On September 11, 2011, three lifelong friends—Brendan Mess, age 25, Erik Weissman, 31, and Raphael Teken, 37—were brutally murdered in Mess’s apartment in Waltham, Massachusetts.
The graphic crime scene was discovered in the early afternoon of September 12, 2011, by Mess’s girlfriend, who ran screaming from the apartment. The victims had been dragged to three different rooms and killed there. Their bodies had multiple stab wounds; their throats were slit from ear to ear with such force that they were nearly decapitated, and their mutilated corpses were covered with drugs and money. In addition to the seven pounds of marijuana found on their bodies, $5,000 in cash was left at the scene. Two of the three victims were Jewish, and several sources have identified all three victims as such.
The men were described as having been physically strong: Mess was a mixed martial arts fighter, Weissman, a body builder, and Teken, a personal trainer. Their strength, the location of the bodies, and the forensic evidence led investigators to conclude that there had been more than one perpetrator at the scene. Additionally, two unidentified men had been seen at the apartment before the murders, and there was no evidence of forced entry, indicating that the offenders and victims probably knew each other, that the victims had let the killers in, and that the murders were not random. No motive was discovered, but because of the drugs and money found in the apartment and the fact that all three victims had a history of drug use or drug dealing, investigators logically presumed that the homicide was related to the drug trade.
The murder investigation went cold until the Boston marathon bombings of April 2013 when the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office began actively investigating connections between the crime and the Boston marathon bombing suspects, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. What was not immediately apparent is that the same jihadist motivations that impelled the brothers to murder innocent Americans on that April afternoon were the likely motives behind the Waltham murders.
Questions about Motive
Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died after a shootout with police, had several close connections to the case. One of the victims, Brendan Mess, was described as his best friend; they lived a few blocks from each other, were sparring partners where they spent hours training together, and went to fighting and social events together. Mess and Tsarnaev had once been roommates, and Tsarnaev had regularly visited Mess’s apartment where the murders took place. Tsarnaev was one of the last people to see Mess alive but neither attended his friend’s funeral nor his memorial service. A relative of Mess’s said that animosity had developed between the two friends “over Brendan’s lifestyle.” On May 10, 2013, news accounts reported that forensic evidence, including DNA from the Waltham crime scene, provided a match to the two Tsarnaev brothers and that records of cell phones used by the Tsarnaevs put them in the area of the murders on that date.
On May 22, 2013, a third person of interest in the murders, Ibragim Todashev, was fatally shot by an FBI agent in a Florida apartment while being interviewed in connection with the Boston marathon bombings and the Waltham homicides. Todashev, a 27-year-old Chechen native and former mixed martial arts fighter, knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev and was friendly with one of the Waltham victims when he lived in Allston, Massachusetts. During the interview, Todashev began writing a formal statement implicating both himself and Tsarnaev in the Waltham murders, but before signing the confession, he violently attacked an FBI agent who fired in self-defense, killing him. Reports asserted that Todashev had flipped over a table and threatened the agent with a metal pole or a ceremonial sword that had been hanging in his living room. It was also reported that Todashev confessed that the murders were the result of a drug robbery gone wrong. An official said, “So Tamerlan says they have dope; they rip them off. Tamerlan says, ‘They can identify me, so let’s kill them.’ And they kill them.”
Todashev’s confession is highly problematic. The claim that he and Tamerlan robbed the victims is not consistent with the money and drugs left at the scene. Additionally, Todashev did not provide an explanation for taking the time to pose the bodies by dragging them into three separate rooms and covering them with marijuana and money. In drug-related murders, victims are killed either because they broke the rules of the drug distribution gang, were informants, infringed on the territory of another drug dealer, or stole drugs, money, or other goods from the dealer or the customer. The victims often have a history or association with the drug trade such as an arrest record, a history of drug use, or association with other known drug offenders. The offender almost always will have a known association with the drug trade as a user, manufacturer, or distributor. Although the Waltham victims fit this profile—and it was the most conventional explanation for the murders—the inconsistencies are significant.
In a drug-related homicide, the crime scene is usually not staged to mask the true motive or misdirect the investigation, particularly because the intention is to send a message. Mexican drug trafficking cartels, which often mutilate, behead, and display dead bodies in humiliating positions, leave narco messages, and take credit for their kills. In addition, in most drug-related murders in the United States, the weapon of choice is a large caliber and semiautomatic firearm brought to the scene and removed by the offender. Experienced gang and homicide detectives find it highly unlikely that an offender in a drug crime would leave any monies or drugs at the scene, much less such a large amount, just to confuse investigators. Significantly, robbers do not take the time to drag three men into separate rooms and symbolically cover their bodies with drugs and pose their mutilated corpses.
It is more likely that Todashev told the investigators the murders were drug-related so as to avoid disclosing a terrorist conspiracy that could reveal other members in Chechnya or the United States.
Weaknesses in Law Enforcement Training
A triple murder, particularly one with ritual aspects, is rare in any city much less in a college town like Waltham. It is not difficult to understand why detectives were working on the premise that this crime was drug-related. Death investigation training typically covers homicide crime scenes that are characteristic of gangs, organized crime, domestic disputes, or property crimes such as robberies and burglaries. Although there is an abundance of terrorism training for law enforcement personnel, instruction usually focuses on threat response and mitigation, first response, physical security, infrastructure protection, and specific weapons detection such as bombs or weapons of mass destruction. Counterterrorism training may also provide extensive information on international terrorist groups, financing, operations, and threats to the homeland. However, there is nothing that prepares local detectives even to consider, much less know how to investigate, jihadist-related murders in the United States.
Most police officers are unaware that there even are jihadist-related homicides with similar patterns of specific ritualistic trauma in which perpetrators are Muslim and associated with Islamist ideologies. Particularly, knife wounds to the neck or complete beheading, overkill, and mutilation are indicators of Islamic murder, and there have been dozens of “honor” killings in the West with similar forensic profiles.
The most recent Islamist ritual murder occurred on May 22, 2013, in broad daylight on the streets of London when two jihadists used meat cleavers to publicly behead and disembowel a British soldier while shouting the Muslim declaration of faith, “Allahu Akbar.” Instead of leaving the scene, they wanted to make certain their attack was not misinterpreted, so one of the men asked bystanders to film him. Holding the murder weapon with bloody hands, one of the killers made it clear that the attack was in the cause of Islamic jihad: “We swear by the almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone. We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The two offenders calmly waited for the police to arrive and then charged at them with a rusty revolver, knives, and meat cleavers. One of the men shot at the police, but the old gun backfired and blew his thumb off; seconds later they were shot and wounded by police marksmen.
Ritual murders appear to be the latest tactic in the war on terror, but they are not recognized as such in homicide investigations. There is no training in jihadist ritual murder and little to none in Islamist terrorist identifiers. Similar to gangs, however, Islamists have emblems, symbols, flags, graffiti, special clothing, hand signs, and expressions that are specific to particular groups as well as to the global jihadist movement. A further impediment to recognizing these connections is that, in 2010, the Obama administration scrubbed all Federal training materials of any references to jihad or Islamism as an underlying ideology motivating extremist attacks around the world because Muslim groups claimed such terminology and discussions were offensive.
Political correctness can be most clearly seen in the FBI’s Crime Classification Manual (CCM), the standard system for investigating and classifying homicides and other violent crimes. The CCM has categories for “Individual Extremist Religious Homicide” [127.02] and “Group Cause Religious Homicide” [142.02], which accurately describe the crime scene characteristics of the Waltham murders and correctly profile the offenders. However, although the manual correctly details the attributes of a religious extremist murder, it does not include any case studies of jihadist-motivated murder in either the individual or group categories. The manual does include case studies of cults, right- and left-wing ideologically inspired murders, and white and black supremacist-inspired murders but offers no examples of Islamist supremacist homicides. Furthermore, honor killings are not mentioned once in the entire 566-page CCM including in the category for domestic homicide.
New sections in the third edition include classifications for biological and chemical attacks, bioterrorism, hostage taking, bombs, explosives, and aerial hijackings, but there are only a few sentences that reference the 9/11 attacks or Islamic terrorist groups. “Islam” is only referred to twice in the entire manual, and curiously, in both instances, the references are in the section that is most applicable to the Waltham investigation.
The relevant passages in the CCM that offer defining characteristics for individual or group cause religious extremist homicide deserve extensive citation especially as they have direct bearing on the Waltham case:
Predominantly, the victim represents the antithesis of the offender’s system of beliefs; therefore, victimology depends on this doctrine. If multiple victims are involved, there will be similarities of race, religion, political beliefs, or social or economic status. … Those who carry out religion-inspired crimes concern themselves more with their deity than misleading law enforcement … Therefore … religion inspired crimes are not staged to appear like something else … The forensics often demonstrate the calling card or signature aspect of the group … In religions that encourage homicide, from violent cults to intolerant sects of Islam, proscription for homicide can be found in writings or preaching of spiritual leaders the assailant identifies with … Religious influence on a crime is reflected in religious symbols and messages at the crime scene. These may include artifacts left behind, religious references in notes, even corpse defacement … a religion-inspired killer adds his or her own sense of holiness to the scene rather than removing items from it. When a killing appears to have a ritualized quality without a sexualized aspect, religious motive needs to be considered … part of a religious ritual may mandate a specific weapon. Use of uncommon weapons, such as swords, warrant special consideration as to their relationship to religious symbolism.
These criteria suggest investigating a religious motive for the Waltham murders. Unfortunately, investigators focused on drugs as the commonality among the victims and either did not know that the victims were Jewish or did not understand those implications. It was also assumed that the crime scene was staged as a counter-forensic measure to mislead the investigation. The drugs on the body were interpreted as a way to confuse detectives and steer them away from investigating the crime as a drug-related burglary. Some officials uphold this theory arguing that more money and drugs were probably taken from the apartment while some were left behind. This theory may be based on a previous search of Weissman’s apartment where police seized more than $21,000 in cash and a wide assortment of drugs.
Specifically, detectives simply had no training to prepare them to recognize the neck trauma as a ritualistic act in keeping with Islamist ideology or to expect that jihadists would commemorate 9/11 with murders and not bombs. There may even be additional symbolic evidence that was initially overlooked or has not been made public such as defiling the victim’s Jewish head covering or stab wounds in the eye. Previous jihadist murders have included multiple victims, neck trauma, and “an eye for an eye” symbolic mutilation. If training materials had not been scrubbed of references to jihadist ideology, if the CCM had at least one Islamist example of “Group Religious Cause Homicide,” or if investigators were made aware of the signs of jihadist murder and allowed to investigate without the restraints of political correctness, then the numerous pieces of symbolic, forensic, and crime scene evidence found at the Waltham apartment may have led to Tamerlan Tsarnaev long before the Boston bombings.
Islamic Ritual Murder
An objective and unobstructed investigation that employs a symbolic analysis of the crime scene produces both an alternative profile of the offenders and motive for the Waltham murders. A symbolic anthropological analysis of a ritual murder interprets the significance of dates, times, places, body position, mutilation, cause of death, symbols, drawings, and other evidence at the crime scene in the context of the perpetrator’s cultural point of view. This analysis is different than typical criminal profiling in that it interprets the evidence and violent acts through the meanings that the offender assigns to them as opposed to examining evidence in terms of psychopathy and criminal personalities. This interpretive approach examines how offenders create meaning out of their own experiences by uncovering their cultural beliefs, worldviews, and motivations for violent acts. Many detectives instinctively use the same method, but to be fully effective, it is necessary for them to be aware of the method of operation (MO) and the signs and symbols of jihadist violence alongside those with which they are already familiar. Many European countries are now reexamining domestic violence murders in the context of “honor” killings. In a similar vein, cold case ritual homicides in the West need to be reexamined in the context of a jihadist MO. Unsolved murders that involve decapitation or stab or cut wounds to the neck or cases in which victims were associated with intra-Muslim controversies or allegations of blasphemy need to come under renewed scrutiny. Those crimes that occurred on a symbolic date or in a special place and involved unusual body positioning or other symbolic evidence should also be reconsidered.
A symbolic anthropological analysis of the Waltham crime scene in the context of jihadist ideology and propaganda as well as Chechen culture provides unique insights into why the Tsarnaev brothers and Ibragim Todashev likely ritually murdered three men, one of whom had been their friend.
The immediate and obvious symbolism was the date of the murders, the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Jihadists place tremendous significance on anniversaries and tend to commemorate successful battles against their enemies. On or near every anniversary of 9/11, al-Qaeda releases videos of the attacks on America to commemorate their “success.” Most recently, the violent demonstration held at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the fatal attack on U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya were undertaken on that date. Unfortunately, the date of the Waltham murders was originally thought to be September 12.
The fact that two, and probably all three men, were Jewish is another significant indicator. The Qur’an declares: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends!” (5:51). Many Islamist leaders view Jews and Christians as infidels and enemies of Islam who can justifiably be slaughtered.
Strewing the corpses with drugs and money is another highly symbolic indicator. This is so uncharacteristic of a drug-related homicide that the message should be plainly interpreted to mean that drugs and money were not the reason for the murder. It is more likely that the marijuana found on the bodies represented the victims’ transgressions—specifically the perceived impurity of drug use—and a sign of moral corruption and lack of discipline.
Desecration of the corpses is another method to reveal symbolically the alleged sins of the victims: Rapists are often castrated; snitches have their tongues cut out; thieves have hands cut off, and infidel enemies of Allah have their throats cut (“When you encounter the unbelievers on the battlefield, strike off their heads.” Qur’an 47:3). Psychologically, Tamerlan, who was already radicalized, may have still been attracted to the Western lifestyle and needed to eradicate the source of his own desires. Hence, the ritual execution would become in his eyes righteous slaughter, which removes the contagious impurity and seductive influence of unbelievers. This then is not the murder of personal enemies but rather a sacralized act of vengeance against the enemies of Allah.
In jihadist ritual murder, knives are the weapon of choice. The knife is reminiscent of the sword, a weapon that is a highly prominent symbol in warrior cultures in general and in Islam, in particular. The sword was the primary symbol of an Arab fighter until the introduction of the rifle and is a prominent symbol in the Qur’an. Qur’anic verses of war that sanction fighting against persecution are called the “sword verses.” The sword verses command Muslims to slay pagans, Jews, Christians, and Arab polytheists who fought against Muhammad. Islamist terrorists often cite the sword verses to legitimate unconditional warfare against unbelievers.
Cause of death from sharp cuts or knife wounds to the throat often involving near decapitation or complete beheading is also a forensic signature of the global jihadist. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl; American civilians Nick Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene Armstrong; Kim Sun-il, South Korean; British engineer Kenneth Bigley; Shoshei Koda, Japanese; and American contractor Paul Marshall Johnson, Jr. are just a few of the many victims who were filmed being decapitated by jihadists. U.S. soldiers Kristian Menchaca, 23, and Thomas L. Tucker, 25, were beheaded and mutilated in Iraq, and dozens of civilian Muslims, Christians, including women and children, are beheaded by jihadists every year in the same manner as the Waltham murders. Smiting the necks of enemies is not only theologically sanctioned but has come to represent especially violent mujahideen. Brutal murders involving near or complete beheadings are highly respected by jihadists all over the world.
Videos and photos of such killings are modern day trophy heads, badges of honor that bestow heroic status on the killer and generate instant celebrity. Videotaped beheadings are one of the most successful types of Islamist propaganda with particular appeal to young Muslim men living in Western countries who view the violence as vengeance against perceived oppression of and offenses to Islam. Jihadists know that once their videos are uploaded, they will forever be enshrined on the Internet, which is why the recent London attackers wanted bystanders to videotape the violence. It would not be surprising if videos or photographs of the Waltham murders were taken and at some future point appear on jihadist websites. Islamists understand the symbolic power of mutilation. Beheadings function symbolically as sacrificial, initiation, and purification rites. Cleansing Islam of Western impurities and expelling unbelievers from Muslim holy lands is the ideological goal of Islamism. Ritually murdering enemies, either through beheading or suicide attacks, has an additional, personal function of expiating one’s own sins, paving the way to paradise.
There is good reason to presume that both Tsarnaev brothers and Todashev were familiar with beheadings as a jihadist MO. One of the most popular beheading videos on the Internet is the 1999 Dagestan massacre that depicts the beheading of six young Russian conscripts by Chechen mujahideen. It is brutal even for a beheading video and went viral on the Internet around 2007. In the video, one of the young soldiers begs the terrorists to have mercy on him after he witnessed three of his friends beheaded and one shot to death. While he is being stabbed in the neck and back prior to being decapitated, he calls out for his mother. The video is a “classic” among Chechen radicals, and the murders are uncannily similar to the Waltham crime scene, particularly the method in which the heads of the three victims were pulled back so that their throats could be slit from ear to ear. The Dagestan massacre beheading video could have easily served as a training manual for the Waltham murders. After the Boston bombings, one of the Waltham investigators commented that “their throats were slashed right out of an al-Qaeda training video.” With this in mind, investigators should compare the crime scene photos with the photos of the Dagestan victims and search all of the suspects’ computers for photos of them with their index fingers pointing heavenward. This is an al-Qaeda hand sign that is commonly used by jihadists, symbolizing their willingness to be killed, thereby attaining martyrdom and entry into paradise.
Most significantly, however, the Waltham murders should be viewed primarily as an initiation ritual. This was not a drug deal or burglary gone wrong: It was premeditated murder, an initiation rite that would have proved to other jihadists that Tamerlan, Dzhokhar, and Ibragim were ready for “martyrdom operations” and simultaneously demonstrated that they were not confidential informants. This initiation ritual is how the three radicalized Chechens may have earned their jihadist stripes and proved their loyalty and commitment to the global jihad. It also became the point of no return, the final commitment to a terrorist mission. The murders would have bestowed upon them the jihadist’s highest honor—to be dubbed “ash-shahid al-hai“—the living martyr, one who has irrevocably committed himself to dying for the cause of holy war.
If the Tsarnaevs were to have backed out of the Boston bombing, it would have meant a loss of face and status, and they would have been reduced to being merely cold-blooded murderers, instead of righteous holy warriors. Once Tamerlan realized he could get away with murder, he traveled to his Chechen homeland and started bomb-making training for his suicide mission. The Waltham murders likely gave the Tsarnaev brothers the confidence to carry out the Boston terrorist attack. Further, as soon-to-be shuhada, they would not be taken alive, explaining why both Tamerlan and Todashev provoked deadly force and why Dzhokhar chose to die slowly hiding in a boat as he looked forward to joining his brother in paradise.
Tribal Shame Cultures
The radicalization of the Tsarnaev brothers and Todashev needs to be understood in the context of tribal shame cultures. The men were all ethnic Chechens, a tribal society characterized by blood relations, common ancestry, unwavering loyalty, solidarity, conformity, and most significantly an “us versus them” philosophy. Chechens live by a code of honor and are willing to die and kill to preserve their way of life. Vengeance is required to reinstate and protect honor, purity, and territory. Most significantly vengeance justifies violence and regulates social order.
Unwavering family loyalty can be seen in the reactions of Tsarnaev’s and Todashev’s relatives, including their Muslim convert wives, who immediately and continually maintain that the young men were not responsible for any acts of murder or terrorism and had been set up. Past incidents also show how Tamerlan maintained his Chechen (and Islamist) behavioral norms by “protecting” the family honor: In May 2008, he beat up his brother-in-law after his sister Ailina complained that her husband had been cheating on her and beating her; the previous year, Tamerlan punched a Brazilian youth in the face for dating his younger sister, Bella, because he did not approve of his not being Muslim.
In Chechen Islamist tribal culture, honor determines status, respect, and reputation for the individual, family, and community and regulates every aspect of individual and group conduct. If one person is insulted, the entire family is injured; if one person is esteemed, the entire family is respected. Humiliation and honor are felt by all. Honor for men is signified by characteristics of courage, bravery, heroism, power, virility, and strength. Any sign of weakness in words or action is seen as relinquishing honor. It is not surprising that Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Todashev chose to compete in macho warrior type athletics such as wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts.
One of the most significant differences between Islamists and Westerners is the distinction between what cultural anthropologists refer to as “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.” A shame culture is defined as “a culture in which conformity of behavior is maintained through the individual’s fear of being shamed.” A shame culture puts high emphasis on preserving honor and on not being publicly disgraced. A guilt cultures is defined as “a culture in which conformity of behavior is maintained through the individual’s internalization of a moral code.” In shame societies, symbolic expressions ranging from simple mannerisms to acts of violence revolve around avoiding shame and acquiring or restoring honor. Status, appearances, reputation, and honor are more important than notions of right and wrong. In a guilt culture, a transgression is always felt as a wrong, or even a sin, whether others witnessed it or not. In a shame culture, if no one witnesses the transgression, it is not felt or perceived as wrong. Significantly, there is no concept of sin, hence no guilty conscience and no remorse for what Westerners perceive as wrongful acts, including murder. In fact, deception and pretense are acceptable in order to avoid shame and maintain face.
There are many indications that both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev followed the Chechen Islamist tribal code of honor, which did not conform to American values, resulting in feelings of not being respected, which could only be alleviated through violence. Violence restored respect and was further proof of masculinity. The two macho fighters were largely supported by welfare and their Muslim convert wives while attempting to compete on the professional circuit. They were both hypersensitive to insult and responded to perceived slights with excessive violence. Tamerlan was arrested in July 2009 for aggravated domestic assault and battery for assaulting his girlfriend. There also were reports that he was abusive to his wife. Todashev was arrested on May 4, 2013, on a charge of aggravated battery causing great bodily harm after getting into a fight over a parking spot with a father and son at an Orlando shopping mall. The son was knocked unconscious and hospitalized with a split lip and several teeth knocked out. Todashev had been previously arrested in 2010 after a road rage incident. “Witnesses told police that he argued with two other drivers and cut them off with his vehicle. According to a police report, he yelled, ‘You say something about my mother, I will kill you.'” In Todashev’s worldview, this incident was more likely about protecting his mother’s honor than about road rage.
Todashev had a reputation as a hothead and had been kicked out of several gyms for getting into fights with people and was likely angry and frustrated. For him, the final humiliation was probably a knee injury sustained in a car accident in early 2013, which finished his professional mixed martial arts fighting career. For a Chechen warrior, such an injury would be a sign of weakness, a loss of strength and face. He may have attempted to restore his honor by killing an FBI agent. Similarly, the final humiliation for Tamerlan probably occurred when he was barred from boxing competitively at the national Tournament of Champions because he was not a U.S. citizen, despite having captured a second consecutive title as the Golden Gloves heavyweight champion of New England in 2010. Unable to compete and unable to save face, he would have seen murder and terrorism as a “heroic” way to restore honor.
For angry young Muslims who feel disrespected, the call to jihad is an opportunity to restore dignity, honor, and respect, and, most significantly, to alleviate feelings of humiliation and shame. Al-Qaeda intentionally recruits men engaged in a warrior ethos such as boxing, who are searching for a heroic cause and a sense of purpose. By supplying them with an ideology, weapons, training, and real life targets, their heroic warrior dreams can be fulfilled. Once they carry out a murder or bombing, they are rewarded with respect and praise. For example, the latest edition of the al-Qaeda online magazine Inspire devoted more than thirty pages to the April 15 marathon bombing, heaping praise on the bombers:
The Blessed Boston Bombings (BBB) have been an absolute success on all levels and domains … By tracking the course, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar—may Allah reward them—ran along April 15 until they crossed their own finish line … we can confidently say that the real worthy winners of the Boston Marathon were the Tsarnaev mujahideen brothers.
Murder in the cause of Islam is justified as sacred violence. Jihadist murder is a cleansing ritual that functions as expiation of individual shame and as a method to cleanse the impurity of the West. For frustrated young Muslims who may be ultra-sensitive to insult, exposure to Islamist messaging that reinforces their chronic feelings of disrespect by continually telling them they are being humiliated by Western infidels is a proven strategy for inciting violence. Killing in the cause of Islam restores respect, eliminates feelings of shame, and makes them feel both morally upright and good. Tamerlan and Ibragim were hypersensitive to feelings of shame evidenced by their conflicts with others, believing that others treated them with contempt or disdain even when they were not. Psychiatrist James Gilligan explains,
For such people, and they are the rule among the violent, even a minor sign of real or imagined disrespect can trigger a homicidal reaction. The purpose of violence is to force respect from other people … Furthermore, any experience that specifically intensifies feelings of shame simultaneously diminishes feelings of guilt and remorse …Violence from the point of view of those who engage in it does not intensify shame, it diminishes it and even reverses it into its opposite, namely, self-respect and respect from others.
Islamist propaganda is designed to convince believers that their honor has been disrespected, their prophet has been insulted, their territory has been occupied, their holy book has been defiled, and they have lost face. Symbols and loaded language are all calculated to trigger feelings of humiliation that can only be assuaged through violence. Exploitation of perceived desecration incidents is emphasized so that violence can be morally sanctioned as a defense of Islamic purity, which has been defiled, transforming murder into a sacred act. Purification through violence is a sacrificial ritual. Shedding blood, including one’s own, restores honor and washes away shame. Killing and dying for Islam is considered sacred, and sacred violence is always justified. However, the violence must be transformed into something sacred to distinguish it from profane barbarism. For that reason, jihadist ritual murder must include symbolic gestures such as shouting “Allahu Akbar” while killing someone or reading a list of offenses prior to murder or, as in the Waltham murders, leaving drugs on the body to attest to the sins of the victims. As a result, jihadists can commit unspeakable atrocities without remorse because they consider their deeds righteous slaughter in defense of the purity of Islam. Enemies are not people: They are unclean animals, pigs, monkeys, or dogs, dirt that must be cleansed. Beheadings, throat slitting, body mutilation, corpse desecration, eye gouging, and other unspeakable acts are not atrocities, but rather, they are sacred blood rituals that restore purity and cleanse shame. Sacred killing becomes an ecstatic spiritual experience. Murder feels good.
Dawn Perlmutter is director and founder of Symbol & Ritual Intelligence and a leading expert on religious terrorism and ritualistic crimes. She trains and advises law enforcement and defense agency personnel.
> The Forward (New York), Apr. 22, 2013; The Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), Apr. 23, 2013; Daniel Greenfield, “Did Boston Bomber Murder 3 Jewish Men on September 11?” FrontPage Magazine, Apr. 23, 2013.
 ABC News, Apr. 22, 2013.
 Ibid., May 10, 2013.
 The New York Times, May, 22, 2013.
 John Douglas, Ann W. Burgess, Allen G. Burgess, and Robert K. Ressler, Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes, Third Ed. (Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2013), p. 143.
 Ibid., p. 144.
 Daniel Pipes, “Muslim Acts of Beheading in the West,” The Christian Post (Washington, D.C.), June 5, 2013.
 The Daily Mail (London), May 22, 2013.
 Fox News, Apr. 7, 2010; “Muslim Influence in Pentagon Prevails; Material on Radical Islam ‘Purged,’ Outstanding Army Officer ‘Disciplined,’ TMLC Enters Case,” Thomas More Law Center, Ann Arbor, Sept. 17, 2012.
 Douglas, et al, Crime Classification Manual, pp. 244-6, 273-5.
 Ibid., pp. 270-1, 245-6.
 See David Bukay, “Islam’s Hatred of the Non-Muslim,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2013, pp. 11-20.
 ABC News, Apr. 22, 2013.
 David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle, An Interpretation of the Arabs (New York: Ivan R. Dee, 2009), p. 22.
 Los Angeles Times, Apr. 28, 2013.
 Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle, pp. 36-7.
 Oxford Dictionaries Online, s.v. “shame culture.”
 Ibid., s.v. “guilt culture.”
 “Timeline: A Look at Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s Past,” CNN, Apr. 22, 2013.
 The Daily Mail, Apr. 23, 2013.
 News 13 (Orlando), May 23, 2013.
 The Orlando Sentinel, May 22, 2013.
 ABC News, May 30, 2013.
 James Gilligan, Preventing Violence (New York : Thames and Hudson, 2001), pp. 35, 72, 73.
Attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange: A Fuel-to-fire in Southeast Asia
On June 29th, four armed men opened fire in the premises of Pakistan Stock Exchange, Karachi. All four terrorists were successfully gunned down on the spot by the police, whereas one policeman and three guards were shot fighting. A representative account of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a US-designated terrorist organization, on Twitter claimed responsibility for the attack. Prime Minister Imran Khan pinned this attack on India the very next day. This incident could further escalate the already high tensions between Pakistan and India. Apparently, the shootout lasted for only eight minutes but the context of it has been developing for ages.
BLA is a Baloch separatist militia which aims for an independent Balochistan due to ‘economic exploitation by the rest of Pakistan’. Its ultimate goal is to form an independent state of Balochistan where all the regional resources are used for the development of the Baloch nation.
Both India and BLA see Pakistan as their mutual enemy. India seems to never let go of any opportunity that leads to instability in Pakistan. RAW, leading Indian intelligence agency, has been accused of sponsoring this banned outfit on multiple occasions. In an interview in 2009, Hairbiar Marri, founder of Free Balochistan Movement (FBM), said, “We appreciate any kind of aid for BLA, be it moral or any other kind.” An alleged Indian spy, named Kulbhushan Jadhav, was arrested in 2016 on the charges of terrorist activities in Balochistan. In a video confession, Jadhav said, “These activities have been of anti-national or terrorist nature which resulted in the killing and wounding of Pakistani citizens.”
Since the formation of Narendra Modi’s far-right wing government in India, the relations between the two bitter neighbours have continued to soar. Military stand-off on the Line of Control among the two nuclear-armed states has become habitual. Lockdown in Kashmir, 2016 ‘surgical strike’ and 2019 Balakot Dogfight were some of the significant incidents occurred over the recent years. Ajit Doval, PM Modi’s current advisor on National Security, has allegedly devised what is called the ‘Doval Doctrine’ for carrying out covert operations in Pakistan, especially Balochistan. And now, the attack on the economic hub of Pakistan, claimed by BLA, exhibits a similar pattern. “We have no doubt that it [PSX attack] was planned in India”, said PM Khan while addressing the Parliament.
Earlier in June, New Delhi directed Pakistan High Commission to reduce its staff by half. India blamed Pakistani envoys of espionage. Dismissing it as a false claim, Pakistan did the same for Indian High Commission staff.
The Chinese element
With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the BLA considers its ‘national’ identity in danger. It is repeatedly found to threaten and carry out activities against Chinese-backed projects. Chinese Engineers working in Balochistan were targeted in a suicide attack in August, 2018. In 2018, BLA also took responsibility for the attack on Chinese Consulate in Karachi.
The separatists consider CPEC an underhand exploitation of the resources belonging to the Baloch. In an email to AFP, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed that the PSX attack was not only on “Pakistan’s economy” but also on “China’s exploitative plans for Balochistan”.
Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a Pakistani columnist, has analyzed that RAW is trying to market BLA’s perspective as ‘Anti-China’ militant outfit. He further draws that RAW is attempting to gain sympathy of western powers for Balochistan cause by exposing the neo-imperial mindset of China. The west is already wary of China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ for the poor, developing nations in Asia and Africa. If they get the ear of the west, things might take a new turn.
The hostility between India and China increased over the past months regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The claims of 135,000 square kilometer area along the border is a dispute between India and China, processing via negotiations and dialogues. Years of negotiations between New Delhi and Beijing failed on June 15th when troops of either sides clashed, resulting in death of 20 Indian and several Chinese soldiers.
If the alleged BLA links with India are officially proved, the ongoing Sino-India tensions could take a new hike. This would create grave repercussions for the entire region. The state of affairs in Southeast Asia has alarmed the international society as the malice revolving around three nuclear-powered nations is catastrophic to much bigger geography.
Terrorist groups exploiting COVID-19 in Sahel
COVID-19 is complicating an already complex security situation in the Sahel, with terrorist groups exploiting the pandemic as they step up attacks on national and international forces, the UN’s peacekeeping chief said on Friday.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix told the Security Council that the last six months have been particularly challenging as the G5 Sahel group of nations – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – deploys a joint force to restore stability to the vast African sub-region.
“We are seeing attempts by terrorists and other groups in the region to capitalize on the pandemic to undermine State authority and destabilize Governments”, with innocent lives being lost daily, schools shuttered and many people denied access to basic social services, he said.
Years to rebuild
“It will take years to rebuild affected communities in the Sahel even under the best of circumstances (as well as) sustained efforts to ensure that nobody is left behind”, added the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations.
“In the face of such loss and devastation, we cannot be passive.”
Mr. Lacroix was briefing a videoconference meeting of the Council as the United Nations considers options for beefing up its support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, including through its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.
He said that the Joint Force is making “tangible and encouraging progress” in building up its ranks and establishing a command structure based in Niamey that will cooperate with other international forces in the Sahel.
Military operation ‘progressing well’
Those efforts have led to an ongoing major military operation, code-named Sama, that is “progressing well”, he reported.
With financial support from the European Union, MINUSMA – the French acronym for the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali – is providing “life support consumables” (food, water and fuel) within its mandate.
Mr. Lacroix warned, however, that the Mission is running at maximum capacity and cannot do more for the Joint Force within its current Council-defined mandate and resources.
Comprehensive support package needed Expanding on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Joint Force, he called for a comprehensive support package, funded by Member States through their assessed contributions to the UN.
“This would not only allow for predictable and sustainable support, it would also make it easier to pursue a long-term strategy to phase out this support and to render the Joint Force autonomous,” he explained.
It would also free up MINUSMA to focus exclusively on supporting the peace process and stabilization of central Mali, he added.
“The G5 Sahel Joint force is on the right track, but there is still a long way to go”, he said, adding that a stronger Joint Force is only part of a comprehensive international approach for the Sahel that includes improving governance, eradicating poverty and protecting human rights for all.
Finland’s Challenges Facing Potential Repatriation of ISIS Detainees
Authors: Anne Speckhard and Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor*
The northern country of Finland represents a peculiar example in the international debate on ISIS foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) and returnees. Known mainly for its celebrated educational system, welfare policies, wondrous scenery and as the home of Santa Claus, it found itself grappling with the same dilemma of returning FTFs facing other Western states after the fall of ISIS. As it turns out, the small well-off nation had one of the highest per capita rates of Muslims per population joining ISIS in the world, followed only by countries like Belgium and Sweden. According to the Finnish security services, SUPO, around 80 adults and “dozens” of children are known to have left, but the actual numbers might be even higher. Some also initially traveled before the rise of ISIS to join other rebel groups fighting Bashar al-Assad, but later ended up with ISIS. Around 25 are believed to have returned, and again this number might be higher, with some returning home under the radar. According to a report for the Finnish Ministry of Interior by Saarinen & Malkki, the returnees seem mostly disengaged from violent action, even though the Takfirist-Jihadi methodology, which rejects all others as unbelievers who can be killed – even other Muslims not from their sect – and was at the heart of ISIS state-building philosophy, is still alive. In some of these returnees, violence has been forsaken for the time being, but this Takfiri mindset is still present, which is concerning for future radicalization and potential return to violence.
Unlike other Western nations, who face a conundrum of having to deal with dozens, sometimes hundreds of its citizens imprisoned in the camps in Syria run by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Finland faces a different situation in regard to potential repatriations as many of their FTFs are presumed to have died in battle or are otherwise missing. Finland today has only around 11 women and approximately 30 children in Syria, who for the most part are detained in the SDF-controlled al-Hol camp, with the rest dead or missing. Even though the numbers are low, and are thus much easier to manage for repatriations than for example those of Great Britain or France, by now three successive Finnish governments, the Sipilä, Rinne and following current Marin government, have seemingly been at loss for how to deal with the issue with all fearing political repercussions of repatriating even only the women and children. An anonymous official from a Western European government was quoted as saying that Western governments generally prefer the status quo to remain, as their governments will bear political responsibility for any attacks carried out by any individual it repatriates.
Initially, on the 27th of June, 2019, almost three months after the fall of the last ISIS stronghold in Baghuz, Syria, former Prime Minister Antti Rinne (Social Democrats) and current Minister of Justice Anna-Maja Henriksson (Swedish People’s Party) announced that Finland will not repatriate anyone who had served and lived under ISIS. The only “solution” offered was that if they somehow made it to a Finnish embassy they would be assisted. The closest operating one is in Erbil, Iraq, requiring a passport to cross over from Syria and the prospect for former ISIS members of re-arrest and imprisonment in Iraq. Of course for those imprisoned in SDF camps and prisons travel to Iraq is an impossibility without government support and facilitation and, even then, there are no guarantees that the Iraqis will let anyone formerly associated with ISIS pass through Iraq without arresting them.
Minister of Interior Maria Ohisalo (Greens), however, shortly thereafter signaled a different course in a series of tweets stating the government was “looking into many alternative perspectives,” evoking strong criticism from many quarters, including her own party. She maintained, however, that solutions were urgently needed for the situation of underage children, citing Finland’s commitment to international treaties on the welfare of children. Following this, Rinne changed course on July 4, 2019, by stating that the government now also intends to work to find a solution for the women as well. He also met with relatives of the detainees. “I heard the relatives describe the conditions of those at the al-Hol camp. I told them that the Finnish state has been working hard to find a solution to the situation,” he said, according to YLE English. Relatives of the women shortly thereafter published an editorial, claiming that they had not understood the consequences of their actions and that the relatives were ready to cover any expenses for repatriation.
How to work with and address the adult women became the next issue with suggestions to carry out individual assessments of them, dealing with each on a case-by-case basis. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs, however, deemed that carrying out assessment work at the camps was not feasible under current circumstances due to safety concerns. “As the minister I was in a very difficult position, because the Ministry and the Minister for Foreign Affairs are responsible for the safety of Finnish citizens in danger, but my ministry had no solution,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto stated to the daily Helsingin Sanomat, as quoted by YLE in English. In the meantime, numerous legal experts and representatives of humanitarian organizations began to emerge to criticize the government’s handling of the question. The topic was also hotly debated on most national opinion pages.
Meanwhile, the Finnish security services (SUPO) maintained throughout, and maintains till this day, that the women, and also the children, might be national security risks if returned and they remain, as a result, critical towards repatriation. It should be pointed out that security services in every country normally state that security risks such as ISIS returnees who are not imprisoned require 24/7 monitoring until they are judged no longer a risk and that is both expensive and difficult to maintain over time for any considerable number of individuals. In this regard, SUPO seems unfamiliar or critical of the possibility of treatment options with rehabilitation and reintegration of these individuals as a potential answer to long-term monitoring.
The issue of repatriations continues to cause serious friction at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, with minister Haavisto disagreeing with his staff on a way forward, to the degree that the conflict leaked into the public. The heart of the question lay in whether a political decision or not was needed for the Ministry to initiate repatriations, with the Foreign Minister pursuing a need for urgent repatriation, in the light of the statement of the Chancellor of Justice about citizens in need, and his staff wanting to wait for the relevant political decision to be made. Allegations were also made that the Foreign Ministry did not properly inform other government bodies of the process. The Foreign Minister was also alleged to, under suspicious circumstances, have replaced an official who went against him in the matter. The Foreign Minister was subsequently accused of misconduct for acting out of hand in the matter but later cleared of all charges. A special envoy was named to deal with all matters concerning repatriation; however, the identity of this envoy has not been made public nor the nature of the work.
On Dec. 12, 2019, Haavisto brought up the notion of case-by-case assessments, this time during a parliamentary question session, where he gained support for that line by the Center and Left parties, even though the Center party was somewhat split. The other parties held differing opinions, other than the far-right True Finns Party who were against. The chairwoman of the Center party and Minister of Finance, Katri Kulmuni, however, shortly thereafter was forced to apologize after she posted an Instagram post expressing herself in a somewhat ridiculing manner about what to do with the women at al-Hol. Newly elected Prime Minister Sanna Marin, however, stated it is not the politicians’ responsibility to make individual assessments, that this is up to government officials and authorities. She did, however, with reservations, support the idea of repatriating women. The Kurdish authorities, on their side, will not separate children from mothers, making repatriations of only children a moot point, which also led to the issue becoming stalled in Finland.
During this time, it was claimed that there was a plan called Operation Korpi at the Foreign Ministry to repatriate both women and children. Initially there was confusion in regard to its nature. This operation was said to be made up of the Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry, the Social and Public Health Ministry, Central Criminal Police, border control authority, the Helsinki and Uusimaa/Nyland health district and the Vantaa/Vanda city social authorities. First alleged to be for swift repatriation of children and possibly mothers, it was claimed it was instead an emergency plan in case al-Hol camp were to disintegrate in a manner like Ain-Issa camp did during the Turkish incursion when hundreds of women escaped, some making their way, via Turkey, back into Europe.
How dangerous the women really are is also greatly contended. Several journalists, such as Antti Kuronen of Yle (who won an award for his reporting on the topic) and Sami Sillanpää of the daily Helsingin Sanomat and Sonja Saarikoski of Image Magazine, were able to reach in person or talk to Finnish women in the camps via illicit phones the women in the camps often use. The stories emerging were mostly those of regret, suffering, frustration and disillusionment, with a few exceptions. Not all want to return home and some remain loyal to violent ideologies. Some of the women, whose comments were widely disseminated in the Finnish press, stated their ongoing support for ISIS in an overzealous fashion and did not wish to be repatriated as they waited for the ISIS “Caliphate” to rise again. Another thing quoted was that they did not wish to return to “intolerant” Finland where they will face abuse, get ostracized and be spat at on the street. ICSVE’s own sources note that some of the Finnish women in Camp al Hol are somewhat suspicious of each other and do not live together at the camp – which makes sense given this spectrum of pro- and anti-ISIS sentiments among them.
Finland, as the last country among the Nordic countries to do so, had established a link with the SDF in September. Most EU countries had been reluctant to interact on an official level with a nonstate actor, particularly one claimed by Turkey to be tied to the PKK. However, U.S. military sources that ICSVE has spoken to repeatedly state that they were never aware of attacks launched by the SDF from Syria into Turkey, except in self-defense once Turkey unleashed their incursion into North East Syria in fall 2019. Likewise, Amy Austin Holmes documents in her report that Arabs, not Kurds, currently make up the majority of the SDF.
On Jan. 20-29, 2020, the foreign minister, Dr. Abdulkarim Omar, co-chair of the Foreign Relations Commission of the Syrian Kurdish self-administration of North East Syria, visited Finland to hold discussions on what to do. He presented the idea to hold trials in Syria, which had also been presented to EU officials. A leaked document of the talks with the EU was later revealed, but when Dr. Omar announced that the Kurdish plan was met with “consideration” by the Finnish Foreign Ministry, it later claimed any positive stance had been ‘exaggerated’. It is unknown how far the plan, or any plan, has gone as the epidemic of COVID-19 soon thereafter shifted the focus of Finnish authorities.
In consideration of the widespread refusal of EU countries to repatriate their ISIS detainees from SDF territory, it is interesting that one of the Finnish women held in Camp al Hol told a journalist, “It is surprising that people in Finland are so afraid of us. There are only about ten of us.” This is a frequent comment made by ISIS women to ICSVE researchers as well, stating that they are totally disillusioned of ISIS, never took part in violence and no one should fear them. Indeed, the question of these women and their children’s potential level of danger or threat to Finnish national security has been one of the main questions underpinning the raging discussion. Takfiri-Jihadism and its contemporary workings, and how to effectively deal with it, is basically an entirely new phenomenon in Finnish society that authorities, politicians, media and researchers are often still very much struggling to understand. In some cases this has led to problematic conclusions being aired, such as seeming inabilities to tell the difference between disengagement from violent groups and actions and deradicalization where violent ideology itself is renounced, and the belief that deradicalization can only happen if sought voluntarily, or else it is not possible, among other things.
Of importance, in our ICSVE sample of 239 ISIS returnees, defectors and prisoners we have found a great deal of “spontaneous deradicalization” occurring among ISIS detainees as they were clearly disillusioned, some immediately upon entering ISIS territory and others over time, by ISIS’s inability to live up to its claims of creating a utopian Islamic State. Instead they found ISIS leaders in particular to be un-Islamic in their practices, overly brutal and corrupt. One woman told ICSVE researchers about how commanders would swiftly send the “young, sincere” men, often foreigners, who were the true believers in the cause out to the front as cannon fodder or on suicide missions, leaving the corrupt alive safely away from any fighting. Another disillusioned woman in the camps, for instance, told ICSVE that she didn’t need a deradicalization program – that ISIS itself was the best deradicalization program she could have ever undergone.
We know that no one joins a terrorist group except that the group appears to meet some inner needs such as belonging, dignity, purpose, significance, adventure, love and, in the case of ISIS, the claim of Islamic living. Likewise, extremism develops along certain cognitive lines, often starting off with overzealousness or strong idealism triggered by outside factors. In the case of many of the women who joined ISIS, Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities against the Syrian civil population acted initially as a strong motivation. This, and the following anarchy in Syria, was then tapped into by extremist Muslim preachers globally to promote the idea to establish a “true” Islamic state, as in their opinion, tracing their ideas back to Sayyid Qutb, the ideological father of modern Takfiri philosophy, there are no true Islamic countries or even true Muslims anymore. Anwar al Awlaki and other preachers had already, and continued to popularize the idea that a “vanguard” of chosen believers are obliged to initiate revolutions and fight everyone disagreeing or opposing until their narrow interpretation of religion is victorious, notions Qutb borrowed and “Islamicized” from Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin along with the ’ends justify the means’-methodology, which ended up becoming the backbones of ISIS ideology, a group that ironically claims to represent the most pristine and ancient understanding of Islam.
These extremist preachers and subsequently ISIS recruiters were able to lure, convince or seduce those emotionally affected by the suffering in Syria by both playing upon this suffering as well as pointing out the level of discrimination faced by Muslims in Finland and in the West generally, especially women and Muslims who hold to very orthodox or politicized interpretations of their faith and dress or live in ways that can engender abuse from Islamophobes and stigmatization from Western society overall. It should be remembered that the dominant societies in the Nordic countries, as well as in many other parts of northern Europe, with their high level of liberalism and strong secularism, have moved beyond religion and many are religious in name only. Thus for immigrant Muslims living in insular communities amongst them and holding religious piety in a high regard, there can be a great deal of feelings of alienation and perceived judgment as well as not being able to navigate the behaviors of mainstream societies, which differs completely in norms and behaviors concerning religious rules for conservative Muslims. A common grievance has also been that these societies are experienced as being tolerant only in theory but not wholly in practice, with some religious Muslims feeling a pressure to conform and to abandon parts of their religious identities or they would not be able to succeed in the societies in which they reside. This causes some to withdraw, and hatred and fear easily develop on both sides. For Muslims adopting stricter interpretations, including converts to some conservative or politicized groups of Islam, the struggle to adhere to very strict beliefs and combine their faith with living in a secular society can become too much to bear. In claiming its bold new Islamic State Caliphate, ISIS offered an answer and an opt-out for many of them. The idea of an Islamic utopia was presented and they were invited to build it with dignity and honor, and to fight for it, while jobs and housing and marriages were also guaranteed to those who agreed to go and join. For many this was a long-desired answer to a painful struggle to fit in and adhere to narrow religious interpretations unable to pair with living in a liberal mainstream society that often finds their differing beliefs at best strange and quirky or, at worst, threatening and dangerous. This factor also demonstrates the need for mainstream society to find ways to accommodate more conservative elements of society in ways that are tolerant while not allowing for violent expressions.
At ICSVE, we have interviewed dozens of Europeans who said they left Europe for Syria out of a combination of feelings of outrage and humanitarian concern for Assad’s victims as well as desire to live under Islamic ideals. Women in particular, and their male partners, frequently cite discrimination including being spat on for wearing a niqab, frustrated attempts to be employed, or move ahead as a Muslim in the workplace as push factors for leaving. In Finland, it was seemingly extra hard to oppose the Takfiri call, as there were not enough community actors with the legitimacy to those affected by it to effectively counter it, even though some attempts were made. The Sunni Muslim community in Finland are mostly made up of groups which in the eyes of Takfiris hold no religious legitimacy whatsoever, such as Sufis, Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamists or the historic Tatar community (usually Sufis and known for being very liberal) among others, which they all excommunicate. Thus once someone fell into their clutches they often wouldn’t reach out to others for differing opinions nor approached in any effective way by other credible groups about what they were being fed as the “true” Islam. In other countries, Sweden or the UK for instance, the Takfiri call faced stiff opposition from Islamic conservative religious groups, who were able to limit, theologically delegitimize their narratives to a wider audience of Muslims in the risk zone and even sometimes halt their activities altogether. This may be key to understanding how to rehabilitate some upon their return as well as these conservative groups developed key strategies in knowing how to talk potential ISIS recruits from being fooled by the group into joining. The issue is as much about theology as it is about national security, and both need to be taken into consideration when making assessments.
After experiencing war, terror and the hypocrisy of ISIS claims to defend Islam and Islamic values while they kept continuously violating them in the most grotesque manners on every possible level, the initial overzealousness and idealism of many who went to join them has passed into disillusionment and disappointment for many now-former adherents. Many have, as mentioned above, started to spontaneously deradicalize without any rehabilitation program in place. Some, however still cling to the ISIS ideology. A key feature of Takfiri groups is that they take general sacred texts about divine salvation for Muslims and apply them to their group only, making it appear for followers as if their group alone will be saved and all others damned. They then outwardly conform to certain descriptions found in the texts held sacred by Muslims describing how the saved group should be to lure people into it, convincing them only this group adheres to the truth and questioning or leaving it will lead to disbelief and eternal damnation.
This is a common theme that cults use to scare their members from ever questioning or exiting their cult. For someone who is seeking the “truth” and fears damnation this can be a powerful motivation not to seek conflicting information or advice outside the group. This also creates overzealousness as well as anxiety in followers, who think that if they do not support their group (in this case ISIS), directly or indirectly, or at least believe in its message, they will face eternal damnation, which in Muslim belief involves an eternal punishment in hellfire. This is also one of the security risks for returnees. As long as they continue to believe they are religiously obliged to believe in a violent ideology, and that this ideology is the only route to salvation, or feel their self-identity attacked by the society they are living in, they may pretend to have given it up, or actually give it up for a time, but later re-engage and act out those beliefs, sooner or later. We saw this in the recent case of Usman Khan who reverted to his former adherence to jihadist thinking and suddenly turned upon his rehabilitation team who he likely felt were symbolic of oppressors and killed them.
Likewise, without help to rebuild the lost sense of identity that was handed over to the cult, in this case ISIS, it might be too painful to truly disengage from the group and the individual will stick to their ISIS identity for psychological reasons, even if hidden for reasons of expediency. Likewise, the insularity and belief systems of the group that one returns to is important to consider for a full recovery. The violent ideas of ISIS and its precursor, al Qaeda, have spread throughout Europe for decades now creating in some communities a de facto acceptance of many violent ideas including support for suicide terrorism. A systematic and holistic treatment program is necessary to address all of these factors for a successful repatriation to occur. Thus, it is important when considering repatriations in any country to be sure that there are knowledgeable and skilled psychologists, counselors and religious scholars who can address all of these issues to rebuild the individual to walk away from violent extremism and become truly resilient, rehabilitated and reintegrated well into society.
As of now, Finland does not have any government-backed rehabilitation program for extremists as the former government-backed program, Radinet, was closed down due to termination of funding in early 2019, ironically coinciding with the final battles against ISIS and the fall of Baghuz. The success of Radinet is also subject of debate and has yet to be assessed. Talks for a new program to be set up have been conducted but have not yet materialized. It might also be considered if the current strategy, involving the Prevention cooperation and Anchor groups, with actors like police, local officials and social workers, currently possesses the right resources to deal with this matter from the ideological, psychological and security perspectives it demands, owing to needs for a comprehensive and holistic approach to these issues which are themselves systemic rather than residing on an individual level only.
While it is still too early to say with certainty that successful repatriations have occurred, Finland can also look to Belgium to the case of Lara Passoni, who went as an ISIS wife but returned home to Belgium to face prosecution, after which she was given a stay of sentence. She now lectures high school students about the dangers of believing the lies of groups like ISIS. Her ICSVE counter narrative video can be viewed here. Similarly Irish Lisa Smith has returned successfully to Ireland and is living at home on bail and has not appeared to be a serious security risk as she is transitioning through the justice system. Her ICSVE counter narratives can be viewed here, here, here and here. While others have returned and are still a serious threat, the lesson appears to be to take each case individually and do a careful assessment, prosecute when possible to maintain maximum leverage and, if needed, build strong individualized rehabilitation and reintegration programs around them. In this way only can we address the issues of instabilities in Syria that could lead to more ISIS detainee escapes, which in the women’s camps happen all too frequently, and the safe return of children whose mothers may have chosen badly, but who as children brought or born into ISIS are themselves entirely innocent and deserve to be protected and brought home.
Gabriel Sjöblom-Fodor is a researcher who specializes in the study of religious community work in the countering of violent extremism and extremist narratives, and how this work impacts national security. His focus is on deradicalization and prevention of violence using theological and psychological counseling, as well as the specific politico-religious and social roots of modern violent extremism. He has a background in journalism and in politics, and has also previously consulted political parties on the topic of countering extremism in Sweden, such as the Center party and Christian Democrat party. In 2015 he embarked on a research project that aimed to investigate how Muslim religious communities countered extremist narratives and recruitment to violent extremism. The focus lay in how theological and counseling debates and methods, where the extremist narrative is deconstructed, have been used, and continue to be used, in the Nordic context by religious actors. This was done through interviewing religious leaders and actors who witnessed close-up the call to violent extremism during the rise and peak of the ISIS “Caliphate” and were able to witness first-hand these processes and engage with radicalized individuals, recruiters and FTFs. This research continues. Gabriel has also consulted and assisted in several research projects on the topics of religious extremism, Salafism and radicalization. He has also written several news articles on the topics as well as appeared in several publications. At ICSVE, Gabriel is working on the issues of EU repatriations, research into violent extremism and prevention and interventions to disrupt terrorist recruitment and delegitimize terrorist groups.
Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today
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