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Terrorism

Will Family Held Hostage by the Taliban Ever Recover?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Coleman endured rape, the murder of her first child, and a terrifying rescue. A psychologist who has talked to hundreds of hostages looks at the challenges ahead for her family.

Caitlan Coleman, 31, of Pennsylvania, her Canadian husband, Joshua Boyle, 34, and their three little children were rescued by the Pakistani army last week after they were abducted five years earlier by a Pakistani-linked terrorist group known as the Haqqani network.

 Since then, the statements from Boyle and family members might well make one ponder not only what hostages suffer when taken by terrorist groups, but the psychological aftermath once they’re freed—with the situation of their children especially concerning.

 Boyle read from a prepared statement upon his arrival at Toronto’s Pearson airport Saturday telling journalists that their infant daughter had been murdered and his wife raped “as retaliation for my repeated refusal to accept an offer that the criminal miscreants of the Haqqani network had made to me.” According to Boyle, Coleman’s rape was not undertaken “as a lone action, but by one guard… assisted by the captain of the guard and supervised by the commandant.”

 Boyle told reporters that he and his wife had decided to have children even in captivity because they always wanted a big family. Caitlan Coleman was pregnant when they were taken hostage and Boyle claims their first child, a little girl, was murdered. Boyle calls her a “martyr.”

 Their 4-year-old son, Najaeshi Jonah has traumatic events burned in his memory. Boyle told Michelle Shephard of the Canadian newspaper The Starthat his son did not like to close his eyes because the little boy woke up one night to see masked men with Kalashnikovs picking him up. His parents already had been taken away while he was sleeping, to be transferred to another prison. Ever since, he has tried to avoid closing his eyes, even to play the childhood game of peek-a-boo.

 Boyle told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston that his middle child, Dhakwoen Noah, 2, is “nearly as distressed as he was in prison, it seems everything reminds him of the horrors of prison; cameras are equated to hostage videos, pens are equated to syringes used to drug his parents with ketamine by the guards, slamming doors is associated with cell searches or worse, it seems his healing process has barely begun—so we pray that God will hasten it.”

 Even the Boyles’ months-old infant is traumatized writes Boyle in an email to Canadian Broadcasting Service stating, “Ma’idah Grace seems scared most of the time, but also to have discovered there are more decent people in the world than she knew; her world until last week consisted of two good brothers and two good parents and about 15 guards of [who were sources of] increasing fear to her.”

 The family was transported 23 times during its captivity with the final transport ending in a terrifying shoot-out and their rescue. Boyle emailed the Associated Press a statement saying the children had “reached the first true ‘home’ that the children have ever known—after they spent most of Friday asking if each subsequent airport was our new house hopefully.” While Boyle emailed the AP photos of his son’s delight over “raiding the first refrigerator of his life,” it will clearly take time for all the family members to understand that their newfound freedom is real and won’t be again taken from them.

 Najaeshi Jonah, according to Boyle is “terrified to leave the house, even just to go on the porch… it’s as though he thinks if he ever exits this magical wonderland it will all end…”

Speaking for himself, Boyle says he no longer trusts anyone after being held hostage for so long.

 Then there’s the adjustment to modern society; Boyle told journalists his sons had not yet played with their new toys but had flushed the toilet at least 200 times. “These are children who three days ago they didn’t know what a toilet looks like. They used a bucket,” Boyle said in the video. “Three days ago they did not know what a light is or what a door is except that it is a metal thing that is locked in their face to make them a prisoner.”

 Hostages often say their captivity was punctuated with bursts of overwhelming terror amid otherwise unremitting boredom. These episodes of extreme fear often include rapes, beatings, fake and real executions, torture, and verbal abuse, alongside the deprivations of captivity. The Haqqani network which also held American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl captive for five years, is well known for torturing and abusing its captives.

 Half a decade is an unusually long time to endure captivity. Most adult hostages progress in captivity through a range of feelings beginning with shock and disbelief over being taken, feelings that give way to terror, and move over time into feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, regret, grief, and depression. Alan Johnston, the BBC Journalist held in Gaza in 2005 said after his release, “It was like being buried alive and removed from the world, in the hands of people who were dangerous and unpredictable.”

 When hostages are held alone and deprived of sensory stimulation they may begin to hallucinate as the mind tries to fill in the blanks. This, alongside the emotional pain of isolation and losing track of time, can create fears of losing one’s mind. Many hostages state that it was very important to figure out how to communicate with other hostages held nearby and to mark time—often by scratching marks on their prison walls. The ambiguity of not knowing when they will be freed creates deeper distress than having a set date in mind as the end of one’s ordeal.

 The Coleman-Boyle family was kept together, but it is apparent that this fact was exploited to further terrorize and dishearten them, given the murder of one child, the constant specter of violence against the other children, and the rape of Coleman.

 Frequently the end of hostage-takings, occurring through rescue or ransom, add even more traumas to those of being held hostage, especially when they finish in such terrifying ways as occurred in the case of the Coleman family—with no sure knowledge that one will survive the rescue.

At the time they were freed, Coleman, her husband, and their baby daughter, according to Boyle’s interview with Canadian Broadcasting Network, had been crammed into the trunk of a car transporting them from Afghanistan into Pakistan, with the two boys held inside the car, separated by a partition.

 Tipped off by the Americans, the Pakistani army surrounded and shot out the tires of the car, after which a deadly skirmish began. Five of the captors were killed, the rest fled, while Joshua Boyle suffered minor shrapnel wounds. Boyle told his family in Canada that the last words he heard from the kidnappers were, “kill the hostages.”

Boyle and Coleman have suffered through multiple harrowing events, including what has been alluded to as a forced abortion. Normal symptoms and responses to the terrifying ordeal of being held hostage include acute and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—having flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, extreme nervousness, angry outbursts, inability to concentrate, depression, negative feelings, feeling alienated and isolated, and the inability to function well.

Without adequate treatment, sufferers of PTSD can worsen over time and may resort to drug and alcohol abuse to try to tone down the nervousness and quiet their flashbacks and nightmares. That said, hostages should also be given time upon their release to come to their own coping mechanisms, while being offered supportive treatment, as many will find inner strengths to guide them on their own way back into healthy adjustments.

At present, Caitlan Coleman is with her husband in Canada, although her father told NBC that he hopes their daughter and her family return to the United States and accept a Department of Defense or other program to help them get re-acclimated to life outside of captivity, including psychological counseling for their children.

Certainly after all they have endured, the family members can do with some good counseling and support to adapt to freedom. Joshua Boyle stated upon his release that he is looking forward to a safe space for him and his family to heal.

Longer captivities involving familial separations involve stressors and adaptations on both sides of the equation with time needed both by the hostages and their families to readjust. The hostage may return home traumatized, suffering guilt and regret, and needing support, while family members have also suffered anxiety, grief, and having to cope without the hostage, and may even harbor feelings of anger over risky decisions made by the hostage that led to his or her captivity.

Coleman’s father, Jim, told journalists he has no immediate plans to go to Canada to see his daughter and son-in-law, explaining, “We want to see how things play out for now… I’m not on the best of terms with my son-in-law, as you can tell.”

“How would you feel if your seven-month pregnant daughter was put in such a situation?” hiking in Afghanistan, Jim Coleman told NBC. “Taking your pregnant wife to a very dangerous place, to me, and the kind of person I am, is unconscionable,” he told ABC in an exclusive interview.

It’s usually the case that hostages have not been fed well and have been subjected to unsanitary conditions. They may return with symptoms of malnutrition and disease, as well as deep psychological trauma. Coleman gave birth four times during her five years of captivity. She was raped and may have been subjected to a forced abortion, all events for which she likely did not receive medical treatment. The entire family was held at times in an underground prison, conditions also likely affecting their physical and emotional health.

Some countries pay for the release of hostages while others do not. In the case of Coleman and her husband, they were subject to American and Canadian laws, which do not allow their countries to pay ransoms.

Terrorists do not always understand or care about the intricacies and legalities of paying ransoms and terrify their hostages in efforts to extort ransoms, making them release statements on video pleading for payment.

In December of 2016 Coleman, veiled in a black abaya and featured in front of a camera with her husband and two toddlers, appeared to be reading from a script, calling their captivity “the Kafkaesque nightmare in which we find ourselves.” She implored President Barack Obama, “Please don’t become the next Jimmy Carter. Just give the offenders something so they and you can save face and we can leave the region permanently.” Addressing soon-to-be President Donald Trump, she added, “We ask that you are merciful to their people and God willing they will release us.”

Hostages held together may be a comfort to each other, but also distress each other when they disagree about how to respond to captivity. We have yet to learn how Coleman’s marriage and small family fared. Whether or not there were recriminations between them over their child being killed and Coleman’s rape after Boyle refused to meet demands made by their captors is still unknown.

In the case of Canadian hostage, Amanda Lindhout, held for 15 months by Somali militants, she and her boyfriend disagreed on whether or not it was smart to fake conversion to Islam. Amanda “converted” only to find she couldn’t meet her captors’ demands to learn the Koran and prayers and that she was now considered marriageable by the young men holding her hostage. According to a senior Taliban member, the Coleman family also converted, probably to increase their chances of survival.

Joshua Boyle told reporters at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport that they had gone to Afghanistan to help those living under Taliban rule, trying to deliver aid to villagers in a part of the Taliban-controlled region “where no NGO, no aid worker, and no government” had been able to reach, when they were kidnapped.

However, at the time they were taken hostage and still today, some intelligence experts speculate about Boyle and his motives for traveling to Afghanistan, wondering about his previous marriage and divorce from the oldest sister of Omar Khadr, a Canadian 15-year-old who was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2002 and became a Guantanamo detainee alleged to have ties to al Qaeda.

The patriarch of the Khadr family was killed in 2003, along with al Qaeda and Taliban members, in a shootout with Pakistani security forces near the Afghanistan border.

Boyle’s associations with the family led some U.S. intelligence officials to speculate that his visit to Afghanistan may have been part of a larger effort to link up with Taliban-affiliated militants. “I can’t say that [he was ever al-Qaeda],” said one former intelligence official, adding, “He was never a fighter on the battlefield. But my belief is that he clearly was interested in getting into it.”

Accompanied by State Department officials on their flight home, Boyle made clear to a journalist onboard that he is interested in battling injustices. He nodded toward one of the State Department officials and said, “Their interests are not my interests.”

Such speculation may be linked to the “offer” from the Haqqani network that Boyle said he refused at great personal cost to himself and his family. What that offer was is still unclear, as is the reason that Boyle is said to have refused a flight to the United States, preferring instead to fly home to Toronto.

Likewise, two senior members of the Haqqani network denied to NBC that Coleman was raped, while Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement that the infant died after it fell ill in a remote area with lack of medical care and her death was not intentional.

There are many questions that still need answering. Just as there were controversies over the capture and trade of American Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, there are controversies concerning the Coleman’s return as well, which may also contribute to a more difficult adjustment to freedom.

Mr. Boyle’s father, Patrick, said in a video posted by The Star, the couple wanted to give their “profound thanks for the courageous Pakistani soldiers who risked their lives and got all five out safely in the rescue.”

Rescues of hostages are often heroic, as this one apparently was. But some are botched, or end in the deaths of those they were trying to rescue. For instance, the gas introduced into the Moscow theater siege in 2002 killed hundreds more hostages than those killed by the terrorists, although in the end everyone might have died if no rescue was mounted. One hostage held in Colombia told me that she continually prayed while in captivity that her release would be negotiated by ransom rather than the police trying to rescue her, an event she feared would end in her death.

Americans, when their country refuses ransom, may be subjected to beheadings by groups like the so-called Islamic State, since the publicity and propaganda value of an execution is of greater value to the group than holding a hostage indefinitely.

Each hostage situation is different in terms of the goals of the hostage taker, the conditions of where and how long the hostages are held. Hostages are taken for many reasons, but in the case of terrorists, their purposes generally are to instill fear in a larger population, extort money, demand political concessions from the government, or simply make a horrifying statement about their ability to take captives and do as they wish with them.

The hostage taker always wants something—money, personal safety, safe passage to another country, or in the case of terrorism, complicated political goals which may include release of prisoners, repeal of policies or law, withdrawal of troops, etc.

Terrorist goals may also include destabilizing the target government of their attack by showing its powerlessness in the face of the hostage taking. Hostage-takers use the publicity surrounding their abductions to garner support within their constituency by showing their action and devotion to the cause.

Terrorists frustrated by the hostage’s inability to produce a ransom and wanting to extort the maximum amount have been known to repeatedly take the hostage to what he or she believes is her imminent execution, intricately staging the events to cause maximum terror. Canadian hostage, Amanda Lindhout, for example was taken to a remote execution site by her Somali captors and made to kneel at gunpoint as she anticipated her last moments of life. American journalist James Foley was thought to be so calm before his beheading by ISIS in 2014 because he had faced his mock execution many times before.

Knowing one’s family will have to sell homes or sacrifice to generate a ransom demand creates guilt and anxiety, both during the hostage taking, and later when the freed hostage sees the sacrifices his family went through to obtain his release. Lindhout’s father sold his home in order to pay her ransom.

In some cases, family members trying to collect funds to ransom their loved ones have been told not to do so by their governments, as was claimed by James Foley’s mother. Accepting a posthumous award for his son, Foley’s father said through tears, “I miss my son,” as he went on to describe the joy and pain of talking to the European hostages held with James who had been ransomed by their governments, stating that he thought U.S. policies should be rethought.

When hostages try to escape only some are successful. A woman escaped out the bathroom window during the Nord Ost theater hostage taking in Moscow running to safety as the hostage takers shot at her. Others were not so lucky. Canadian hostage Lindhout and her boyfriend escaped only to be recaptured. The results were horrific. Both were chained up and Lindhout was mercilessly gang-raped as a result.

Hostages that are kept with their family members, as Caitlan Coleman was, can face harrowing choices. A woman I interviewed from the Beslan school siege in 2004 was offered freedom for her children if she joined the hostage-takers and took up their cause. She refused and, fortunately, did not suffer such horrific punishment as Boyle’s family did.

Some hostages fall into a distorted attachment behavior during captivity in which they understand that their captor holds their life in the balance and they begin to form strong attachments to their captors. This so-called Stockholm syndrome is much more likely to occur when hostage takers isolate and talk to their captives, showing empathy or kindness, frequently interact, and are also terrifying. The combination of terror and kindness creates a “trauma bond.”

In some cases Stockholm syndrome is strong enough that hostages fight alongside their captors or defend them once freed. The most famous case being Patty Hearst in the 1970s, in which she took up arms and joined her captors. Her ordeal however began with her being locked in a closet, drugged, and raped.

The press always wants to talk to freed hostages, and governments want to debrief them. But sometimes this process can re-traumatize them. One young mother released early from the Moscow siege was doing well until she returned to hold vigil outside the theater. As members of the press surrounded her and pounded her with questions, she felt as if she were taken hostage again and immediately lost her ability to speak. She suffered a strong stutter for months afterward and spoke haltingly to us as we interviewed her in Moscow.

One hopes Coleman and Boyle were just naively trying to help remote villages in Afghanistan as they claim, and have no need to clear their names. While loving family members surround them, their children can begin to discover life after captivity. As Joshua Boyle told NBC’s Today, his 4-year-old son Jonah had never played with a toy, read a book, or heard of Disney characters. “He doesn’t actually understand that there is a sun outside.”

Let’s hope they all find much more than sunshine to rebuild their shattered lives.

Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne. (10-18-2017) Will hostages taken by the Taliban ever recover? The Daily Beast https://www.thedailybeast.com/will-family-held-hostage-by-the-taliban-ever-recover

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

Cross-border links between terrorists, organized crime, underscore need for coherent global response

MD Staff

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The nexus between terrorism and organized crime took centre stage in the Security Council on Thursday, with experts raising fresh concerns over opportunistic alliances emerging among belligerents who share a hostility towards national authorities, and seek to exploit vulnerabilities created by the COVID-19 crisis.

“Comprehensive and cooperative responses are needed more than ever”, said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  The COVID-19 crisis is raising a new set of challenges for national authorities, as criminals seek to exploit vulnerabilities created by lockdowns and shifting travel patterns.  Building the capacities to deal with these threats is now a key part of UNODC’s focus, she noted.

Presenting the Secretary-General’s report on actions taken by Member States to address the links between terrorism and organized crime, mandated by resolution 2482 (2019), she said it reflects the contributions of some 50 Member States and 15 Counter-Terrorism Coordination Compact entities, as well as the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.

Personal connections, mutual interests

She said Member States highlighted a range of links, often in connection with the financing of terrorism.  Some could not confirm the existence of links, due to constraints on their investigative capacities. 

Many reported that terrorists and organized criminals cooperate on the basis of shared territory or mutual interest, often drawing on personal connections forged in prisons. 

She said many States also reported that terrorists benefit from organized criminal activities such as people trafficking, migrant smuggling, kidnapping for ransom and illicit drug trafficking.  As criminal networks are often interested in cooperating with terrorist groups to avoid scrutiny by national authorities, Member States have adopted legislative policies and operational responses identified in resolution 2482 (2019).

Money laundering, strengthening borders

Further, she said Member States emphasized the importance of ratifying legal instruments, such as the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, and various international drug control conventions. 

They cited the need to fight money laundering – notably by complying with UN resolutions and building public-private partnerships. 

Strengthening border security – in particular by analyzing flight passenger data – is another priority, she said, along with improving prison management to prevent radicalization and developing whole-of-society approaches to countering violent extremism.

Member States also emphasized need for cross-border cooperation through regional platforms, bilateral agreements, the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and mutual legal assistance treaties.

Going forward, she said national legal frameworks could be updated to include precise definitions of terrorism.  More resources could be directed towards criminal justice coordination and establishing specialized units, as well as through a greater focus on intelligence-led policing, and evidence collection. 

A 350 per cent rise in phishing scams: Voronkov

Vladimir Voronkov, head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), drew attention to Virtual Counter-Terrorism Week, held in July, which gathered more than 1,000 representatives from Member States and civil society, to discuss issues critical to the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy.

“Our discussions showed there is a shared understanding and concern among Member States that terrorists are generating funds from illicit trafficking in drugs, goods, natural resources and antiquities, as well as kidnapping for ransom, extorting and committing other heinous crimes”, he said.

He said speakers highlighted a significant rise in cybercrime in recent months, with a 350 per cent increase in phishing websites in the first quarter of 2020 – many targeting hospitals and health care systems. 

Speakers also noted the importance of ensuring that efforts to address the nexus between terrorism and organized crime are proportionate to the threat and fully respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Terrorists, crime networks exploiting COVID-19

“Terrorists are exploiting the significant disruption and economic hardships caused by COVID-19 to spread fear, hate and division and radicalize and recruit new followers”, he emphasized.

Noting that the Office of Counter-Terrorism works with UNODC, the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate and INTERPOL to help Member States fight money laundering and terrorism financing, as well as enhance border security, law enforcement and prison management, he said efforts must be made to study how the links between terrorism and organized crime evolve – without automatically conflating both threats.

Joint efforts to address local grievances, poor governance

Member States are rightly focused on tackling the health crisis caused by COVID-19.  “But we must not forget or be complacent about the continuing threat of terrorism”, he warned.  In many parts of the world, terrorists are exploiting local grievances and poor governance to regroup and assert their control.  “Collective action and international cooperation are needed now more than ever.”

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Terrorism

Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

Debates across the world are raging, discussing the issues pertaining to the repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs] who left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] or live under their so-called Caliphate. Some died in Syria and some have made their way back home, but nearly 10,000 male FTFs, approximately 2,000 of them from Europe, are currently being held by the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] in prisons and camps in Northeast Syria. Likewise, thousands of women who brought or bore children into ISIS are now locked with their children in detention camps as well. It is unlikely that the SDF will be able to hold the FTFs forever, especially with frequent attacks by Turkey that pull guards away from their posts to assist in the fighting or with bombs that even hit the prisons and camps themselves, allowing the detainees to escape. Likewise given international challenges to holding trials in SDF territory these prisoners currently are being held without charges, except for those who were charged or tried in absentia at home. Ergo, it is crucial to determine if the FTFs will make it home, whether by entering stealthily, being extradited after crossing the border into Turkey, or being properly repatriated by their home countries, and then to decide what will happen with them. If they are successfully prosecuted – which is a challenge given that evidence from the battlefields so far away is hard to procure, as are legally acceptable statements from witnesses – they will likely be imprisoned and may take part in some sort of treatment program, begging the question: Can an ISIS terrorist be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society?

After a well-attended ICSVE Zoom panel featuring journalist Anthony Loyd and lawyer Tasnime Akunjee discussing the thorny issues concerning rights concerning citizenship and repatriation, particularly that of British-born Shamima Begum, the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE] hosted another panel moderated by director Dr. Anne Speckhard to discuss and debate the merits of terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration, specifically in Europe.[1] Throughout the discussion, two schools of thought emerged, each linked to the concept of disengagement versus deradicalization, which arose numerous times throughout the comments posted by audience members as well as issues of treatment and evaluation. This paper is an attempt to capture the main points of the discussion hosted by ICSVE of four experts, all of which have been intimately involved with terrorist rehabilitation programs in the UK, Belgium, Austria and Iraq.

In regard to the theme of disengagement versus deradicalization as an end goal of a rehabilitation program it’s important to define the concepts. Terrorist disengagement refers to simply changing one’s behavior, refraining from violence, and removing the terrorist from the community or social network in which they were radicalized, while deradicalization refers to a change in attitude and ideology and a disavowal of one’s previously held beliefs endorsing violent extremism and terrorism and rejecting democratic societal values. All of the panelists held that listening to their clients and taking a holistic approach to treatment is necessary and that disengagement can happen far more quickly than deradicalization, and generally does, simply by virtue of being imprisoned. Some of the panelists argued that successful rehabilitation programs require a theological repudiation of ISIS’s ideology to ensure the individual does not return to terrorist actions upon release, and that deradicalization should be evaluated based on the person’s beliefs about militant jihad and Islamism in general, regardless of whether that person is still willing to act violently based on those beliefs. While they caution that holding extremist beliefs is not a crime in and of itself, those who have disengaged but not been deradicalized are more likely to return to violence given that their extremist beliefs support such behavior. Thus, the panelists aim for their clients to change their extremist beliefs and express acceptance and appreciation of democratic values and tolerance of other religions and behaviors decried as heretical by extremist groups.

Others see ideology as a secondary aspect of radicalization, with many terrorists not having been attracted into the group by its ideology nor being particularly ideologically committed at the point of imprisonment. These panelists therefore viewed addressing ideology as a secondary aspect of rehabilitation. Those in this camp see addressing grievances related to identity, belonging, and significance as paramount and place emphasis on a systems approach which treats the individual, but also takes into account the need to address the individual’s response to a rejecting society. Likewise, this systems approach also locates the problem both within the individual and society and thus calls for broader societal change to also occur to address the racism and discrimination that made these individuals feel marginalized and alienated and thus more vulnerable to radicalization and terrorist recruitment in the first place.

While criminologists like Andrew Silke have argued that ideological deradicalization is not a necessary component of rehabilitation and that many terrorists have been released and successfully reintegrated into society, his research refers to terrorist groups that are not following a militant jihadist ideology.[2]  Likewise, those experts that argue that ideology is not the driving force for joining a terrorist group and that view significance, purpose, belonging, friendship, and material rewards as the far more important reasons for joining also do not place significant value on addressing ideology in rehabilitation. While these are important points, it behooves one to consider how ISIS themselves viewed ideological indoctrination.  After declaring their Caliphate, ISIS required every new male member to attend a two-week shariah training program in which the underpinnings of the ISIS ideology were taught, with no dissent allowed.  ISIS men were then expected to teach their wives and children these lessons at home. All ISIS men were taught that only ISIS were the true believers, that even other Muslims could be takfired – that is, condemned to death for failing to pledge their allegiance to ISIS; that jihad is a mandatory obligation of all Muslims; that suicide terrorism is a honorable type of Islamic martyrdom with rewards for the “martyr” including instant access to Paradise; that punishments of beheading and other brutally gruesome practices carried out by ISIS are legitimate; and that all Muslims are obligated to move to and serve the Caliphate. They were taught that absolute obedience is necessary, and failure to follow ISIS rules would end in worldly punishments in addition to damnation to eternal hellfire. ISIS cadres that have been interviewed by ICSVE often describe the ISIS shariah trainers as extremely charismatic and that the indoctrination was strong and, in many cases long-lasting, taking over a year to shake after an ISIS member defected or left the group. Given this intense and effective indoctrination process, it is likely that ideological evaluation and treatment should at least be considered in the case of ISIS members who lived in Syria and Iraq.

Redouan Safdi, an imam who works in the main terrorism prison in Belgium with Belgians convicted of terrorism offenses, including FTFs who have traveled to Somalia, Libya, and Syria and have chosen to return to Belgium states that when he is designing an individualized rehabilitation program for an individual terrorist returnee, “The first question I always asked was, ‘Why did this person go?’” In this first statement at the outset of his presentation, Safdi invokes an important aspect of working with people who have been radicalized: Recognizing the push and pull factors, wherein the latter refers to the benefits, material, spiritual, psychosocial, or otherwise, that person was promised by the terrorist group while he or she was being recruited, and the former refers to the aspects of the person’s home society, in this case Belgium, that were painful or unacceptable to that person and contributed to his decision to leave. When Safdi asks the people with whom he works why they would leave the safety and security of Belgium to go to a country marked by chaos and death, he says they usually begin by talking about their love for Islam. But when the conversations become deeper and more meaningful, he explains, “I would hardly hear them talk about an Islamic State or the implementation of shariah. All I would hear is the injustices they have experienced in the past: Racism, discrimination, poverty, lack of opportunity.” Many of the people in the prison who left from Belgium to Syria, he says, are very young people who felt “frustrated and alienated by society […] and were searching for an identity […] young people who did not feel at home in the countries where they were born.” ISIS, reflects Safdi, was able to almost perfectly respond to these grievances through their propaganda, especially on social media, and cater to the needs of these “lonely, alienated, frustrated young people.” Spiritually, politically, and socially, ISIS gave them “hope, a new identity […] a sense of belonging. They showed them appreciation.”

Indeed, in an ICSVE study of 220 ISIS recruits in-depth interviewed in prison or after having defected or returned home,[3] we found that nearly a third of the interviewees from Europe were convinced to travel to ISIS by Internet-based propaganda and recruitment alone, without any face-to-face interactions.[4] ISIS’s online recruitment and propaganda alone gave them a sense of purpose, meaning, significance, dignity, identity and hope for their future in Syria. The other two-thirds of the sample were recruited by family members, friends and actual face-to-face recruiters, all promising a better and more Islamic future in Syria. By beginning with these issues, Safdi gets to the heart of the matter, that no one joins a terrorist group except that the group purports to meet some of their needs, materially, spiritually or psychosocially, and that when leaving the terrorist group these needs don’t simply evaporate. They likely still exist, and may be exacerbated upon return, and need to be addressed by redirecting the individual to healthier and more prosocial answers than joining or staying attached to a terrorist group and its virulent ideology. Other researchers have agreed that because many people join terrorist groups in an effort to find an identity, disengagement may cause one to feel a profound loss of identity, meaning, and purpose, all of which were previously provided by and centered around the terrorist group. Thus, replacing the social support once given by the terrorist group is a critical aspect of both deradicalization and disengagement.[5]

Despite the strong draw of groups like ISIS, however, Safdi nevertheless believes rehabilitation and reintegration is possible for most people, under one condition: “We have to be able and we have to be ready to listen to these people.” This is not an easy task, as listening to their grievances requires addressing racism and discrimination that contributed to them feeling alienated enough from Belgian society to go join ISIS in Syria, and which are issues that are ongoing today, despite a great deal of mainstream societal denial. All of the social alienation these convicted terrorists felt before joining ISIS is likely to exist once again when they are released. Issues of racism and discrimination are not easily addressed social problems, so Safdi states that it is important to work with the individual to find ways to live within society while giving them a “feeling that they are wanted […] that they are needed. We have to make sure that these people feel at home.” Unfortunately, Safdi admits that strong societal issues in regard to rejecting many Muslim minorities and converts as well as widespread denial about the reality of this issue still exists in Belgium, stating, “This is the one thing that no one is ready to do: To listen and deal with the needs of their own citizens.” This aspect of Safdi’s assessment is a clear rebuke of those who claim that violent behavior, extremist or otherwise, is a simple choice made by people who are claimed to be not held accountable for their actions. The truth is that the choice to join a terrorist group and believe in an Islamic utopia in Syria came about while living inside a social system that was actively rejecting the individual so the choice occurs within a societal context which also bears some responsibility. As one audience member comments, “Choice also needs to be contextualized. Choices aren’t always clear and opportunities to make choices aren’t always equal across the board.” Indeed, this is why we argue that one cannot see radicalization as a problem solely residing within an individual. It also involves systemic racism, discrimination, marginalization which are frustrating to the individual and which create many cognitive openings to respond to the claims of groups like ISIS.

Beyond listening to grievances, Safdi explains that Belgium’s approach to rehabilitation is holistic, covering not only the ideological symptoms of the person’s radicalization, but the multiple reasons behind radicalization. Indeed, radicalization into terrorism is never univariate. The first author, after studying hundreds of terrorists over many years, identified at least 50 motivations and vulnerabilities operating on the level of the individual that resonate to the terrorist group, its ideology and the level of social support present in society for joining the group.[6] There are always multiple reasons why an individual joins a terrorist group, requiring a holistic approach and often using multiple professionals, most often psychologists as well as religious scholars.

Safdi participates in a program that involves both imams and psychologists and notes that most Belgian FTFs are not knowledgeable enough about Islam to need only a purely theological deradicalization program. That said, even with those who lack strong ideological indoctrination and the ability to defend that indoctrination, he does offer Islamic guidance to address the poorly supported hadiths and cherry-picked Quranic verses that terrorists use to justify and promote terroristic violence. The holistic approach works, Safdi says, because everyone on the team “is there to help. They are not there to judge or punish him.” As for evaluating the success of the deradicalization program, Safdi does not use concrete evaluation tools, but continually watches to see if and how the individual undergoes a process of changing his core identity from rejecting Belgian society and endorsing terrorism to becoming one who embraces living in Belgian society. Safdi looks for how the prisoner slowly begins to disavow his former harsh, judgmental and violence-endorsing self and no longer “wants to be associated with the person he was in the past.” Also, Safdi looks for behaviors demonstrating an openness to new ideas, such as enrolling in courses at a university, which are also good indicators of a change in attitude and embracing finding his place in Belgian society according to Safdi. Moreover, he says, when his clients are released from prison, they are kept under surveillance. Only one person with whom he has worked has recidivated.

Moussa Al-Hassan Diaw, who runs DERAD, a prison deradicalization organization in Austria, also spoke in the panel about rehabilitating and reintegrating militant jihadist terrorists who have been convicted on terrorism charges. His organization also works with far-right and far-left terrorists. Diaw’s program, like Safdi’s, is holistic, focusing on “culture, religion, democracy, pluralism, civic education, and history.” His stated goal, however, is for the person being treated to come to an “acceptance of a pluralistic, democratic society and to avoid polarization.” In contrast with Safdi’s methods of addressing the reasons behind one’s radicalization and helping in the formation of a new identity, Diaw addresses the ideological beliefs that support endorsing violence and as a religious scholar he is well equipped to guide a person out of the ISIS ideology. In keeping with this goal, while Safdi measures success through behavioral change demonstrating a newfound positive identity, Diaw requires a rejection of the extremist ideology and acceptance of democratic values as evidence of deradicalization. Diaw points out that much of his work takes place outside of the prison system. As such he is free to address radicalized belief systems, which are legal to hold as long as the individual does not engage in criminal behavior. He believes that those underlying beliefs that support violent behaviors need to be addressed in order to have confidence that the individual will not return to violence. Of course, the determination of at what point one can be considered “moderate” as opposed to “extreme,” is subject to debate. For example, Moskalenko and McCauley (2009) hold that non-violent, legal political activism should not be a target of deradicalization, even if one’s beliefs are extreme or fundamentalist.[7] Diaw obviously disagrees when it comes to ISIS and we would also point to ICSVE reports on cases of ISIS defectors returning to a commitment to the group when there has been no treatment and also the ideology has not been successfully addressed. Therefore it appears that this is a thorny judgment issue but that addressing ideology within a holistic approach likely makes recidivism less likely.

At the outset of his program, Diaw aims to establish himself to his clients in a positive way and to prove that rather than being “part of a power structure,” he is a sympathetic, understanding community member. After addressing the aspects of rehabilitation, many of which are similar to those discussed by Safdi, though he emphasizes a heavier focus on disputing the ideology of ISIS and other similar groups, Diaw moves on to the challenges of reintegration. First, he says, the people need to find a job, but their reputations are often beyond repair, so they have to change their names or somehow overcome the social barriers to finding employment. It should be noted that in Europe it is normal for employers to require potential hires to show a police certificate demonstrating that one has not been in trouble with the law, an impossibility for former terrorist convicts. Others worry they will not be accepted back into their communities from which they left or that they will not be able to rebuild relationships with their families and regain custody of children who may have been put into the welfare system. Some audience members commented that mainstream Muslim communities may be wary to welcome these people back for fear of being surveilled themselves once the former terrorist lives among them, or even be harassed by law enforcement due to their association with someone convicted on terrorism charges. All of these roadblocks to reintegration can drive the person back to their old radical community, even if they no longer hold radical beliefs, and once finding comfort and belonging with their former community they are at risk for re-radicalizing. Relocation may address many of these concerns in removing the stigma people may feel in the job market after release from prison and also physically distancing them from their old negative influences. However, having to show a clean police record is a significant barrier for many to gain employment. An example of failed reintegration is seen in the case of Younes Delefortrie, an ISIS returnee in Belgium. Younes returned to Antwerp after being convicted on terrorism charges but freed on a stay of sentence to open a bakery and try to reinvent himself. Far-right politician Geert Wilders publicly denounced him, telling the public that his baked goods had blood on them due to his terrorist past. The bakery failed as a result and Younes, who did not receive good treatment and support, never found his way and was later returned to prison.[8]

Omar Shariff, a therapist and former extremist now working in the United Kingdom comments on how powerful ISIS’s brand is; that its marketing strategy seduced so many young people all over the world. For this reason, Shariff states that he regularly uses videos produced through ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project in his work, using insiders from ISIS to denounce the group on video with those with whom he is working. In his view, people countering ISIS are fighting “a giant,” and therefore young people need far more than just “youth work.” He echoes the previous two speakers in emphasizing a holistic approach that addresses all aspects of radicalization, including but not limited to the theological aspects. For Shariff, evaluation of a deradicalization process should be individualistic and tailor-made and should focus on the individual’s acceptance of Islam as a religion that values life above all else, as well as moderation, as evidenced in the Islamic concept of “the balanced nation.” He actively confronts those who do not hold such views from a scholarly Islamic perspective and also examines the person’s mental health.

All of the speakers emphasized the voluntary aspects of prison-based terrorist rehabilitation and reintegration treatment programs, stating that no one is forced to take part. Each one noted that active listening, visiting, repeatedly inviting and caring for those who refuse to take part often wins them over.  In describing his evaluation process, Omar Shariff emphasizes evaluating his own efficacy to create a strong enough rapport with the client to succeed in beginning and continuing to move them along a deradicalization process. Safdi concurs, explaining that people in Belgium convicted on terrorism charges are not required to undergo treatment, but he nevertheless continues to visit them in prison, allowing them time to think and decide on their own to talk with him. We would also note that prison is a very lonely and can be a harsh place where kindnesses can go a long way in reaching a person who might otherwise be unreachable and that by extending simple acts of care, a prisoner may make a change of heart. The first author recalls a high-value terrorist ideologue in Camp Cropper in Iraq who he refused to confess or talk with any prison interrogator, always pointing out that he had been injured during his capture and needed a doctor. The first series of interrogators ignored his request for a doctor, but a particularly caring one dropped his demands for answers and took the prisoner for medical treatment, an act which completely turned the prisoner to not only cooperating with his interrogator but ultimately becoming an ideologue fighting militant jihadi terrorism in the prisons in Iraq.[9]

While the time to go deep into how treatment of prisoners convicted on terrorism charges actually takes place was limited and not all audience questions could be fielded, the written comments from audience members, many of whom are also experienced in this type of work, made throughout the event were numerous and insightful, many related to the different paths toward rehabilitation and reintegration, focusing on either psychosocial problems or on religious arguments. Many asked for common Islamic arguments against ISIS’s ideology and were pointed to the Quilliam guide entitled, “Tackling Terror: A Response to Takfiri Terrorist Theology.” Others asked whether there were empirically based assessments for deradicalization. Many programs utilize the Violent Extremist Risk Assessment [VERA], which is informed by the operator, although there are many other assessment and evaluation checklists other than the VERA and some prison programs make their own. No matter what assessment measures are used, it is important to assess repeatedly throughout a rehabilitation program, observing both positive changes and falling back into old behaviors and ideological points of view. Likewise, it is important to have a global assessment, from both psychological and religious points of view, and when possible to have feedback from other prisoners and guards as well. All of the panelists stressed the importance of tailoring their assessments to the individual, based on his or her specific risk factors and reasons for having joined a terrorist group initially. They also emphasized the difficulty in ensuring that individuals have truly deradicalized, not simply learned how to say the right things in order to be released.

The diversity of viewpoints among the panelists as well as the comments demonstrate the beginning of an answer to whether an ISIS terrorist can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. Yes, rehabilitation is possible, the panelists agree, but programs must be holistic, individually tailored, culturally sensitive, trauma informed and continuously evaluated for positive growth as well as setbacks over time. The consensus appears to be that reintegration is as difficult as rehabilitation with its own challenges and that the difficulties of remaining deradicalized and disengaged after release from prison are many. Reintegration is likely supported by the individual’s acceptance of the benefits of a democratic and pluralistic society in which he or she lives and determination to live as a productive, law-abiding citizen within that society and a reciprocal expectation of societal acceptance of the individual once he or she has served their time. Acceptance of societal benefits is difficult to achieve if the person did not formerly and does not expect to experience these benefits upon release. Thus, broader societal reform surrounding racism and discrimination is also critical in order to work toward truly ensuring that militant jihadi prisoners released after serving under terrorism charges do not revert to their old ways upon finding that the same grievances that drove them to violent extremism initially are still present, alongside the terrorist groups that promised them an alternative form of governance, albeit one that is achieved via terrorist actions.

[1] The ICSVE Zoom Panels are sponsored by grants from the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C., and from the European Commission’s Civil Society Empowerment Programme.

[2] Silke, A. (2011). Disengagement or deradicalization: A look at prison programs for jailed terrorists. CTC Sentinel, 4(1), 18-21.

[3] Speckhard, A., & Ellenberg, M. D. (2020). 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(1), 5.

[4] Speckhard, A., & Ellenberg, M. (April 15, 2020). Is Internet Recruitment Enough to Seduce a Vulnerable Individual Into Terrorism?. Homeland Security Today.

[5] Feddes, A. R. (2015). Socio-psychological factors involved in measures of disengagement and deradicalization and evaluation challenges in Western Europe. Электронный ресурс]. Режим доступа: URL: http://www. mei. edu/content/article/understanding-deradicalization-pathways-enhance-transatlantic-common-perceptions-and-practices (дата обращения: 05.09. 2018).

[6] Speckhard, A. (2016). The lethal cocktail of terrorism: the four necessary ingredients that go into making a terrorist & fifty individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism: Brief Report.

[7] Moskalenko, S., & McCauley, C. (2009). Measuring political mobilization: The distinction between activism and radicalism. Terrorism and political violence, 21(2), 239-260.

[8] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC.

[9] Speckhard, A., & Paz, R. (2012). Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers &” martyrs”. McLean, VA: Advances Press.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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Terrorism

Firearms trafficking, ‘enabler and multiplier of violence’ worldwide

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The Global Study on Firearms Trafficking 2020 focuses on the serious and “too often hidden” problem of firearms trafficking that serves as “an enabler and multiplier of violence and crime in every part of the world”, said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Making up some 39 per cent of the total number of firearms seized worldwide, pistols are the most seized type of firearm globally.

And almost all flows of arms trafficking between regions, can be traced back to points in Northern America, Europe and Western Asia. 

As they are often involved in violence, particularly homicides, they are also a major security concern.

Vital tool for governments

The report, which provides the most comprehensive data on firearms trafficking to date, said UNODC, is a vital source for law enforcement and policy makers to help reduce the damage and loss of life, stemming from illegal arms flows.

“By shedding light on challenges, and on the origin and trafficking routes of firearms, the study can support Governments in strengthening law enforcement and criminal justice responses to detect and disrupt illicit flows, dismantle the criminal organizations and networks responsible, and bring the perpetrators to justice”, maintained Ms. Waly.

In the shadows

Firearms trafficking remains a largely invisible phenomenon, which only emerges once trafficked weapons are used to commit other crime, according to the study. 

On average, two-thirds of seized firearms were impounded on the legal grounds of illegal possession. 

However, additional information related to the seizures and tracing results, suggest that a considerable portion of these firearms may have been illicitly trafficked into the country, prior to their being confiscated. 

And only around half of the arms suspected to have been trafficked, were taken on the basis of having been trafficked.

Regional breakdowns

Data from cities in 81 countries in the study, reveals that around 550,000 firearms were seized in 2016 and 2017, with pistols the most commonly trafficked. 

This may be explained by the high number of responses received from the Americas, where pistols made up, on average, more than half of all seizures.

Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia, at 38 and 37 per cent respectively, shotguns were the most prominent firearms seized and in Oceania, rifles were top, at 71 per cent. 

At the same time, Europe seems to be the most heterogenous in terms of seizures, with pistols accounting for 35 per cent, rifles 27 per cent, and shotguns, 22 per cent.

Weapon ownership

The study reveals that around the world, 54 per cent of homicides are carried out with a firearm. 

And while handguns play a significant role in gang or organized crime killings, they are far less prominent in murders involving partners or family members.

Countries with higher levels of violent death and homicide – particularly in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean – tend to seize a higher percentage of firearms connected to violent crime, while in Europe, drug trafficking is the most prominent among the other forms of crime linked to illicit weapons.

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