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Confronting an ISIS Emir: ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Videos

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D.

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] M [/yt_dropcap]ost experts agree that the most successful counter-messaging campaigns against ISIS are the ones that utilize the voices of insiders: the voices of ISIS victims and ISIS cadres themselves who have first-hand knowledge of the group’s brutality, corruption, religious manipulation, and deception.

In this regard, we at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) have spent the last two years interviewing ISIS defectors, ISIS prisoners, and returnees from the Syrian and the Iraq conflict in Western Europe, Turkey, Iraq, Central Asia, and the Balkans. Their stories are captured on video and edited down to short clips, interspersed with actual ISIS video footage and pictures, illustrating their stories to turn back against ISIS.

Using formers to talk back to terrorism is a well-established practice. Mubin Shaikh is a good example of someone who nearly joined al-Qaeda and imbibed deeply of the jihadist ideology before turning away and infiltrating a Canadian terrorist cell to help take it down.[1] Usama Hasan, a former radical Salafi extremist and mujahidin in the Afghan jihad against the country’s communist government in the early 90s, is another example of someone who has turned against Salafi-jihadi ideology and is dedicated to fighting violent extremism in the United Kingdom. [2]

Using formers is rife with problems, however. Those returned from ISIS were often psychologically unhealthy before they joined and are deeply traumatized upon their return. Some do not want to speak about their experiences while others fear retribution from ISIS if they speak out against the group. Some of them fear further prosecution and social stigma. Others are unstable, reverse their positions frequently, or are not good role models. Often, they are not easily accessible and reachable.

In April of 2017, we spoke to an ISIS “emir” (high in military command) in a prison in Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and wearing a black mask over his face, Abu Islam is brought into the faux wood-paneled room of the Special Forces Security compound in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. His hands are cuffed and feet shackled together.

There are five of us in the room: me, Ardian, Alice, a Kurdish handler, and our Peshmerga interpreter, Alaz.[3] I am seated at the front corner of the desk with my laptop unfolded. Ardian is seated to my side. Alice and our handler sit behind the desk. Alaz takes the hooded Abu Islam from the prison guards and guides him gently to the center chair in front of the desk next to me, where he gently lifts the mask from his face as he takes his seat as well. Abu Islam’s dark, wavy hair and medium length curly beard and burning brown eyes are revealed as his eyes dart quickly around the room taking everyone in. His dark eyes focus briefly on me, burning momentarily into mine and then dart back again to Alaz, as he waits to begin. They know each other. Alaz has already repeatedly interrogated him.

Only in his mid-twenties, Abu Islam has been heavily hunted for two years by the Peshmerga forces who credit him with running a network of cells of suicide bombers, sending some as young as twelve to explode themselves in suicide missions. He is credited with either directly or indirectly organizing attacks that killed over 250 victims, although some of the high-ranking Peshmerga counterterrorism officials we spoke to believe that number to be at 500. “He’s a guy we chased for more than two years,” stated the head of Kurdistan’s Zanyari intelligence service in a recent interview with journalist Robin Wright. “To pick him up and realize that we finally got him, it was a big catch for us,” he explained. [4]

Born as Mazan Nazhan Ahmed al-Obeidi, Abu Islam is the second oldest in his family. He is the oldest male and has eight siblings. His father served in Saddam’s army. He describes his childhood as both “safe” and “nice.” Growing up in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, Iraq, Abu Islam first finished high school and then pursued university studies in shariah (Islamic law) at the local university. With only one year left to go before graduation, in 2014 Abu Islam abruptly left his studies to join the so-called “Islamic State.”

“I wasn’t Salafi growing up,” Abu Islam explains. The legs of his orange jumpsuit are rolled up to mid-calf—Salafi style—to match the dress worn by the Companions of the Prophet Muhammed. He is also bearded. “I got that mentality in university when I read the book Tawhid by Wahhab. It convinced me,” he adds.

Abu Islam is referring to Kitab at-Tawhid (The Book of the Unity of God) by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century Saudi religious reformer who worked to purify Islam by turning back to following the original practices of the Prophet and his Companions. The violent followers of Wahhab, including al-Qaeda and ISIS, interpret his teachings to justify killing those who do not follow their strict interpretation of Islam. ISIS, and groups like ISIS, practice of Takfir—that is, an extreme extension of Wahhabi-Salafi doctrine that sanctions violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims who are deemed as infidels (non-believers). This is the type of Islam and ideology that Abu Islam had already embraced in his university studies, thus he was ready for ISIS when they came to Iraq and established their so-called Islamic State.

“I got into the brotherhood at the mosque,” Abu Islam explains. “They were against Islamic State, but for me I saw that the Islamic State was living by shariah law. They were throwing homosexual people from high buildings. If you steal, they cut your hand. They are really living it.”

When asked where he saw this, Abu Islam answers, “It was on social media, YouTube. It made sense for me. I watched a lot of their videos.” As we listen to him speak, we become aware of ISIS’ powerful online presence and online propaganda machine that recruits youth via the Internet here in Iraq as well. Even in Iraq, ISIS propaganda videos reached a university student, persuading him of their righteousness, “I was convinced and made up my mind.”

“They were on the streets also. They had a territory twice the size of Great Britain. At the time I joined, I was 22 or 23. A lot of my relatives were in the area they [ISIS] took over, and some of my cousins and family members were already in [ISIS]. It was easy to join. I got a recommendation,” Abu Islam explains, referring to the ISIS practice of trusting their potential recruits based on the recommendation of another ISIS member. “They knew I don’t drink or smoke and that I’m a shariah student. That made my CV look really good,” he explains while smiling enthusiastically.

“I didn’t take shariah training,” Abu Islam answers proudly when asked about ISIS’ known practice of putting new recruits through two weeks of sharia training to learn the basics of Islam as they preach it and to take on their “hear and obey” philosophy.[5] “I became the teacher because of my background,” he continues. He also bypassed military training since they needed shariah teachers to train the others, “They didn’t teach me weapons. In the beginning, they asked me if I knew how to use an AK, and of course, I did.” The knowledge of assault rifles is common among Iraqis, notes our Peshmerga interpreter.

“I gave lessons in shariah.” This is how Abu Islam initially describes his role in the Islamic State.

Compared to Syria, it appears there are not large camps for the Cubs of the Caliphate in Iraq, where hundreds of youth are gathered, trained, and taught to fight—with some being trained and prepared to become suicide bombers—after they graduate.[6] In Iraq, it seems the Cubs are gathered into smaller groups. Individuals like Abu Islam appear to serve as their itinerate preachers, traveling from one group to another.

“Sometimes there were four to five or six to seven [individuals]. It depended. I’d go to the villages and teach them. I moved from place to place to give shariah lessons,” Abu Islam explains. “It was mostly fiqh [Principles and understanding of Islamic practices]. How to pray properly. How to fast. How to help other Muslims, how to pay zakat [obligatory charity], and about the Islamic State.”

In Syria, ISIS defectors interviewed in our ISIS Defectors Interview Project described their shariah trainers as “shining charismatics” and were heartened by learning “true Islam” from them.[7] I ask if the Iraqis already knew their religion or were also gladdened by these teachings. His answer, “They didn’t know the right way. We taught them the right ways. We talked about what it could [Islamic State] be. Hopefully, we’ll expand our territory. According to our beliefs, we can’t say we are definitely doing it. Instead, we say, inshallah [by God’s will] we will expand our territory. Open the walls. Take down Europe.”

Abu Islam tells us that there were “young fighters from foreign places,” in his classes, but “they didn’t understand much Arabic,” which reminds us of an Albanian I interviewed in Kosovo who also recalled taking ISIS shariah training in Arabic—it all went over his head.

We are in Iraq this trip having just spoken at the Prime Minister’s conference titled, “Education in Iraq Post Daesh-ISIL Territory.” The conference brought together both local and international experts to address the issue of the 250,000-500,000 youth that the government of Iraq estimates lived and served under ISIS over the past three years in the Nineveh and the Mosul regions of Iraq. Universities were closed under ISIS. Libraries were burnt to the ground. Textbooks, even for the very young, were replaced by texts that taught them how to behead and indoctrinated them from the earliest of ages into Islamic State’s barbarity and refusal to recognize anyone else’s views as legitimate but their own. At the conference, we viewed the exhibit of some of these captured ISIS textbooks. Picking them up and handling them gave each of us a chill down the spine—touching the same books ISIS cadres had handed out to children under their control.

The schools in the area continued to run even when ISIS took over, Abu Islam explains, adding, “They used to study English. It was good for us—knowing English—but we denied books that we didn’t like. After a while, we denied all the existing books. We changed all the books over to our mentality.”

“How did you talk to the kids who are going on suicide missions?” I ask, going back to his role as a shariah trainer. “What did you teach them to persuade them to go on suicide missions?” I ask, already knowing from our interviews with Syrian ISIS defectors that ISIS leaders fill the children’s minds with bright visions of Paradise and promise them they will feel pain when they push the button to explode themselves—that they go instantly to Paradise. The feint-hearted ones are even offered a sedative, and in many cases, the youngest do not even realize they are about to die. All this I already know from our Syrian defector interviews.[8]

“We used to tell them,” Abu Islam begins but then quickly detours into denial. “It was not my job exactly.” He hesitates and then continues, “Study and learn your future. We want to expand our territories and put shariah over the whole earth. Most of the time they came as volunteers, self- motivated.” Remembering how the kids chose themselves as “martyrs,” he gains confidence again, “They have read the book. We make the way for them. We never told anyone they have to go. It’s voluntary. It’s never forced. I didn’t see anyone forced, ever.”

So, when you prepared young children to take “martyrdom” missions—driving explosive-laden cars or wearing vests into enemy lines or checkpoints—what did you teach them? How did you prepare them?” I ask, having already learned from Peshmerga counterterrorism officials that he sent them as young as 12-years-old on suicide missions.

Abu Islam exudes disagreement with how the question was asked and explains that ISIS never takes children into its ranks: “In Iraq, you have to be 18 to sign up for the Army. We [ISIS] don’t have any age limit. Instead we believe that when a man’s semen develops, then he’s considered a grown-up man. We only take them when they get to that point. They were never children. They were men.”

Cynical about how he answered the question, I further probe: “How old were these men according to your criteria?”

“A fully-grown man has to have his semen,” Abu Islam reiterates. “This is according to sharia.” The translator interjects by explaining that, according to Abu Islam’s definition, a young boy who begins with wet dreams is already a man ready for battle and mature enough to sign his life over for a “martyrdom” mission.

While Abu Islam denies there was any pressure in ISIS for children to become “martyrs,” we know from ISIS defector interviews that in the Syrian training camps youth are heavily pressured into driving explosive-laden cars into enemy lines and lied to about the painfulness of their deaths—sometimes failing to even tell them their mission involves death. “There is an office. If anyone volunteers… ‘I want to my give my bayat [pledge] then he signs up for a martyrdom mission at the same time. It’s like a regular recruiting process, ”Abu Islam explains.

He is further asked about the training camps and how they have a steady stream of explosive-rigged cars being made to put the children in and send them to their deaths at checkpoints and the frontlines.

“There is a training camp they take them to and teach then how to set up and use these cars,” he explains. “It’s a regular camp they tell them…” he hesitates again. “The car manufacturing is in a different place,” he detours.

“But what do they tell these children?” I push.

“They instruct them. They know what will happen. They’re happy. It’s like a kid on Christmas. You know how happy they are? Calmly happy, knowing something good is going to happen,” Abu Islam explains as we realize he truly embraces this sickness.

“Is there any ritual to go with this?” I further ask, wondering exactly how they send a kid off to his horrific death.

“They [the ISIS senders] have a list of serial numbers and names. If I’m set to go next, then I’m next. If something changes the order and they aren’t sent, they start crying. If they are the next one, they actually cry and get angry, and even complain, ‘My name is set to go!’ I’ve seen this with my own eyes,” Abu Islam explains, as his eyes appear to shine in admiration for their zeal.

“What happens right before you go?” I ask again.

“There is nothing special they do.”

“Pray? Wash? Celebrate? Make a video?” I press as in the past I have sat with relatives of bombers who have seen the videos of their children wrapped up in explosive vests or jammed into explosive-laden vehicles, with some crying and others seemingly jubilant about going as “martyrs.”

“There is nothing special. They wash up to be clean. Everyone prays. Everyone says goodbye. There are tears of joy. We make a video,” he admits but again adds a denial, which is possibly self-protective given he is in prison and does not want to incriminate himself. “I didn’t make the videos. I sent them to Kirkuk,” he explains.

“Do they receive a sedative?”

“No sedative, ever.”

“What’s the usual way to go? Car or belt?”

“Both,” he answers. “They wear the belt wear in the car just in case one goes down,” he adds.

“What are their instructions?” I further ask. “Kill as many as possible?”

“Yes.”

“Any special conditions? What if there are women and children at a checkpoint?” I probe.

“In the front line, everyone is an enemy. Everyone is a target,” Abu Islam intones, but quickly adds, “In cities, we tell them to try avoid targeting the markets and civilians, and they have specific targets—military and government targets.”

“And you?” I ask about his recent arrest in which he was wearing, but did not detonate, his suicide vest. “I didn’t sign up to be one. I did fight.” He goes on to say that he has fought in all three ISIS tactical military formations, including in the very front line where the fighters go in wearing vests and “martyr” themselves if overtaken, killing everyone around them to avoid capture. He was never one of those cadres, yet he states, “I always had my suicide belt on. We jump into the [Peshmerga] helicopters and explode ourselves. There is no surrender. No surrender. Just push the button.”

“But you did surrender?” I press. “You wore the belt. Did you have it in your mind, when captured?”

“You didn’t have time to detonate or didn’t want to do it?” inquires Alaz, our Peshmerga translator, while explaining to us how he never had the chance to ask him this question and would like to know the answer as well.

“I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live, so I didn’t do it,” Abu Islam states matter-of-factly, despite the fact that he has sent plenty of others to do just that. “I wanted to finish the project, spreading sharia,” he adds.

“Were you scared?” I ask.

“Yes,” he admits. “I was scared. Every human being is scared.”

I ask Abu Islam about ISIS’ policy toward captured women, a question that instantly grabs his attention. He is in his element spouting out shariah law on the rights of ISIS cadres with regards to captured women. “It becomes a right,” he says, while looking around the room in which three out of five present in the room are women, waving his arm to bring us all into his sweeping gesture. “If I dominate everything in this room, then it becomes mine. I do as I want. It all becomes the property of the Islamic State,” he adds.

While we are usually capable of listening to anything without having much of a reaction during the interview, we felt suddenly sickened imagining how close to Mosul we have been in the past days—barely an hour’s drive—and how this mindset has been a harsh reality for so many captured women, whether they be Yazidis, Christians, Shia, or Sunni women alike.

Abu Islam denies that he had a sabaya [sex slave]. He also explains that very few Iraqis had them. He can think of only one man in their area of ISIS, Dr. Mahavia, who had one. This is likely similar to the Syrian experience where married Iraqis who served from home are not seen by ISIS leadership as needing to be supplied with a woman. Yet, we will hear next from an unmarried Iraqi who took full sexual advantage of the enslaved women held in this region of Iraq.

As we continue interviewing Abu Islam, though calm, I feel increasingly agitated and irritated at how he is able to justify the brutal and inhumane practices of ISIS and offer arguments in support of their activities. Just before my next question, I decide to show him one of our ICSVE-produced videos denouncing ISIS. I open my computer and ask if he would be willing to watch the video of another ISIS cadre (a defector) speaking on this subject. I inform him that it is a short video—only four minutes—and with his agreement, I begin to play it. Abu Islam watches intently as a Syrian former ISIS cadre explains his horror and posttraumatic stress after being the guard for 475 Yezidi, Shia, and Sunni sex slaves, including his role in taking part in organizing mass institutionalized rape.

Abu Islam’s eyes dart along the pictures in the video taken from ISIS, taking in faces and places he may recognize, just as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter Huthaifa Azzam did when we showed him the same video.[9] “He is an Iraqi speaking,” Abu Islam comments. I tell him no, this is a Syrian, but he has got a similar accent as he is from Deir ez-Zor. The video plays as Ibn Ahmed (the ISIS defector in the video) paints a grim picture of rape and horror for young captured women separated from their men and children. As more horrifying images of Yazidi and other women abused by ISIS appear on the video, Abu Islam’s gaze falls to the floor. Suddenly, he is silent and stunned to see his version of his glorified ISIS described in this graphic manner.

“How do you feel watching this video?” I gently ask.

“I was against that idea,” he says. His voice appears flat by what he has just viewed. “It doesn’t matter. When I see this video…this is the outcome of this practice—this video. It’s not the proper way to turn you to Islam. It’s not a good way to spread our beliefs.” Referring back to the rapes, he adds, “Not everyone listens [to objections]. They just go with it. There are more that like it [raping of captured women] than are against it.”

“How about the beheadings?” I ask.

“It was a law,” he answers. We cannot help but see discomfort in his face as he patiently awaits his next question.

“Is it not it the same thing? Does it not also spread a negative view of Islam?” I further push.

“I got convinced,” Abu Islam answers defensively.

“How do you feel now?”

“It’s not right,” he says gazing down at his hands, and adds, “We were wrong.”

“Is there a way to get there without all this violence?” I ask softly, knowing he harbors the dream of spreading shariah and making a utopian world where Islam reigns above all else.

“Yes, of course.” a decade of sectarian killings that ISIS was born and embraced by the Sunni population in Anbar province.

“Why did you sign up to violence?” I ask, although I know that the U.S. and the U.S.-led coalition security blunder in Iraq that led to the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s senior military and intelligence officials, coupled with more than a decade of sectarian killings, gave birth to ISIS.

“I believed back in that time,” Abu Islam explains. “I got convinced,” he adds..He explains about how ISIS appeared as a righteous and Islamic answer to sectarian power struggles and security issues: “I didn’t know it was going to be that way.”

We ask Abu Islam if he is willing to watch another ICSVE-produced video. When he agrees, we show him our four-minute video clip of a fifteen-year-old Syrian boy describing his time in the Cubs of the Caliphate and how the leaders sent children as young as six-years-old in explosive-laden vehicles to their deaths—many having no idea they were about to die. There are pictures of children younger than eight in the film. Abu Islam watches this clip intently as well, again studying everything in it. At the end, the boy denounces ISIS, calling them kafirs [unbelievers] and infidels.

“He [the boy] is calling you the kafir. How do you feel about that?” I ask after we view the clip. “These are little kids. Do these children have their semen? Are they men?” I challenge feeling angry with his denials.

Abu Islam is stunned into silence as he again begins to stare at the floor.

“How do you make this right between you and Allah?” I ask softly, wondering if he will open up more.

“Allah will accept everything—If you admit it,” he answers back, and continues to stare at the floor.

“Did you make a mistake?” I ask.

“Yes.” “We were mistaken,” are his last words.

We end our interview. The guards come into the room, and Abu Islam’s black mask is once again placed back over his face as he lets them guide him blindly out of the room.

Abu Islam is by no means rehabilitated from watching two counter-narrative videos. That being said, capture, interrogation, and imprisonment have all begun to work on him. After being challenged with the harsh realities of ISIS and other ISIS cadres denouncing the group, he admits to not knowing whether ISIS was right. After all, joining ISIS has not worked out that well for him. Arguably, once confronted with other former ISIS cadres telling the truth, he is unable to keep up his false bravado and unquestioned beliefs in ISIS’ interpretation of shariah law. His arguments fall flat. He is backed into submission, as evidenced through his responses after watching the videos.

We have focus tested the Breaking the ISIS Brand videos in the Balkans, Central Asia, Western Europe, and the Middle East, and overwhelmingly they have hit their mark. No one we spoke to questioned their authenticity or viewed the message as being wrong. Many are sobered by them, including the ISIS emir we discussed in this article.

If you want to support ISCVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Counter-Narratives Project, please contact us at info[at]ICSVE.org or donate on our webpage www.icsve.org.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (May 29, 2017) Confronting an ISIS Emir: ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narrative Videos, ICSVE Research Reports, http://www.icsve.org/research-reports/confronting-an-isis-emir-icsves-breaking-the-isis-brand-counter-narrative-videos

(*) Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. Prior to joining ICSVE, Ardian has spent nearly a decade working in both the private and public sectors, including with international organizations and the media in a post-conflict environment. He is fluent in several languages. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He also holds several professional certifications in the field of homeland security as well as a professional designation for his contributions to the field of homeland security and homeland security efforts in general. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism courses.


[1] Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh, Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18-Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West (McLean, VA: Advances Press, 2014) and Morten Storm, Tim Lister, and Paul Cruickshank, Agent Storm: My Life Inside al Qaeda and the CIA (New York City, NY: Grove Press, 2015).

[2] See Quilliam, “Usama Hasan,” URL: https://www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/usama-hasan/

[3]The names of participants other than the authors’ and Abu Islam have been changed to protect them.

[4] Robin Wright, “Face to Face with the Ghost of ISIS,” The New Yorker, March 24, 2017; URL: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/face-to-face-with-the-ghost-of-isis

[5] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

[8] Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).

[9] Huthaifa Azzam Interview, Amman, Jordan, 2016.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). She has interviewed over 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and many countries in Europe. She is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Follow @AnneSpeckhard

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Terrorism

Stateless and Leftover ISIS Brides

Sagar N

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While the World is busy fighting the pandemic and the economic devastation caused by it, one of the important problem that has been pushed to dormancy, is the status of the ISIS(Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) brides. The Pandemic has crippled the capacity of the law enforcement and exploiting this the ISIS executed attacks in Maldives, Iraq, and the Philippines. The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that terrorists are exploiting the COVID-19 Pandemic. Albeit the ISIS has been defeated, approximately ten thousand of them are in ISIS detention centres in Northern Syria under Kurds. Most of these detention centres are filled by women and children, who are relatives or widows of the ISIS fighters. With their native states denouncing them, the status of the stateless women and children is unclear.

As it stands today states’ counter-terrorism approach has been primarily targeting male militants but women also have played a role in strengthening these terrorist organizations. Women involvement in militant organizations has increased as they perform several activities like birthing next-generation militants/jihadists, managing the logistics and recruiting the new members to the organizations. The world did not recognize women as key players in terrorist organizations until the 1980s when females held major roles in guerilla wars of southern America. Women have either willingly or unwillingly held a variety of roles in these extremist organizations and Islamist terrorist organizations like Hamas and al-Qaeda women do simply provide moral support.

According to the media reports since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2006 female suicide attacks have been increased and they have been extensively part of ISIS. The ISIS had a female brigade which they called as Al-Khansaa which was established to perform search activities in the state. Both foreign and domestic recruits in the Islamic state have participated in brutal torture. A recently acquired logbook from a guesthouse in Syria provides important information about 1100 females who joined the organization, the western women who are called as ‘the muhajirat’.

When the people from rest of the world joined organizations such as ISIS, they burnt their passports and rejected their national identity. Especially women from western countries who were radicalized online based on their phenomenon ‘ISIS brides/Jihadi brides’ to marry terrorists. Since Islamic State isnot recognized by the world these marriages are not legally valid, apart from this a number of these brides have experienced sexual torture and extreme violence.

While the erstwhile members of the extremist organizations like ISIS and others are left adrift the one challenging question remaining is should states and their societies keep them and reengage or rehabilitate or prosecute them. How firmly the idea of their erstwhile organization is stuck in their minds and especially the followers who crossed the world to join remains a concern to many. The U.S backed Kurdish forces across turkey border hold thousands of these left-behind women and children in their centre. Hundreds of foreign women and children who were once part of an aspirant state, The caliphate are now floating around the concentration camps in Syria, Turkey and Kurdish detention centres and prisons. Many are waiting to return to their origin countries. They pose a unique challenge to their native states like whether to include them or not and even if they include how to integrate adults who at least for a time part of these terrorist organizations and what to do with children who are too young to understand the politics and obstacles keeping them in camps and detention centres where resources are scarce. Women present a problem because its hard to know what kind of crimes they have committed beyond the membership of the terrorist organization.

It is no secret that women also have been part of insurgency across the world, like in ISIS,LTTE,PIRA and PFLP. The responsibility of women in ISIS includes wife to ISIS soldiers, birthing the next generation of jihad and advancing ISIS’ global reach through online recruiting. The International Center for Study of Radicalization (ICAR) estimates that out of 40000 people joined ISIS from 80 different countries nearly 8000 are women and children. After the defeat of ISIS and such extreme organization those who are left behind possess the ideological commitment and practical skills which again a threat upon return to home countries.

The states across the world are either revoking the citizenship or ignore their responsibility. The most famous case of Shamima  Begum a UK citizen married to an ISIS fighter whose citizenship was revoked by the UK government. In other cases like HodaMuthana of the USA and Iman Osman of Tunisia have been the same case. As recently as Tooba Gondal an ISIS bride who now in a detention camp in northern Syria begged to go home in the UK in a public apology.

The American president Donald Trump issued a statement saying women who joined ISIS cannot return. The NATO deputy head said “…returning ISIS fighters and brides must face full rigours of the law”. Revoking the citizenship and making someone stateless is illegal under international law and it is also important to know how gendered these cases are because the UK have successfully prosecuted Mohammad Uddin and the USA has also done it so. Stripping off their citizenship itself a punishment before proper trail and the only good out of it would state can take their hands off in dealing with cases. Samantha Elhassani the only American who repatriated from Iraq so far and pleaded guilty for supporting ISIS. Meanwhile, France is trying to route its citizens who joined the ISIS and extradited few who are under trial in Bagdad.

As experts and political analysts say “countries should take responsibility for their own citizens” because failure to do so will also make the long term situation more dangerous as jihadists will try to a hideout and turn into militant groups for their protection. The children, the second-generation ISIS need cultural centres and rehabilitation centres and this is an international problem. These women known as jihadists brides suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder and many are pregnant or multiple children born in ISIS territory.

In some countries travelling abroad to join the insurgencies in North Africa and Syria was not always a criminal act, Sweden criminalized such act recently but to prosecute them proof of offences committed in the conflict zone is difficult to collect and most countries in the world do not allow the pre-trial detention for more than 14 days. With problems of different national Lawson extradition and capital punishment and to prosecute them in conflict countries is also a challenge for states. Since Kurdish forces have signalled that they cannot bring all the prisoners into justice the home countries will have to act or else it might create a long term dangerous situation. With the civil war in Syria is about to end it is time to address these issues because since there are more ISIS fighters in Kurdish prisons and detention centres they could be influenced to join rebels who are fighting the regime of Assad in last standing province of Idlib.

If the governments reject the repatriation applications then they will be signalling that their action is essential for national security and thus asserting that failed or poorly resourced states are better equipped to handle potential extremists. The criminal system in Iraq is corrupt and human rights violations have been reported and which creates the risk of further radicalization. One should not forget that even citizenship of Osama bin laden was also stripped but which did not stop him from forming al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. If the citizens commit crimes and forget their responsibility then the states must bring them to justice instead of stripping citizenship. The states must come with a solution for this problem before its too late, setting up an international tribunal to deal with these cases would be a great start but these tribunals are time-consuming and expensive.

States must act as a responsible actor in the international system. Jihadist terrorism is a global problem and states must act together to deal with it because with nearly 40000 fighters joining caliphate from across the world it only shows how global and deeply rooted the phenomenon is. Instead of stripping their citizens’ citizenship, states must find a way to act together for the peace and security of the international community.

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Terrorism

COVID-19: Game-changer for international peace and security

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In Iraq, children look over a wall at clouds of smoke from burning oil wells, the result of oil fires set by ISIL. © UNICEF/Lindsay Mackenzie

The world has “entered a volatile and unstable new phase” in terms of the impact of COVID-19 on peace and security, the UN chief told a virtual meeting with world leaders on Wednesday.

Speaking at one of a series of international meetings among heads of State to enhance global cooperation in fighting terrorism and violent extremism, as part of the Aqaba Process, Secretary-General António Guterres said the pandemic was more than a global health crisis.

“It is a game-changer for international peace and security”, he spelled out, emphasizing that the process can play a key role in “promoting unity and aligning thinking” on how to beat back the pandemic.

Warning lights flashing

Mr. Guterres maintained that the coronavirus has exposed the basic fragility of humankind, laid bare systemic and entrenched inequalities, and thrust into the spotlight, geopolitical challenges and security threats.

“The warning lights are flashing”, he said, pointing out that as the virus is “exacerbating grievances, undermining social cohesion and fueling conflicts”, it is also likely to “act as a catalyst in the spread of terrorism and violent extremism”.

Moreover, international tensions are being driven by supply chain disruptions, protectionism and growing nationalism – with rising unemployment, food insecurity and climate change, helping to fuel political unrest.

A generation in crosshairs

The UN chief also noted that a generation of students is missing school.

“A whole generation…has seen its education disrupted”, he stated. “Many young people are experiencing a second global recession in their short lives.”

He explained that they feel left out, neglected and disillusioned by their prospects in an uncertain world.

Wanted: Global solidarity 

The pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities to emerging threats such as bioterrorism and cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure.

“The world faces grave security challenges that no single country or organization can address alone”, upheld the Secretary-General, “there is an urgent need for global unity and solidarity”.

Recalling the UN’s Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week in July, he reminded that participants called for a “reinvigorated commitment to multilateralism to combat terrorism and violent extremism”.

However, a lack of international cooperation to tackle the pandemic has been “startling”, Mr. Guterres said, highlighting national self-interest, transactional information sharing and manifestations of authoritarianism. 

‘Put people first’

The UN chief stressed that “we must not return to the status quo ante“.

He outlined the need to put people first, by enhancing information sharing and technical cooperation “to prevent terrorists exploiting the pandemic for their own nefarious goals” and thinking “long-term solutions rather than short-term fixes”.

“This includes upholding the rights and needs of victims of terrorism…[and] the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters, especially women and children,  and their dependents to their countries of origin”, he elaborated.

Closing window 

Meanwhile, the risk of COVID-19 is exacerbating the already dire security and humanitarian situation in Syrian and Iraqi camps housing refugees and the displaced.

“The window of opportunity is closing so we must seize the moment”, the UN chief said. “We cannot ignore our responsibilities and leave children to fend for themselves and at the mercy of terrorist exploitation”.

He also expressed confidence that the Aqaba Process will continue to “strengthen international counter-terrorism cooperation, identify and fill capacity gaps, and address evolving security threats associated with the pandemic”, and offered the UN’s “full support”.

Post-COVID rebuilding 

The Secretary-General also addressed the Centenary Summit of the International Organization of Employers (IOE) on how private and public sector cooperation can help drive post-COVID change. 

He lauded the IOE’s “significant contributions” to global policymaking for economic and social progress, job creation and a mutually beneficial business environment, calling it “an important pillar of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since its earliest days”.  

“Today, our primary task is to defeat the pandemic and rebuild lives, livelihoods, businesses, and economies”, he told the virtual Summit.

In building back, he underscored that workers and small business be protected, and everyone be given the opportunity to fulfil their potential. 

Businesses input

The UN chief urged businesses to engage with the multilateral system to create a “conducive global environment for decent work, investment, and sustainability”; and with the UN at the national level, to help ensure that multilateralism “works on the ground”.    

He also encouraged them to actively participate in national and global public-private dialogue and initiatives, stressing, “there must be space for them to do so”. 

Tripartite cooperation

ILO chief Guy Ryder highlighted the need for “conscious policy decisions and tripartite cooperation to overcome transformational challenges”, such as technological change and climate change, as well as COVID-19. 

Mr. Ryder also flagged that employers must continue to collaborate in social dialogue and maintain their commitment to both multilateralism and the ILO.

The IOE represents more than 50 million companies and is a key partner in the international multilateral system for over 100 years as the voice of business at the ILO, across the UN, the G20 richest countries and other emerging forums.

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Traumas of terrorism cannot be erased, but victims’ voices must never be forgotten

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In remembering and honouring all victims of terrorism, Secretary-General António Guterres said the UN stands by those who grieve and those who “continue to endure the physical and psychological wounds of terrorist atrocities”.

“Traumatic memories cannot be erased, but we can help victims and survivors by seeking truth, justice and reparation, amplifying their voices and upholding their human rights”, he stressed.

Keep spotlight on victims, even amid pandemic

This year’s commemoration takes place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, when vital services for victims, such as criminal justice processes and psychosocial support, have been interrupted, delayed or ended as Governments focus attention and resources on fighting the pandemic.

Moreover, many memorials and commemorations have been cancelled or moved online, hampering the ability of victims to find solace and comfort together. 

And the current restrictions have also forced the first-ever UN Global Congress of Victims of Terrorism has to be postponed until next year.

“But it is important that we keep a spotlight on this important issue,” stressed the UN chief.

“Remembering the victims of terrorism and doing more to support them is essential to help them rebuild their lives and heal”, said Mr. Guterres, including work with parliamentarians and governments to draft and adopt legislation and national strategies to help victims.

The Secretary-General vowed that “the UN stands in solidarity with all victims of terrorism – today and every day” and underscored the need to “ensure that those who have suffered are always heard and never forgotten”.

Terrorism unjustifiable

General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande saluted the resilience of terrorist survivors and called the day “an opportunity to honour the memories of the innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of terrorist acts around the world”.

“Terrorism, in all forms and manifestations, can never be justified”, he stated. “Acts of terrorism everywhere must be strongly condemned”.
The UN commits to combating terrorism and the Assembly has adopted resolutions to curb the scourge while working to establish and maintain peace and security globally. 

Strengthen assistance

Mechanisms for survivors must be strengthened to safeguard a “full recovery, rehabilitation and re-integration into society through long-term multi-dimensional support”, stated the UN official.

“Together we can ensure that you live a full life defined by dignity and freedom. You are not alone in this journey. You are not forgotten”, concluded the Assembly president.

‘Human dimension’ 

Closing the event, Vladimir Voronkov, chief of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, maintained that victims represent “the very human dimension of terrorism”.

While terrorists try to depersonalize victims by reducing them to mere numbers or statistics, Mr. Voronkov maintained that “we have a responsibility to do the exact opposite”.

“We must see victims’ hopes, dreams and daily lives that have been shattered by terrorist violence – a shattering that carries on long after the attack is over”, he stated. “We must ensure their human rights are upheld and their needs are met”.

Reaffirming humanity

While acknowledging the “terrible reality of terrorism”, Mr. Voronkov flagged that the survivors shine as “examples of resilience, and beacons of hope, courage and solidarity in the face of adversity”.

In reaffirming “our common humanity”, he urged everyone to raise awareness of victims needs and rights.

“Let us commit to showing them that they are not alone and will never be forgotten”, concluded the Counter-Terrorism chief.

Survivors remember

At the virtual event, survivors shared their stories while under lockdown, agreeing that the long-term impacts of surviving any kind of an attack is that the traumatic experience never really goes away.

Tahir from Pakistan lost his wife in attack against the UN World Food Programme (WFP) office in Islamabad.  

“If you have an accident, you know how to cope with it. Terminal illness, you know how to cope with it. But there is no coping mechanism for a person who dies in an act of terror”, he said.

Meanwhile Nigeel’s father perished in the 1998 US Embassy attack in Kenya, when he was just months years old. 

The 22 year-old shared: “When you are growing, it really doesn’t have a heavy impact on you, but as life starts to unfold, mostly I’ll find myself asking if I do this and my dad was around, would he be proud of me?”

And Julie, from Australia, lost her 21-year-old daughter in the 2017 London Bridge attack.

“The Australian police came to our house and said ‘we have a body, still not confirmed’, so they recommended that we fly to London”, she recalled. “I can’t describe how devastating as a parent to lose a child in these circumstances is for the rest of your life”.

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