Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. & Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D.
A teenage girl from rural Syria dreamed of becoming a doctor, but the war and the so-called Islamic State made her something very different, and very frightening.
“I’m from Raqqa,” says Umm Rashid as her months-old baby cries in her arms. She bumps him up and down trying to get him to settle. “I was born in 1995. I’m 21 years old, from a family of four. I have a younger sister,” she says. “My father was crippled, so my mother worked to feed the family. We are farmers. Also, my mother cleaned the schools.”
At the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) we have interviewed dozens of ISIS defectors, most of whom tell stories of disillusionment and desperation, escape, and rejection of everything they saw in the so-called Islamic State. And that was what we expected as this interview began. Two of our colleagues, Abu Said and Murat, were in the room with Umm Rashid in a Turkish town near the Syrian border while we were in the United States watching and asking questions over a video link.
“My father fell down from a construction site and was crippled,” says the young woman, who is covered in a black abaya. “I never saw him walking. When I was little, I would stay with my father at home. My mother would be out working all the time. I never saw her a lot. But my mother loved us really a lot.”
Then in late 2011 and early 2012, the Syrian civil war began, and soon spread to Raqqa in the east of the country. “My mother was scared and told me, ‘Oh my daughter, I need to get you married!’”
When the Assad regime’s security forces pulled out of Raqqa, Ahrār ash-Shām took over “and things went crazy,” Umm Rashid remembers, referring to one of the jihadi militias that rose up to fight Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. “We heard that the rebel militias were taking girls and forcing them to get married to their soldiers.”
But as a teenager, Umm Rashid had a dream. She wanted to be a doctor. Before the eruption of war her parents had been behind it, despite their conservative Syrian background. But with the uprising she wasn’t safe as a single girl anymore.
She is composed, articulate, thinking about what she says as she explains her situation.
“When the regime left because of the rebellion, the ninth-grade exams were canceled. I had to go to Hama for the exams.” A distance of hundreds of miles. “I passed the ninth-grade exam,” Umm Rashid tells us proudly. “But my mother looked at the situation and it was so bad… She told me anyone who wants to get married to you: I have to consider that.”
The family was very poor. Umm Rashid’s mother was making about $100 a month as a cleaning woman in schools, and some of that money was going toward medication for her father. As little girls on their way to classes their friends could buy snacks like doner kebabs, while Umm Rashid and her sister had to make do with bread and tomato paste from home. Now as young women they were facing hunger.
“I got married to our neighbor’s son,” Umm Rashid continues, her voice flat and devoid of emotion. “My husband’s mother talked to my mother and they arranged it.” But despite liking Yusuf, the neighbor’s son, he was not the eldest and things did not go well for young Umm Rashid. “My husband had four siblings, three sisters and one brother. I was so young. I didn’t know anything. My husband was the middle child so he didn’t have a say about what was going on at home. Their father was deceased. My husband’s sisters started to behave very badly toward me. My mother-in-law beat me.
“I was thinking about my options,” Umm Rashid explains. “‘You have to be patient,’ my mother told me. ‘If you come to us, you are going to suffer from hunger. At least over there you have something to eat.’ So, I stayed there with my husband for six months. [Then] one day my husband fled. I don’t know why he fled. I know that his family was not behaving well toward him. Even his older brothers were beating him up as well. Soon we found out that Yusuf was in Tell Abyat and he was working in Tell Abyat. I continued with my husband’s family. Soon I learned that Yusuf had joined Jabhat al Nusra.”
At the time, al Nusra was becoming the umbrella organization for ragtag groups of villagers who had taken up arms against the regime. Jihadi ideologues from Jordan and elsewhere had flooded into Syria, preaching the concepts of “martyrdom” and militant jihad as they organized and affiliated al Nusra to al Qaeda.
“First I was thinking, alhamdulillah [thank God], Yusuf found a job and was working. I didn’t know what Jabhat al Nusra was and I was happy that he had a job… When he came back he had money. He bought gold for me. He had a car. He was distributing money to all his family. He stayed one week with me and then he left.”
But the militias in Raqqa “got mixed again, and the groups started to fight each other.”
By late 2013, a schism among the leaders of al Qaeda in Syria had led to ferocious fights between al Nusra and the rising power in the region, the so-called Islamic State, as it moved to take control of Raqqa and the surrounding region.
“I heard that the ‘brothers’ came. The ‘brothers’ were the Islamic State. Meanwhile the groups were fighting each other and I had not heard from my husband. One day I learned that he was wounded and soon after that he died. He became a ‘martyr.’
“After he died, my mother-in-law took everything from me, even my clothes, and told me to go to my mother’s home. She told me, ‘Because of you, my son died. You brought bad luck to us.’ My mother-in-law loved money.”
“You didn’t have a child with him?” we asked Umm Rashid.
“No, I was not with him that much because there were so many people inside the house,” Umm Rashid answered. “I went back to my mother’s house. I waited my iddah,” she explains, referring to the mandatory three months waiting period for widows to determine if they are pregnant or not and, if not, available for a new husband.
Reflecting back on her marriage to Yusuf, she explains, “We weren’t happily married. There was always conflict in the house. My mother-in-law didn’t allow me to sleep with my husband, so I didn’t experience a real marriage. There were three rooms in the house, but four other siblings, so we were not given a room.”
For Umm Rashid after the death of her husband, the tragedies were just beginning.
“During the fight in Raqqa, a mortar came down on our home. My mother and father died, my sister was wounded.” This was 2014. Umm Rashid was just 18, all her dreams destroyed by war.
“My sister was wounded in her hand, so her arm was amputated. We were alone at home. Our neighbor, a woman, was trying to help us. For example when there was aid from different groups they would drop a box in front of our door. If that woman had something to feed us she would give us meals. We were suffering and had nothing. That woman was from al Khansaa, from ISIS.”
Al Khansaa was formed in 2014 in Raqqa as the female arm of the ISIS morality police, or hisbah, to placate the locals who were getting riled up about men arresting or punishing their women for dress code and other morality infringements. To calm them, women were enrolled as morality police as well.
“One day,” Umm Rashid continues, speaking of her neighbor in the hisbah, “she came and said, ‘Why don’t you get married to an emir from ISIS? I can arrange that.’ Her name was Umm al-Khattab.
“Of course, I was out of my iddah for two months. Our entire house was demolished except for one room. We were living in that room. Umm al-Khattab got me married to a Saudi emir. His name was Abdullah al-Jazwari.
“He was a really nice man, he was like a gentleman and he behaved so nicely to me. He also accepted my sister to live with us. So my sister came also. We lived together like this. I was happy with him. He was behaving toward me really well. He was an emir.
“After two months, he asked me why don’t you join al Khansaa? He was 40 years old. I didn’t know much about him. We never talked about ourselves much. I knew he was my husband, but that was it. He used to come home for his meals. I cleaned his clothes and I treated him really well because he was behaving toward me really nicely, but I didn’t know much about him.”
As her husband and the woman who had helped her encouraged her to join al Khansaa, another thought weighed on her. She believed that the mortar round that killed her parents and cost her sister her arm was the work of the U.S.-led coalition. Although many civilians have been killed by its airstrikes and subsequent offensives, it seems unlikely given the timing of her parent’s death in early 2014 that the coalition was responsible. It had not taken shape until that summer. But hatred for the coalition became a deep conviction for Umm Rashid. She would serve with the enemy of those she believed had killed her family. “I accepted to become a member of al Khansaa,” she says.
“Because my husband was an emir, I was not sent to the training camp,” Umm Rashid explains.
While the group regularly publishes pictures of women holding weapons in supposed training exercises but not as combatants. Of the 63 ISIS cadres—prisoners, returnees, and defectors—ICSVE have thus far interviewed, many tell us that men go for Sharia training, but the women are instructed individually at home, by their husbands. Western soldiers mock the awkward way the ISIS women are photographed or filmed holding their rifles in ISIS propaganda.
“There were a lot of 14- and 15-year-old girls in al Khansaa,” Umm Rashid tells us. “When I first registered, Umm al Khattab helped me a lot. They gave me a weapon. I joined her brigade. Umm al Khattab was the emir of that brigade,” Umm Rashid explains.
As we’ve heard in our many other interviews, the women who join the hisbah are armed with a Kalashnikov and have broad powers over the civilian population—able to fine, punish, and arrest them for any type of morality offenses. They have an exalted status over civilians and answer to practically no one.
“Umm al Khattab was not the emir of all of al Khansaa, but of this brigade. I knew her for a long time because she was our neighbor. From the start, I knew how to work in the brigade because Umm al-Khattab was talking to me all the time.
“Umm al Khattab would come and pick me up in a van, our brigade worked in that van with six or seven other women. We were in charge of the market place. Because I was so poor in the past, I was trying to be generous to other poor people. Abu Abdullah [her husband] was so generous with me. He would give me a lot of money. I was not used to having money. I would save it and give some to my sister and also gave money to the poor people. I was happy he was giving it so generously.
“Our job was to check the market on our regulations. For example we would check abayas if they are too tight or too transparent.”
Fascinated to be hearing not just about, but from an actual member of the ISIS hisbah, we ask Umm Rashid to explain to us how women are punished. We know the men have their shirts removed and are flogged in public, “But what about the women?” we ask, wondering how ISIS handles this delicate matter. “Are they undressed as well, and if so where?”
Umm Rashid is perfectly matter of fact: “For example if there is a woman with a colored abaya, we would arrest the husband and wife and take them to the hisbah jail. They would take the woman to the female’s hisbah and the man to the male’s hisbah.
“We would take off the clothes of the woman until she is in her underwear. Then we would beat her with a lash. Then there are special women in the hisbah for biting,” says Umm Rashid. We have heard about this practice of biting women but have never had a firsthand account.
“We would torture that woman so badly, that when the husband came from the other side she wouldn’t be able to walk. Then from out of this prison, she would feel I would never do this again, because of the things she suffered from the imprisonment. Her husband needed to pay a fine and he needed to purchase the proper abaya and sign the paperwork that he would comply to the rules completely in the future. If the woman repeats her offense, we would take the husband and put him in a football field where coalition forces used to bomb a lot. We had a prison and we would put him in that prison. Most of the time he would die of fear because of the explosions in that field.”
We ask her if she felt badly doing such things, assuming that she must.
“No! It made me strong! I would do the same thing again if given the opportunity. I escaped because I have a small child. I want to go back after the baby is grown.”
Suddenly the interview is going in a direction we hadn’t anticipated, and a potentially dangerous one for our colleagues Abu Said and Murat in the room with this woman, who now speaks proudly and defiantly of what she has done.
But there is more to come.
Tomorrow, “Slaves, Smugglers, and the Tools of Torture”
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne & Yayla, Ahmet S. (August 31, 2017) Making a Monster: How I became an ISIS Bride. The Daily Beast http://www.thedailybeast.com/bride-of-isis-the-making-of-a-monsterpart-i
Countering Terrorism: 2023 and Beyond
Pakistan has carried three significant issues from 2022 into 2023. These include political instability, a dwindling economy and resurging terrorism. With respect to terrorism, Afghanistan has assumed centre stage. Following the withdrawal of US forces on 15 Aug 2021, there was initial jubilation in Pakistan over Taliban’s triumph. It stemmed from the perception that US military presence in the region and drone strikes were the leading sources of regional instability.
2022 ended for Pakistan with an upsurge in terrorist activities and accordingly the New Year started with a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC). The press release following the meeting reiterated NSC’s resolve to ‘have zero tolerance for terrorism in Pakistan and reaffirmed its determination to take ‘on any and all entities that resort to violence.’ This is a welcome decision by the government and state organs.
Pakistan’s counterterrorism (CT) efforts gained momentum following the unprecedented Army Public School (APS) massacre of 2014. Some have compared it to Pakistan’s 9/11. The tragedy was relatable to all of Pakistan regardless of the so-called ethnic, regional or sectarian divides. The inhumane attacks brought the civil and military leadership together in assigning this scourge of terrorism the priority that it deserved. The most prominent outcome was a National Action Plan on countering terrorism that enjoyed broadest possible political support.
Subsequently, the united stance against terrorism enabled unprecedented successes in rooting out terrorism. However, it appears that the reduction in terrorist activities led to a sense of complacency which was further aided by growing political polarisation that had more to do with differences on domestic, economic and foreign policy issues. Unfortunately, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred at a time when Pakistan was struggling with internal politics. Apparently, the eventual prevalence of Afghan Taliban against a super power that they had been resisting for two decades, emboldened the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to think that it could similarly attrite the Pakistani nation and its state organs.
TTP’s motivation seems to be misplaced for primarily three reasons. First and foremost, the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) of Pakistan are fighting this war to provide a safe and secure environment to the future generations of the country – including their own children; unlike the US and coalition forces that neither had a clear objective nor a consistent policy to follow. Second, much of Afghan Taliban’s acceptance at the domestic level was based on the fact that they were fighting a foreign occupant – which is not the case for TTP. Thirdly, the Afghan Taliban assumed power by virtue of force rather than the will of the public and that is why they struggle to gain legitimacy at home and abroad.
Pakistani political leadership might differ on the possible approaches to dealing with this issue, but there certainly is no appetite for letting the TTP and associated factions consolidate power to a degree that they are able to challenge state’s writ at a level comparable to yesteryears. However, display of a united front by the various ruling parties at the Centre and provinces will help demonstrate that there will be no tolerance for terrorist activities no matter which political party assumes power.
TTP’s threat against the leadership of two ruling parties is an attempt to exploit the current domestic political divide. Political mudslinging on this issue only helps the enemy’s cause. The ongoing struggle for power between the political parties should not enable TTP to consolidate power in the interim period. Otherwise, it will become a greater threat for the next government to deal with. During the previous election years, terrorist outfits were successful in targeting the leadership of various political parties during their election campaigns and arguably changing the election outcomes by terrorising the electorate. It is in shared interest of all the political parties to avoid a repeat of such a scenario.
While the politico-military leadership establishes a united front at home, it will be important to deny external actors the ability to exploit Pakistan’s internal situation. Pakistan has been at the receiving end of accusations even as it presents irrefutable evidence of external involvement in terrorist activities inside the country. As Pakistan continues to expose foreign involvement, it ought to simultaneously deny foreign actors fertile ground to exploit at home. Previously, the foreign threat was limited to the Eastern front but now it has expanded at an unprecedented level to the Western front where the Taliban government is either complicit or unable to check use of its territory to launch terrorist attacks against Pakistan.
2023 is likely going to be the year of General Elections in Pakistan. Whichever party assumes power, it is important that it looks at counterterrorism as a long-term operation that will require broader political support, less in-fighting and an ability to stay the course impervious of temporary gains and setbacks which will inevitably be a part of the process.
A Rift Getting Deeper: TTP and IEA parting their ways?
A few days ago, an alleged audio of Tahreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief, Noor Wali Mehsud has caught the attention of those who keep a close eye on terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, especially Tahreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Through this audio, Noor Wali has sent a message, to TTP fighters to pick up arms against the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) after its search operation in provinces along the Pak-Afghan border. Since the takeover of Kabul, some security analysts had predicted the possible collaboration of IEA with TTP. Still, the evolution of TTP strategies and its ideological shift from being a branch of IEA to being an opponent of IEA was observed. Only those who have kept a sharp eye on TTP activities know that TTP is now a threat to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The reason behind the shift in TTP’s strategies:
What compelled TTP to give such a big statement? This question comes to everyone’s mind, the below discussion is made in context to this question. The ideological standing of both TTP and IEA is far different. Afghan Taliban are ethnic nationals. They have only fought a war against foreign forces for Afghan territory and have never claimed any region beyond the borders of Afghanistan. However, TTP has long taken inspiration from Al-Qaeda, which has expansionist objectives and deadly takfiri ideology to create a falsified identity of believers and non-believers, only to legitimize its terror activities in the name of Islam. Hence, following the footprints of such a radical organization, there is a significant possibility that TTP will join hands with ISKP against IEA.
Question of natural and forced alliance:
Since the Kabul takeover, TTP has tried to align with IEA, thus, giving it the camouflage of a natural alliance. TTP’s leadership also manifested this narrative in its statements and activities. But the ideological drift and conflicting objectives show that TTP’s so-called alignment with IEA was one-sided and enforced. After the Kabul takeover, TTP tried its well to be a part of IEA but by rigid stance, IEA always cleared in their statement that TTP and IEA are two different groups, having different inspirations and goals.
Pakistan’s role that TTP in using Afghan soil:
Pakistan has been fighting TTP since 2003. In April 2022, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) struck the hideouts of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan along the Durand Line. This strike highlighted that a group within IEA was keen on providing safe havens to TTP. Hence, diplomatic pressure was mounted on IEA to eradicate TTP from the strategic provinces of Kunar and Khost.
Chance of Mutual tussle between TTP and IEA:
Is there another conflict going to happen in the region? Now, the battle is the same, but the opponents are different. The so-called narrative that claims IEA and TTP were on the same table is wrecking after TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud and IEA spoke’s person Zabiullah Mujahid’s statements.” They are not, as an organization, part of IEA, and we don’t share the same objectives,” Zabiullah Mujahid said in reaction to TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud’s claims of being a part of the IEA. Now, the TTP chief has alerted his fighters for war. It would create complexities in the region. IEA acted as a mediator between the government of Pakistan and TTP to make peace in the region. Additionally, Zabiullah mujahid also mentioned that We advise TTP to focus on peace and stability in their country. This is very important so, they can prevent any chance for enemies to interfere in the region, and we request Pakistan to investigate their demands for the better of the region and Pakistan.
Mujahid added that the TTP was Pakistan’s internal matter “The IEA stance is that we do not interfere in other countries affairs. We do not interfere in Pakistan’s affairs.”
After this emerging rift, would it be possible for IEA to counter TTP? IEA is struggling to stabilize the state after Kabul take over. Nowadays, Afghanistan’s security and economy are on the verge of chaos. It would not be able to engage in other conflicts nor do they have the power to do so. And if they engaged in battle with TTP, an alliance of ISKP and TTP can hurt Afghanistan. But if they counter them, there is a chance to get international sympathy and maybe recognition because it will endorse the Doha agreement, as Recognition has become a dire need in Afghanistan.
In a nutshell, it won’t be inappropriate to assume that another war will break out, and it is likely more drastic than the last ones. Despite all the hurdles, it is an opportunity for IEA to gain global sympathy for its recognition and to legitimize its regime. If the IEA becomes successful in convincing the world by taking action against terrorist outfits and extremism in its ranks, it will not only pave the way for its recognition but also meet with the minutes of the DOHA Accord to not allow any violent non-state actor to operate within Afghan territory.
Pakistan in a quagmire: Resurgence of terrorism along with its relations with Afghanistan
When Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, a large faction of the Pakistani society including mainstream politicians amused the fact that reins of Kabul had become in control of Taliban. One obvious reason for this felicitation was the much awaited perceived stability in neighboring Afghanistan which had direct impact on Pakistan. The other reason for jubilation in some factions was about the solidarity with regards to the identity of Afghan people. As brotherly nation, perseverance of Afghan people against the scourge of prolonged war, that too against the strongest military alliance, was a matter of inspiration for many in Pakistan. However, the formal response of the government was very much aligned with the global response. Islamabad did not officially recognize the interim government of Taliban. The eventful month of August, 2021 was followed by some key developments.
Considering the geo-political change in the neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan started to rethink its strategy at the western border. Through a backdoor channel, Islamabad approached the Taliban government to ensure the security of its western border from the hideouts of TTP living in Afghanistan. In short, Pakistan wanted the Taliban government to take strong action against TTP. However, in response to that, Kabul with TTP onboard, came up with a “quid pro quo plus” approach. It urged the Pakistan’s government to have a formal agreement with TTP which later on proceeded through a back door channels. In the agreement, TTP agreed for so called cease-fire along and inside Pakistan’s territory in exchange for cessation of Pakistan’s military operation against TTP. Moreover, the strangest of demands that Pakistan agreed to, was providing, the previously expelled TTP associates, with permission to come back and reside in districts of the tribal area. On the other hand, second critical development following the fall of Kabul, was Pakistan’s stance in the international community with respect to humanitarian concerns in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s foreign minister repeatedly urged the International community to establish a meaningful dialogue and engagement with the fragile state of Afghanistan to help the people of Afghanistan. He frequently argued that alienation of a rouge actor prompts even harsher human rights violation by that actor. Hence the world should not neglect Afghanistan and the people of Afghanistan Rather, it should accept the reality and engage with Afghanistan.
However, it is extremely unfortunate to write that, both the aforementioned developments, gave rise to a Pro-Taliban sentiment vis-à-vis Pakistan. Nevertheless, the same sentiment has often been misrepresented in the western literature, and the same narrative has also been used to demonize Pakistan at the international forums. However, in reality Pakistan had been the most affected country by terrorism and it had been fighting against the scourge of terrorism since over a decade now. What is even more unfortunate is that in the recent past, TTP announced to resume its nefarious terrorist activities in Pakistan. As a result, a spike in terrorist events specifically in KPK province has been witnessed. The December 21st,2022 military operation is a testament to aggravating law and order situation in the country, in which a group of 25 TTP associated terrorists had been killed, while holding a CTD compound, hostage in Bannu.
Because there is a resurgence of terrorism coupled with the international criticism due to perceived relations with Afghanistan under Taliban. “Pakistan is appeared to be in a quagmire.”
Now, what Pakistan can pursue to undo this, is to redevise a comprehensive plan of action against terrorism in KPK and former FATA. It should also formulate a clear strategy at the western border not to tolerate any presence as well as influx of militants from Afghanistan. Moreover, for future, the state of Pakistan should also learn from the abysmal agreement that it went in with a Non-State Actor (NSA). For NSA’s an agreement is nothing more than a concealing tool for a limited survival. It is because of the three reasons. First, an agreement is always done between two responsible actors; terrorist group like TTP has no burden of responsibility neither in a domestic setting nor at the international level. Whereas, a sovereign state has immense responsibility at the domestic and international level. Second, an agreement between two states holds significance because of the perceived repute in the international system, Whereas, for a non-state actor like TTP, International reputation never comes into the equation as such groups are already infamous for their terrorist agenda. Third, States are mostly bound to stick fast to their bilateral or multilateral agreements, because of the fear of diplomatic and economic sanctions once they pull back from the agreement. Whereas in case of Non-state actors, there exist no such incentive to remain in the agreement.
Considering all the three reasons, it is quite evident that engaging with TTP for so called ceasefire agreement was neither viable nor will it ever be, particularly because, as a state, Pakistan would have to offer a lot in exchange to absolutely nothing. Moreover, because of such an agreement, Pakistan would itself invite criticism from the already skeptical international community. Hence for Pakistan, no tolerance policy against terrorism is the only option possible in order to lower domestic and international cost simultaneously.
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