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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

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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

Terror – Whom to Fear

Abdelhamid Abaaoud ISIS photoI 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 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 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.

This report was first published under the same title in The Hill.

ISIS, the Euphoria of Jihad and Protecting Muslim Youth

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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.

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.