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. 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. 
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. 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. 
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. “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. 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. 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.
“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?”
“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. “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.
 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).
 See Quilliam, “Usama Hasan,” URL: https://www.quilliaminternational.com/about/staff/usama-hasan/
The names of participants other than the authors’ and Abu Islam have been changed to protect them.
 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
 Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).
 Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).
 Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC, 2016).
 Huthaifa Azzam Interview, Amman, Jordan, 2016.
Balancing Counter-Terrorism Measures with International Human Rights
In his statement at a special meeting of the Security Council’s Counter-Terrorism Committee on 6 March 2003, the Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan has noted:
“….Our responses to terrorism, as well as our efforts to thwart it and prevent it, should uphold the human rights that terrorists aim to destroy. Respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law are essential tools in the effort to combat terrorism – not privileges to be sacrificed at a time of tension.”
Acts of terrorism are one of the gravest forms of human rights violations that can potentially shake up the spirit of society. People acquire a hateful approach towards the terrorists and those involved in terrorist activities. Moreover, governments do not hesitate to take all possible hardest actions against terrorism to secure their citizens and nation. It can be understood that any counter-terrorist measure taken to satisfy this sentiment of society will more likely be appreciated rather than being criticized. In the wake of this situation, it becomes crucial for the state and its agencies to observe the human rights laws while enacting and exercising the anti-terrorist measures (OHCHR 2008). It has been found that there exists a continuous struggle between national security interests and the protection of the human rights of individuals. In numerous cases, European and American Courts have preferred human rights over the draconian legislative provisions to curb terrorism. When one is dealing with terrorism, measures taken for counter-terrorism shall give high regard to human rights. If States fail to achieve this balance, they will ultimately defeat the success of their counter-actions. Thus, it is to be remembered that one should not become a demon that they are fighting.
Understanding International Human Rights
Human rights are the core universal values available to every individual and group being a human. It provides fundamental freedoms to individuals and protects them from the arbitrary use of power by the state (OHCHR 2008). International human rights are the rights reflected under various core international human rights treaties and customary international law. It includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and others. Moreover, the prohibition of genocide, torture, and slavery is widely recognized as peremptory norms from which no derogation is possible. All the concerned state parties are under an obligation to protect human rights enshrined under these instruments. They shall not take any action in the breach of their commitments.
The immense importance of human rights raises a few considerations before the state. Whether human rights can be compromised in the name of national security? How should states deal with a situation where human rights fall between their national security or other interests? This short note will try to reflect on these essential issues.
What Is Terrorism?
There exists no universal definition of the term ‘terrorism’ (Acharya 2009); however, General Assembly has tried to define it as “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them” (UNGA 1995). This term finds its mention under International Humanitarian Law that prohibits ‘terrorism’ and ‘acts of terrorism’ committed during an armed attack (Kaponyi 2007). During peacetime, such acts are dealt with under national laws, international criminal law, and human rights laws. Terrorism has been observed as a criminal act rather than an act of war (Acharya 2009); however, this definition is still evolving.
Terrorism is a controversial term, and its meaning differs from context to context and time to time. A person or group who acts as a terrorist for some might be a hero for others. However, it should be presumed that all such violence and destruction that constitutes terrorism and terrorist activities are done in the breach of human rights. These activities cause severe injury to the life and liberty of the individuals and the unity and integrity of the nation (Kaponyi 2007). In the interest of humanity, the state needs to adopt counter-terrorism measures in its legislation and enforcement actions to prevent and suppress terrorist activities while observing the rule of law.
Interaction Between Counter-Terrorism Measures And International Human Rights
There exists an unavoidable link between counter-terrorism measures and international human rights (Kielsgard 2013). Acts of terrorism provide legal justification to the threatened state to take actions that can cause severe human rights abuses. The interplay between these two concepts aims to address three dimensions of human rights: concerning the victims of the terrorist attacks, concerning the suspected terrorists, and concerning the people subjected to terrorism (Kaponyi 2007). The first category requires the right to life and dignity and the right to justice. The second category talks about the right to life, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the right to a fair trial, freedom from arbitrary detention, torture and degrading treatment, and the right to asylum. The third category talks about the right to life, right to information, freedom of association, strike, and expression. It is to be noted that the list of these rights are not exclusive and may include other related rights. Therefore, the state’s actions must not defy its international human rights commitments in the guise of national security. There have been instances when courts have curtailed unnecessary and vague security measures found in infringement of human rights.
In Hamdan v Rumsfeld US Supreme Court held that the structure and procedures of the Military Commissions been set up to try detainees of Guantanamo Bay violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice and Common Article 3 of Four Geneva Conventions, 1949. It was a landmark case that restrained the Presidential power vis-à-vis the treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners (Philips 2006). In Hamdi v Rumsfeld Supreme Court rules, US citizens detained as enemy combatants have the right to due process and the ability to challenge their enemy combatant status. However, in Rasul v Bush Supreme Court provided that it has jurisdiction to hear habeas corpus petitions foreign nationals detained at Guantanamo Bay. This case attracted several petitions from foreign citizens challenging the basis of their detention. To prevent a large number of petitions from detainees, the US government came up with Military Commission Act in 2006 that bars foreign nationals from challenging their detention that was ultimately held unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in the case of Boumediene v Bush. It can be observed that the Supreme Court has generally prioritized human rights over its national security issues (Wald 2010).
Similarly, the Court of Appeal in Miranda v Secretary of State for the Home Department found arbitrary ‘stop powers used against journalistic information’ contained under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, 2000 of the UK to violate freedom of expression provided under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In another case of Gillan and Quinton v United Kingdom European Court of Human Rights held blanket power to stop and search under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, 2000 to violate the right to respect for private life that later got repealed and replaced by the legislature.
Counter-terrorism measures provide incentives to the government authorities to reinterpret their law justifying interrogation, detention, and ‘targeted killing’ (Sanders 2017). It provides immunity and legitimacy to their acts of human rights abuses with the least accountability. Under its ‘War on Terror’ against the Taliban Government in Afghanistan, the US has denied applying human rights and humanitarian law to the detainees at Guantanamo Bay and termed them as “enemy combatant” (Duffy 2005). However, from the International Humanitarian Law perspective, it can be counter-argued that the US is detaining combatants by creating a category based on a weak claim supported by reliable facts. They are arrested for an indefinite period without providing them the rights of prisoners. From the International Human Rights approach, a State is obliged to fulfill its international commitments over the persons who are present under its authority and control. This global outreach of the subject founds its applicability even in the areas beyond national jurisdiction, thus holding the US responsible for Guantanamo Bay that lies outside US territory.
Counter-terrorism measures are abused on the pretext of discrimination (Kaponyi 2007). General Assembly Resolution and UN Council on Human Rights Resolution prohibit discrimination that treats people from one ethnic or racial origin, religion or belief, disability different from the others. The creation of plausible legality of human rights violations by the state establishes a requirement to promote human rights (Sanders 2017). Where the UN General Assembly and Security Council have taken several counter-terrorism measures to combat terrorism, UN bodies also aim to respect human rights even in emergency cases. Law is undoubtedly evident that counter-terrorism measures cannot be fulfilled without considering human rights (Kielsgard 2013). States should respect human rights along with its counter-terrorism and security measures.
The real issue lies in determining the legality of counter-terrorist measures that occasionally fall short of the state’s international commitments under its human rights regime. It has been observed that the absence of any definition of terrorism provides ample scope for the state to interpret the term ‘terrorism’ with a political bias favoring its interest (Kaponyi 2007). Further, a State can easily justify its actions in the name of national security that denies human rights to the individual and ultimately raises questions on the rule of law (Duffy 2005). Under the case laws, judges have shown an inclination to respect the international commitments on human rights regime. However, this cannot be said affirmatively for the legislature and enforcing authorities. It is not the counter-terrorism measures, but their abuse is problematic. Arbitrary and poorly-implemented counter-terrorism measures have their consequences. Co-lateral damage must be proportional. Since both counter-terrorism measures and human rights are important issues for a country; thus, it is essential that a balance be struck between them. It should be noted that fight against terror and the observance of human rights must go hand in hand. The State’s responsibility is to respect human rights and not use counter-terrorism measures as a justification for their violation.
- Acharya, Upendra D. (2009): “War on Terror or Terror Wars: The Problem in Defining Terrorism,” Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol 37, pp 653.
- Boumediene v Bush (2008): 553 U.S. 723
- Duffy, Helen (2005): The “War on Terror” and the Framework of International Law, Cambridge University Press
- General Assembly, Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, A/RES/58/187 (2003)
- General Assembly Resolution, U.N. Doc. A/RES/49/60 (Feb. 17, 1995)
- Gillan and Quinton v United Kingdom (2010): ECHR 28 (2010)
- Hamdan v Rumsfeld (2006): 548 U.S. 557 (2006)
- Hamdi v Rumsfeld (2004): 542 U.S. 507
- Kaponyi, Elisabeth K. (2007): “Upholding Human Rights in the fight against terrorism,” Society and Economy, Vol 29, pp 1.
- Kielsgard, Mark D. (2013): “Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: Uneasy Marriage, Uncertain Future,”Journal Jurisprudence, Vol 19, pp 163.
- Miranda v Secretary of State for the Home Department (2014): EWHC 255 (2014);
- Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2008): “Human Rights, Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism” <https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/Factsheet32EN.pdf>
- Philips, Dennis (2006): “Hamdan v Rumsfeld: The Bush Administration and ‘The Rule of Law’,” Australian Journal of American Studies Vol 25, pp 40.
- Rasul v Bush (2004): 542 U.S. 466
- Sanders, Rebecca (2017): “Human rights abuses at the limits of the law: Legal instabilities and vulnerabilities in the ‘Global War on Terror’,” Review of International Studies Vol 44, pp 2.
- UN Commission on Human Rights, Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2003/68: Protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, E/CN.4/RES/2003/68 (2003)
- Wald, Patricia (2010): “National Security versus Human Rights: An uneven playing field,” American Society of International Law, Vol 104, pp 458.
Pakistan’s fight against terrorism inside its borders
When Pakistan first appeared on the map, it had little to no idea how its neighbors would harness its land. It came quite clear after the separation of East Pakistan that the land of the pure would require more foresight in dealing with those around it. They might even need to fight to maintain peace on its soil.
Since the birth of Pakistan, it has been subjected to different fights to maintain its status. With all its struggles, finding peace for the valley, and balancing its economy, the country has faced many turbulences. It has proven itself against all sorts of malicious endeavors. Some that had the potential to harm its name in the international society.
It was 9/11 that not only shook the whole world but this nook of the Asian continent as it plunged into instability. It seems like someone was busy hiding a terrorist network in Pakistan. From terrorism attacks on the APS school to the attack on the five-star PC in Gwadar. The country has been struggling to keep its face clear even though it has suffered from Islamophobia in the international community.
Pakistan and its army have been heading strong and determined to keep the citizens of Pakistan safe along with protecting the people on the globe who accept the hostility of the country to open its land for tourism. Since 2010 the country has been busy weeding out terrorist organizations. Many casualties have been taken as the roots of terrorism were attacked. The blood of martyrs has colored the land, but success has come in bits and pieces. The country was not facing armed militia but organized troops funded by the neighbors.
The terrorist funding trail reveals India’s involvement. These are no more allegations, and evidence of 22 billion PKR expenditure for the nourishment of such networks in Pakistan are available. This is quite a question, especially when keeping in mind the economy of the country. Besides, Narendra Modi’s support for extremism is simply a dot that needs to be connected.
The attack on APS was the boiling point for the whole nation. When every eye cried. Investigations were made to let the world know that Pakistan will not tolerate terrorism of any sort. Peace will be kept, and any intention against it will be answered with unpleasant outcomes. It has been, and the number of terrorism incidents has remarkably gone down.
As per the UN charter, the intrusive involvement by patronizing any country’s domestic issues is a clear violation. With ISIS contributing their share to terrorism in further Asia, it has been investigated that Indian intelligence agencies are trying to knit a scarf of deception by linking ISIS by creating “Daesh-e-Pakistan.”Adding firmness to their plan, they have already admitted 30 Indian militants in this organization and relocated them to camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Two Indian agency representatives were responsible for handing over these militants to Daesh commander Sheikh Abdul Rahim.
The geographical advantage that Pakistan holds brought a ray of sunshine with the CPEC project. But as the country started working on its economy’s progress, the state has witnessed countable heart-wrenching fights against terrorist groups. While Pakistan struggles to keep global security and safety and fights against incendiary of this terrorism, Indian state policy has internalized terrorism as an instrument. With Modi’s incumbency, the Kashmir valley has burned, but Muslims in Delhi face their wrath.
Hence, the policy was not a joke, it was a serious mission, and satisfactory amounts were sent to sub-nationals through humanitarian assistance to cause unrest in Balochistan. With Peshawar police attack on 11 May 2020 to target killing and eventually linking with a suicide attack on Mardan Judicial Complex in 2016. Pakistan has been highly receptive to all intelligence gathered to averting a colossal attack on 14 August 2020. Maj Fermin Das, an official from Indian intelligence, was found to be the mastermind behind the planning of this attack. This person was operating from Afghanistan, which failed obviously!
It’s been no secret to everyone with Indian involvement in creating instability in Jammu Kashmir. Gilgit Baltistan is not far from it, sharing the same boundaries. Out of 60 implanted IEDs, 22 were successfully diffused, but 38 exploded and took 13 civilian lives and 48 military personnel. The explosives used in those IEDs have been traced back to, you guessed it, India.
No matter how many times Pakistan will try to keep out the pest from its soil, they seem to be crawling back inside. Safety is not just the issue of Pakistan but is the issue of the whole world. Countries funding their neighbors to keep unrest in the continent requires global attention, and determined action should be taken.
Jihadist terrorism in the EU since 2015
Europe has experienced a series of terror attacks since 2015. Who are the terrorists? Why and how do they act?
Jihadist terrorism is not new in the EU, but there has been a new wave of islamist attacks since 2015. What do jihadist terrorists want? Who are they? How do they attack?
What is jihadist terrorism?
The goal of jihadist groups is to create an Islamic state governed only by Islamic law – Sharia. They reject democracy and elected parliaments because in their opinion God is the sole lawgiver.
Europol defines Jihadism as “a violent ideology exploiting traditional Islamic concepts. Jihadists legitimise the use of violence with a reference to the classical Islamic doctrine on jihad, a term which literally means ‘striving’ or ‘exertion’, but in Islamic law is treated as religiously sanctioned warfare”.
The al-Qaeda network and the so-called Islamic state are major representatives of jihadist groups. Jihadism is a sub-set of Salafism, a revivalist Sunni movement.
Who are the jihadi terrorists?
According to Europol, jihadist attacks in 2018 were carried out primarily by terrorists who grew up and were radicalised in their home country, not by so-called foreign fighters (individuals that travelled abroad to join a terrorist group).
In 2019, nearly 60% of jihadi attackers had the citizenship of the country in which the attack or plot took place.
Radicalisation of home-grown terrorists has speeded up as lone wolves are radicalised by online propaganda, while their attacks are inspired rather than ordered by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda or IS.
Europol explains that these terrorists may not necessarily be very religious: they may not read the Quran or regularly attend mosque and they often have a rudimentary and fragmented knowledge of Islam.
In 2016, a significant number of the individuals reported to Europol for terrorism were low-level criminals, suggesting people with a criminal history or socialised in a criminal environment may be more susceptible to radicalisation and recruitment.
Europol draws the conclusion that “religion may thus not be the initial or primary driver of the radicalisation process, but merely offer a ‘window of opportunity’ to overcome personal issues. They may perceive that a decision to commit an attack in their own country may transform them from ‘zero’ to ‘hero’.”
The 2020 Europol report shows that most jihadi terrorists were young adults. Almost 70% of them were aged 20 to 28 years old and 85% were male.
How do jihadi terrorists attack?
Since 2015, jihadist attacks have been committed by lone actors and groups. Lone wolves use mainly knives, vans and guns. Their attacks are simpler and rather unstructured. Groups use automatic rifles and explosives in complex and well-coordinated attacks.
In 2019, almost all completed or failed attacks were by lone actors, while most foiled plots involved multiple suspects.
There has been a tendency for jihadist terrorists to favour attacks against people, rather than buildings or institutional targets, in order to trigger an emotional response from the public.
Terrorists do not discriminate between Muslim and non-Muslim and attacks have aimed for the maximum of casualties, such as in London, Paris, Nice, Stockholm, Manchester, Barcelona and Cambrils.
The EU’s fight against terrorism
EU measures to prevent new attacks are wide-ranging and thorough. They span from cutting the financing of terrorism, tackling organised crime, and strengthening border controls to addressing radicalisation and improving police and judicial cooperation on tracing suspects and pursuing perpetrators.
For example, MEPs adopted new rules to make the use of guns and the creation of home-made bombs more difficult for terrorists.
Europol, the EU’s police agency, has been given additional powers. It can set up specialised units more easily, such as the European Counter Terrorism Centre created in January 2016. It can also exchange information with private companies in some cases and ask social media to remove pages runs by IS.
In July 2017, the European Parliament created a special committee on terrorism to evaluate how to better fight terrorism at EU level. MEPs produced a report with concrete measures they want the European Commission to include in new legislation.
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