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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.

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

Four Boys Killed in Gaza & the Need for a Cease Fire

Palestinian boys with guns Fall 2004

When I traveled through the West Bank and Gaza conducting research interviews with Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP and other terrorist leaders, operatives, and in the case of dead suicide bombers—their families, for my book Talking to Terrorists I was often more frightened of the Israelis than of the Palestinians. In fact I stopped going across for research interviews after a trip to Israel where my laptop was taken from me and not returned for days and I received a particularly grim warning from a member of the Israeli police force. He told me that despite my being married to an American Ambassador and my own work consulting on counter-terrorism in behalf of NATO, the U.S. Department of Defense and the UK Home Office and that I had been invited by the Israeli National Defense University to present my research on terrorism in Israel, I was under suspicion by the Mossad. He said the Mossad was worried because I routinely came and went in Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon and in Brussels where I was living at the time and spoke with all the terror groups. They feared that somehow I could become sympathetic and carry messages or money to aid terrorist groups—something I would have never done. I was studying them and trying to understand their motivations and what had put them on the terrorist trajectory and what might also take them back off it.

I did however, as the Mossad feared, feel sympathy for Palestinians when I walked and lived among them for research forays into the West Bank and Gaza. Dressed like a Palestinian I was often hauled off of mini-buses at Israeli gunpoint, held for hours at checkpoints, and threatened in multiple ways by soldiers. I also was held for hours at the Ben Gurion airport and the Mossad physically threatened one of my students on one of my research trips. I think they were afraid to directly say to me what they said to him.

The police officer that threatened me on my last trip in, told me that I would be arrested, held in interrogation for a minimum of two weeks and that my family would have no idea where I was and that I would come out a changed person—psychologically traumatized. I knew how the Palestinians described interrogation so I had no doubt he was right about that. He told me I had to stop crossing over for my research interviews. When I said I was committing no crime researching how terrorists think he searched for ways to make his threats hurt more. He asked how it would affect my husband’s career as a U.S. Ambassador if I were arrested by the Israelis—I told him it wouldn’t. He told me that the collaborators would plant money or messages in my luggage or on my person. I said, “Let them.” And then he went for the jugular and asked who would care for our children while I was under interrogation and no one knew where I was—my husband was then serving the U.S. State Department in Iraq and not at home to care for them.

After uttering a few expletives I went back to my hotel and called my husband who without hesitation told me “Go to Ramallah tomorrow as planned. Let them arrest you. You haven’t committed any crime. Continue your research.” But I didn’t want to go missing when he was in Iraq. I didn’t feel that was fair to my children who were mostly grown at the time but who would likely not handle that well. And I remembered Rachel Corey—an activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer she had tried to block. I didn’t want to share her fate.

And I had already sat with Zakaria Zuebedi, a sender of suicide bombers, in his hideout interviewing him, knowing full well he was on an Israeli hit list. During our time together he received a phone call. “Hello?” “Hello?” he had repeated four or five times into his phone while I thought, Oh geez, they are triangulating his position and running voice recognition—we’re going to get the missile!

I didn’t want to be the cat facing its ninth life.

But that’s all about me. What I can say having interviewed and even stayed overnight in the homes of Palestinian terrorists when they offered me a place to stay due to the checkpoints hampering our free travel—is that Palestinian militants and even the normal population will do anything for their children. If one child is unjustly killed it activates hundreds to volunteer to do and sacrifice anything to express their outrage, grief, sorrow, anger and to enact revenge for injustice.

The four children killed on the beach today thus for me send out a dire warning of worse to come. Nearly all of Palestinian terrorism is driven by trauma and revenge and it is a cycle that keeps repeating itself endlessly. Until Palestinians feel some hope for their future and security, and certainly while their children are being killed in significant numbers they will keep up the fight—even to their last self destructive breath. And while we can blame their leadership for much of it, we also must understand the psychology of overwhelming traumatic loss and pain—it drives even normal people to become ruthless killers.

While I certainly believe every country has the right to defend it’s boundaries and there should be an end to the Palestinian missiles firing upon Israel, I’m sure engaging in any activities that mistakenly takes the lives of Palestinian children—by accident or otherwise—is only going to make things much, much worse. I hope the Israelis can find a way to broker a cease-fire or even offer a long unilateral one to see if things can calm down in the meantime. Continued hostilities as we are witnessing today are unlikely to achieve anyone’s security. And it’s likely only Israel that can put a stop to it by taking the higher road and calling a cease-fire, at least for the time being.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. She traveled extensively through the West Bank and Gaza during the Second Intifada.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the one hundred and twelve Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. 

Honoring Civilian Service in Danger Zones

Today, April 24th, 2014, Dr. Jerry Umanos, a Chicago pediatrician who moved to Afghanistan to treat children and train Afghan physicians was gunned down at a Kabul hospital—killed by an Afghan police guard. While we have become sickeningly accustomed to hearing about “green on blue” attacks on our soldiers as the Afghan people become more and more disenchanted with foreign troops operating on their soil—this was a cold blooded attack on a civilian non-military worker.

A fact that is often overlooked these days, is that our wars are fought not only with soldiers, but with a great number of civilian workers going out alongside of them—military contractors who perform a myriad of tasks supporting military operations; government agency workers representing in the case of the U.S.—the Departments of State, Energy, Labor, Health & Human Services, etc.; journalists; and nongovernmental (NGO) workers performing all kinds of missions—many of them humanitarian.

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Most people don’t realize that in 2007 there were actually more civilian contractors in Iraq than combat troops and that in 2009 contractor deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq. According to a 2013 report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR): “In September 2007, the United States had more than 170,000 combat personnel in Iraq as part of the counterinsurgency operation, with more than 171,000 contractors supporting the mission.” These contractors are credited in the report for supporting “the counterinsurgency mission in unstable, yet strategically significant, areas such as Baghdad, Anbar, and Babylon provinces.”

And when contractors, NGO workers and civilians serve in high threat security zones they are often not working with the same pre-deployment training or the same support during and after their deployments that military and government workers receive. Yet they too get injured and killed—like Dr. Umanos—who was trying to train up an Afghan medical force. And even when they return home safely—mission completed—they, and their families can still suffer considerable psychological strain in the months and even years to come. But there is no Veterans Health Administration for civilian workers to turn to for support. And sadly we as a society are still slow to recognize our hundreds of thousands of civilians who have or are now serving abroad in high threat and danger zones.

The dangers for civilians are greater now that the military outsources many of its jobs to civilian contractors just as the dynamics of war have also drastically changed. These days, with guerilla and terrorist adversaries attacking anywhere at anytime, the battlefront “rear” and “front” no longer are clearly delineated. The enemy attacks any and everywhere, placing civilians who assist military operations in the same dangers as the uniformed warriors and often injuring and killing civilian workers who would have in the past been operating in the “rear”.

While our military serviceman returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced shameful delays and nonresponsive replies from the Veterans Health Administration to get their claims covered—civilian contractors who return from the battle space with similar injuries—including limbs blown off, traumatic brain injury, PTSD, depression, traumatic bereavement and the like—have found they too have had to battle with the insurance coverage provided under the Defense Base Act (DBA)—a law requiring insurance coverage for those contracting with any agency of the U.S. government for work outside the U.S.

At present the recording of civilian contractor deaths in conflict zones is thought by many to be underreported and sadly many of these civilians die unheralded. Likewise those who are wounded are finding it difficult to get their needs met.

In terms of psychological well being, a 2013 RAND study, aptly titled “Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Zones” found evidence for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in twenty-five percent of their sample, depression in eighteen percent, and alcohol misuse in over half the sample. And longer deployments and increased combat exposure was associated with higher rates of distress. In our 2007 study of resilience in civilians deployed in Iraq, our research team found similar findings.

Serving in a combat zone, high threat or danger zone is just that—dangerous—and it’s time we recognized the hundreds of thousands of civilians who are doing just that. A new organization We Served Too (WS2) has been formed with the mission to raise awareness; conduct research; develop education materials; support resilience, health and well-being; and create a web-based community, support network and information resource for those who are serving or have served in conflict and high threat security zones. Currently an oral history project collecting lessons learned from civilians who deployed into conflict and high threat/danger zones is underway. Volunteers and civilians who served are welcome to join.

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Today colleagues of Jerry Umanos told CNN that Jerry “loved the Afghan people, loved the country, and loved to teach”. We need to honor his service and ultimate sacrifice just as we do for our military soldiers, and support all those, like him, who are risking it all to try to make our world a better place.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the Medical School and author of Talking to Terrorists. She conducted psychological autopsies of over half of the Chechen suicide terrorists, interviewed hostages from Beslan and Nord Ost and has interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world. She is Co-Director, with Martha Hudson, at We Served Too.

Childhood Cancer and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

“Your child has cancer.” These are words no parent ever wants to hear.

“You have cancer,” is often a meaningless sentence to a child, but the fear and horror the child sees in his parents’ faces and hears in their voices is unmistakable.

For parent and child, a cancer diagnosis is a mental shock. And the physical shocks that follow that diagnosis—invasive treatments, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy are also difficult to bear, also potentially traumatizing.

Cancer is a life threatening disease. And the threat to life—including the treatments to save life—can be traumatizing to those who witness their child or sibling going through cancer treatment. Death of course makes it even harder. Treatment is also potentially traumatizing to the child with cancer, potentially leaving psychic scars lasting well after a hopeful recovery.

Facing a series of repeated life threatening events puts each of this group (parents, siblings, and the childhood cancer patient as well) at risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a disorder that is commonly associated with exposure to combat, natural disasters, or bodily assault.

PTSD in those who experience cancer, usually presents in response to feeling one’s life or one’s child/or sibling’s life is under serious and/or repeated threat.

The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Reexperiencing the cancer treatment in nightmares, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks—scenes that are often reported to be much like full sensory movies playing unbidden in one’s mind.
  • Avoiding places, people and reminders of the cancer experience including shutting down sharing with others what one has been through.
  • Negative changes in beliefs and feelings including feelings of guilt, fear, shame or losing interest in previously enjoyed activities and feeling alienated from others.
  • Bodily hyper-arousal experienced as agitation, inability to fall or stay asleep, being easily startled, irritable, having difficulty concentrating and so on.

To qualify for a diagnosis of PTSD these symptoms must last for longer than a month and must significantly interfere with life functioning in relationships, work, education or other important areas of life.

In some cases delayed responses occur and in others only some of the features of PTSD occur. Or other related disorders arise such as anxiety disorder or panic, phobias or depression. Those who are suffer from PTSD are also at increased risk for substance abuse—as alcohol or drug abuse arises out of attempts to self medicate flashbacks and nightmares away.

Children who have PTSD often manifest their symptoms in ways that are unique to their developmental stage. For instance traumatized children may revert to wanting to sleep with their parents or go backwards on skills they previously mastered. They also often display a need to play and replay the cancer experience in attempts to master it. Or hyper-arousal may come across as aggression or misbehavior, especially in boys. Girls often go dissociative following a traumatic event—meaning their minds compartmentalize the event. They may say “everything is fine” and show no emotion but if someone where to measure their pulse when cancer is being discussed, they would see that their bodies are showing agitation. More loving touch, sleeping near to parents, and loving interactions with pets can help both adults and children to self soothe in the face of hyperarousal and posttraumatic re-experiencing.

When it comes to trauma children also often take their cues from their protectors. Parents who stay calm and who modulate their emotions well model to their children about how to cry over sad news, stay strong in the face of fear and self comfort, as well as seek comfort for overwhelming emotions. Parents who get hysterical or who shut down emotionally provide little support for children who have to navigate their own emotions and need help doing so.

The risk factors for developing PTSD in response to cancer include longer hospital stays, recurring cancers, invasive procedures such as bone marrow transplants, greater experiences of pain, previous traumas, previous psychological problems or high levels of stress in general. The protective factors against developing PTSD include a strong support network; help regulating emotions, and a good relationship with the medical staff.

PTSD following cancer should be treated sensitively. A child who is for instance triggered into fear states by the smell of a hospital or medical setting, or white lab coats needs help working through their present day anxiety while separating it from the pain or distress that went before. Children and parents may need help reframing present day thoughts that lead to anxieties and slow exposure to triggers to understand they are different (and safe) now, and help learning to calm.

The child patient as well as his or her siblings may develop more behavior problems than before the cancer treatment, become clingy or need help expressing anger versus acting it out. They may also want to avoid reminders of anything to do with cancer and even the medical system. In some case avoidance works to a certain point, but too much avoidance creates a cycle of trying to shut down only to have the painful re-experiencing start up again with another exposure to triggering reminders.

Families are strained when cancer is part of the picture. And each family member has their own way of responding to traumas—withdrawing, acting out, etc. adding an even heavier stress load on the marriage and family system. It can be hard for parents to meet the needs of everyone equally. Often the sick child gets all the attention and the siblings suffer and learn to withdraw or meet their needs outside the family creating complications later on.

Marriages are also at risk when one partner develops PTSD. For instance Stacey, a mother deeply traumatized by her young son’s cancer diagnosis and treatment found that after a hopeful resolution of his cancer she could no longer sleep well and was plagued with nightmares, flashbacks of hospital procedures and flash-forwards of imagining a dire future—including the return of cancer and death of her son.

To cope with her psychological agitation Stacey started avoiding activities she previously enjoyed. She stopped going to her son’s school or sports activities, didn’t want to have sex with her husband or go out to dinner with their friends—responses that Jim, her husband found inexplicably painful. And when Jim became angry over not understanding that posttraumatic triggers were causing Stacey to “shut down” they would have painful arguments that resolved nothing.

Children and adults with PTSD do best to work slowly with help if needed, through their traumas by facing it in small steps and creating a narrative of sorts that works for them. One of the most painful parts of PTSD is dealing with a trauma that makes no sense and for which one has no cognitive frame—“You have cancer,” is often too horrific a statement to accept. Or the suffering of a child in treatment is also too horrific to accept—at first. But over time, cognitive frames must be created in which one finds peace and accepts into one’s life story that indeed this trauma occurred and now needs to be accepted as real.

Running away from it and living with the painfulness of cycling through flashbacks, avoidance and hyperarousal is no way to live. Medications in serious cases may be useful, and relaxation training is also helpful. Simply understanding what one has been through and that posttraumatic responses—even to cancer—are normal can help to work through it.

Most PTSD sufferers feel a sense of foreshortened future—that their lives will not be as long as previously expected or as fully lived. In some case that is the sad reality, but in others it is simply fear that needs, like the cancer, to be excised from the mind.

In the end, both the trauma and the cancer need to be accommodated and the sufferer must find peace in mind and soul with both—no matter the outcome.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and author of several books. Her latest children’s book is Timothy Tottle’s Terrific Dream.