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Terrorism

The emergence of “Balkan Jihad” and its progress in the region

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After the 9/11, a worldwide “War on terror” begun in order to disband and neutralize Islamic terrorist networks across the globe. The main focus of the largest anti-terrorist campaign in history is focused in the Middle East area, as well as in Afghanistan.

The Balkan Peninsula is the European area where this campaign has also taken place, with numerous arrests and a continuous effort into riding the fundamentalist out of the area. The question arising though, is how did the extremists gain a foothold in South Eastern Europe in the first place, and what was the reaction of the international community over the previous years.

The presence of Islam in the Balkans dates back in the 13th century.

In order to create the much needed mercenary armies, against the then archenemy, the Francs; Byzantine Emperors allowed Muslim Turks into modern day Bulgaria. They were used mainly as cavalry forces due to their excellent techniques in that kind of war. Over the coming decades the antagonism between the Francs and the Vatican from one side and the Byzantium from the other, led to the final conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Gradually virtually the whole of the Balkans came under Muslim dominance and were included in the Dar al Islam territory stretching from the Hindu river and up to Gibraltar.

In Bosnia in particular the sect of Vogomils –Eastern Orthodox sect-, converted to Islam for a variety of societal and spiritual reasons. Since the Vogomils were the affluent class of the central Balkans they soon became the ruling class over millions of Christians of mostly Slavic descent.

In Albania the Islamic takeover had a dramatic effect and in a matter of 150 years 2/3rds of the population converted from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholicism into Islam. The main reason for such a large proselytism in Albania had been the traditional adherence towards the stronger ruler that the mountainous Albanians have showed since their early history. During the Roman Empire times, the Albanians served as elite corps in the Armies of the Emperors Empires –i.e. Diocletian was of Albanian descent- and tended to absorb the cultural and religious norms of their regional superintendents. The same was the case in the more or less Greek dominated Byzantium. As soon as the “Eastern Roman Empire” waned in favor of the Western one; there was a mass conversion to Catholicism in the early 13th century .

The historical collective path of the Albanian people can be compared with that of the mountainous Swiss that have eloquently absorbed influences and norms by the much larger and influential neighbors (Germany, France, and Italy).

It is against this historical background that the Islamic fundamentalist drama in the Balkans evolved in the 1990s. Evan F. Kohlmann, author of Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe: The Afghan-Bosnian Network argues that “key to understanding Al Qaida’s European cells lies in the Bosnian war of the 1990s” . Using the Bosnian war as their cover, Afghan-trained Islamic militants loyal to Osama bin Laden convened in the Balkans in 1992 to establish a European domestic terrorist infrastructure in order to plot their violent strikes against the United States.

So, the outbreak of the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 presented an unparalleled opportunity for the international Mujaheedin to storm Europe, establish safe havens in the area and thus initiate re-conquest of regions they previously ruled . The leader of Bosnia, Alia Izebegovic was eager to obtain as much assistance as possible and didn’t hesitate in providing the necessary framework by which the Islamic ties were forged . In the same year, a variety of Islamic mercenaries flocked into the Balkans in order to support the “Holy cause”, meaning the establishment of the first Islamic state in Europe .

The end of the war in 1995 saw quite a few of those mujahedin, acquiring Bosnian citizenship and establishing the first Islamic community in the village of Bocinja Donja . During 2006 and 2007, hundreds of citizenships were revoked by Islamists residing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nevertheless the whereabouts of most of them remain unknown, raising fears for potential terrorist acts by them in the future and in an European soil . What is more, the Novi Pazar town in Sanjak area in Southern Serbia; has become a core for Islamic fundamentalism, linked with Al-Qaeda cells. Novi Pazar is the focus of the Islamist attempt to build a landbridge from Albania and Kosovo to Bosnia. Further to the East, in southern Serbia’s Raška Oblast, are three other concentrations of Muslims: Sjenica and Pester area (lightly populated but mostly Muslim), Prijepolje (some 50 percent Muslim) and — very close to the Bosnia border where Republica Srpska controls the slender Gorazde corridor — Priboj (also some 50 percent Muslim).

The land between is Serbian farmland, but the Islamist goal is to link the cities as “evidence” that the entire region is, or should be, Muslim territory. The same strategy worked successfully in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Serbian farmers were driven off their lands during the civil war.

Just south of the Serbian area of Raška Oblast is the Montenegrin part of Raška region, where, for example, Bijeljo Polje is some 60 to 80 percent Muslim, and Pijevlja, close to the Bosnian border, is about 40 percent Muslim. These Montenegrin towns, like those of the Western Serbian Raška region, are the key to the illicit arms and narcotrafficking across the Gorazde Corridor to Bosnia.

An Islamist university has opened in Novi Pazar, ostensibly a normal college, but led by an Islamist mufti of little formal education. This modern institution — whose officials proclaim it a normal educational institution — reveals its character in its symbol: the Wahabbi/Salafi Dawa symbol, an open Q’uran surmounted with a rising sun. The university, in a renovated former textile factory, is a known center of radical Islamist thinking. A book fair held there in early October 2003 distributed very radical Islamist literature, specifically advocating conflict with the West.

The Dawa sign indicates that the university is predominantly Saudi-funded, although some Western funding is known to have been pumped into the institution, reportedly largely to undermine Serb interests in the region .

Western tolerance of Islamic radicals, however, was one of the gravest mistakes of modern times . In addition, a well organized criminal network has already been established in Sarajevo that in a large extent facilitates illegal immigration from Asia to Europe . That activity is coupled with the narcotics trade that is being supplemented by the infamous “Balkan Drug route”  It is illuminating to note that the areas from where this route is passing are under Muslim influence mostly.

Sources

Chicago-Kent College of Law and the Illinois Institute of Technology (1996), ” Nationbuilding in the Balkans-History of Albanians”. Web Site: http://pbosnia.kentlaw.edu/resources/history/albania/albhist.htm

Evan F. Kohlmann, “Al-Qaeda’s Jihad in Europe“,Berg Publications, Preface, Oxford-UK, September 2004.

Kokalis Foundation; Kennedy School of Government; Harvard University, Presentation paper by Xavier Bougarel, “Islam & Politics in the Post-Communist Balkans. Website: http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/kokkalis/GSW1/GSW1/13%20Bougarel.pdf

Foreign Military Studies Publications (02/1995), By LTC John E. Sray, U.S. Army, “Mujahedin Operations in Bosnia”. Website: http://leav-www.army.mil/fmso/documents/muja.htm

Department of the USA Navy; Naval Historical Centre Publications (26/07/2005), By Steven Woehrel, “Islamic terrorism & the Balkans”. Website: http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/islamic_terrorism.htm

Reuters, Alert Net Service (11/04/2007), By Daria Sito-Sucic, “Bosnia revokes citizenship of Islamic ex-soldiers”. Web Site: http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/L1151505.htm

Information was provided by a variety of ISSA Reports, informal journalist sources from Serbia, Albania & FYROM. The material has been made publicly else were and has not been contended for its reliability.

For extensive and sensitive information on the subject see: ISSA Special Report (17/09/2003). Web Site: http://128.121.186.47/ISSA/reports/Balkan/Sep1703.htm#App1

Council on Foreign Relations; Open Edition (13/02/2002), By David L. Phillips, “Keeping the Balkans free of Al-Qaeda”. Website: http://www.cfr.org/publication/4344/rule_of_law.html?breadcrumb=%2Fregion%2F385%2Fbalkans

European Commission; External Affairs Service (2004), “The Contribution of the European Commission to the Implementation of the EU-Central Asia Action Plan on Drugs”. Website: http://ec.europa.eu/external_relations/drugs/hero.htm

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Terrorism

The Threat of Nuclear Jihad in Central Asia and Russia

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Citizens of five central states have joined the ISIS networks to take the war into the region and inflict fatalities on civilian population. Russia is a strong country in case of law enforcement and intelligence infrastructure, but newly established commando units of the ISIS have gained professional approach to traditional and guerrilla war. As far as foreign fighters and the ISIS are concerned, prior to the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Central Asia had periodically seen trickles of citizens leaving to fight in Syria and Iraq. In domestic stability, states of Central Asia are better than Pakistan, Afghanistan and some states of the Gulf region, but the fear of chemical and biological war has vanished their dream. The threat of returned fighters moving underground and engaging in terrorist attacks is greater if there is no process to reintegrate and absorb them into a reasonably open society.

It is known that Katibat-i-Imam Bukhari group (KIB) has established two branches. The group’s main fighting force of more than 500 militants, led by leader Abu Yusuf Muhojir. The chechen fighters are also looking for material of dirty bomb abd nuclear weapons to use it against Central Asian and Russian army, but didn’t retrieve so for. They are in contact with some states in South Asia and Middle East to receive fund from these regions, and purchase readymade dirty bomb. Afghan and foreign officials say as many as 7,000 Chechens and other foreign fighters could be operating in the country, loosely allied with the Taliban and other militant groups. According to recent reports, 6,000 militants from Central Asia and the Caucasus have already been enlisted in ISIS ranks. The largest radical group in Uzbekistan, Imam Bukhari Jamaat, has joined ISIS in Syria. Experts say there are over one thousand Uzbek and Tajik militants still fighting under the banner of ISIS.

There are speculations that some Russian technocrates and politicians are stressing the need for the establishing a jihadi group like the ISIS to further the interests of Russia in Central Asia and Middle East and fight against the NATO and American forces in Afghanistan. Russia is now third among top countries from which ISIS receives its recruits. The majority of them come from the North Caucasus, but also increasingly from Central Asia. The most prominent North Caucasians among the ISIS ranks have been the Chechens. Shortly before Russia’s Syria intervention, the Russian government claimed that between 2,000 and 5,000 militants had joined ISIS; weeks after the entry of Russia into the conflict, however, that figure jumped to 7,000 out of a total of approximately 30,000 foreign fighters active within the ranks of the Islamic State. 

If we look at the expertise of these groups, and their multifaceted military trainings, on their return to the region, they might possibly target biological and chemical laboratories and nuclear installations in Central Asia and Russia. There are states they will provide weapons and training to make the region a hell. Newsweek’s Daily Beast blog provided another version of an overspill, already apparently happening in 2010. They quoted a “Taliban sub-commander in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz”: … jihadist allies from Central Asia have started heading home … encouraged by relentless American drone attacks against the fighters’ back bases in Pakistan’s tribal areas … they’re expanding their range across the unguarded northern Afghan border into Tajikistan to create new Taliban sanctuaries there, assist Islamist rebels in the region, and potentially imperil the Americans’ northern supply lines … [beginning] in late winter 2009.… In Kunduz they joined up with fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

In his recent research paper, Leonid Gusev, an expert of Institute of International Studies, Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (MGIMO) has noted some consternating cooperative measures and plannings of the extremist groups of Central Asia:

“Central Asian countries experience diverse intersecting influences: they feel changes in the situation in the Caucasus, in the Xinjiang autonomous territory of China, in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Militants from various terrorist groups in the region cooperate, many of them fighting in Syria and Iraq. But the biggest threat to Central Asia’s security is the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban provide organisational and logistics support to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Despite sustaining a significant blow, with its main groups squeezed out of the region, it still maintains a presence in the form of underground groups that could become active at any time, joining forces with the radical Tajik opposition and Uyghur separatists. Cells of the Islamic State (ISIS) (a terrorist organisation banned in Russia) also operate in the region……… Tajikistan is a tension hotspot in Central Asia in terms of religious extremism and terrorism. A particular source of danger is neighbouring Afghanistan, where about 60 per cent of the lands along the frontier are engulfed in clashes between government forces and the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups. At the same time, there is almost no security along the Afghan-Tajik border, including the issue of drug trafficking”.

Nuclear trafficking in South Asia was a key concern while the nuclear blacke marketing networks of Pakistani generals and some mafia scientists were uncovered in Libya to Syria, Malaysia and Afghanistan. Recent media reports identified Moldovan criminal groups that attempted to smuggle radioactive materials to Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in 2015. Cases of nuclear smuggling in Central Asia were made recent cases. Muhammad Wajeeh, a Research Associate at Department of Development Studies, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology, Abbottabad Pakistan in his research paper (Nuclear Terrorism: A Potential Threat to World’s Peace and Security- JSSA Vol II, No. 2) has reviewed a consternating threat of nuclear terrorism in South and Central Asia:

“ISIS is believed to have about 90 pounds of low grade uranium (which was seized from Mosul University in Iraq aer the invasion of the city in 2014) that can be used in the Dirty Bomb’s to create serious panic among the public. In 2015 and 2016, ISIS became the leading high profile jihadist group in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, ISIS carried out attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, killing 130 civilians and injuring more than 100 people. The ISIS carried out a series of three coordinated suicide. Bombings in Belgium: one at Maalbeek Metro Staon, Brussels and two at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, killing about 32 civilians and injuring 300 people. During the aacks, a G4S guard working on the Belgian nuclear research center was also murdered and it le the world believing that the ISIS has a potenal plot to aack the nuclear facility either to steal the radioacve material for dirty bomb or to release the radioactive material and waste into the atmosphere. These aacks also raised the issue of nuclear security aer a discovery made by the Belgian authorities that the ISIS has kept an eye on the local nuclear scientists and their families. Moreover, two Belgian nuclear power plant workers at Deol having knowledge of the nuclear sites joined ISIS and could provide assistance to exploit them for terrorist purposes. On March 30, al‐Furat, the media wing of ISIS, threatened attacks on Germany and Britain on the eve of Washington Nuclear Security Summit 2016”.

Nuclear terrorism remains a constant threat to global peace. Access of terrorist organizations to nuclear material is a bigger threat to civilian population. Terrorist groups can gain access to highly enriched uranium or plutonium, because they have the potential to create and detonate an improvised nuclear device. Since the ISIS has already retrieved nuclear materials from Mosul city of Iraq, we can assert that terrorist groups like ISIS and Katibat Imam Bukhari, and Chechen extremist groups can make access to biological and nuclear weapons with the help of local experts. Nuclear facilities also often store large amounts of radioactive material, spent fuel, and other nuclear waste products that terrorists could use in a dirty bomb. Without access to such fissile materials, extremist and radicalized groups can turn their attention toward building a simple radiological device. The most difficult part of making a nuclear bomb is acquiring the nuclear material, but some Muslim and non-Muslim state might facilitate the ISIS, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Chechen extremist groups and Afghanistan and Pakistan based groups to attack nuclear installations in Russia and Central Asia.

The ISIS magazine (Dabiq-May 2015) published article of British journalist John Cantlie, in which he warned that the ISIS terrorist group had gained capabilities to launch major terrorist attack: “Let me throw a hypothetical operation onto the table. The Islamic State has billions of dollars in the bank, so they call on their wilāyah in Pakistan to purchase a nuclear device through weapons dealers with links to corrupt officials in the region. The weapon is then transported overland until it makes it to Libya, where the mujāhidīn move it south to Nigeria. Drug shipments from Columbia bound for Europe pass through West Africa, so moving other types of contraband from East to West is just as possible. The nuke and accompanying mujāhidīn arrive on the shorelines of South America and are transported through the porous borders of Central America before arriving in Mexico and up to the border with the United States. From there it’s just a quick hop through a smuggling tunnel and hey presto, they’re mingling with another 12 million “illegal” aliens in America with a nuclear bomb in the trunk of their car”.

On 25 March 2016, Daily Telegraph reported militants plan to attack the Brussels nuclear plant: “In the wake of claims the Brussels attackers had planned to set off a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’, Yukiya Amano, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency said: “Terrorism is spreading and the possibility of using nuclear material cannot be excluded. The material can be found in small quantities in universities, hospitals and other facilities. “Dirty bombs will be enough to (drive) any big city in the world into panic. And the psychological, economic and political implications would be enormous,” said Mr Amano. One security expert suggested that the terrorists could have been plotting to kidnap the nuclear researcher they had been filming with a view to coercing the scientist into helping them make a ‘dirty bomb’. The Newspaper reported. State sponsorship of nuclear terrorism in Central Asia is matter of great concern as some states support terrorist groups such as the ISIS, Taliban, Katibat Imam Bukhari, Chechen groups, and Lashkar-e-Toiba, and provide dangerous weapons. These states can sponsor terrorist groups to launch nuclear attack inside Russia or Central Asia.

In yesteryears, President Vladimir Putin seemed to be after nuclear weapons for another reason—to show that Russia was still a great power to be reckoned with. As President Putin elaborated in an interview with Oliver Stone, whether America’s motives are truly just centered on corporate welfare or not, the position the U.S. was putting him in requires him to respond to the heightened threat. Soon thereafter he claimed in his annual address to the Duma an entire new generation of heavy MIRV (Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle) missiles, one of which could kill every major city in Texas; nuclear-powered cruise missiles with essentially unlimited range for evading U.S. defenses; virtually undetectable nuclear torpedoes for destroying American coastal cities and major ports; and hypersonic delivery vehicles which completely skew the balance of Mutually Assured Destruction by reducing the amount of time that policy makers have to decide whether to go to nuclear war from 15 or 30 minutes to perhaps less than five.

Modern diplomacy (29 March 2020) in its short comment noted frustration of the US army and Pentagon vis-a-vis emerging security threats and modern technologies: “The technological superiority of the United States armed forces is being challenged by new and evolving threats constantly being developed by potential adversaries. To counteract these challenges, the country’s Department of Defense (DoD) is expected to spend an estimated $481 billion between 2018 and 2024 to identify and develop new technologies for advanced weapon systems, giving rise to numerous revenue opportunities in this space”. Before this, in February 2018, BBC reported Moscow’s condemnation of US military proposals to develop new, smaller atomic bombs mainly to deter any Russian use of nuclear weapons. Russia’s Foreign Minister called the move “confrontational”, and expressed “deep disappointment”. The proposals emerged from concerns that Russia might see current US nuclear weapons as too big to be used. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused the US of warmongering in its statement, issued less than 24 hours after the US proposals were published.

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Terrorism

Covid-19 and Threat of Bio-War

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“In 1879, General William Sherman of the American Civil War Union Army uttered the immortal words, “War is hell.” However true that may be, one thing is clear: war is good for business, and weapons are amongst the most lucrative products known to man”

World has been spending huge amount of money over new and innovative technologies with regard to hard power which emphasizes over military might and destructive weapons since long. Those states which are spending more money on acquiring new technology in weapons and arms remain much influential and powerful nations of the world. For instance, United States of America remains at the top of the list of the countries which spend lot of money for their defense and arms technology. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the world military expenditure rose to US $1822 billion in 2018 which shows an increase of 2.6 percent as compared to previous year. In the year 2018, the top five countries which spent huge amount of money on military expenditure are the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, India and France. In 2019, global defence spending rose by 4.0 percent as compared to year 2018. Along with this the international arms transfer has increased by 5.5 percent in five years from 2015 to 2019 as compared to years 2010 to 2014. In which the United States of America remains at the top and other nations such as Russia, France, Germany and China respectively come after it.

The changing dynamics of world also effect the moods of war, transitioning from traditional to other forms such as Bio-War, Hybrid war, and Cyber war etc. As far as the Bio-War is concerned, it could be more destructive than any other form of wars. The possibility of current pandemic COVID-19 caused by Coronavirus, being a bio-weapon cannot be ruled out. The world scientists and virologists are closely monitoring its causes and spread however, so far have largely remained unsuccessful. Nonetheless, in addition to causing wide scale deaths across continents, this has spread acute fear across the nations of the world for now, it is highly embroiled in various conspiracy theories. These term Coronavirus as a bio-weapon created either by China or the US. In 1981, Dean Koontz an American fiction author in his work titled “The Eyes of Darkness” described a virus which would emerge from a Chinese city of Wuhan and spread throughout the world. He further identified it as the most important and dangerous biological weapon known as the Wuhan-400 by the Chinese.

Furthermore, Dany Shoham, a former Israeli military intelligence officer, who has studied Chinese biological warfare said the Wuhan Virology Institute is linked to Beijing’s covert bio-weapon program. Explaining to Washington Time he stated that “certain laboratories in the institute have probably been engaged, in terms of research and development, in Chinese biological weapons at collaterally yet not as principal facility of the Chinese BW alignment”. He further explained that “the Wuhan Virology Institute is under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but certain laboratories within it have linkages with the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) or BW-related elements within the Chinese defense establishment”. Another theory regarding this was published in CBC News that “Dr. Xiangguo, her husband Keding Cheng and an unknown number of her students from China were removed from Canada’s only level-4 Infectious Disease Facility laboratory. Therefore, it is said that two Chinese spies stole this particular virus and brought it to Wuhan lab that’s how this Coronavirus outbreak took place. Third theory originally floated by a YouTuber and conspiracy theorist Jordan Sather which entertains that the patent for Coronavirus was applied in 2015 and granted in 2018 to Pirbright Institute UK.

As far as the Chinese point of view regarding Coronavirus outbreak is concerned, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s tweets claim that the US military brought Coronavirus to Wuhan. In addition, “Zhao urged his more than 287,000 followers in two tweets to widely share an allegation from a Canada-based conspiracy website that the coronavirus originated in United States rather than the Wuhan. The allegation was apparently linked to the US Army’s participation in the international Military World Games held in Wuhan in October, 2019”.However, there is no substantial proof or credibility behind these conspiracy theories about Coronavirus’ outbreak but it has wrapped the whole world in fear because of its fast spread all over the world. This clearly shows that the threat of covert Biological Warfare among the nations is real which has affected the whole financial, political, social and economic structure of the world.

There are various writers and scholar who have informed the world about the new forms of war and threats such as Bill Gates, during its TedTalks, explained that the disaster we worried about most was a nuclear war. “Today the greatest risk of global catastrophe is not nuclear weapons instead it is Bio-War or Bio-Terrorism in the form of virus. If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war, not missiles, but microbes. We have invested a huge amount in nuclear deterrents and invested little in a system to stop epidemic”. Moreover, the current pandemic has exposed how ill prepared the nations are to deal with a virus.  Therefore, it is high time that robust measures and parallel efforts are invested in finding defence, cure and vaccines against new and emerging threats in the form of Coronavirus. In this regard, nations have to be rational when it comes to policy making. Therefore, world needs to prepare a group of epidemiologist, medical team, volunteers, treatment approaches, health workers, good response system, make drugs and vaccines fit for that pathogen, strong global health system, to set up advanced research and development and to allocate a moderate budget.

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Terrorism

ISIS in Their Own Words

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

ICSVE is proud to announce our newest publication in the Journal of Strategic Security

ISIS in Their Own Words: Recruitment History, Motivations  for Joining,  Travel, Experiences in ISIS, and Disillusionment over Time – Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors and Prisoners

From 2015 to 2019, Dr. Anne Speckhard interviewed 220 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] defectors, returnees and imprisoned cadres in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, the Balkans, Europe and Central Asia. During these in-depth interviews, Dr. Speckhard examined the demographics, psycho-social vulnerabilities and motivations for joining ISIS, in addition to the influences and recruitment patterns that drew them to the group. Moreover, Dr. Speckhard inquired as to the interviewees’ roles, experiences and relationships within ISIS, variance in their will to fight and support violence, disillusionment and attempts to leave. 

This study’s sample of the first 220 (out of 239 to date) consisted of 182 men of 41 ethnicities, representing 35 different countries, and 38 females of 22 ethnicities, representing 18 countries. 51.1% of the men and 76.3% of the women were foreign members of ISIS, some who traveled to live under ISIS, and a few who engaged in ISIS recruitment or other activities, including planning attacks, in their home countries. The participants were primarily young and middle class. Most were raised Sunni Muslim, whereas others reverted or converted before joining ISIS. The participants had vast variation in their educational levels and socioeconomic statuses, thus representing the broad range of people from all over the world who have joined ISIS.

The most common vulnerabilities to ISIS recruitment for the entire sample were poverty, unemployment and underemployment. Breaking it out by gender, the most common vulnerabilities were a criminal history for men and poverty, family conflict, and prior trauma for women. Poverty and unemployment tended to be much more influential for Iraqi and Syrian ISIS members, who joined the group after it took over their villages, whereas foreign participants had more complex vulnerabilities, such as the combination between a criminal history and substance abuse, and viewing un-and under-employment as a consequence of discrimination over being Muslim and/or from an immigrant background.

For men, the most common influences to joining ISIS were friends, face-to-face recruiters, and passive viewing of videos on the Internet and social media. The majority of participants were influenced in some way online, and a significant minority reported that all of their recruitment occurred online. For women, the most common influences were spouses, Internet recruiters, and parents. This can be expected due to the greater tendency for women to make decisions based on the preservation of relationships, particularly with their parents and spouses. While many women followed their husbands to ISIS out of fear of emotional or financial abandonment, only three women credibly claimed that they did not know where they were going when they left their home countries for ISIS territory—although many men and women had no idea it would be as bad as it was. 

Motivations for joining ISIS differed drastically by location. Foreign males tended to be motivated by a “helping” purpose to provide humanitarian and defensive militant aid to the Syrian people, whereas foreign women tended to be motivated by the desire to pursue an Islamic identity, which many felt was not possible in their home countries due to harassment and discrimination. European women were also motivated by family ties, meaning that they followed their parents or husbands. Local men and women were motivated less by ideology and higher goals and more by employment, fulfilling basic needs and personal and familial safety. 

Men’s roles in ISIS were extremely varied. 51.6% of the men admitted to serving as fighters, ribat (border patrol), or both, during their time in ISIS. It is likely that many more of the men were fighters but did not want to incriminate themselves by admitting it. Other commonly reported jobs were engineers, mechanics, and medical personnel. 97.4% of the women claimed to have acted as wives and mothers. The roles of suicide terrorist, face-to-face recruiter, and medical personnel were endorsed by one woman each in the sample. Additionally, two women reported being members of the hisbah, ISIS’s brutal morality police.

The most commonly endorsed sources of disillusionment among men were mistreatment of civilians, lack of food, and mistreatment of women, although ISIS’s mistreatment of women was not reported to be as powerful as a disillusioning influence as mistreatment of ISIS members. For women, the most common sources of disillusionment were mistreatment of women, lack of food, and the acts of ISIS attacking outside their territory—particularly back home.

The participants reported experiencing, witnessing, and committing atrocities during their time in ISIS. Men most commonly reported experiencing bombings, being imprisoned by ISIS and being tortured, while women most commonly reported experiencing bombings, being widowed by ISIS-related violence, and being forced into marriage. The men most commonly reported witnessing executions, executed corpses, and torture, and hearing about the killing of a family member, while women most commonly reported witnessing executed corpses, torture and the death of a family member, as well as hearing about a family member being killed in battle or in bombings. Despite Dr. Speckhard’s warning not to self-incriminate, some men admitted to killing on the battlefield, performing beheadings, other executions, and torture. One man admitted to owning a slave. One woman admitted beating, flogging, and biting as a member of the ISIS hisbah.

The will to fight describes the motivation cited by ISIS fighters for why they went to battle for ISIS, oftentimes after they were already disillusioned. Commonly reported wills to fight included fighting the Syrian regime, being a “true believer” in ISIS’s ideology and hope to build the Caliphate, and fear of the brutal punishments meted out by ISIS if they refused to fight.

The results of this study demonstrate the utility and validity of qualitative interview-based research with terrorists. From the stories of the participants’ experiences in ISIS, it is clear that most FTFs living far from ISIS territory are motivated more so by a desire to solidify their identities and help the greater Muslim community than for economic purposes, although some were attracted by the ISIS promises of free housing, jobs, marriage, etc. FTFs were also responding to push factors at home including marginalization and discrimination. In contrast, these existential motivations are less important for those living in conflict, who felt pressure to join ISIS in order to secure food and some semblance of safety for themselves and their families. Thus, the risk of former ISIS members rejoining the group if they are released or escape from SDF detention where many are held, even if they have been disillusioned with much of ISIS’s ideology and methodology, should be a serious concern for military and intelligence personnel. Moreover, the threat of FTFs returning to their home countries should be countered through deradicalization and rehabilitation programs that address the vulnerabilities, influences, and motivations that drove them toward ISIS in the first place, as well as the traumas that they experienced while living under ISIS.  

The complete report of ISIS in their Own Words is published in the Journal of Strategic Security and can be viewed here.

*Molly Ellenberg is a Research Fellow at ICSVE, working on coding data from qualitative interviews, developing trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos, and assisting with the creation and analysis of the Facebook campaigns

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