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?
There 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?
Usually 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!
Stateless and Leftover ISIS Brides
While the World is busy fighting the pandemic and the economic devastation caused by it, one of the important problem that has been pushed to dormancy, is the status of the ISIS(Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) brides. The Pandemic has crippled the capacity of the law enforcement and exploiting this the ISIS executed attacks in Maldives, Iraq, and the Philippines. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that terrorists are exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic. Albeit the ISIS has been defeated, approximately ten thousand of them are in ISIS detention centres in Northern Syria under Kurds. Most of these detention centres are filled by women and children, who are relatives or widows of the ISIS fighters. With their native states denouncing them, the status of the stateless women and children is unclear.
As it stands today states’ counter-terrorism approach has been primarily targeting male militants but women also have played a role in strengthening these terrorist organizations. Women involvement in militant organizations has increased as they perform several activities like birthing next-generation militants/jihadists, managing the logistics and recruiting the new members to the organizations. The world did not recognize women as key players in terrorist organizations until the 1980s when females held major roles in guerilla wars of southern America. Women have either willingly or unwillingly held a variety of roles in these extremist organizations and Islamist terrorist organizations like Hamas and al-Qaeda women do simply provide moral support.
According to the media reports since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2006 female suicide attacks have been increased and they have been extensively part of ISIS. The ISIS had a female brigade which they called as Al-Khansaa which was established to perform search activities in the state. Both foreign and domestic recruits in the Islamic state have participated in brutal torture. A recently acquired logbook from a guesthouse in Syria provides important information about 1100 females who joined the organization, the western women who are called as ‘the muhajirat’.
When the people from rest of the world joined organizations such as ISIS, they burnt their passports and rejected their national identity. Especially women from western countries who were radicalized online based on their phenomenon ‘ISIS brides/Jihadi brides’ to marry terrorists. Since Islamic State isnot recognized by the world these marriages are not legally valid, apart from this a number of these brides have experienced sexual torture and extreme violence.
While the erstwhile members of the extremist organizations like ISIS and others are left adrift the one challenging question remaining is should states and their societies keep them and reengage or rehabilitate or prosecute them. How firmly the idea of their erstwhile organization is stuck in their minds and especially the followers who crossed the world to join remains a concern to many. The U.S backed Kurdish forces across turkey border hold thousands of these left-behind women and children in their centre. Hundreds of foreign women and children who were once part of an aspirant state, The caliphate are now floating around the concentration camps in Syria, Turkey and Kurdish detention centres and prisons. Many are waiting to return to their origin countries. They pose a unique challenge to their native states like whether to include them or not and even if they include how to integrate adults who at least for a time part of these terrorist organizations and what to do with children who are too young to understand the politics and obstacles keeping them in camps and detention centres where resources are scarce. Women present a problem because its hard to know what kind of crimes they have committed beyond the membership of the terrorist organization.
It is no secret that women also have been part of insurgency across the world, like in ISIS,LTTE,PIRA and PFLP. The responsibility of women in ISIS includes wife to ISIS soldiers, birthing the next generation of jihad and advancing ISIS’ global reach through online recruiting. The International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICAR) estimates that out of 40000 people joined ISIS from 80 different countries nearly 8000 are women and children. After the defeat of ISIS and such extreme organization those who are left behind possess the ideological commitment and practical skills which again a threat upon return to home countries.
The states across the world are either revoking the citizenship or ignore their responsibility. The most famous case of Shamima Begum a UK citizen married to an ISIS fighter whose citizenship was revoked by the UK government. In other cases like HodaMuthana of the USA and Iman Osman of Tunisia have been the same case. As recently as Tooba Gondal an ISIS bride who now in a detention camp in northern Syria begged to go home in the UK in a public apology.
The American president Donald Trump issued a statement saying women who joined ISIS cannot return. The NATO deputy head said “…returning ISIS fighters and brides must face full rigours of the law”. Revoking the citizenship and making someone stateless is illegal under international law and it is also important to know how gendered these cases are because the UK have successfully prosecuted Mohammad Uddin and the USA has also done it so. Stripping off their citizenship itself a punishment before proper trail and the only good out of it would state can take their hands off in dealing with cases. Samantha Elhassani the only American who repatriated from Iraq so far and pleaded guilty for supporting ISIS. Meanwhile, France is trying to route its citizens who joined the ISIS and extradited few who are under trial in Bagdad.
As experts and political analysts say “countries should take responsibility for their own citizens” because failure to do so will also make the long term situation more dangerous as jihadists will try to a hideout and turn into militant groups for their protection. The children, the second-generation ISIS need cultural centres and rehabilitation centres and this is an international problem. These women known as jihadists brides suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder and many are pregnant or multiple children born in ISIS territory.
In some countries travelling abroad to join the insurgencies in North Africa and Syria was not always a criminal act, Sweden criminalized such act recently but to prosecute them proof of offences committed in the conflict zone is difficult to collect and most countries in the world do not allow the pre-trial detention for more than 14 days. With problems of different national Lawson extradition and capital punishment and to prosecute them in conflict countries is also a challenge for states. Since Kurdish forces have signalled that they cannot bring all the prisoners into justice the home countries will have to act or else it might create a long term dangerous situation. With the civil war in Syria is about to end it is time to address these issues because since there are more ISIS fighters in Kurdish prisons and detention centres they could be influenced to join rebels who are fighting the regime of Assad in last standing province of Idlib.
If the governments reject the repatriation applications then they will be signalling that their action is essential for national security and thus asserting that failed or poorly resourced states are better equipped to handle potential extremists. The criminal system in Iraq is corrupt and human rights violations have been reported and which creates the risk of further radicalization. One should not forget that even citizenship of Osama bin laden was also stripped but which did not stop him from forming al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. If the citizens commit crimes and forget their responsibility then the states must bring them to justice instead of stripping citizenship. The states must come with a solution for this problem before its too late, setting up an international tribunal to deal with these cases would be a great start but these tribunals are time-consuming and expensive.
States must act as a responsible actor in the international system. Jihadist terrorism is a global problem and states must act together to deal with it because with nearly 40000 fighters joining caliphate from across the world it only shows how global and deeply rooted the phenomenon is. Instead of stripping their citizens’ citizenship, states must find a way to act together for the peace and security of the international community.
COVID-19: Game-changer for international peace and security
The world has “entered a volatile and unstable new phase” in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on peace and security, the UN chief told a virtual meeting with world leaders on Wednesday.
Speaking at one of a series of international meetings among heads of State to enhance global cooperation in fighting terrorism and violent extremism, as part of the Aqaba Process, Secretary-General António Guterres said the pandemic was more than a global health crisis.
“It is a game-changer for international peace and security”, he spelled out, emphasizing that the process can play a key role in “promoting unity and aligning thinking” on how to beat back the pandemic.
Warning lights flashing
Mr. Guterres maintained that the coronavirus has exposed the basic fragility of humankind, laid bare systemic and entrenched inequalities, and thrust into the spotlight, geopolitical challenges and security threats.
“The warning lights are flashing”, he said, pointing out that as the virus is “exacerbating grievances, undermining social cohesion and fueling conflicts”, it is also likely to “act as a catalyst in the spread of terrorism and violent extremism”.
Moreover, international tensions are being driven by supply chain disruptions, protectionism and growing nationalism – with rising unemployment, food insecurity and climate change, helping to fuel political unrest.
A generation in crosshairs
The UN chief also noted that a generation of students is missing school.
“A whole generation…has seen its education disrupted”, he stated. “Many young people are experiencing a second global recession in their short lives.”
He explained that they feel left out, neglected and disillusioned by their prospects in an uncertain world.
Wanted: Global solidarity
The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities to emerging threats such as bioterrorism and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure.
“The world faces grave security challenges that no single country or organization can address alone”, upheld the Secretary-General, “there is an urgent need for global unity and solidarity”.
Recalling the UN’s Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week in July, he reminded that participants called for a “reinvigorated commitment to multilateralism to combat terrorism and violent extremism”.
However, a lack of international cooperation to tackle the pandemic has been “startling”, Mr. Guterres said, highlighting national self-interest, transactional information sharing and manifestations of authoritarianism.
‘Put people first’
The UN chief stressed that “we must not return to the status quo ante“.
He outlined the need to put people first, by enhancing information sharing and technical cooperation “to prevent terrorists exploiting the pandemic for their own nefarious goals” and thinking “long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes”.
“This includes upholding the rights and needs of victims of terrorism…[and] the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters, especially women and children, and their dependents to their countries of origin”, he elaborated.
Meanwhile, the risk of COVID-19 is exacerbating the already dire security and humanitarian situation in Syrian and Iraqi camps housing refugees and the displaced.
“The window of opportunity is closing so we must seize the moment”, the UN chief said. “We cannot ignore our responsibilities and leave children to fend for themselves and at the mercy of terrorist exploitation”.
He also expressed confidence that the Aqaba Process will continue to “strengthen international counter-terrorism cooperation, identify and fill capacity gaps, and address evolving security threats associated with the pandemic”, and offered the UN’s “full support”.
The Secretary-General also addressed the Centenary Summit of the International Organization of Employers (IOE) on how private and public sector cooperation can help drive post-COVID change.
He lauded the IOE’s “significant contributions” to global policymaking for economic and social progress, job creation and a mutually beneficial business environment, calling it “an important pillar of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since its earliest days”.
“Today, our primary task is to defeat the pandemic and rebuild lives, livelihoods, businesses, and economies”, he told the virtual Summit.
In building back, he underscored that workers and small business be protected, and everyone be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
The UN chief urged businesses to engage with the multilateral system to create a “conducive global environment for decent work, investment, and sustainability”; and with the UN at the national level, to help ensure that multilateralism “works on the ground”.
He also encouraged them to actively participate in national and global public-private dialogue and initiatives, stressing, “there must be space for them to do so”.
ILO chief Guy Ryder highlighted the need for “conscious policy decisions and tripartite cooperation to overcome transformational challenges”, such as technological change and climate change, as well as COVID-19.
Mr. Ryder also flagged that employers must continue to collaborate in social dialogue and maintain their commitment to both multilateralism and the ILO.
The IOE represents more than 50 million companies and is a key partner in the international multilateral system for over 100 years as the voice of business at the ILO, across the UN, the G20 richest countries and other emerging forums.
Traumas of terrorism cannot be erased, but victims’ voices must never be forgotten
In remembering and honouring all victims of terrorism, Secretary-General António Guterres said the UN stands by those who grieve and those who “continue to endure the physical and psychological wounds of terrorist atrocities”.
“Traumatic memories cannot be erased, but we can help victims and survivors by seeking truth, justice and reparation, amplifying their voices and upholding their human rights”, he stressed.
Keep spotlight on victims, even amid pandemic
This year’s commemoration takes place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, when vital services for victims, such as criminal justice processes and psychosocial support, have been interrupted, delayed or ended as Governments focus attention and resources on fighting the pandemic.
Moreover, many memorials and commemorations have been cancelled or moved online, hampering the ability of victims to find solace and comfort together.
And the current restrictions have also forced the first-ever UN Global Congress of Victims of Terrorism has to be postponed until next year.
“But it is important that we keep a spotlight on this important issue,” stressed the UN chief.
“Remembering the victims of terrorism and doing more to support them is essential to help them rebuild their lives and heal”, said Mr. Guterres, including work with parliamentarians and governments to draft and adopt legislation and national strategies to help victims.
The Secretary-General vowed that “the UN stands in solidarity with all victims of terrorism – today and every day” and underscored the need to “ensure that those who have suffered are always heard and never forgotten”.
General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande saluted the resilience of terrorist survivors and called the day “an opportunity to honour the memories of the innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of terrorist acts around the world”.
“Terrorism, in all forms and manifestations, can never be justified”, he stated. “Acts of terrorism everywhere must be strongly condemned”.
The UN commits to combating terrorism and the Assembly has adopted resolutions to curb the scourge while working to establish and maintain peace and security globally.
Mechanisms for survivors must be strengthened to safeguard a “full recovery, rehabilitation and re-integration into society through long-term multi-dimensional support”, stated the UN official.
“Together we can ensure that you live a full life defined by dignity and freedom. You are not alone in this journey. You are not forgotten”, concluded the Assembly president.
Closing the event, Vladimir Voronkov, chief of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, maintained that victims represent “the very human dimension of terrorism”.
While terrorists try to depersonalize victims by reducing them to mere numbers or statistics, Mr. Voronkov maintained that “we have a responsibility to do the exact opposite”.
“We must see victims’ hopes, dreams and daily lives that have been shattered by terrorist violence – a shattering that carries on long after the attack is over”, he stated. “We must ensure their human rights are upheld and their needs are met”.
While acknowledging the “terrible reality of terrorism”, Mr. Voronkov flagged that the survivors shine as “examples of resilience, and beacons of hope, courage and solidarity in the face of adversity”.
In reaffirming “our common humanity”, he urged everyone to raise awareness of victims needs and rights.
“Let us commit to showing them that they are not alone and will never be forgotten”, concluded the Counter-Terrorism chief.
At the virtual event, survivors shared their stories while under lockdown, agreeing that the long-term impacts of surviving any kind of an attack is that the traumatic experience never really goes away.
Tahir from Pakistan lost his wife in attack against the UN World Food Programme (WFP) office in Islamabad.
“If you have an accident, you know how to cope with it. Terminal illness, you know how to cope with it. But there is no coping mechanism for a person who dies in an act of terror”, he said.
Meanwhile Nigeel’s father perished in the 1998 US Embassy attack in Kenya, when he was just months years old.
The 22 year-old shared: “When you are growing, it really doesn’t have a heavy impact on you, but as life starts to unfold, mostly I’ll find myself asking if I do this and my dad was around, would he be proud of me?”
And Julie, from Australia, lost her 21-year-old daughter in the 2017 London Bridge attack.
“The Australian police came to our house and said ‘we have a body, still not confirmed’, so they recommended that we fly to London”, she recalled. “I can’t describe how devastating as a parent to lose a child in these circumstances is for the rest of your life”.
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