Tag Archives: militant jihad

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 



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.

Mothers as Terrorists: When Mothers Kill and Die to Attain So-Called “Martyrdom” Status

Tashfeen MalikTwenty-seven-year old Tashfeen Malik, the wife of Syed Farook, and the female half of the California mass murder spree, is reported to have pledged her bay’ah–or oath of loyalty–to ISIS just before donning black military-style attire, taking up arms, an IED, and heading off with her husband, Syed Farook to kill fourteen people and wound seventeen others in cold blood. What would drive a woman to violate the most basic of maternal instincts–that is to protect her own child above all else, and to protect her relationship to her child, and in doing so to become a killer and die herself?

The answer lies in the sick ideologies circulating today and embraced by terrorism groups, including ISIS, who endorse a “martyrdom” ideology. Other examples of mothers who left their children to kill themselves (while murdering others), include Palestinian Reem Riyashi–mother of two children: three-year-old son Obedia and eighteen-month-old daughter Duha. Riyashi was preceded by Chechen female bombers–also mothers, who went on so-called “martyrdom” missions also leaving their children behind.

In January of 2004, during the Second Intifada, Riyash approached the Erez checkpoint leading out of Gaza while wearing a suicide bomb. According to the IDF, she thwarted security procedures there by pretending to be crippled–claiming to have plates in her legs that would set off the metal detectors, she requested a body search instead.

As with most women, she was not suspected of being a cold-blooded killer. But when taken to the private area for her check, Riyashi defied most expectations of women and mothers. She detonated her two-kilogram bomb–killing four Israelis (two soldiers, a policeman and a civilian security worker) and wounded an additional seven Israelis and four Palestinians. Riyashi and her Hamas senders took full advantage of the trust most of us put in the female gender, as well as in this instance, of Israeli decency to a purported handicapped individual–to kill as many as possible.

Riyashi’s suicide attack shocked the world, particularly as she had posed with her small children in photos taken before her attack. The appalling photos of a mother brandishing an automatic rifle with a rocket-propelled grenade in the foreground standing alongside her young children defied all understandings of normal motherhood. In one of the photos her son is clutching what looks like a mortar shell. At the time, Hamas replying to criticism for their hard-hearted and cynical use of a mother to kill and die, protested that the pictures revealed the depth of despair among Palestinian women and their strong desire to defeat the Israeli occupation.

Riyashi was the eighth Palestinian female suicide bomber. Following the attack of Darine Abu Aisha (the second Palestinian female suicide bomber), Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, withdrew his objection to using women in such actions and switched instead to lavish praise of their involvement. He applauded Riyashi’s attack, urged other women to volunteer, and warned the Israelis to expect even more female bombers.

In many ways the Chechens and Palestinian female suicide bombers, and their supporters around the world endorsements of female involvement in terrorism, opened the doors for other female terrorists acting in behalf of conservative Islamic-related terrorists groups to join in. Following them, Al Qaeda sent white European Belgian Muriel Degaque–a wife, but not a mother–to bomb herself in Iraq, and al-Qaeda in Iraq also sent a rash of female bombers from inside Iraq to detonate themselves at various targets inside Iraq. 

ISIS, thus far, has not sent females out to “martyr” themselves but has made signs of considering it. And it is now looking as if Tashfeen Malik may have been their first ISIS inspired volunteer for that dubious “honor”.

Horrifically, three years after Riyashi bombed herself, Al-Aqsa TV, the official station of the Palestinian unity government (led by Hamas), began airing a fictionalized dramatization of Reem’s four-year-old daughter following in her mother’s footsteps. In it Duha Riyashi (played by a child actress) sings as her mother readies herself for a suicide bombing while asking in the sick lyrics of her song, “Mommy, what are you carrying in your arms instead of me?” Mourning her mother’s death in the video, the young girl finds a leftover stick of dynamite near her mother’s bedside table and picks it up as she vows to carry on, “My love will not be words. I will follow Mummy in her steps.”

Clearly to these kinds of groups, fixated on winning at all costs, and engaging in terrorism to do it–mothers and children, and the bonds between them–mean nothing, compared to carrying out acts in behalf of the “cause”.

It should also be noted, that Chechen suicide bombers–male and female–were encouraged by their ideologues to marry and have children before going on suicide missions. The logic was that they should fulfill all their “life duties,” including having children before engaging on their fantasized and final trip to Paradise.

Chechens who are fighting in Syria (who according to our ISIS defector informants in our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project) head the battles as the elite ISIS forces–the Navy SEALs, if you will–of ISIS. They follow the slogan of “Victory or Paradise,” meaning that death holds no sting and “martyrdom” is victory for them.

Indeed, if Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Farook were inspired by the plethora of sick, ISIS ideology that is presently on the Internet, or radicalized from more personal contact–their mindset would be the same. Death holds no sting and killing innocents is glorified.

We see evidence that the couple were preparing for what appears to be a series of attacks and were likely planning to carry them out much like the Tsarnaev’s did–starting with one target and carrying on to a bloody fight at the end–ending in death for at least the elder “true believer.”

However, it seems a workplace spat somehow triggered Syed Farook to decide to jump the gun and prematurely set into motion their series of attacks. That Syed went to work alone, got into an altercation, and then returned in battle gear with his wife to carry out his massacre–but that the couple “forgot” to bring their other bombs along to carry on as the Tsarnaev’s did from one bomb site to the next ultimately ending in the elder Tsarnaev’s death OR that they thought they could return for the other bombs seems to indicate they went off half cocked–perhaps out of nerves and anger.

Nevertheless, the couple was clearly not willing to surrender. When faced with overwhelming force–just like the Madrid train bombers, the Paris attackers and now them–they fought to the death and would likely have exploded themselves and others around them had they had their other devices along with them.

What this couple’s story underlines is that despite our wish to see females as the gentler gender, females can be lethal terrorists, that terrorist groups and now even ISIS are more than willing to make use of them, and that mothers are not an exception. Sadly, we must face that for those that have drunk the poison Kool-Aid of the “martyrdom” ideology put out by such groups as al Qaeda and ISIS–that killing and dying for the “cause” overrides every other normal instinct–including that of self-preservation and maternal love.

That is the enemy we face today. We must do everything we can to discredit and destroy this ideology and the groups that espouse it.

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. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book is Bride of ISIS. 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 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

The Lure of Becoming a Bride of ISIS

Austrian girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and author of Talking to TerroristsBride of ISIS: One Young Girl’s Path into Homegrown Terrorism, and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She also has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe.To see more on this topic, and to read an account based on an American girl who tried to join ISIS as a bride, see Bride of ISIS.

The Militant Jihadi Ideology as a Short-Term Psychological Fix—Examining the Woolwich Murder of a British Soldier

When I made interviews with extremists and their supporters four and five years ago—in London, Birmingham and Leeds—I found many young immigrant descent Muslims expressed similar concerns to the recent murderer of a British soldier, Michael Abedolajo.  Many told me that they had distant relatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan and were deeply disturbed about them potentially being harmed by the British military.  While most did not endorse attacking their own country nor resorting to terrorist “solutions” on UK soil—many said they would feel compelled to aid Muslims under attack in Iraq or Afghanistan—even if it meant working against their own military.  And some told me that if push came to shove, they might even aid in an Afghani or Iraqi attack on British soldiers or a military installation inside the UK.  It seems the nightmare they foretold has now occurred only days ago.  The plot however is not completely new.

In 2007, four British Pakistani men living in Birmingham were imprisoned over a militant jihadi plot to kidnap and kill a British Muslim soldier home on leave.  Their plan was to film him in a blindfolded and handcuffed state—force him to demand the withdrawal of troops from Iraq—and then brutally behead him.  The objective was to terrorize British society and deter Muslims from joining the British army. 

In 2013, another British militant jihadi plot directed at serving soldiers was foiled by security services when three British-born men were also imprisoned for a plotting to explode bombs in Royal Wooton Bassett, a town where UK troops frequently parade after returning from service in Afghanistan. 

Now, this Wednesday—May 22, 2013 the loosely knit extremists who share a common al Qaeda referenced ideology got their wish. 

Two British men armed with machetes and meat cleavers brutally murdered Lee Rigby, a British soldier outside his base at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich. Perhaps even more horrifying than the murder itself—in which Rigby was beheaded—was that upon its completion the murderers, rather than fleeing the scene—stood calmly by as one of the murderers—twenty-eight year-old Muslim convert Michael Adebolajo asked witnesses to film his statements in which he attempted to justify their horrific crime.  As reported by the BBC, he told a female onlooker that he knew that his victim was a British soldier, “he wanted to start a war in London” and that he was “fed up” over British soldiers killing “Muslims over there”…“in Iraq and Afghanistan”.  

In this way Adebolajo mouthed the common al Qaeda narrative in which murderous actions are supposedly justified as righteous retribution for western military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Apparently the two also shared the militant jihadi belief in the rewards of “martyrdom”—as they were clearly unafraid of dying and hung around to make statements after brutally butchering Rigby.  Neither assailant did die—or become “martyrs”.  The police arrived, shot and wounded the assailants in attempts to subdue them, arrested them, and they now lie recovering in hospital.

The second attacker is still unidentified, so only Abedolajo’s details are known.  According to the BBC, he was the son of Nigerian immigrants, raised in a devout Christian home and was described by friends as normal and even intelligent—but his life took a bad turn after he got involved in drugs during his teens —smoking “weed” and dealing drugs.  According to those who knew him, Abedolajo’s descent into drugs led him also into violent street crimes after which he apparently found answers in the virulent militant jihadi ideology—and converted to what he called—but many would not recognize as—Islam. 

Like many lost second generation immigrants in Europe who have gone before him, Abedolajo—who was first alienated, addicted to drugs and confused about foreign policy—appears to have found a short-term psychological fix to his derailed life and its accompanying psychic pain in the militant jihadi ideology.  As I have discovered in my over four hundred research interviews with terrorists and their supporters around the world—the militant jihadi ideology has this power to deliver psychological “first aid”—albeit offering only a short-lived solution to those in pain—as it often ends in their own death.  In Abedolajo’s case it apparently delivered to him, a strait laced code to live by that does have the power to rid one of drug addiction, alongside a new family of “brothers” to bolster his new world view—while at the same time also providing an almost euphoric belief in attaining the rewards of “martyrdom” for attacking the so called “enemies of Islam”.

Most likely Abedolajo’s derailed life was going nowhere and he confused his passionate care for civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq—a concern that many Muslims and non Muslims alike share—with the distorted al Qaeda claim that demanded he give his life and take part in terrorist violence to somehow wage—or has he put it “start a war”—in their behalf.   The Telegraph reports that he was believed to have already tried to join al-Shabaab in Somalia but was forced to return to Britain.  Apparently Abedolajo couldn’t find a way to self-actualize. For a young man who had little else going for him other than an apparent passion and identification with the wounds other Muslims around the world suffer—the euphoric high of “martyrdom” apparently became his new drug of choice.

The area he lived in—Woolwich, an area in south London was likewise derailed.  Formerly a thriving military and industrial town—home to the Woolwich Dockyard, Royal Arsenal, Royal Military Academy and Royal Horse Artillery—it has in recent years suffered considerable decline becoming an area where Somali and Nigerian drug gangs frequently clash with neo-Nazi skinheads. Indeed, Woolwich was already showing signs of trouble in July 2011, when riots and looting occurred, several buildings were attacked and destroyed, and fires caused serious damage.

Deranged enough in his beliefs to proudly proclaim his murderous actions as just—Abedolajo appears to have been convinced by terrorist instigators (Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri Mohammed claim to be among them) that giving his life, while taking the lives of others would somehow lead to correcting the international grievances that concerned him.  What his terrorist ideologues failed to tell him—that attacking civilians or non-deployed military members on the streets of London or anywhere else—could never be justified according to any religion—nor bring about the hoped for political remedies he may have dreamed of.  The militant jihad could clean up his drug addiction, his newfound “brothers” could help him turn from a life of crime and provide a sense of meaning, camaraderie and false heroism. But at their core his instigators were not interested in anything other than sacrificing him to their cause—believing like him—that by enacting “martyrdom” he could exit this life to earn the rewards of paradise in the next.

While I spoke to extremists in London, I also had the pleasure during the same time period, of taking part in a retreat held for the thousand Muslim soldiers who were at the time serving in the British military—an event hosted by the learned Armed Forces Senior Imam Asim Hafiz.  While less than a hundred soldiers were in country and on leave to attend, I was impressed to meet so many extremely professional UK soldiers—all Muslim and most of immigrant descent—who expressed no qualms about the righteousness of their service in the British military. 

Instead they expressed concerns over the normal challenges of military service similar to soldiers of other religions and nationalities.  The only differences, from their non-Muslim counterparts that I recall witnessing during that weekend was that they refrained from drink, heartily partook of halal food, prayed in a lovely way together—even inviting me to take part if I wished, and the most fun of all—they taught me (an American) to play cricket!

I was struck, however by one essential difference from their non-Muslim counterparts.  A fair number admitted that they kept their military service secret from their family and community members.  When asked why, they said they had no moral misgivings over their service but feared facing social and religious condemnation, or even danger from their communities who would not accept their decision to enter the military.  So instead, they lived undercover and made up stories about being international businessmen with a frequent need for travel. 

Sadly, if terrorist instigators continue to infect lost young men like Michael Adebolajo convincing them that taking part in terrorist murders is a just way to champion any cause, even more UK soldiers are likely to chose to hide their profession and sadly more may fall prey to murders of this type.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs” In the last decade she interviewed over four hundred terrorists, suicide bombers, terrorist supporters, family members, close associates and hostages. 

Al Qaeda’s Lone Mujahid Pocketbook, Lone Wolves, Home-grown Terrorists and the Threat Among Us

The March issue of Al Qaeda’s Inspire Magazine is now out and is this time featuring The Lone Mujahid Pocketbook—drawing heavily on past issues—and emphasizing home-grown, lone wolf and softer target attacks with instructions to make them accessible to many.  While on some levels it’s laughable —it also brings up some troubling issues to consider regarding possible attacks from potential home-grown terrorists.

First question—if the current administration’s drone strikes are so effective in decapitating Al Qaeda’s leadership why is there still an active al Qaeda core that is able to put out such a publication?  Are the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Adam Gadahn and their brothers residing within reach of Internet capability—in Pakistan perhaps—as did now slain Osama bin Ladin who was living almost right next door to their military academy?  And are our troops sacrificing life and limb fighting the so-called “War on Terror” while our so-called ally is harboring them?  If so, this is deeply troubling…

Likewise with advice being promulgated over the Internet of “Don’t travel to jihad—instead strike at home—work alone and hit domestic western targets to create economic havor, terror and harassment”—we must ask ourselves how likely are these al Qaeda inspired home-grown and lone terrorists to emerge from among us?

When I interviewed terrorists and violent extremists over the last decade in places ranging from the Middle and Far East to all over Europe, I found that there were four necessary ingredients that made up the lethal cocktail of terrorism—1) the group and its many functions, 2) the ideology that justifies attacking civilians, 3) some level of social support and 4) the individuals vulnerable to be caught up in it all.   And I found that inside conflict zones revenge and trauma were often enough to make many willing to join if they had exposure to a terror group and its ideology.  Whereas in non-conflict zones—such as in Western Europe—it’s more about personal experiences of discrimination and marginalization, looking for a positive identity, belonging, adventure and escape.  And as the terror groups bring—through pictures and videos—disturbing images from the conflict zones to the nonconflict zones—the misplaced belief in altruistic heroism also is a draw as terrorist operatives come to believe they are helping the wider ummah by enacting terrorism.

In Europe I found the Muslims converts and reverts who resonated to the al Qaeda ideology and who were willing to consider “martyrdom” operations were mostly second generation immigrants facing ethnic tensions, unable (or unwilling) to fit into society angry, marginalized, and unemployed, or under-employed as a result of discrimination. Seeking meaning and adventure in their lives they decided to belong elsewhere—to terrorist groups.

What about in the United States?  Will we see the call to rise up and fight made from the likes of American terrorists like the Somali-American rapper Omar Hammami, California raised Adam Gadahn and others—to strike at home and abroad—resonating with American Muslims? 

We saw Major Nidal Hasan taking a gun and attacking at his own military base—as a lone active shooter—in the way al Qaeda advises.  We have seen Somali boys resonating to the call made in person by European Somali militant jihadis coming from the battlegrounds—who portrayed themselves as manly heroes to these impressionable youth.  And we’ve seen another wave of Somali boys go in response to the first wave who telephoning and messaging back home glorified the militant jihad to those still at home.  We also watched in horror as Faisal Shahzad placed a vehicle laden with explosives in Times Square.

We need to ask ourselves why did these Muslims here in the U.S. join?  What did they resonate to and if others follow—why, how and where will they attack and what can we do about it? 

First it’s important to realize there are very few lone wolf terrorists—it requires too much (misplaced) courage and self-initiative to go it alone—so most require a group and ideology to act.  However, there is now a group and an entire “university of jihad” (as Reuven Paz terms it) available 24/7 via the Internet to anyone who logs on—so both the group and ideology are there for the taking all day and night long.  Indeed as the latest issue of Inspire encourages—avoid Internet and phone—use instead SITE and Memri (two excellent counter-terrorism monitoring sites) to read AQ documents on how to carry out attacks.  So solo actors can now take instructions virtually from al Qaeda with no meetings and no training camps needed.

Will those living amongst us respond?  In the case of some we already know the answer—yes. 

Some already did.  In all cases their responses were mediated by deep and emotionally laden concerns over our actions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and by our collateral damage in drone strikes.  In addition Nidal Hasan had a Palestinian background and may have already been deeply and personally affected by the events of the Second Intifada in which “martyrdom” suicide missions there became nearly the norm. 

What can we do to make it a no? 

The best answers are what is already good about America—that those living here believe that we are a free and open society, that they can protest and right things they believe are wrong through existing institutions that work well—rather than through the use of violent attacks—and that they have the hope of a good future.  Those are not the only answers but good things that we need to insure for all of us, on all levels of society, if we don’t want to end up in the European situation of having disgruntled minority groups resonating to the AQ call to terrorism. 

Likewise we need to keep civilian deaths, torture, soft torture and all compromises to the conscience of our great country to a minimum so that Adam Gadahn and his ilk cannot use pictures of Abu Ghraib, pictures of children burned up in drone strikes or stories of war crimes committed by our soldiers to whip up vulnerable individuals living here. 

If we can do that we have taken significant steps to ensure that the Lone Mujahid Pocketbook remains a meaningless and laughable document in al Qaeda central’s back pocket and stays there—unlikely to be implemented by anyone here.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is the author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”