding was used in counter-interrogation training for CIA operatives and Navy SEALs, the trainees could not survive it without breaking. According to her sources, CIA members have lasted an average of fourteen seconds before begging to be released.

Being subjected to drowning and feeling that one is imminently about to die is a powerful psychological torture method and it breaks down both our guys, as well as our enemies. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 was water boarded and reportedly managed to last an impressive two minutes. Perhaps his faith kept him steady in the face of overwhelming terror. Yet he too broke and began confessing.

No doubt water boarding works to create terror and an overwhelming sensation of imminent death by drowning. Yet while Palin believes that water boarding is a useful interrogation technique, those who have had it in their arsenal of “torture” tools disagree. CIA officials according to Layton, stated that it is a poor interrogation tool because it scares the prisoner so much you can’t trust anything they tell you as a result.

When Jesse Ventura, the colorful, former Minnesota governor recalls how he was waterboarded as part of his Navy SEAL training to resist torture techniques he states, “It’s drowning. It’s torture,” and that it can kill you. Trying to make the point of how serious waterboarding is and that one will say anything to make it stop, he declared to Larry King, “You give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders!”

In September 2006, Senator John McCain, who had been tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam stood up to his party and tried to outlaw torture techniques against all U.S. held prisoners. In 2006, the U.S. military also made it illegal for the any members of the military to use this technique. Shamefully, it took longer for the CIA to catch up.

“The lack of physical scarring allows the victim to recover and be threatened with its use again and again,” Nance writes adding that whoever carries out waterboarding has to move from humanity to hatred and overcome basic human decency to endure causing its torturous effects.

And our use of such methods has now opened Pandora’s box for what may be considered by terrorists as acceptable to be used against our soldiers. Just as now dead, Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basaev stated that he justified the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, because poisons had been used by the Russian government to kill his cadres—terrorists often attempt to justify their acts on the basis of our own.

Nance writes, “Our own missteps have already created a cadre of highly experienced lecturers for Al Qaeda’s own virtual school for terrorists” Indeed, even when we try to keep torture methods classified, convicted AQ members and released captives broadcast widely over the Internet what they were subjected to and how they endured.

While Sarah Palin may believe “soft” torture that leaves no physical marks of harm done is useful, waterboarding is nevertheless psychologically devastating. And that it is a useful tool for interrogating is also not a strongly supported position among those in the know. Just as I learned when I was helping build what became the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for our 20,000 detainees in Iraq, the best approaches to interrogation are to find common ground, rapport and build a relationship where the detainee begins to trust and open up. Terror and pain may make a person “talk” but what they say in order to escape from torture often doesn’t add up.

And the anger in that person over being mistreated and in others—including family members and friends—who learn of it often creates more of a threat than elicits any useful information.

Indeed when the pictures from Abu Ghraib circled the world via the Internet, and now, when burned up corpses of children killed in drone attacks are sent around via YouTube—these powerful images of what the West is all about to those who haven’t yet decided if what the militant jihadi terrorists claim in their anti-Western ideology is correct. And it only takes one or two of these—like the Tsarnaev brothers for example, to jump into the terrorist camp and wreak havoc for all of us.

Images and stories about torture and acts that cross the bounds of human decency can easily be used to push fence sitters into the enemy’s camp ideologically and also to then move them along the terrorist trajectory into finally enacting terrorism.

While Sarah Palin may consider herself a patriot, all we need are more Americans publicly espousing waterboarding, and other unacceptable terror methods, to push even more potential enemies into believing that indeed the West is serving, or is itself, the Great Satan. 

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.