I have interviewed hundreds of terrorists and their close associates in places as far-flung as Russia, Uzbekistan, Palestine, Morocco, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, France, Belgium and recently, I’ve been given unique access to Syrian ISIS defectors. These Syrian defectors repeatedly say that the foreign fighters—the Europeans in particular—are the “true believers” in the ISIS dream and its fantasized Caliphate that resonates more than European claims of liberté, égalité and fraternité for all.
Frustrated, bored, under-employed and enduring daily assaults on their dignity, some young European citizens are enticed by calls to build an alternative world order—one that they mistakenly believe will be ruled (at some point peacefully) by an idealized version of Islamic law. The fantasy is powerful. According to the FBI, ISIS at present is drawing a thousand foreign fighters per month into its ranks—many from Western Europe.
When we see educated young European citizens (among them medical students, internet savvy technicians, and scientists) flowing in a steady stream to ISIS—youth who believe their future is aligned with a brutal and ruthless organization rather than with the Union of European nations – we need to reflect on why these citizens leave a peaceful country for a war zone. Not to engender sympathy for those who embark on brutality, but to understand whom to fear.
Alienation isn’t new. I interviewed first and second-generation Moroccans and Tunisians during the widespread 2005 Paris car burnings and found young men deeply angry due to the discrimination and marginalization they felt they faced. They didn’t see a meaningful future alongside their white French counterparts. I lived in Belgium for nearly eight years and found similar discontent and frustration, among first and second-generation Muslims with Belgian passports and good educations, who experienced discrimination in work and elsewhere due to their being North African immigrant and Muslim descent. But, back then, terrorist organizations were not using social discontent to recruit.
Disenfranchisement does not justify killing innocents, but it explains why some youth are enticed to join a revolution that promises a new world order where skin color, ethnicity and being Muslim are not an impediment to success. We label this as violent extremism (rightly so,) but they are sold an entirely different philosophy that promises they are soldiers in a war that at some point, will end with a just world order.
It also tells us a lot about whom to fear.
ISIS has vowed that they are sending thousands of their cadres into Europe, embedded among the refugees, but a thoughtful person needs to realize no ISIS cadre need spend time going through the lengthy registration and vetting procedures that refugees endure to legally remain in Europe, much less make it into the United States. ISIS cadres have no need to register with the UNHRC as refugees because thousands of ISIS cadres are Europeans, and as such most have easy entry in and out of Europe and visa waivers that allow them entry into our country without the need to falsify refugee status. They are the Richard Reids, European citizens who have full rights to board a U.S. bound airplane and sit beside you or me on a transcontinental flight.
The terror attacks in Paris have rightly made us fearful and the San Bernardino shooting, which is now suspected to be an act of terrorism, brings that fear home. Many are saying these recent attacks underscore the fear we should have of Syrian refugees. That is wrong thinking. If we fear at all—it is the radicalized citizens in the West who believe that the Caliphate offers them a better future.
In the meantime the Syrians amassing at Europe’s borders are running away from a violent, heartless totalitarianism that rapes its women, forces them into sexual slavery and beheads their men. Their children are terrorized. They are desperately waiting for our compassion.
We should not nor can we afford to turn them away; doing so plays into al Qaeda and ISIS propaganda that claims Islam, Muslims and Islamic lands are under attack by the West and only they can save the day. We cannot afford that version of history to continue to be successfully sold.
Speckhard is adjunct associate professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and author of Talking to Terrorists, Bride 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 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.