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Terrorism

Talking to terrorists

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An interview with Anne Speckhard

“This is an account, spanning over a decade, of what happens when you do just that. Traveling through the West Bank and Gaza, into the U.S. Department of Defense prisons in Camp Bucca and Camp Victory, down the alleyways of the Casablanca slums, inside Chechnya, in the radicalized neighborhoods of Belgium, the UK, France and the Netherlands and sitting with the hostages of Beslan and Nord Ost, Dr. Speckhard gives us an account of what puts vulnerable individuals on the terrorist trajectory and what might also take them back off it.

One of the only experts to have such a breadth of experience – having interviewed over four hundred terrorists, their friends, family members and hostages – having visited, and even stayed overnight at times in the intimate spaces of terrorists’ homes, interviewing them in their stark prison cells and meeting them in the streets of their shanty towns, Dr. Speckhard gives us a rare glimpse of terrorists within their own contexts”

What is your definition of Terrorism and what is the critical difference from National Liberation Movements?

book1There is no one definition of terrorism that has gained universal acceptance” in fact in a recent handbook of terrorism put out by Alex Schmid identifies hundreds of definitions!  My own definition relies in good part on that of the U.S. FBI and State Department – I would define it as – terrorism consists of politically motivated attacks upon civilian targets by non state actors in order to instill terror and influence a wider witnessing audience.  National liberation movements or so called freedom fighters who primarily and intentionally attack civilians for the purpose of influencing the political process and influencing the wider witnessing audience are terrorists by this definition and they can be distinguished from actual freedom fighters or guerrilla insurgents who fight the military and do not intentionally attack civilian targets.

What do you think are the main causes of radicalization and to what degree do you think they are really connected to religion?

I just attended a day long conference at the Hague convening some of the top experts in Europe to discuss this issue and it was difficult to come to a consensus.  First of all we have to decide what is radicalization.  If it is simply becoming “radical” in the sense of believing that society needs to change and trying to change the status quo it may be a good thing.  If it is radicalization to violent extremism and fanaticism it is obviously not a good thing.  Group dynamics, ideology, social support and individual vulnerabilities  interact and all play a part in the mix for radicalizing to extremist violence.  In Europe those who radicalize into extremist and terrorist movement often feel disenfranchised, marginalized have frustrated aspirations, happen upon and make strong bonds of friendship even marriage into groups that espouse violent answers, come to believe an extremist ideology, may begin to take on the traumas of others in other parts of the world and identify with them believing they are fighting for their cause.  Religion is not necessary but is a strong force to identify “them” and us, to give justification for certain acts, to give courage to fight and die, to bind groups together, etc. but many ideologies can provide the same functions.

 

Based on your research, what are the most common events, strong enough to transform a normal citizen to a suicide bomber?

anne speckhardUsually a group is involved and a recruiter to encourage a person to take this role and to equip him to carry it out and to help him to reach his target.  A degree of social support that exists also is very important for the person to believe it is the right thing to do.  On the individual level, there must be some vulnerability to being attracted to a group that uses suicide bombing.

A group must find vulnerable individuals who can be activated into believing it and carrying it out – those who are in deep psychic pain are the most likely recruits. Violent events and trauma greatly contribute to a willingness to give one’s life for the cause.  In my experience a highly traumatized and bereaved individual is a great target to recruit as a suicide bomber because he or she is in enough “psychic pain” to want to exit life and may believe that in dying he or she will be reunited with those who have died before.  If the group’s ideology is “martyrdom” then there are many rewards for participating most importantly believing that one will gain instant entrance to paradise along with other rewards.  If her group also glorifies dying that way and will make a hero of her or him it becomes even more powerful.  The fact that a group and its ideology is important in the mix can be demonstrated by looking at many areas of the world where there is a lot of trauma but no terrorism and no suicide bombers.  It takes a group to organize it and an ideology to believe its a good thing.  Without either of these many vulnerable individuals will never go and become suicide bombers.

What are the main differences between male and female suicide bombers?

 

In the main they are much the same. Female bombers can cross security perimeters more easily because they can hide explosives on their bodies more easily and protest invasive body searches and they are usually expected to be innocent.  Females are rarely leaders, although most suicide bombers – male or female are not leaders.  The Chechens used females from the beginning – half and half with the men.  There are fewer female suicide bombers in conservative Islamic middle eastern countries because the groups were afraid to use them as there were issues about getting them to the target and dressing them while still preserving their modesty and issues about arrest and imprisonment if they fail.

We are talking about political and religious motives. What about “guns for hire” and terrorism as business?

Illicit drugs and money laundering are often involved in terrorism particularly to fund the terrorist operations.  If a group is hiring thugs to carry out it’s acts it is still terrorism if the group is politically motivated, aiming at civilians etc.

 

You have talked with many terrorists. What’s your stance on so-called “enhanced interrogation methods”?

some argue for the “ticking bomb” method of interrogation — that if one is believed to hold intel that can save innocent lives then it’s okay to torture.  I think it’s a mistake.  First of all how do you know your inmate is holding such information.   The best intelligence is gained from creating real rapport with a prisoner and that should always be attempted before all else.  In many cases it won’t work initially or ever.  Then intelligence may be gained by surveillance, recording conversations etc, sending in another “fake” prisoner to create rapport etc. Oftentimes that works.   We should know that prison in itself is a very tough thing for most people to deal with and under circumstances of  isolation and boredom some will open up and begin to talk.  Others won’t. I don’t see the point of using violence or fear to get someone to talk  as we cannot trust what one gets from a person in pain or terrorized is necessarily reliable and it also often cannot be used in court to get a conviction so it is problematic in that sense as well.  And I find it morally repugnant to engage in such activities – even if we do gain by it.  The truth is sometimes we do get good intel this way but we must ask ourselves do we want to be on the same level as our enemies? Likewise when our enemies gain evidence of us acting in this way they can use it against us to recruit more to their cause.  We saw this when pictures of Abu Ghraib were leaked and now I think we may see it again from the graphic portrayals of violent interrogations now being depicted in Zero Dark Thirty.  That’s a pity.

When I worked with detainees in Iraq many were completely amazed that they were not tortured by the Americans and it created a profound positive reaction in them.    Yet one could argue that if indeed innocent lives could be saved torture of any type is worth it.  I don’t personally agree but I do see the credence of such arguments.  My own view is that to engage in any type of soft or hard torture is not worth it – it changes us so fundamentally and we can gain a lot of intel without resorting to these methods.

Why were the terrorists willing to talk to you? Do you have a powerful moment to remember?

I don’t know why they trusted me but I was very gratified that they did and I learned a lot.  I have asked myself many times why they talked to me?  I think I won their trust by being honest — saying openly what I was studying and why (an academic study), being interested in their whole lives and the context of their lives – they living circumstances, traveling to them and taking risks to do so, being empathetic and sincere and nonthreatening, and being a psychologist who could help them to untangle parts of their own lives.  Not many people get to spend an hour or two talking to a psychologist who is nonjudgmental,  kind and interested in their lives.  I think many got interested in themselves as they talked and opened up a lot because of that.  I have many, many powerful moments to remember – for instance when at a Gaza safe house the militants there asked if I’d considered that they could take me hostage — to which I replied that I had relied on their honor not to.  Alan Johnston from the BBC was taken and held hostage some months later which chills me to this day…  I saw and listened to many things that moved me a lot.  All of these stories are in my book which is written more like a novel than an academic treatise – although the theory is woven throughout.

Will you continue this project? Are you interested to talk with western terrorists too? Jailed members of “November 17” in Greece for example?

 

I would love to continue the project but I haven’t funding for it at present.  I did talk to western extremists in Europe as well – some in Belgium, France and Netherlands and UK.  During the time I was in Greece I consciously decided to leave Greece out of the mix since my husband was serving there as U.S. Ambassador and I thought it best to keep a low profile on such work…  to leave it for another day.  Yes I’d love to speak with jailed Nov 17th and the violent extremists active in the Greek society even now.  Many of their arguments about social injustices have validity but their endorsement and use of violence does not.  And their ideology is so different from that of the militant jihadis so it would be an interesting contrast.  By the way we all loved living in Greece.  You have a most beautiful country, lovely culture, great food, great wine, unbelievable sea, sunshine, mountains and islands and very kind and good people!  I’ll never forget my time there and I hope to return again and again!

Journalist, specialized in Middle East, Russia & FSU, Terrorism and Security issues. Founder and Editor-in-chief of the Modern Diplomacy magazine. follow @DGiannakopoulos

Terrorism

The Autopsy of Jihadism in the United States

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The American counter-terrorism establishment is shocked to know that its current terrorist threat, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not foreign but “a large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents”.

A terror threat assessment by NewAmerica, a think tank comprehensive, up-to-date source of online information about terrorist activity in the United States and by Americans overseas since 9/11, 20 years after 9/11 reported: “…while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident except one who was in the United States as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership”.

The ultimate irony is NewAmerica quoting a terrorist to underline the seriousness of the threat: “Yet today, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born cleric who became a leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, put it in a 2010 post, ‘Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie’.”

Since 9/11 and today, the United States faced just “one case of a jihadist foreign terrorist organization directing a deadly attack inside the United States since 9/11, or of a deadly jihadist attacker receiving training or support from groups abroad”. The report recalls: “That case is the attack at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on December 6, 2019, when Mohammed Al-Shamrani shot and killed three people. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed the attack and according to the FBI, evidence from Al-Shamrani’s phone  he was in contact with an AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula) militant and AQAP prior to his entry to the United States…”

In the last two decades, “jihadists” have killed 107 people inside the United States. Compare this with deaths occurring due to major crimes: 114 people were killed by far-right terrorism (consisting of anti-government, militia, white supremacist, and anti-abortion violence), 12 and nine people, respectively, killed in attacks “inspired by black separatist/nationalist ideology and ideological misogyny”. Attacks by people with Far-Left views have killed one person. It just goes to show that terrorism inside the United States is no longer the handiwork of foreign or “jihadi” ideologies, but is “homegrown”, the report points out.

The report points out a poor understanding of the terror threat and its roots by the Trump administration. A week into his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry of citizens of seven Muslim countries into the United States. The countries were: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Th order cited “national security” as the reason, but gave no real justification.

Trump’s aides tried to find some justification for the order claiming that in the administration’s assessment the United States was and will be the prime target of terrorist organisations from these countries. The same report clarifies how wrong this assessment was: “None of the deadly attackers since 9/11 emigrated or came from a family that emigrated from one of these countries nor were any of the 9/11 attackers from the listed countries. Nine of the lethal attackers were born American citizens. One of the attackers was in the United States on a non-immigrant visa as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership.”

President Trump had to swallow his pride and gradually revoke his order. In early March of 2017, he revised the order excluding Iraq from the ban list. That September, he dropped Sudan too, but added North Korea, Venezuela and Chad.

In the last two decades since 9/11, there have been 16 “lethal jihadist terrorists in the United States”. Of them, “three are African-Americans, three are from families that hailed originally from Pakistan, one was born in Virginia to Palestinian immigrant parents, one was born in Kuwait to Palestinian-Jordanian parents, one was born in New York to a family from Afghanistan, two are white converts – one born in Texas, another in Florida, two came from Russia as youth, one emigrated from Egypt and conducted his attack a decade after coming to the United States, one emigrated from Uzbekistan and one was a Saudi Air Force officer in the United States for military training”. Nobody from the banned countries, nobody foreign citizens; all were American citizens.

What is more embarrassing for the Trump administration is the report saying: “When the data is extended to include individuals who conducted attacks inside the United States that were foiled or otherwise failed to kill anyone, there are only four cases that the travel ban could have applied to. However, in at least two of those cases, the individual entered the United States as a child. In a third case the individual had a history of mental illness and assault not related to jihadist terrorism. In a fifth, non-lethal attack Adam al-Sahli, who conducted a shooting at a military base in Corpus Christi on May 21, 2020, was born in Syria but was a citizen because his father was an American citizen and thus would not have been subject to the travel ban.”

The NewAmerica assessment, in contrast to the executive order, finds concrete evidence to suggest that the terror threat is “homegrown”. It gives the example of Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, “a naturalised citizen from Iran”, who on March 3, 2006 drove a car into a group of students at the University of North Carolina, injuring nine people. “Taheri-Azar, though born in Iran, came to the United States at the age of two” and “his radicalization was homegrown inside the United States”. On September 17, 2016 Dahir Adan, a naturalized citizen from Somalia, injured 10 people while wielding a knife at a mall in Minnesota. He too had come to the United States as a young child.

There are more such instances: “On November 28, 2016 Abdul Razak Ali Artan, an 18-year-old legal permanent resident who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia in 2014 — having left Somalia for Pakistan in 2007 — injured eleven people when he rammed a car into his fellow students on the campus of Ohio State University…However, it is not clear that the attack provides support for Trump’s travel ban.

In Artan’s case, he left Somalia as a pre-teen, and “if he was radicalized abroad, it most likely occurred while in Pakistan”, which is not included on the travel ban. The report says the chances of him being radicalised inside the United States are more. This is based on the fact that “in a Facebook posting prior to his attack, he cited Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric born in the United States, whose work — which draws largely upon American culture and history — has helped radicalize a wide range of extremists in the United States including those born in the United States”.

There are several other pointers to the “homegrown” theory. For one, a “large proportion of jihadists in the United States since 9/11 have been converts”. There are “jihadists” who are non-Muslims. These facts “challenge visions of counterterrorism policy that rely on immigration restrictions or focus almost entirely on second generation immigrant populations”, the report says, debunking the Trump executive order.

The NewAmerica report debunks the assumption that only “hot headed” people are attracted to jihadist extremism. It finds that “participation in jihadist terrorism has appealed to individuals ranging from young teenagers to those in their advanced years (and) many of those involved have been married and even had kids – far from the stereotype of the lone, angry youngster”.

Women have broken the glass ceiling of jihadist terrorism as “more women have been accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in recent years” inside the United States.

The expansion of the social media world has played a singular role in radicalising American youth. “Many extremists today either maintain public social media profiles displaying jihadist rhetoric or imagery or have communicated online using encrypted messaging apps. The percentage of cases involving such online activity has increased over time.” Al Qaeda terrorists became key figures in this proliferation. They “fine-tuned the message and the distribution apparatus” and “put out extremist propaganda via websites and YouTube videos”.

America’s jihadists were never an immigration problem, the biggest jihadist terror threat U.S faces today is “homegrown”.

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Terrorism

March Towards Mosul: Beckoning the End of ISIS

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The tenor of ISIS is laced with terror and brutality ever since the militia began rattling Iraq in 2013. While the Civil War already wreaked havoc in the desolate country long before, the advancement of ISIS resonated the country beyond repair. The spread of ISIS quickly transitioned into an endemic as a succession to government failure and withdrawal of the United States military from Iraq in 2011. The group quickly took hold of the key cities of Raqqa, Tikrit, and Ramadi: inching closer to the capital city of Baghdad. However, the strategic win came in 2014 when ISIS struck victory and subsequently toppled the city of Mosul: the core cultural and economic haven of Iraq, only second to Baghdad. The fall of Mosul not only alarmed the Iraqi regime regarding the surging threat of ISIS but also pushed the US to advance airstrikes to displace the gripping offensive in northern Iraq.

While ISIS flourished on the sectarian divide rooted in the Iraqi society post the execution of Saddam Hussein, the US invasion and subsequent withdrawal was cited as the main reason for the passage of ISIS into Iraq. The 2003 invasion left the Iraqi society weakened and desperate for constant US regulation. While the Shia-Sunni divide broadened gradually over the decade, the Arab spring added oil to fire as animosity against the shite-regime expanded in the region. Syria served as the death grip of chaos as rebellious militants surged to dethrone the adamant Bashar al-Assad. With loose Syrian borders, compromised governments on either side of the border, and immediate exit of the US military, ISIS got a convenient passage of expansion from Syria to Iraq.

Amidst the sinister possibilities of the springing rebels in the Middle-East, ISIS declared the split from Al-Qaeda in January 2014. However, what some touted as the fragmentation of the Afghani militant group was only to surf into dangerous territory. A nightmarish humanitarian crisis followed suit as ISIS ransacked city after city while Iraq dwindled and perished piece after piece to the swelling violence of the militants. The US airstrikes targeting the militants did little to deter the group as it verged towards the city of Erbil, spewing chaos as they gripped the northern periphery of Iraq.

The fall of Ramadi, however, quickly incited the retaliation of the regional Kurdish forces. The regional forces were notoriously accused of fighting the government in the civil war and were the main targets of the US forces before their withdrawal in 2011. With the combined effort of the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Democratic Forces (KDF), and the sporadic US airstrikes, ISIS was pushed to a defensive stance as key cities of Falluja, Ramadi, and Tikrit were snatched back from the tight hold of the militant group. The city of Mosul, however, has been much of an unprecedented challenge to rope back as ISIS has cliched onto their ‘Caliphate Capital’ as a power statement to prove their subdued yet eminent presence in Iraq.

ISIS holds onto as many as 2.5 million people in the city of Mosul ever since the reign of brutality sprawled over the city in June 2014. Public beheading, lynching, and incineration are the common tactics inflicted by the group that has led to a mass exodus of millions of victims from the city over the course of the decade. With Mosul’s strategic proximity to Syria and Turkey, ISIS has commanded the region ever since the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, declared the city as their ‘Cultural Capital’. The reality, however, is not as simply put as the context of historic or cultural significance of the city. Mosul is the prime location of some of Iraq’s most lucrative oil fields and thus a notorious means of revenue to the group. Confirmed reports suggest illegal oil dealings between ISIS and both regional and international smugglers. The heavy compensation has granted ISIS enough means to acquire advanced artillery to continue its combat against the coalition forces of the country.

The command of combat against ISIS in 2016 were to mark the end of ISIS as the group perished its conquests. Despite that, the Iraqi coalition amounting to 94000 members all but failed to oust the group estimated to be only about 5000 to 7000 in number. The coalition faced a decimating response of round-the-clock attacks ranging from suicide bombings and car bombs to heavy firing while the forces breached the 200 km radius leading to Mosul. The coalition managed to free the Erbil-Mosul road which was a strategic mark to sever any connection of ISIS from the rest of Iraq. While the coalition cornered ISIS only to Mosul and its outskirts, the urban center of Mosul resisted the breach attempt even with the heavy backing of a coalition with up to 90 fighter planes. The labyrinth of villages in the Mosul metropolis deterred the coalition to advance further and to this day, Mosul remains the last remaining straw in the violent streak of ISIS in Iraq.

The fall of Mosul could end the blood-ridden hold of ISIS in Iraq since it has all but fallen in shambles throughout the Middle-East. However, the victory over Mosul is only the beginning of the end of ISIS; the key lies in the execution of the strategy. The fall of ISIS may crush the backbone of extremism yet the Shia-Sunni divide still exists as it did long before ISIS raised its head in 2014. The same divide could fester again after the common enemy is eliminated from the picture. Moreover, the fall of Mosul could disperse ISIS over Europe in the form of ethnic-diaspora recruited by the militant group over the years. This could well spread the militants over Europe and Africa: reigniting the offshoots in failed states like Libya, Syria, and Nigeria. Without a doubt, the fall of Mosul could bring liberation and economic flourish to Iraq. However, precise execution and reform of the war-torn country is the answer for a sustained and progressive reality in Iraq.

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Terrorism

Every Pakistani is a soldier of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad

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Citizens have the right to participate in politics and to be aware of the political situation. However, in our country, it is becoming common to make unwarranted comments and speculations on non-political, national issues. All institutions in the country have their own mechanisms and among them, the Pakistan Army is the most committed to its rules and regulations. However, the attitude adopted by some people towards the security agencies of the country and the nation in the recent past does not fall under the category of patriotism in any way. This is the same institution whose soldiers and officers have not only extinguished the flames of the beloved homeland with their blood but also restored peace by eradicating terrorism from the country. DG ISPR Major General Babar Iftikhar briefing on the completion of four years of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad said that the forces with the help of the people have defeated terrorism and eliminated major terrorist networks. Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad covers the entire country and every Pakistani is a soldier of this operation.

There is no denying the fact that Pakistan has suffered the consequences of being a frontline ally in the US war, launched in Afghanistan in the name of eradicating terrorism, in the form of the worst terrorism on its soil. The Pakistan Army launched Operation Rah-e-Rastin 2008 to eradicate the scourge of terrorism, which entered the phase of Operation Rah-e-Nijat. These operations took place mostly in North, South Waziristan and Northern areas, followed by Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad were launched, the domain of which was extended to the whole country and combing operation and Operation Khyber-4 were also launched under it. Our security forces made great sacrifices in these operations for the protection of civilians and a peaceful Pakistan and remained committed to continuing the operation till the last terrorist is killed. It is the result of the unparalleled sacrifices and determination of the security forces that the terrorists have been completely wiped out from the land of Pakistan. Although some miscreants fled across the border during the counter-terrorism operation which is a constant threat to Pakistan butto secure the borders, Pakistan is erecting fences not only on the border of Afghanistan but also on the border of Iran so that the movement of terrorists can be stopped.

After four years of Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, the country is peaceful, playgrounds are inhabited, foreign teams are coming to the country for sports, Pakistan’s war on terror is being praised around the world, world leaders and Institutions are also acknowledging the peace efforts of our security forces. According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Pakistan’s journey towards peace is excellent while British General Sir Nicholas Carter is calling the clearing of South Waziristan from terrorists a great achievement of the Pakistan Army. Pakistan army has not only accepted the challenge of terrorists and their sponsors and facilitators but has also left no stone unturned in measuring their necks. DG ISPR has rightly termed it as a journey from terrorism to tourism. However, all this has been made possible by the sacrifices made in Radd-ul-Fasaad.

There is no doubt that the Pakistan Army has not only successfully met every trial yetis working day and night to protect the country’s internal and external borders but the question is, are we doing our job? Even now, some political and non-political people are hurling insults against the institutions in public meetings and also on social media; those who slander the country’s sensitive institutions should be ashamed. It is the duty of every patriotic Pakistani along with the spokesperson of the institution to respond to them with arguments and facts and also to take a hard line to discourage them. The rioters who speak out against these institutions and sitting on social media are even more dangerous than ISIS. If every Pakistani is a soldier of the Radd-ul-Fasaad operation then we all have to work for our country. The anti-national agenda must be thwarted together but we must not forget the heroes who made Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad a success by shedding their blood and the people are beginning to breathe a sigh of relief in an atmosphere of peace.

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