Tag Archives: Iraq

American ISIS Defector – Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations

By: Anne Speckhard & Ahmet S. Yayla

Mideast Iraq Islamic State

This image made from video posted on Twitter by a Kurdish fighter shows a man that the Kurdish military says is an American member of the Islamic State group shortly after he turned himself in to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, Monday, March 14, 2016. The circumstances of the surrender were not fully disclosed but it marked a rare instance in which an IS fighter voluntarily gave himself up to Iraqi or Kurdish forces in Iraq. (Kurdish fighter via AP)

The case of twenty-six-year-old Mohamad Jamal Khweis—the American-born son of Palestinian immigrants living in Alexandria, Virginia—found by Kurdish Peshmerga forces escaping ISIS-controlled territory near Sinjar, Iraq this past week raises many questions, as well as confirms what we have been learning in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project over the past six months—Interviewing dozens of recently defected ISIS fighters.

That Khweis traveled to Istanbul, and was facilitated to enter Syria via the Turkish border by someone he met in Turkey, follows a common pattern according to our research. Most foreign fighters still travel to Istanbul to join ISIS and are met either in Istanbul or along the Syrian border with a facilitator. Khweis arrived in Istanbul as almost all other Westerners who joined ISIS have done.—although we do not know his precise intentions upon arrival.

We still await learning exactly what motivated him the in the first place. Khweis admitted on Kurdish television that he left the United States in December, travelled first to London, then Amsterdam and ended up in Istanbul, Turkey—where he met either an ISIS seductress or pre-arranged facilitator—or someone acting in both roles—who took him into ISIS controlled territory.

What we still need to learn: Was Mohamed Khweis’ original intent upon departing the United States, to join jihad and become an ISIS cadre—or was he seduced by this mystery woman who took him into ISIS?

In a television interview, Khweis explained that he met this young Iraqi woman, whose sister was married to an ISIS fighter, in Turkey and she invited him to travel home with her to the ISIS-controlled Iraqi city of Mosul. “We spent some time in Turkey, got to know each other. She knows somebody who could take us from Turkey to Syria, then from Syria to Mosul. I decided to go with her.” When we analyze his statements, which were made public by the Peshmerga, we can easily understand that he is clearly trying to cast doubt upon his acts and diminish his position with ISIS and basically trying to portray his story of travel to ISIS-controlled territory as a simple act of love.

That ISIS would use its female members to seduce potential members, or enticing men with the promise of marriage or sex is nothing new although using them to seduce in a face-to face interaction would be. Our ISIS defectors tell us a group of Western women go daily to a house in Raqqa to try to seduce others, via the Internet, into joining. According to news sources, over five hundred women on Twitter claim to be residents of ISIS and the ratio of men to women in the group is estimated at ten to one.

The woman Khweis met in Istanbul had most likely been promised to him as his ISIS wife and meeting him after an Internet pledge would have solidified his recruitment—particularly if they then married and consummated their union. Khweis gives no evidence that they were ever married and instead says the two were separated upon arrival to ISIS. It’s possible they met by chance—although unlikely given her brother-in-law was already fighting for ISIS and once traveling in ISIS territory together they would also have had to show a valid marriage certificate or suffer severe repercussions. Thus circumstantial evidence points to an ISIS marriage. If they had married, they still would have been separated as he claims—she going to the safety and shelter of a sisters’ house while he went for his shariah and military training. The most likely thing is their marriage was prearranged and this is why she met him in Istanbul.

Certainly the promise of being set up with a wife, and possibly even being granted a sex slave, is a powerful motivator for some young male foreign fighters to come and join ISIS. We are told the Tunisian foreign fighters and some Turkish males in particular resonate to this promise of what I like to refer to as “sex now” versus the claim of virgins in paradise that await those who “martyr” themselves.

The woman Mohamad Jamal Khweis met certainly seems to have known how to cross into Syria and may have even used an ISIS-controlled smuggler to cross. According to Khweis they traveled from Istanbul to Gaziantep (a Turkish town on the border of Syria) and then on to Mosul by bus and private vehicle. That she met him in Istanbul and they then ended up in ISIS’ self-declared caliphate, makes it appear prearranged and likely to have involved a marriage.

To join ISIS, a foreign fighter would normally have arranged ahead of time to be met by someone on the Turkish side who either takes or who arranges for an ISIS controlled smuggler to take him into ISIS controlled territory. In his case the young female “recruiter” accompanied Khweis and we are not told if he legally crossed the Turkish border—but it’s highly unlikely he did.

Turkish officials claim to have recently tightened security protocols along the border. However, our ISIS defectors tell us its still entirely possible—and even easy—to smuggle oneself across the Turkish border into ISIS controlled areas, and vice versa. Certainly the November 2015 Paris attackers acting in behalf of ISIS found it possible to leave Syria and reenter Europe via Turkey.

In the case of joining ISIS, a foreign fighter should not arrive unannounced, but should arrive with a personal recommendation—someone on the inside who knows and can vouch for him as a true “believer.” Those who arrive without such a voucher are suspected as spies. They may also be accepted over time—ISIS needs all the foreign fighters it can get—but they are, according to our Syrian ISIS defectors reports, held and investigated for some time, or separated from their female family members and sent directly to the front to see if they are sincere in their willingness to join ISIS, fight valiantly or even survive. A Belgian ISIS joiner who I interviewed last month, who had returned from Syria, arrived to Turkey without recommendations. He was still smuggled from Turkey into Syria, but once there was held for some time to be investigated and observed.

Khweis who is currently under investigation by the FBI and American authorities who suspect he plotted to join ISIS, claims he “made a bad decision” and was trying to return to the United States when he was captured by Kurdish forces this week. However, his story seems to indicate that he not only wanted to, but did actually, join ISIS. For instance he appears to have willingly travelled to Raqqa, the capital of ISIS’ self-declared caliphate where he was then put into a house with up to seventy other foreign fighters all also joining ISIS. There, according to Khweis, they were ordered to hand over their IDs and passports and take a bayat, or oath of allegiance to ISIS as happened with all of our interviewees.

This would have been the first of many bayats that Khweis would have been asked to make. He was then given his Arabic kunya or fighting name, Abu Omar, and put into shariah training. This is the normal progression of ISIS indoctrination—according to our ISIS defector reports. And these are the steps by which ISIS begins to take over the identities and minds of those who join—freeing them from past affiliations and loyalties; creating new family ties via arranged marriages; and renaming them while also introducing them into to the ISIS militant Takfiri ideology and mindset to which they must now display absolute loyalty. “Hear and obey,” is the ISIS tenant that all fighters are taught in their training and they are expected to demonstrate complete and total obedience to any ISIS declared order. Sometimes—our defectors tell us—young inexperienced teens are even temporarily put in charge of older battle hardened recruits in order to test them in this principle of absolute obedience.

Khweis was most definitely on the conveyer belt into ISIS foreign fighter or mujahid (holy warrior) status. After making his first bayat, he was put into the ISIS shariah training, but according to him did not complete it. Perhaps he realized late, that upon graduation from shariah training his new trainers would bring to him an ISIS prisoner that he would have to behead as a sign of his complete and total indoctrination and loyalty to the terrorist group.

Khweis claims he fled ISIS control before that occurred. Indeed, just like gangs indoctrinate their young members by demanding they commit a crime, ISIS puts a knife in their new members’ hands and demands they bloody them them early on—behead their prisoner in order to graduate shariah training. And all the while, the video cameras are recording. It’s not a crime one can later easily escape from and evidence of it may appear broadcast over the Internet. ISIS trainers are no fools and know well how to manipulate and control their new recruits.

Khweis also claims he didn’t see or interact with any Americans although two hundred fifty Americans are there according to security estimates. Our Syrian ISIS defectors routinely mention running across American ISIS cadres although language barriers prevent them telling us much about them other than what can be observed. Khweis also recounts being mixed in with a mélange of foreign fighters—many from central and south Asia. There are currently estimated to be twenty-seven thousand foreign fighters from eight-six countries in ISIS with the terrorist organization continuing to draw over one thousand per month into the battle—seducing them from around the world via social media.

The unanswered questions are: Was Mohamad Jamal Khweis one of these? Had he left the United States in quest of joining ISIS? Did he already have a recruiter working with him via the Internet before he departed the U.S. and a prearranged marriage with a young woman who met him in Istanbul and facilitated him into the group? And if he had been fully trained and indoctrinated could he have been turned back to attack inside the United States or sent to attack some other Western target?

It should be extremely chilling for law enforcement officials that Khweis is a “clean skin” jihadi—that is he had no extremism-linked past, nor were law enforcement officials even aware that he had departed the United States much less was being trained inside ISIS. They only learned of his ISIS affiliation after his defection and capture from the group. According to officials his family had not shared any concerns, if they had any, with law enforcement after he left the United States in mid-December 2015. After his arrest, his parents told journalists they thought he was in Canada but the were also aware that he’d travelled to Turkey. By January 16, 2016—only a month after his departure—he was already inside ISIS controlled territory and may have been there as early as December. Khweis had been studying criminal justice in Virginia and only occasionally attended mosques and there is no evidence of him having given any outward signs of radicalization to violent extremism.

Given the fact that as soon as ISIS starts indoctrinating and recruiting someone they have learned now to put extreme emphasis on secrecy and operating clandestinely. Thus it is very viable and expectable that Khweis was told by his recruiters not to change his daily routines and not to let anyone sense that he was flirting with the terrorist group. In fact, his criminal justice education in Virginia may also have provided him some tactics as well to stay out of the radar of the American intelligence. Therefore, he was very successful in hiding his recruitment to the people around him. Often, ISIS operatives are taught to use encrypted means of alternative social media communication methods which makes the job of the law enforcement agencies even more difficult. Furthermore, there is a clear sign that he was instructed how to stay out of the radar of the intel as when we look at his travel arrangements, he did not fly to Istanbul directly, rather changing places and airplanes twice before his arrival in Istanbul.

In terms of the law, Khweis, was not completely “clean.” He did have a record of run-ins with the law for numerous alcohol-related and driving offenses. For instance, he had been cited in Virginia for driving a car with tinted windows, speeding, and driving without a safety belt and in 2010 he was arrested for driving while intoxicated—an incident in which he refused blood and breath tests. He had also been arrested a year earlier for appearing drunk in public. None of these are arrests that one would normally link to an Islamic extremist, although groups like ISIS often appeal to Muslims who are trying to clean up their acts and use an extremist Islamic mindset to do so. The Chattanooga sniper Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, Boston bombers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as well as plenty of European jihadis share a similar profile in this regard—they were drug and alcohol abusers up to the time they found extremist Islamic literature or a group that offered them the opportunity to reform and possibly even become “martyrs” thereby ensuring their past “sins” would, according to terrorist ideology, all be forgiven.

Had Khweis been fully trained and indoctrinated by ISIS, as many foreigners are—to “hear and obey”—he could very easily have had his “clean” American passport handed back to him and been sent back to the United States by ISIS with orders to attack, without anyone realizing beforehand. Given the easy availability of assault rifles inside the United States, someone like Khweis, after spending time with ISIS and taking on—or already secretly harboring a militant ideology and hatred for Americans—could very easily have mounted a horrific terror attack right here, back home, among us. Furthermore, with the training he received in the ISIS military camps, he could very easily lead a home grown ISIS terrorist cell formed of already established extremist youth here in the United States, which would give ISIS to possibility to carry out a massive, 9-11 type, attack without moving any operatives except him and using Khweis as the commander of a cell here in the United States. Thankfully Khweis did not like what he saw on the inside of ISIS and quickly defected.

As an ISIS insider, and now defector, he joins a chorus of voices that we also have been collecting—of discouraging words for other potential joiners, “Life in Mosul is really very bad. The people who control Mosul don’t represent a religion. Daesh [the Arabic acronym for ISIS] does not represent a religion. I don’t see them as good Muslims.”

His case however highlights how we are currently losing the battle—at least in social media space—with Islamic State’s ability to reach out to young men and women all over the world to convince them to travel to Syria and Iraq, believing ISIS has anything good to offer them, or to the world in general. We need to totally discredit both the group and its ideology—something we are working very hard on at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is the Deputy Director of ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Counter-terrorism and Operations Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for countering the threats of terrorism”.

Reference for this paper: Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (March 20, 2016) American ISIS Defector – Mohamad Jamal Khweis & the Threat Posed by “Clean-Skin” Terrorists: Unanswered Questions and Confirmations. ICSVE Brief Report 

 

 

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

briandemulder

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

ISIS Defector Reports on the Sale of Organs Harvested from ISIS held “Slaves”

prisoner

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.

In February of 2015 Iraqi Ambassador, Mohamed Alhakim requested the UN Security Council to investigate the deaths of twelve doctors in Mosul, Iraq who he claimed had been killed by ISIS after refusing to remove organs from dead bodies. He also claimed that some of the bodies found were mutilated with opening in the back where the kidneys are located. “This is clearly something bigger than we think,” Ambassador Alhakim stated.[1]

“Organ theft during wars, civil wars, dirty wars, wars involving undisciplined armies is not uncommon,” Nancy Scheper-Hughes, chair of Berkeley’s doctoral program in medical anthropology and director of Organs Watch, a California based documentation and research project told CNN in response to the February claim. She also told CNN that the market in human organs is brisk commenting that, “The demand for fresh organs and tissues … is insatiable.” Scheper-Hughes added fresh kidneys from “the brain dead or from those executed with the assistance of trained organ harvesters are the blood diamonds of illicit and criminal trafficking.”[2]

U.S. State Department responded to the February 2015 claims with the following statement: “We also have no reason to doubt them given other similar atrocities that have been documented and other heinous crimes for which ISIL has proudly taken credit.” [3]

In September of 2015, former ISIS prisoner Abo Rida was reported stating that surgeons for the terror group removed kidneys and corneas from prisoners. Rida reported ISIS informing their captives that “the fate of these prisoners (was) inevitable death” and the jihadists were “more deserving” of the organs. Rida said he escaped from ISIS after a counter-terrorism raid damaged their prison, but that he was fired upon trying to escape and was only one of four who made it out alive. [4]

In December of 2015 the U.S. government revealed that it had obtained in May, via a Special Forces raid in eastern Syria, a document dated January 31, 2015 (among many others) giving the Islamic justification for harvesting organs from “infidels.” The ruling according to Reuters, states that taking organs from a living captive to save a Muslim’s life, even if it is fatal for the captive, is permissible. “The apostate’s life and organs don’t have to be respected and may be taken with impunity,” the fatwa from the Islamic State’s Research and Fatwa Committee reads. It goes on to say, “Organs that end the captive’s life if removed: The removal of that type is also not prohibited.” The Islamic State’s ruling on organ harvesting cites Islamic texts, principles and laws lending support for what the group argues, “the notion that transplanting healthy organs into a Muslim person’s body in order to save the latter’s life or replace a damaged organ with it is permissible.”[5] A U.S. government translation of the fatwa can be found here.

While the newly discovered fatwa does not offer any proof that Islamic State actually engages in organ harvesting or organ trafficking, that ISIS could be reaping financial benefits by trafficking in stolen body parts is not inconceivable. Given the numerous reports leaking about the justification for and actual activity of organ harvesting and given that it has faced set-backs in its illicit oil trade of late due to airstrikes on it, the group may need to recoup the money.

In our ISIS Defector Interview Project at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism we were also informed by an ISIS defector in December of 2015 who maintains ties with other Islamic State cadres, both still in and out of the group that, “There is a statement now from Daesh: ‘From this point you do not kill the slaves. We need to use their bodies to make money [for organ trade].’ Basically, they are saying that the slaves are already ‘dead’. We need to make money off their bodies by selling body parts.”

While we hope it’s not true, given all the heinous acts the Islamic State cadres have already carried out, this is just one more sickening example of how un-Islamic ISIS really is.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She is author of Talking to Terrorists and Bride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. In 2007, Dr. Speckhard 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 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, Lebanon and many countries in Europe. Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is a Research Fellow at ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Anti-terrorism Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Ohio Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for Countering the Threats of Terrorism.”

References:

[1] Sanchez, R. (February 19, 2015). United Nations investigates claims of ISIS organ theft. CNNhttp://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/middleeast/isis-organ-harvesting-claim/ Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/middleeast/isis-organ-harvesting-claim/

[2] Sanchez, R. (February 19, 2015). United Nations investigates claims of ISIS organ theft. CNNhttp://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/middleeast/isis-organ-harvesting-claim/ Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/middleeast/isis-organ-harvesting-claim/

[3] Sanchez, R. (February 19, 2015). United Nations investigates claims of ISIS organ theft. CNNhttp://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/middleeast/isis-organ-harvesting-claim/ Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/middleeast/isis-organ-harvesting-claim/

[4] Burman, J. (October 1, 2015). ISIS ‘doctors’ harvesting healthy prisoners’ ORGANS and using them as living bloodbank. Expresshttp://www.express.co.uk/news/world/609158/ISIS-harvest-organs-Doctors-Escape-Abo-Rida-Syria-Terrorism-Surgeons Retrieved from http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/609158/ISIS-harvest-organs-Doctors-Escape-Abo-Rida-Syria-Terrorism-Surgeons and

Catholic Online. (September 30, 2015). Islamic State cutting out organs from ‘healthy’ captives to strengthen injured jihadists. http://www.catholic.org/news/international/middle_east/story.php?id=64383 Retrieved from http://www.catholic.org/news/international/middle_east/story.php?id=64383

[5] Strobel, W., Landay, J., & Stewart, P. (December 25, 2015). Exclusive: Islamic State sanctioned organ harvesting in document taken in U.S. raid. Reuters Newshttp://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-islamic-state-documents-idUSKBN0U805R20151225 Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-islamic-state-documents-idUSKBN0U805R20151225

This report is a publication of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and can be found here.

Eyewitness Accounts from Recent Defectors from Islamic State: Why they Joined, What they Saw, Why they Quit

ISISby Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.

The Islamic State (IS) is the most powerful, ruthless, horrific and well-funded terrorist group in recent history. Not only has ISIS managed to take and control a significant swathe of territory, it has become a de-facto state. Since their 2014 claim of establishing a Caliphate, ISIS has also unleashed an unprecedented and prolific social media recruiting drive that has enabled them to attract up to 30,000 foreign fighters from more than one hundred countries. A steady stream of fighters continues to enter Syria and Iraq on a daily basis—with some estimates placing their number at over one thousand new recruits per month.[[i]] In addition, ISIS has created a “brand” that has been exported to over twenty hotspots around the globe. As ISIS has arisen—seemingly out of nowhere—to become a powerful foe, the West has struggled to comprehend and understand how to effectively counter it.

While a political solution in the war-torn area of Syria and Iraq is a necessary precondition to the total defeat of ISIS, discrediting the group’s ideology is also essential. Defectors from ISIS, who alongside the refugees pour out of ISIS-controlled territory, are among the most powerful first-hand voices to speak out against the group. Indeed a disillusioned cadre who can speak from experience and tell their authentic stories about life inside ISIS may be the most influential tool for preventing and dissuading others from joining ISIS.

The fight against Islamic State must take place on many fronts, including finding political solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.  Islamic State is currently winning on many fronts—social media being the most powerful in terms of involving Westerners in homegrown terrorist attacks. At present the Internet serves as a nerve center to connect ISIS activists and propagandists who have proved themselves extremely savvy, active and successful on social media in recruiting Westerners to their cause—to plot terror activity, travel to Syria and Iraq, fundraise, as well as carry out concrete action in behalf of the terrorist group’s goals. That front can be won back by discrediting their ideology and one of the most powerful ways to do that is to use voices of insiders—ISIS defectors to do so.

While it is difficult to reach ISIS defectors and also persuade them to speak out against the group, it is possible. Turkey is a country through which thousands of Westerners have funneled themselves to join ISIS and other militant groups fighting in Syria and Iraq.  Recently, disaffected cadres—ISIS defectors—are crossing in the opposite direction, back into Turkey and hiding out there hoping the long arm of ISIS does not catch them.

In recent months, Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. and Ahmet Yayla, Ph.D. of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)have begun an interview project and thus far interviewed seventeen such cadres and plan to interview more.

The project has begun to assemble a sample of ISIS defectors that can inform on the following:

1.     Motivations for joining

2.     Military and Ideological training

3.     Actual First Person Accounts of Life inside ISIS

4.     Reports on the Treatment of Women

5.     Reports on the Foreign Fighter involvement

6.     Reports on the ISIS Slave Trade

7.     Reports on the Brutality and Killing

8.     Reports on ISIS Financing

9.     Reasons for and Process of Defecting

10.  Mental Health Consequences of ISIS involvement

11.  Pictures and video that cadres have of actual events they took part in.

12.  Statements by former ISIS cadres of why they defected and why others should not join.

Thus far, all of the informants have risked their lives and undertook a gravely dangerous journey to defect from ISIS.  Some were ideological supporters right from the beginning—others less so—being more interested in money, survival, women etc., but all of our informants now despise ISIS.  All have willingly given us cautionary statements to Westerners and others who might be considering joining ISIS that along side of their first-person accounts of their lives inside ISIS will be used to discredit the terrorist group.

These interviews are now taking place in secret and recorded on tv-grade video.  Once edited and packaged for such Internet outlets as YouTube and other social media sites, they will be invaluable tools to place back on the Internet to use for prevention and dissuasion.  We can’t wait to publish these stories from the inside that we know will directly and powerfully confront the so-called “caliphate.”

Read the full report here.

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 served with her husband, U.S. Ambassador to Greece, Daniel Speckhard from 2007-2010 during which time a large influx of refugees made their way from Turkey to Greece. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book is Bride of ISIS.

Dr. Speckhard 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. Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is Research Fellow at ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Anti-terrorism Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas.

Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Ohio Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for countering the threats of terrorism”.

References: [[i]] See: Tim Mak, & Youssef, N. (March 3, 2015). IS ranks grow as fast as U.S. bombs can wipe them out. The Daily Beast. URL: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/03/isis-recruits-thousands-of-new-fighters-despite-u-s-bombs.html; Kirk, A. (August 12, 2015). Iraq and Syria: How many foreign fighters are fighting for Isil. The Telegraph. URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/islamic-state/11770816/Iraq-and-Syria-How-many-foreign-fighters-are-fighting-for-Isil.html; Neumann, P. (January 26, 2015). Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s. ISCR. URL: http://icsr.info/2015/01/foreign-fighter-total-syriairaq-now-exceeds-20000-surpasses-afghanistan-conflict-1980s/ ; Schmid, Alex P.. Foreign (Terrorist) Fighter Estimates: Conceptual and Data Issues.  The Hague: ICCT, 2015, p. 11.

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.

Salma-and-Zahra-Halane-BellaNaija

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

iraq-isis-recruitment-video

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.