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Terrorism

“Radical Islamic Terrorists”: How is President Trump doing in his first 100 days in Office?

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” ] D [/yt_dropcap]uring the 2016 campaign and in the early months of his presidency, President Trump made “defeating radical Islamic terrorism” a key part of his counterterrorism strategy. He also pledged to intensify operations against terrorist groups like ISIS/Daesh and al-Qaeda as well as refrain from large-scale military interventions that could put the lives of American soldiers in harm’s way.

In his State of the Union address to Congress, President Trump also promised to “make America first,” demanded that U.S. partners and allies shoulder more of the burden in fighting terrorism, and said the U.S. can no longer be the world’s policeman spending American treasure and spilling American blood overseas. During his campaign having already labelled Brussels, hash-tag hellhole, he began his first 100 days in office by reprimanding key European allies and expressing disdain for international organizations such as the U.N. and NATO. Although consistent with much of what he promised on the campaign trail, his decisions represented a more assertive shift in U.S. foreign policy and to combating terrorism compared to his predecessor, President Obama.

Yet, as the realities of his Presidential duties hit rhetoric, President Trump has been forced to come around to embracing NATO and reaffirm key alliances. He has also acted out his support for upholding international norms against the use of chemical weapons by bombing Syria. Despite complaining about U.S. responsibilities and his calls for more burden-sharing by U.S. allies, he has also sent more U.S. troops to aid in the fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. From a counter-terrorism perspective, it appears he has not yet hit the mark in terms of keeping Americans safer or in defeating “radical Islamic terrorists.” In fact, his policies and his “tough guy” stance as the spokesman for the U.S. may be making Americans less safe and fueling, rather than defeating, terrorist recruitment.

While the Obama administration ended the U.S. combat missions in Iraq in 2010 and Afghanistan in 2014, U.S. troops remained in both places, with estimates around 15,000 deployed when President Trump took office. Currently, under President Trump, their presence is increasing. There are at least 6,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and about 300 to 500 in Syria, and more than 8,000 in Afghanistan. President Trump is still playing policeman.

The 6,000 U.S. troops currently deployed to Iraq compares to the peak of approximately 166,000 troops during the surge in November 2007, 4 yet numbers continue to rise, and increasingly U.S. troops are involved in actual combat. Even though orders to U.S. troops in Mosul are to remain behind the forward front lines, military officials acknowledge that this line is constantly shifting while troops clear 200,000 buildings in the city and face IED’s and booby traps planted around the area.5 Referring to U.S. troops in Iraq at a March 28, 2017 reception for U.S. senators and their spouses, President Trump announced, “Our soldiers are fighting like never before.”6 According to Air Force Col. John Dorrian, spokesman for the military coalition fighting Daesh, U.S. troops in Iraq are not simply advisors or trainers anymore. They have come under fire at different times and have returned fire.7

Interestingly enough, the Pentagon’s record on transparency when it comes to divulging the numbers deployed to Iraq remains poor, a sharp divergence from policies under the Obama administration. Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman cited the following reasons for this failure to inform the American public: “In order to maintain tactical surprise, ensure operational security and force protection, the coalition will not routinely announce or confirm information about the capabilities, force numbers, locations, or movement of forces in or out of Iraq and Syria.”8 This policy, however, leaves the American people in the dark. It also reflects how deeply and committed the new administration is to troop deployment in Iraq, and now Syria as well.

Military attacks in Yemen, taking place shortly after President Trump took office in January 2017, resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer, William “Ryan” Owens. President Trump used this event to his advantage during his State of the Union Address by inviting and paying tribute to the SEAL’s widow, Carryn Owens. However, some argued that the Yemen raid was poorly planned and executed and that it unnecessarily risked civilian lives, including the lives of American soldiers.we should not, as President Trump may, naïvely expect for Daesh to disappear. Americans find military deployments shrouded in secrecy and some of their best dying in raids, it brings up the question of how President Trump is refraining from spilling American blood or putting “America first.”

In March 2017, deployments from Fort Bragg of 240 soldiers to Iraq from a Brigade of 2,000 soldiers at the ready for additional deployments reflects the freedom the Trump administration has granted to its commanders to move forces into the battle zone “without lengthy review in Washington.”10 The U.S also recently sent Army Rangers and a Marine artillery unit to Syria, with the Rangers “operating in the northern town of Manbij to deter Turkish-backed Syrian fighters from moving into the area” and the Marine artillery unit “providing firepower for the offensive to take the Tabaqa Dam and cut off the western approaches to Raqqa, which is being carried out by Syrian fighters backed by the United States.”11 In March of 2017, an Army platoon was deployed to Iraq to clear away roadside bombs12—a danger that will likely increase as Daesh cadres lose territory and increasingly revert to guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks on civilian targets. Approximately 2,500 U.S. Army paratroopers are also expected to receive orders to deploy to Iraq and Syria.13 Deployments continue to rise as the U.S. build-up of troops in the Middle East mirrors what happened during the Vietnam war; despite President Trump’s claims to put America first and not involve American troops in global conflicts.

Many military analysts and figures agree that the territorial defeat of Daesh in Iraq is nearly complete, especially in light of the success achieved in ousting Daesh from many areas of Mosul in Iraq.14 In Syria, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces recently launched an operation to seize the Tabaqa Dam, an area near Raqqa where the Daesh Emni (intelligence and external attack operations) had its headquarters.15 Both operations have been supported by U.S. airstrikes, artillery helicopters and U.S. troops acting as advisors, although also shooting and being shot at even inside Mosul. The numbers of U.S. troops operating in Mosul was doubled in January 2017.

While the defeat of Mosul and Raqqa will make it difficult for Daesh to hold territory and have any semblance of a state, we should not, as President Trump may, naïvely expect for Daesh to disappear. In our research interviewing Daesh defectors globally, we have been told the plan is to shave beards and blend into society mounting urban guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks17—like the one that occurred while we were in Baghdad in April, 2017. A truck bomb exploded at a checkpoint, igniting three additional tankers that were present to make that sort of conflagration. More attacks of this type are expected in Iraq, as Daesh has cleverly stored explosives in secret locations. In Syria, reports are that Daesh is training female cadres in combat operations, placing sticky bombs and training as suicide operatives.18 Total defeat of Daesh will not be simple.

We must also keep in mind that the very security violations that gave rise to Daesh in the first place are still rife in both Syria and Iraq. Sunnis in Fallujah, Mosul, and other areas of Anbar raise concerns about serious human rights violations, killings, and disappearances of Sunnis, even women by Shia death squads. Videos shown by a former Sunni resistance fighter in Amman in November 2017 depicting a teenage boy being dragged by Shia militia members to a tank and run over by it for suspicion of being in Daesh, are circulated in the Sunni parts of Iraq and beyond, creating horror, fear, and sectarian distrust among Iraqis. One press person we interviewed in April 2017, an Iraqi in Erbil, stated she often video recorded the ongoing battle between Shia forces and Daesh, especially in the Mosul areas, but was never allowed to interview the detained Daesh fighters as they were shot immediately without any trials by the Shia troops. Similarly, others have told of witnessing Shia forces dragging dead Daesh cadres through the streets of Mosul or letting their bodies rot in place. Such actions are unlikely to create any sense of trust or security among Sunnis for the government of Iraq.

Daesh, and al-Qaeda before them, have always been adept at using U.S. troop misdeeds and civilian kills as a tool to stir up anger against the West and garner more terrorist recruits. During the first three months of President Trump’s presidency, there also has been a “significant uptick in the number of airstrikes targeting terrorists in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan.” We must hope that civilians are not high among those killed as video footage of civilian victims is exactly what groups like Daesh use to incite hatred against Americans and fuel recruitment into their terrorist cause.

Thus, when a U.S. airstrike killed scores of Iraqi civilians in Mosul on March 17, 2017, it may have been exactly one of those events which the terrorist group can use for recruitment, even while it is losing territory.22 As more and more American troops get embroiled in Syria and Iraq, we must hope the military has ‘upped its game’ regarding a small footprint and for observing human rights. We cannot afford any major scandals like Abu Ghraib or the Marine rape and killings in Haditha that poured fuel on al Qaeda’s recruitment, though one remains concerned when senior White House officials make claims such as “Theater commanders have been unshackled. Everyone’s been unshackled to do their job,” referring to a lifting of many combat restrictions by the Trump administration over the military that were in place during the Obama administration. While that may be good for U.S. military morale, it creates dangers as well.

President Trump now allows counterterrorism airstrikes outside of a conventional war zone, such as Afghanistan, to be ordered without vetting by the White House and other agencies—also creating the possibilities of over doing it. On April 13, 2017, General John Nicholson ordered the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S.’ arsenal to root out a complex of tunnels and caves in Afghanistan used by the Daesh affiliate in Afghanistan, Daesh-Khorasan. Some journalists reporting on the bomb’s nickname of the “Mother of All Bombs,” or MOAB, were quick to say “This is what freedom looks like” while President Trump praised the general’s decision to drop the MOAB on Daesh, which he and his administration believe sent a cautionary message to all of the U.S.’ adversaries.26 Indeed it did, although whether that message is what he and his administration hope it is, remains another matter. One can imagine Daesh and other terrorist groups playing such news footage with the voice-overs of “this is what democracy looks like” in their recruiting videos.

In the fight against terrorism, President Trump has mainly engaged in rhetoric that purports to make America safe and to put “America first.” In reality, however, his policies may be doing exactly the opposite. While nearly no one disagrees that Daesh’ ability to hold territory in Syria and Iraq should be seriously degraded, if not altogether destroyed, naïveté about whether that will be an end to Daesh is dangerous. In addition, heavy involvements of U.S. troops, particularly in combat roles, may fuel Daesh recruitment elsewhere. Given that Daesh is instructing its cadres to stay home and attack in place, this may lead to attacks similar to the ones recently witnessed in London, Stockholm, Brussels and Paris where Americans have also been killed. Keeping us safe means we can safely travel through European airports, shop and dine on tourist destinations without fear.

Equally important, President Trump’s poorly laid out immigration policies that targeted first six predominantly Muslim countries for the visa ban and later cut that to five may have played right into the hands of groups like Daesh. They argue that Islam, Muslim lands, and Muslims are under attack. These are groups who have long sought to create hatred and a divide between Muslims and the West to be able to recruit more Muslims to their cause. When President Trump speaks about banning access to Syrian refugees— many who are not terrorists, but are fleeing from terrorists—and refers to his fight with terrorism as against “radical Islam,” but fails to speak about the many Muslims who are also victims of terrorism, he is playing right into the hands of groups like Daesh. The same happens when he fails to speak against and pursue the right-wing terrorists who have killed innocent Muslims. He is playing the villain in their black and white view of the world and giving them cause to claim that Americans hate Muslims.

President Trump’s core personality-based leadership traits are often characterized as extreme and unusual for any presidential candidate. To succeed against terrorists, he needs to be able to think beyond himself, to get to the heart of the matter, and put himself in their shoes, such as in the case when he included Iraq in the visa ban. He and his administration failed to consider that Iraqis might retaliate and ban Americans working with NGOs and who, in many cases, are actually directly supporting U.S. military and U.S. combat efforts in Iraq. Iraqis are also a major partner in the fight against Daesh. He cannot often see beyond his own rhetoric, but to succeed, he needs to.

We need carefully thought out policies that do not inflame further tensions with our trusted allies. We also need carefully controlled troop deployments if we want to work effectively against the brand that Daesh is selling—that is, a promise of an alternative world governance which will continue to sell regardless of whether Daesh loses its territory in Syria and Iraq. We have seen upwards of 31,000 foreign fighters accept the Daesh dream of their so-called Islamic Caliphate and pour into Syria and Iraq from 86 countries. The Daesh brand continues to flourish despite their territorial setbacks, and their franchises operate in at least 30 countries. Unless we get smart and pull together, we will continue to see terrorist groups like Daesh winning in small victories and countless terrorist tragedies continuing to be enacted in our cities and airports and by extension witness larger tragedies involving hundreds of thousands of displaced persons who will continue to seek refuge in our Western countries. President Trump has now put a reasonable, seasoned General in charge of defense and another in charge of National security. Let us hope they advise him well going forward, and he does manage to defeat the current terrorist menace.

(*) Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.  Director, ICSVE and Non-Resident Fellow of Trends & Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. Director of Research/Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE)

This article first appeared as a chapter in The Changing International Order published by Trends Research and Advisory http://trendsinstitution.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Changing-International-Order-Master-File-Columns.pdf

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

Sri Lanka’s fight against LTTE terrorism: In retrospect

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Authors: Ms. Nathasha Fernando and Ms. Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa

On the 19th of May 2020 Sri Lanka celebrated the National War Heroes Day and there was a surprise: Tamil Ealam Cyber Force attacking and defacing several government websites.

The Sri Lankan civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan state ended in May 2009. The LTTE was known to the world as a ‘terrorist group’, ‘insurgents’, and alternatively as ‘guerilla fighters’. A number of countries in the world has proscribed the LTTE as a terrorist organization especially following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 during which a global pledge was made to rid the world of terrorism. The Council of European Union pursuant toUNSC Resolution 1373/2001 formulated the European Union Terrorist List proscribing the LTTE as a terrorist organization up to date. In 2009, the LTTE was brutally annihilated by a resolute military assault by the Sri Lankan state armed forces. Although the LTTE were militarily annihilated, their ideology is promulgated in other ways through an extensive international diaspora and especially warfare in the cyber domain.

How Sri Lanka won the war

The failure of the peace-talks in 1990, 1995, and 2002 pointed out there was no way to fight against terrorism other than by military means. There were international commentators whom opined war could not be won militarily such as General A.S Kalkat and opposition leader Ranil Wikremasinghe who downplayed and mocked Sri Lanka’s military victories against the LTTE. In 2007, Sri Lankan military victory at Thoppigala was belittled by Wikremasinghe as “nothing to crow about”. Therefore with the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the president of Sri Lanka in 2005, appointment of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as secretary of defense, and several notable military men to head Sri Lanka’s tri-forces, the war was won to the dismay of the skeptics working against Sri Lanka’s national interests.

Sri Lanka’s military victory was the result of courageous leadership and a solid grand-strategy. Although 4 percent allocation of the GDP to defense strained fiscal resources, financial assistance was sought from Iran, Libya, Russia and Pakistan. European Union, US and Canada assisted diplomatically by proscribing LTTE as terrorists aiding the government to limit LTTE foreign financing. Sri Lanka’s navy played a key role to cut of LTTE logistical lines and cripple the LTTE Sea Tigers. The intelligence wing of the military was also able to manipulate a defection from within LTTE internal ranks. The defector Karuna Amman was key to obtaining vital information on LTTE command structure and operations.

Tamil Ealam Cyber force

The LTTE political wing had been active even though the war ended in 2009. Sri Lankan government has been weak in countering the legitimacy of the LTTE claim of the Ealam, ‘Tamil Homeland’ in the cyberspace. The global Tamil community is one of the largest Diasporas in the world. The LTTE cyber strategy is to conduct “cyber-attacks”, use cyberspace for amassing funds, and support ideological propaganda. The LTTE has attempted to deface and hack the government of Sri Lanka’s websites several times. According to cyber security analysts, the virtual Elam that had been created by the post-war new generation of Tamils in exile are formulating new narratives of Ceylonese history portraying a government in exile; a different approach to reclaiming Ealam. Through websites such as www.tamilnation.org, www.eelam.com,www.tamilcanadian.com,www.tamileelamnews.com,www.tamileditors.com,www.eelamweb.com, and www.tamilnet.com  content  is aimed at redefining the notion of state and nation in a technocratic era. Some notable issues that are continuously represented in these website contents are government’s continued militarization of North, accusations of war crimes, government denial of war crimes and issues that denigrate the image of Sri Lanka internationally.

A raucous Tamil diaspora

According to a study by The International Crisis Group, the interplay between diaspora Tamils and the LTTE is complex and misunderstood. As SharikaThiranagama points out “all tigers are Tamil, but not all Tamils are tigers”. It was both state and LTTE violence that forced Tamils to seek political asylum abroad. These Tamils have a strong sense of victimization and injustice with guilt and shame for leaving Sri Lanka when their brethren fell in battle. These sentiments were manipulated by Prabhakaran in the 80s to establish links between LTTE cadres and Tamils in other countries who blended within Tamil communities in Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and India while bureaucracies’ in Canada, Norway, Switzerland and Australia were infiltrated. Most funding was stopped by the government in 2009 with the arrest of KP-Selverasa Pathmanathan. Post war, the diaspora is still active and the real danger lies in how diaspora groups alter the history of Sri Lanka which misleads second and third generation of Tamils growing up in foreign countries to mistrust the Sinhalese.

Moving forward

In retrospect, the battle with virtual Ealam is the biggest and the most difficult war to win. It requires a national, regional and international cybersecurity strategy with experts working together. There are several national agencies for cyber security in Sri Lanka such as Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team Coordinating Centre and Air Force Cyber Operations Centre. The government’s Cyber Security Strategy from 2019-2023 is aimed at countering cyber-attacks but much more needs to be done to create counter narratives to LTTE-driven ideology and narratives of virtual Eelam spread across the web and on social media.

This article is written by Ms. Nathasha Fernando and Ms. Ayodhya Krishani Amarajeewa.

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Terrorism

How Assad’s Atrocities Became a Powerful Motivator for Terrorist Recruitment

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

When one thinks of the recent conflicts in Syria, images of ISIS beheadings, enslavement of Yazidis and black flags flying on behalf of the establishment of the ISIS Caliphate loom front and center. Many around the globe also fear and abhor the idea of ISIS criminals returning home, anxious that they may not be imprisoned and continue their heinous criminal acts, or even if imprisoned, spread their hateful ideology at home.[1] In the world’s collective consciousness, the Bashar al-Assad regime and its atrocities during the Syrian conflicts pale in comparison to ISIS’ brutal reign of terror. Indeed, ISIS became one of the largest, richest and most lethal and brutal terrorist organizations of all time.

Yet in March 2020, the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported from its tally of civilian casualties in the Syrian uprising that 91.4 percent of those occurring up to 2020 were caused by the Assad regime and other parties supportive of the regime, including Iranian and Russian groups. The numbers of civilian casualties attributed to ISIS, however, dwarf in comparison to those committed by the Assad regime, adding up to only 2.2 percent of the total. While ISIS is rated as the group responsible for the second-largest number of civilian casualties in Syria, its raw numbers are few compared to Assad’s.[2] This often overlooked fact actually explains much about terrorism and is a warning to us about how terrorist groups use humanitarian and conflict zones to recruit new members to their cause and engage them in terrorist violence.

Between 2015 and 2020, the lead author at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] in-depth interviewed 239 male and female ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres, many who responded to calls from ISIS, rebel groups and the Syrian people themselves to come to their aid.[3] This in-depth research of ISIS cadres has allowed for examination of the specific influences, motivations, and sources of disillusionment these ISIS cadres experienced with ISIS as they relate to the Assad regime’s actions. Specifically, the present investigation explores the impact of amateur Syrian videos depicting suffering civilians on the decisions of foreign fighters to travel to Syria to immediately or subsequently join ISIS, the prevalence and correlates of locals and foreign fighters citing anger at the Assad regime as a primary motivation for joining ISIS, and ISIS’ contradictory involvement with the Assad regime as a source of disillusionment within ISIS ranks. Moreover, this policy paper looks in particular at the group of foreign fighters who traveled to Syria, initially out of a desire to fight the Assad regime, feeling that the Western world had abandoned the Syrian people. Looking at these aspects of influence and motivation for joining, will to fight and disillusionment as they relate to ISIS’ and the Syrian people’s portrayal of Assad’s atrocities as well as ISIS’ own actions leads to important insights into how humanitarian crises and conflicts are used by terrorist groups to draw in foreign fighters in particular, motivate them to fight, and keep them engaged in terrorism violence. It is critical to examine how foreign fighters in particular were manipulated by their emotional responses to the Syrian crisis and ultimately willingly joined or inadvertently fell into the ranks of ISIS, and also to examine what disillusioned them along these same topics, as doing so provides useful information and policy recommendations for avoiding similar non-responsiveness to future situations that terrorist groups, like ISIS, may be more than happy to exploit.

The failed Syrian Arab Spring in 2011 that devolved into armed conflict when Assad’s forces began gunning down unarmed protestors, leading to riots, violent uprising and finally civil war, provided the perfect platform for ISIS to join the dozens of disparate rebel groups that arose in Syria to fight the Syrian regime and use events happening in Syria to strengthen their own terrorist organization. Indeed, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi clearly foresaw in 2012, as he was rebuilding al-Qaeda in Iraq (which had been rebranded as the Islamic State in Iraq), the possibility of increasing the strength and ranks of ISI by attracting to his group the influx of foreign terrorist fighters flowing into Syria. He and his propagandists understood well that entering the Syrian conflict while presenting ISIS as defending Sunni Muslims under attack could be their grand play upon the existing al-Qaeda jihadist narratives already spread throughout the world, one which would become for ISIS a winning move to terrorist ascendancy.

Consistent with the propagandists’ goals, as ISIS rose into power, most of Baghdadi’s fighting forces were not native to Iraq and Syria. The earliest foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs] had been drawn to Syria first by the Free Syrian Army [FSA], al Nusra and the dozens of other groups operating there, as well as by the calls of ordinary Syrian civilians to come and help them. Before the end of 2014, when Baghdadi declared the Caliphate, approximately 15,000 FTFs from 80 countries had traveled to join the Syrian uprising,[4] many joining FSA and al Nusra. However, as ISIS rose in prominence, many of these FTFs later joined ISIS and, over time, FTFs and their families began streaming by the tens of thousands directly into the self-declared ISIS Caliphate, mounting to over 40,000 FTFs who ultimately traveled to Syria.[5]

Meanwhile, many of the rebel groups grew concerned about ISIS spies in their ranks and became suspicious of FTFs, imprisoning and sometimes even executing them. Likewise, groups like the FSA, who rejected the jihadist vision for Syria, saw the jihadist-minded foreign fighters as enemies to their nationalistic objectives. As such, foreign fighters in Syria found themselves subject to being hunted down, imprisoned and executed by previously welcoming rebel groups. ISIS, however, continued to welcome foreign fighters with open arms, inviting them to their shared vision of building an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. ISIS’ welcoming stance also provided safe haven for those, with or without this vision, who could no longer make their way through territories bordering Turkey held by hostile groups, which were necessary to cross to make their way back home. As ISIS portrayed itself as the protector of Sunni Muslims, and promoted their rapidly expanding Caliphate as one governed by the laws of Allah, portraying it as the new Islamic utopia, many who fell into, or willfully joined their ranks, did so believing ISIS to be offering the best remedy to the oppression caused by dictators like Assad.

Many of the early FTFs had watched scores of videos posted online, many recorded on mobile phones, of Syrian women and children calling out for help amidst rubble, following chemical attacks, or after experiencing the crimes of rape and torture. Covered in dirt and blood, these victims cried out to the Islamic ummah (global family of Muslims), “Muslims, Muslims of the world, where are you?”

In response to these heart-rending calls, many young Muslim men all over the globe became enraged at the world’s seeming indifference and heeded the call, many having no initial intention to ever join a terrorist group.

In the Balkans, young men vividly recalled the horrors of the wars with Serbia and the foreign fighters who had come to their aid. Having grown up under war, these young men now wished to offer the same defense for Syrians. Likewise, first-, second-, and third-generation Muslims of immigrant descent, as well as converts, in Europe and North America were astounded and angered by world powers who seemed oblivious to Assad’s atrocities against his own people. As President Obama drew his red line in Syria, but then failed to act, more young men around the world decided they would act in his stead.

In many countries, particularly in the Gulf and the Balkans, religious and even political leaders concerned about the growing atrocities in Syria began referring to the imperative to go to the aid of Syrians, yet their governments failed to take effective actions. As it increasingly appeared that no one was successfully responding to the pitiful calls of the besieged Syrians, Muslim youth around the globe increasingly felt that if world powers would not stand up for the defenseless Syrian people, they would. Many, therefore, believing the already popularized militant jihadist narrative about the obligation of Muslims to fight jihad, who moreover felt it was wrong, if not religiously forbidden, for them to remain living in relative comfort while their Islamic brothers and sisters in Syria suffered, became convinced that it was their duty to join the fight in Syria. This obligation to jihad, which had already been popularized by al Qaeda’s propagandist Anwar al Awlaki coupled with the effect of Syrian civilian suffering was not lost on ISIS propagandists who also began to use the call to jihad to their advantage as they joined the Syrian civilians and rebel groups in calling foreigners to travel to Syria.

Not everyone who joined ISIS did so initially. Indeed, 21.2 percent of the male foreign fighters in our sample initially were members of another group before joining ISIS. Many of the early travelers to Syria entered during a time when the rebel groups were still operating chaotically and there was a great deal of overlap and cooperation among the groups. Joining any particular rebel group was often a matter of being guided by a local, family member, or friend who had come before, and also occurred by random chance. However, as the groups solidified, and particularly as they began infighting, shifting alliances often created situations where individuals chose, or were forced, to move from one group into another, with many foreign fighters moving to ISIS where they were welcomed rather than suspected or persecuted as spies or jihadists. Likewise, ISIS appeared to many to be the strongest group, as it was gaining significant swathes of territory and had accumulated the money to provide its fighters with salaries, top of the line, and often new, weaponry and spent a great deal of time indoctrinating them into the Islamic underpinnings arguing that ISIS was both capable and destined to build a utopian Islamic Caliphate.

Emotional Responses to Suffering Used to Influence Terrorist Travel

When examining the data from the 236 in-depth interviews of ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres interviewed by ICSVE between September 2015 and January 2020 (the sample containing 43 nationalities and 55 ethnicities and made up of 198 males and 38 females it), it emerges that 41.5 percent of the men and 7.7 percent of the women who traveled to Syria and Iraq were influenced to undertake such travel by watching amateur videos that moved them to take up arms or provide humanitarian aid in Syria. These respondents described to the researchers their emotions evoked by watching mobile phone videos of mothers crying over their dying children, calling out to the ummah for help. For many interviewees from the Balkans, these videos triggered visceral post-traumatic reactions from childhood memories of their war-torn countries and for others who had not grown up in war also triggered deep feelings of outrage over unanswered and unstopped injustice.

For example, 29-year-old Kosovar, Albert, recalls his emotional pain watching amateur Syrian videos, “I have seen quite similar torture when we were in the war with Serbia. We were also the victims of injustice.” Albert felt compelled to act: “During the war in Kosovo, I was a child … there was no opportunity for me to be engaged in the war. But now I am getting older and I feel responsible to act. I could not just let it happen.”

Bosnian 33-year-old Elvin also recalls the calls by religious authorities in the mosques who would “invoke the need for Bosnians, especially, to pay back for the foreign fighters who came in ’91 and ’92.” Elvin recalls, “I watched [online] videos of Assad’s troops killing people… We had memories of Arabs coming to fight for our cause; I felt I owed this.”

Anger and Sadness over Assad’s Atrocities as Motivations to Travel to Syria

Foreign fighters who traveled to ISIS were often motivated to do so by anger and sadness over Assad’s atrocities toward his own people rather than affinity to ISIS’s goals per se, as evidenced in this sample’s responses, particularly among those who came early to the conflict zone.  Indeed, 52.3 percent of this sample’s interviewees reported being motivated by sadness and an urge to provide humanitarian aid. 57.5 percent of the foreign men and 30.8 percent of the foreign women in this sample of 236 stated that they traveled to Syria and joined ISIS with the goal of helping the Syrian people. These individuals, similar to those motivated by anger, were overcome with strong emotions upon seeing and hearing what Assad’s regime was doing to its own people in Syria, while also being aware that prominent leaders were calling for action, yet world powers were failing to put a stop to Assad’s offenses.

Zyad Abdul Hamid, a 35-year-old from Trinidad, expressed his feelings upon seeing Western leaders call for help for the Syrian people and feeling that if the Western powers failed to act, he personally could not: “I saw John McCain saying Syrians needed help. I was a Muslim and thought it’s binding upon me to help.” Zyad entered Syria in 2014 and claims he did not join any group initially: “I helped people buy clothes, stuff like this.” Like many who became trapped in territory that ISIS controlled, Zyad Abdul Hamid then fell into the ranks of ISIS although he was also drawn to their claims to be building an Islamic Caliphate. He recalls, “the groups started fighting each other and we stayed low. After a while, Dawlah [ISIS] took the outside, took the borders.” Zyad was both trapped and intrigued by ISIS’s message, recalling, “They came around talking to us. I’m a Muslim. I wanted to know about Islamic law.”

Humanitarian concerns were also a common motivating purpose among Western women who travelled to join ISIS. For instance, 46-year-old Canadian Kimberly Pullman, facing her own emotional crisis following a rape recalls deciding that it would be better to go help Syrian children as a nurse than stay mired in her suicidal state of mind. She remembers thinking, “If I was going to die at least I could die helping children […] I felt if I did something good it would overwrite the bad that had happened.”[6]

Similarly, 23-year-old Belgian Cassandra recalls how her much older husband, who was already deeply embedded in ISIS, manipulated her emotions by showing her videos of the actions of the Syrian regime. She recalls, “He told me about Syria and showed me videos of the torture of Bashar. I was in pain, so I have to do something.” Facing a difficult family situation at home, Cassandra left Europe at only 18 years old to join her French husband already living in Syria. Later she adopted three Syrian children, all Shia orphans, who many in ISIS felt should have been left to die. True to her helping nature, she sheltered them under the protection of her husband who had risen to become an emir in ISIS, in charge of making explosive-laden cars for suicide missions. While she had come to Syria with hopes of helping Syrians she now states that ISIS “will promise you peace and security. They didn’t do anything. They want[ed a] so-called Islamic State, at the end they have been destroyed from everywhere.” She laments, “Kids died, parents died, so many injured people…”

Anger, truly outrage over Assad’s atrocities, was also a common motivator for traveling to Syria and joining ISIS. In our sample, 18.9 percent of the foreign fighter males attributed anger at the actions of Assad’s regime and the rest of the world’s inaction in response to him, as a strong motivation for travelling to Syria and ultimately joining ISIS.

36-year-old Canadian Abu Ridwan al Canadia states his motivation clearly and succinctly: “I was following the news and you can’t basically sit by and not do anything.” Abu Ridwan claims he was not there to join a terrorist group and had no initial interest in ISIS, stating, “I was there to fight the Syrian regime.” Yet, he, like many foreign fighters drawn into the conflicts by humanitarian concerns, followed his group and pledged allegiance to ISIS only three months after arriving in Syria.

Will to Fight

While the reasons given for their willingness to engage in terrorist violence and fight for ISIS included wanting to establish the ISIS Caliphate, fear of ISIS punishments if they refused, fear of being captured or killed by the enemies of ISIS, along with a myriad of less often given reasons, a deep hatred of Assad formed the primary backbone for many ISIS cadres willingness to fight, particularly among foreign fighters. 9.1 percent (n=18) of the males in this sample stated that fighting Assad’s regime was their primary motivation for going to battle. Of these, 16 were foreign fighters. Of the 16 FTFs who stated that fighting Assad was their primary motivation to fight, 31.3 percent (n=5) were from the Balkans. The others were from the United Kingdom (n=2), Morocco (n=2), and one FTF each was from Canada, Germany, Kazakhstan, Libya, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia.

24-year-old UK Jack Letts recalls, “I came because of what Bashar was doing […] I believed they were Muslims and good to fight for an Islamic State, and fighting Assad.” Jack also states that while he became totally disillusioned of ISIS and rejected them while living under their rule, he still, even in prison, retains his will to fight Assad.[7]

Abu Khalid, a 32-year-old German, also recalls being moved to come to Syria out of a deep sense of responsibility to fight Assad’s regime. Similar to Jack Letts, Abu Khalid continues to view Assad as a war criminal that even now needs to be defeated. While Abu Khalid claims he would never again fight for ISIS, he admits that if the circumstance were supportive he would be willing to once again take up arms against Assad.  He explains, “If I get out of prison, I could see going back to fight Bashar. For this I came, this war criminal.”

Disillusionment with ISIS over its Dealings with Assad

Just as outrage and sadness over viewing Assad’s atrocities had drawn many into Syria and ultimately into ISIS ranks, ISIS’s cooperation with and failure to fight the Syrian regime also formed a significant source of disillusionment with ISIS. In this sample, 4.5 percent of the men reported being disillusioned by ISIS’s failure to fight Assad and 1.5 percent of the men were disillusioned by ISIS’s cooperation with Assad, namely ISIS’s selling oil and grain to the regime.[8] While many more may have expressed the same, ISIS cleverly hid its dealings with the Assad government from most of its members.

Of the 11 men who said they were disillusioned by ISIS’s failure to fight the Syrian regime or cooperation with it, seven were from Syria. This is likely due to the fact that Syrians were more likely to have much greater recognition of what was actually going on between ISIS and Assad’s government. Syrian ISIS fighters who could speak Arabic were often privy to the oil and grain sales, as they were the people who allowed Assad’s trucks to come and retrieve oil, or who guided the regime’s engineers to work on the pumps and pipelines held by ISIS. In contrast, ISIS took full advantage foreign fighters who could not understand the language or knew the political lay of the land and routinely sent them to kill Sunni tribesman, for example, in the genocidal al Sheitat slaughter, telling them that these were not even Sunni Muslims. Of course, for those who later learned the truth, disillusionment also set in.

31-year-old Kosovar Abu Naim, recalls how he was quickly disillusioned in 2013 by what he saw in Syria explaining that the rebel groups, including ISIS, were absorbed with infighting rather than focusing on fighting Assad’s forces, “There were too many groups involved. It’s as though they had forgotten about the regime. They started positioning [for power] amongst themselves.”[9]

27-year-old Swedish Abu Gibril also expresses his disappointment that ISIS didn’t keep their focus on fighting the Syrian regime, “They tried to make an Islamic State, but there were many things they did that was not smart. Instead of attacking the Kurds they should attack the Syrian army.”

Similarly, 33-year-old Abu Raqman of the UK explains, “I thought 100 percent they will win against Assad.” He became disillusioned when he saw that ISIS was attacking in Europe instead. “Personally, I don’t believe they should bring the war over there. The war is here [in Syria]. They should have focused on the biggest dictator here, not someone far away.”

24-year-old American-born Hoda Muthana agrees that ISIS’s actions outside of the active war with Assad’s regime were one of many sources of disillusionment for her. “Two enemies attacking each other is understandable,” she says, referring to ISIS fighting the regime. But she asks how those who served in ISIS’s killing machine will ever be able to atone for all the civilians they killed, “How are you going to justify for the kids you killed, when we believe all children go to heaven?”[10]

Conclusion

For many who joined ISIS, the events happening in Syria and the failure of the world’s leaders to stop Assad from cruelly killing and harming far more people than ISIS ever did created a massive whirlpool that pulled thousands of foreign fighters into travel across continents and oceans, many drowning themselves in terrorism as they sacrificed everything to come help their oppressed Muslims brother and sisters. A significant portion of these felt a personal responsibility to take up arms to fight Assad’s regime, and they initially came with good intentions even though they later fell into the ranks of ISIS. For many of these, even after becoming totally disillusioned of the Islamic State’s failed Caliphate, they continue in their hatred of Assad, so deeply that some would still be willing to take up arms once again to fight this war criminal. Likewise, while a large portion of ISIS members were disillusioned over time by the un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal nature of ISIS, some also found ISIS’s failure to fight Assad and even to cooperate with his government by selling them oil and grain to be strong enough reasons for wanting to give up on ISIS.

These are all lessons for the world to learn about how terrorist groups are able to use humanitarian crises and conflicts to recruit, influence, motivate and engage youth to take up arms for a terrorist cause and also how a terrorist group, when dealing with corrupt war criminals, can also be delegitimized in the eyes of its potential recruits and existing members.

When dealing with terrorist group recruitment, policy makers need to be keenly aware that when deep injustices are occurring, particularly aimed at Muslims, and Western powers do little to nothing to stop them, it plays into an already widely distributed al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and ISIS militant jihadi narrative: that Muslims are oppressed, Islamic lands and people and the religion itself are under attack and the West is playing a role, if not actually behind the oppression and injustice. Moreover, the militant jihadist narrative of these terrorist groups teaches that Muslims themselves have an individual duty to fight jihad, to bring an end to such atrocities and to bring about justice for the Muslim ummah, who are, according to the militant jihadist narrative, supposed to be living under Islamic ideals and shariah law – even if that can only be obtained by raising arms to do so.

At this point in time, ISIS has been territorially defeated. Most ISIS foreign fighters were either killed, have fled the battleground, or are locked up at home, in Iraq, or in Syria.

Meanwhile, Assad remains both free and in power.

While the German authorities have recently arrested two key players among Assad’s henchmen responsible for torturing countless Syrians,[11] until he and his entire leadership regime are brought to justice, the lessons to ordinary Muslims seeking justice is very clear: It may be necessary to resort to terrorist violence and join a terrorist group in order to defend the defenseless and to try to bring justice to a conflict zone that world powers appear willing to ignore.

While ISIS brought no defense, nor justice to the Syrian people, neither have the world powers.

Until youth who may be vulnerable to terrorist recruitment see and hear with their own eyes and ears that the West is willing to defend the defenseless and will enact justice, they will remain vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. These are important lessons for the future.

*Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE.  Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

[1] Al Jazeera. “Finland’s Foreign Minister Faces Probe over Syria Repatriations.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, February 19, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/finland-foreign-minister-faces-probe-syria-repatriations-200219161057275.html.; Guy, Jack, James Frater, and Sarah Dean. “Norway’s Governing Coalition Collapses over ISIS Repatriation.” CNN. Cable News Network, January 20, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/20/europe/norway-government-collapse-isis-intl/index.html.
[2] Syrian Network for Human Rights. (2020, March). Retrieved from http://sn4hr.org/
[3] Speckhard, Anne, and Molly D. Ellenberg. “ISIS in Their Own Words: Recruitment History, Motivations for Joining, Travel, Experiences in ISIS, and Disillusionment over Time–Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors and Prisoners.” Journal of Strategic Security 13, no. 1 (2020): 5.
[4] Foreign fighters flow to Syria. (2014, October 11). Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/foreign-fighters-flow-to-syria/2014/10/11/3d2549fa-5195-11e4-8c24-487e92bc997b_graphic.html
[5] Richard Barrett, “Beyond the Caliphate.” New York, NY: The Soufan Center (2017).
[6] Speckhard, Anne (March 31, 2020). Kimberly Pullman: A Canadian Woman Lured Over the Internet to the ISIS Caliphate. Homeland Security Today.
[7] Speckhard, Anne. “British-Born Jack Letts Discusses Mental Illness and His Path to ISIS.” Homeland Security Today, November 25, 2019. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/british-born-jack-letts-discusses-mental-illness-and-his-path-to-isis/.
[8] Speckhard, Anne, and Ahmet S. Yayla. “ISIS revenues include sales of oil to the al-Assad regime.” ICSVE Brief Reports (2016).
[9] Speckhard, Anne. “The Call to Jihad,” April 28, 2018. https://www.icsve.org/the-call-to-jihad/.
[10] Speckhard, Anne, and Ardian Shajkovci. “American-Born Hoda Muthana Tells All About Joining ISIS and Escaping the Caliphate.” Homeland Security Today, April 23, 2019. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/terrorism-study/american-born-hoda-muthana-tells-all-about-joining-isis-and-escaping-the-caliphate/.
[11] Karadsheh, Jomana. “Germany Opens Landmark Trial of Syrian Regime Officers Accused of Crimes against Humanity.” CNN. Cable News Network, April 23, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/23/middleeast/syria-germany-trial-intl/index.html.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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Terrorism

Delegitimizing ISIS and Militant Jihadist Ideologies May Also Require Addressing Anti-Western Biases

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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ISIS photo

Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

When ISIS was defeated territorially, there was a significant decrease in the online propaganda output for which they became notorious and which helped them to attract an unprecedented 40,000 foreign terrorist fighters to wage jihad and live under the Caliphate in Syria. Nevertheless, they still manage to reuse years of product produced in their heyday as well as continue to produce videos and recruit online from hidden safe havens in Iraq and Syria. Thus, the logical next phase of fighting ISIS is not attacking militarily, but also digitally taking them out. Some of the ways of doing that are already being accomplished by Facebook, Twitter and other mainline platforms using machine-run algorithms to enforce terrorist propaganda takedown policies and by militaries who attack their safe havens and means of continuing to broadcast their messages of hate. However, there is also the need to delegitimize terrorist groups and their virulent ideologies so that they find it much harder to gain traction with their intended audience of potential recruits. In doing so we are finding in our analysis of Facebook comments to anti-ISIS counternarrative campaigns evidence that it may be necessary not only to work to delegitimize terrorist groups but also to work to repair views of, and trust in, Western powers at the same time, as the two appear to be intertwined – something that groups like ISIS are all too eager to exploit.

Counternarratives have been put forth as a potentially useful technique for fighting ISIS online, but many efforts to produce online counternarratives against ISIS, often produced by government entities, have proven ineffective due to their inability to resonate with viewers in the same emotionally evocative and deep-seated way that the terrorist propaganda does. In this vein, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] has created over 175 counternarrative videos, taken from a collection of interviews with 239 ISIS prisoners, returnees and defectors, translated and subtitled in 27 languages, each of which features a speaker who actually lived in ISIS and either returned to their home countries, defected from ISIS, or were imprisoned. These speakers’ stories mirror the poignant nature of ISIS’s propaganda, telling, sometimes with tears in their eyes, of believing the ISIS recruitment lies, but then ending up watching their families die, seeing innocent people being executed, or being tortured themselves for breaking the most minor and arbitrary rule. The speakers focus on the ways that ISIS lied to them and manipulated their deepest desires to serve Islam while twisting and misusing sacred Islamic scriptures, and eventually ruined their lives.

ICSVE’s project, called Breaking the ISIS Brand – the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project, focuses on capturing the voices and emotions of credible defectors and imprisoned cadres. The footage used in the videos, other than the film of the speakers themselves, is taken from actual ISIS propaganda to illustrate the speaker’s story, which makes a direct contradiction to the terrorist narrative, effectively turning ISIS propaganda back on itself. At the end of the videos, which are titled with pro-ISIS names in order to capture the attention of viewers seeking ISIS videos, the speakers give advice to others who may be thinking of joining ISIS, forcefully denouncing the group. ICSVE’s counternarrative videos have been used by law enforcement professionals, religious leaders, and non-governmental organizations in face-to-face interactions in Kyrgyzstan, the Netherlands, Belgium, Jordan, Iraq and elsewhere as part of robust countering violent extremism programs. Likewise, participants in ICSVE-led focus groups as well as one imprisoned ISIS terrorist emir in Iraq have also reported (or in the case of the emir, was observed) being deeply moved by the content of the videos.

ICSVE has also run over 100 Facebook campaigns in multiple languages crossing multiple continents to reach the same audiences from which ISIS tries to recruit. While quantitative metrics provide important insight into the success of the counternarratives, qualitative analysis of the comments on the videos have also allowed ICSVE to determine the emotional resonance of the counternarratives. This article examines comments on ICSVE’s counternarrative videos in Facebook ad campaigns running from Dec. 3 to Dec. 31, 2019, in local languages in Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, and Saudi Arabia.

While not every viewer comments, those who do can be assumed to be engaged with the content of the video, which is a positive sign for using counternarratives. Very few comments on the counternarrative videos used in these campaigns expressed a positive view of ISIS; those who did typically called the speaker a liar or simply accusing ICSVE of lying, such as one commenter from Tunisia who wrote, “WTF I just watch and why the fuck is it keep coming in as a suggestion get the fuck outta here ain’t nobody got time for your bullshit” [sic]. On the other side of the spectrum, an Iraqi commenter clearly held a positive view of ISIS, writing in Arabic, “Raise the Lord of ISIS.” A viewer from Montenegro commented in Croatian, “Mockery! This is what the West does,” suggesting either that he did not believe the content of the video and implying that the counternarrative was part of a greater Western effort to discredit ISIS, or that ISIS was created by the West to make a mockery of Islam. Another Bosnian commenter suggested turning ISIS’s cruel punishments back on the speaker, writing, “While he was killing, he was a hero. Now that he’s trapped he becomes a coward, I suggest beheading him.”

Researchers testing these counternarratives in face-to-face interactions and focus groups notice that the speaker is almost always seen by the viewers as credible. However, online viewers often attack the credibility of the speaker as way of expressing anger over some aspect of what is being portrayed or over what they surmise is behind the counternarrative. For instance, some commenters took the counternarrative and speaker having been from their country as an insult to their national pride and thus suggested that they did not find the speaker credible. These commenters then spoke rather in defense of their own country rather than in defense of ISIS. One wrote in Croatian, “Hell, there are no ISIS terrorist in Bosnia! Fuck you, America!,” while a Tunisian viewer wrote, “The is falsification Tunisia is far from being the land of extremism we are by far the most tolerant open minded Arab country we do not discuss “Jihad” in the streets we don’t even discuss religion that much and those who went to Syria to kill their brothers are no longer welcomed they are a threat to our national security these imbeciles have no no rights and are not entitled to anything.” [sic]

Some commenters simply posted straightforwardly negative comments about ISIS, such as a commenter on the video shown in the Balkans, who wrote, “Every ISIS fighter should be executed and burned!” as well as commenters from Tunisia, who wrote, “U deserve nothing but a bullet a dirty one” [sic] and “We,  Tunisian people , don’t want these rats infesting our country ..they are NOT welcomed here . and we will chase them one by one out of our streets. may they rot in ISIS’s hell..” [sic]. Notably, one anti-ISIS commenter wrote not in negative terms toward ISIS members, but rather in constructive terms. The man wrote in Bosnian, “I would love to work in Kurdistan, not for faith but for justice.” All of the aforementioned comments demonstrate the ability of these counternarrative videos to evoke strong emotions and to engage viewers enough to comment and even sometimes engage in discussions with other commenters on Facebook, which is a very good sign regarding their effectiveness.

Many comments were neither straightforwardly positive nor negative, as they referenced the conspiracy theory that America and Israel created ISIS. Such comments can be classified as anti-ISIS but are certainly not endorsing non-violence or moderation and thus deserve further attention. One Jordanian commenter wrote, “Terrorism is an American and Zionist made even with different names. Daesh [ISIS] is lying. American Russian Jewish made. What the Americans did in Iraq is double double of what Daesh did.” The same commenter also suspected that ICSVE was a part of the conspiracy: “This is made by the westerners to destroy Arab countries for the sake of those monkeys and pigs Zionists.” Another Jordanian wrote, “The Zionist occupation is terrorism,” though he also acknowledged, “This is the first time for me to hear about Daesh that way,” indicating that the counternarrative video did introduce a new and interesting viewpoint, even if the commenter did not fully agree with that viewpoint. An Iraqi commenter, who viewed the same counternarrative as that shown in Jordan, doubted that the speaker did not commit more atrocities as part of ISIS while also broaching the topic of the anti-Zionist and anti-Western conspiracy, conflating all his perceived enemies as being part of Daesh: “Who says you didn’t kill or destroyed houses, you all are not honorable neither European, American, Israeli, Iranian you all Daesh.” Another Iraqi posted a cartoon of a pig bearing the Turkish flag, with piglets labeled in Arabic as Liberation Levant, Daesh, Al Nusra Front, Mohamed Al Fatih, Syrian Coalition, and Al Fatih Brigade suckling at its teats, suggesting with a degree of plausibility that the militant groups fighting in Syria who are overtly jihadist and who carry out jihadist crimes while calling out their slogans were birthed by and dependent on Turkey and not truly fighting for the rights of the Syrian people.

Although the conspiracy theory that Israel and the West created ISIS is more prevalent in Arab countries, commenters in the Balkans also indicated their support for the theory, although they mentioned Israel far less often than Tunisians, Iraqis, and Jordanians did, perhaps because Israel is seen as less of a threat for them. One commenter in Kosovo wrote, “ISIS is Russian organization mercenaries…!!! Many of them didn’t know why are what they fuckin doing…!!,” [sic] while another wrote, “ISAL [sic] is American killing army supported by money from NATO protection racket. Mafia!.”

Comments of this anti-Western and anti-Israeli nature have also been written on prior Facebook ad campaigns featuring other ICSVE counter narrative videos run earlier in 2019 and 2018. For instance, one Iraqi commenter wrote: “This is what you have done to my city and our people […] so that they facilitate something you’ve prepared which is a plan made by Israel, America, and Europe and it’s one the Cold War’s threads between the Soviet Union and America… do you think we’re not aware of your deeds […] we will expose all your plans […]”

Another commenter in Iraq wrote, “What Muslims, these are Jews that pretend to be Muslim to distort Islam, conspire and separate between Muslims for the sake of tearing Mohammed’s nation,” while another claimed, “The source of terrorism is Turkey.” A Jordanian commented that ISIS is “an American industry distorting the minds of the Arab-Islamic generation to eliminate Islam gradually, there is no God but Allah, Muhammed is the messenger of Allah,” and another wrote, “America is the godfather of terrorism.”

An important issue for consideration is that few of the comments on the ads were specifically pro-ISIS, but a large portion of the comments related to a perspective that is not oriented toward nonviolence, posing a difficult question: Is the view that ISIS was created by Western forces one that ought also to be challenged or left alone, given that people who hold it are extremely unlikely to join ISIS? Or does it simply create space for new terrorist organizations as well as established anti-Western groups such as al-Qaeda to recruit new members?

In addition to their significantly better social media machine, ISIS’s concrete, tangible ideology was a key deviation from al-Qaeda that likely contributed to the exponentially higher numbers of FTFs joining ISIS than al-Qaeda. However, ISIS’s loss of territory may be used as evidence that the Caliphate is, as al-Qaeda posits, a distant goal. Furthermore, propagation of the conspiracy, either purposefully or inadvertently through comments on counternarratives, that ISIS was created by Israel and Western powers to destroy Islam from within may also provide fodder for groups like al-Qaeda, which focus on targeting the “far enemy” while proselytizing to Muslims who do not adhere to their form of radical fundamentalism.

Previous studies of anti-American comments have put forward several explanations as to why these conspiracy theories have gained traction predominantly, but not exclusively, in the Arab world. The authors of one study suggested that the United States tends to be an archetype for a global power interfering in the Middle East, making Anti-American sentiments less about Americans and American society and more about global meddling in the affairs of Iraqis and Syrians. This hypothesis is supported by the presence of statements also made against Saudi Arabia and Iran in the comments on videos shown in Jordan, Iraq, and Tunisia. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have waged proxy wars in the region, often by funding sectarian militias. It is notable that commenters in the Balkans expressed anti-Russian sentiments, seemingly replacing Saudi Arabia and Iran with Russia as the more proximal global power of which to be wary, this particularly in light of Russian support for Serbian aggression in the last wars fought there. This fear was also legitimized by a recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations concluding that Russia may intend to use the Balkans as a political bargaining chip with the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Arguably, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have used Iraq, Syria, and other smaller Middle Eastern countries for similar purposes.

The anti-Israel comments, though sometimes linked with anti-Western and anti-American comments, however, cannot be placed in the same category and likely reflect societal-wide views and widespread anger in these Middle Eastern countries about Israel. Although there is evidence that Israel engages in covert operations in the region, that the country and its people are viewed in many comments as symbols of meddling global powers equal to the United States, Russia, or even Saudi Arabia and Iran is alarming. This likely reflects longstanding Middle Eastern anger against Israel over the Palestinian issue as well as views of Israel’s inflated power in the region, particularly following military defeat by Israel of some in the region coupled with anger over strong U.S. support for Israel. The anti-Israeli sentiments and the theory that Israel created ISIS to sow division among Muslims found in many of the comments appears to be a reflection of mainstream Middle Eastern society in which this view of equating ISIS with Zionism and eloquently claiming that ISIS was created by Israel is also spread in scores of online blog posts and opinion pieces. One commentator echoed these same statements: “Israel has plotted and conspired against Arab states in the region, playing sectarian and tribal tensions to generate instability.” He continued, “The fact that ISIS has not moved against Israel and instead focused on killing Muslims says a lot about this organization’s real mission.” The same question was also echoed in ICSVE’s interviews of ISIS members, some who asked their leaders why the group was not first attacking Israel before fighting Middle Eastern powers and attacking Western targets. Other online articles widely circulated in the Middle East also express the view that ISIS and Zionism are essentially the same ideology. It is likely the societally wide spread of such beliefs may underly the presence of anti-ISIS views mixed together with anti-Israel views stated in these Facebook comments. Moreover, it is interesting that the same thought process of likening ISIS’s ideology to Zionism has also been used by ISIS members and supporters to justify their actions and characterize people who support Israel and oppose ISIS as Islamophobic.

It’s very important to continue to work to delegitimize groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda through counternarrative campaigns and to debunk their ideology promoting militant jihad, “martyrdom,” hijrah (migration to lands ruled by shariah) and building a Caliphate even by violent means. However, this analysis of comments made to a series of anti-ISIS Facebook campaigns reveals the need to also consider how to address anti-Western sentiments found in those who are willing to oppose ISIS, as these views are all too often twisted to garner support for militant jihadist groups.

*Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE.  Molly Ellenberg holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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