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Terrorism

ISIS in Their Own Words

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

ICSVE is proud to announce our newest publication in the Journal of Strategic Security

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

From 2015 to 2019, Dr. Anne Speckhard interviewed 220 Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] defectors, returnees and imprisoned cadres in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, the Balkans, Europe and Central Asia. During these in-depth interviews, Dr. Speckhard examined the demographics, psycho-social vulnerabilities and motivations for joining ISIS, in addition to the influences and recruitment patterns that drew them to the group. Moreover, Dr. Speckhard inquired as to the interviewees’ roles, experiences and relationships within ISIS, variance in their will to fight and support violence, disillusionment and attempts to leave. 

This study’s sample of the first 220 (out of 239 to date) consisted of 182 men of 41 ethnicities, representing 35 different countries, and 38 females of 22 ethnicities, representing 18 countries. 51.1% of the men and 76.3% of the women were foreign members of ISIS, some who traveled to live under ISIS, and a few who engaged in ISIS recruitment or other activities, including planning attacks, in their home countries. The participants were primarily young and middle class. Most were raised Sunni Muslim, whereas others reverted or converted before joining ISIS. The participants had vast variation in their educational levels and socioeconomic statuses, thus representing the broad range of people from all over the world who have joined ISIS.

The most common vulnerabilities to ISIS recruitment for the entire sample were poverty, unemployment and underemployment. Breaking it out by gender, the most common vulnerabilities were a criminal history for men and poverty, family conflict, and prior trauma for women. Poverty and unemployment tended to be much more influential for Iraqi and Syrian ISIS members, who joined the group after it took over their villages, whereas foreign participants had more complex vulnerabilities, such as the combination between a criminal history and substance abuse, and viewing un-and under-employment as a consequence of discrimination over being Muslim and/or from an immigrant background.

For men, the most common influences to joining ISIS were friends, face-to-face recruiters, and passive viewing of videos on the Internet and social media. The majority of participants were influenced in some way online, and a significant minority reported that all of their recruitment occurred online. For women, the most common influences were spouses, Internet recruiters, and parents. This can be expected due to the greater tendency for women to make decisions based on the preservation of relationships, particularly with their parents and spouses. While many women followed their husbands to ISIS out of fear of emotional or financial abandonment, only three women credibly claimed that they did not know where they were going when they left their home countries for ISIS territory—although many men and women had no idea it would be as bad as it was. 

Motivations for joining ISIS differed drastically by location. Foreign males tended to be motivated by a “helping” purpose to provide humanitarian and defensive militant aid to the Syrian people, whereas foreign women tended to be motivated by the desire to pursue an Islamic identity, which many felt was not possible in their home countries due to harassment and discrimination. European women were also motivated by family ties, meaning that they followed their parents or husbands. Local men and women were motivated less by ideology and higher goals and more by employment, fulfilling basic needs and personal and familial safety. 

Men’s roles in ISIS were extremely varied. 51.6% of the men admitted to serving as fighters, ribat (border patrol), or both, during their time in ISIS. It is likely that many more of the men were fighters but did not want to incriminate themselves by admitting it. Other commonly reported jobs were engineers, mechanics, and medical personnel. 97.4% of the women claimed to have acted as wives and mothers. The roles of suicide terrorist, face-to-face recruiter, and medical personnel were endorsed by one woman each in the sample. Additionally, two women reported being members of the hisbah, ISIS’s brutal morality police.

The most commonly endorsed sources of disillusionment among men were mistreatment of civilians, lack of food, and mistreatment of women, although ISIS’s mistreatment of women was not reported to be as powerful as a disillusioning influence as mistreatment of ISIS members. For women, the most common sources of disillusionment were mistreatment of women, lack of food, and the acts of ISIS attacking outside their territory—particularly back home.

The participants reported experiencing, witnessing, and committing atrocities during their time in ISIS. Men most commonly reported experiencing bombings, being imprisoned by ISIS and being tortured, while women most commonly reported experiencing bombings, being widowed by ISIS-related violence, and being forced into marriage. The men most commonly reported witnessing executions, executed corpses, and torture, and hearing about the killing of a family member, while women most commonly reported witnessing executed corpses, torture and the death of a family member, as well as hearing about a family member being killed in battle or in bombings. Despite Dr. Speckhard’s warning not to self-incriminate, some men admitted to killing on the battlefield, performing beheadings, other executions, and torture. One man admitted to owning a slave. One woman admitted beating, flogging, and biting as a member of the ISIS hisbah.

The will to fight describes the motivation cited by ISIS fighters for why they went to battle for ISIS, oftentimes after they were already disillusioned. Commonly reported wills to fight included fighting the Syrian regime, being a “true believer” in ISIS’s ideology and hope to build the Caliphate, and fear of the brutal punishments meted out by ISIS if they refused to fight.

The results of this study demonstrate the utility and validity of qualitative interview-based research with terrorists. From the stories of the participants’ experiences in ISIS, it is clear that most FTFs living far from ISIS territory are motivated more so by a desire to solidify their identities and help the greater Muslim community than for economic purposes, although some were attracted by the ISIS promises of free housing, jobs, marriage, etc. FTFs were also responding to push factors at home including marginalization and discrimination. In contrast, these existential motivations are less important for those living in conflict, who felt pressure to join ISIS in order to secure food and some semblance of safety for themselves and their families. Thus, the risk of former ISIS members rejoining the group if they are released or escape from SDF detention where many are held, even if they have been disillusioned with much of ISIS’s ideology and methodology, should be a serious concern for military and intelligence personnel. Moreover, the threat of FTFs returning to their home countries should be countered through deradicalization and rehabilitation programs that address the vulnerabilities, influences, and motivations that drove them toward ISIS in the first place, as well as the traumas that they experienced while living under ISIS.  

The complete report of ISIS in their Own Words is published in the Journal of Strategic Security and can be viewed here.

*Molly Ellenberg is a Research Fellow at ICSVE, working on coding data from qualitative interviews, developing trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos, and assisting with the creation and analysis of the Facebook campaigns

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

Terrorism

Despite acknowledging strict measures, Pakistan has to stay on the grey-list in FATF

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President of The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Dr. Marcus Pleyer, announced in a press conference held on 25 February 2021 after the four-day virtual plenary meeting in Paris, France, that  “Pakistan remains under increased monitoring,” adding that while Islamabad had made “significant progress,” there remained some “deficiencies” in mechanisms to plug terrorism financing.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an inter-governmental formal decision-making body. It was founded in 1989 during the G7 Summit in Paris to develop policies against money laundering. It is a “policy-making body “that generates the political will to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in money laundering. It has also started dealing with virtual currencies. The FATF Secretariat is located in Paris. It sets standards and promotes effective implementation of:-

a. Legal, regulatory, and operational measures for combating money laundering.

b. The FATF works to identify national-level vulnerabilities to protect the international financial system from misuse.

Pakistan has been on the FATF grey list since June 2018 and has been asked to implement the FATF Action Plan fully by September 2019. Pakistan has implemented almost 90% of the recommendations; only three out of 27 points are not fully implemented.

Pakistan has suffered heavy economic losses due to being put on the grey-list; according to some estimates, Pakistan has suffered US Dollars 38 billion.

The FATF president noted that Pakistan was working towards its commitment made at a high level to implement the illicit financing watchdog’s recommendations, saying “that is not the time to put a country on the blacklist.”He added that as soon as Pakistan completed the action, the watchdog “will verify the reforms’ sustainability and discuss in next plenary in June.”

However, there are no chances that Pakistan could be put on the blacklist because it has at least three members of the FATF — China, Turkey, and Malaysia — that can sustain all pressures against any downgrade.

The government of Pakistan is committed to fully implementing the action plan, and to date, the progress achieved is admired by other FATF members.

However, FATF is also being used as a political tool against other nations. By reviewing the countries on the blacklist, the new additions are  North Korea and Iran- the West’s adverse enemies. Also,the addition of   Morocco, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and the Cayman Islands, are political decisions. As a matter of fact, the Western world is using international organizations, including FATF, to coerce their political opponents. Pakistan was a close ally with the West during the cold war era, and the front line state on Afghan war and non-NATO ally in the war on terror, yet faced worst sanctions like Pressler Amendments, Kerry Loggar Bill, etc.

Pakistani journalist Adeela Khan stepped up and raised a question asking FATF president Marcus Pleyer why India is not on the grey or blacklist of FATF even after financing proxies in Afghanistan, using Afghan soil to end terrorism in Pakistan, and violating human rights in India Occupied Kashmir. There more than forty banks in India involved in money laundering. The Incident of terrorism in Sri Lanka can be traced back to India. Yet India is not on the grey list or blacklist. India has been playing an ugly role in keeping Pakistan on the grey list. Although the EU Disinfo lab has revealed that Indian state-sponsored media think tanks and professionals play a dirty role in spreading fake news and disinformation against China and Pakistan yet, the world has not realized India’s evil intentions.

A bais and discriminatory attitude may harm the FATF’s reputation ultimately.

Many neutral people ask similar questions and demand justice and a fair playground for all nations, above the political motives and discrimination. The international community may maintain the reputation of International organizations and integrity – merit-based decisions.

On the one hand, Pakistan is trying its best to implement the FATF plan fully, and on the other hand, it is demanded that a fair playground be provided to judge the case for Pakistan. It is expected that in the next plenary session to be held in June 2021, Pakistan will come out of the grey list.

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Terrorism

‘Disturbing spike’ in Afghan civilian casualties after peace talks began

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A family runs across a dusty street in Herat, Afghanistan. (file photo) UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan witnessed a sharp rise since peace negotiations started in September last year, even though overall deaths and injuries dropped in 2020, compared to the previous year, according to a UN human rights report launched Tuesday. 

In their annual Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict Annual Report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in the country (UNAMA) documented some 8,820 civilian casualties (3,035 deaths and 5,785 injuries) in 2020, about 15 per cent less than in 2019.  

It was also the first time the figure fell below 10,000 since 2013. 

However, the country remains amongst the “deadliest places in the world to be a civilian”, according to Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

“I am particularly appalled by the high numbers of human rights defenders, journalists, and media workers killed since peace negotiations began in September”, she said. 

At least 11 rights defenders, journalists and media workers lost their lives since September, resulting in many professionals exercising self-censorship in their work, quitting their jobs, and even leaving their homes and the country – in hope it will improve their safety. 

Rise in ‘targeted killings’ 

According to the report, the overall drop in civilian casualties in 2020 was due to fewer casualties from suicide attacks by anti-Government elements in populated areas, as well as drop in casualties attributed to international military forces.  

There was, however, a “worrying rise” in targeted killings by such elements – up about 45 per cent over 2019. The use of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Taliban, air strikes by the Afghan Air Force, and ground engagements also resulted in increased casualties, the report said. 

According to the report, anti-Government elements bore responsibility for about 62 per cent civilian casualties, while pro-Government forces were responsible for about 25 per cent casualties. About 13 per cent of casualties were attributed to crossfire and other incidents. 

2020 could have been ‘a year of peace’ 

Deborah Lyons, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan and head of UNAMA, called on all parties to take immediate and concrete action to protect civilians, urging them “not to squander a single day in taking the urgent steps to avoid more suffering”. 

“2020 could have been the year of peace in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of Afghan civilians perished due to the conflict”, Ms. Lyons said

The “overriding objective” of the report is to provide the parties responsible with the facts, and recommendations, so they take immediate and concrete steps to protect civilians, she added. 

Ms. Lyons highlighted that “ultimately, the best way to protect civilians is to establish a humanitarian ceasefire” – a call consistently made by Secretary-General António Guterres and the Security Council

“Parties refusing to consider a ceasefire must recognize the devastating consequences of such a posture on the lives of Afghan civilians.” 

UNAMA-OHCHR report: Women casualties (killings and injuries) documented between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2020

‘Shocking toll’ on women and children 

The report went on to note that the years-long conflict in Afghanistan “continues to wreak a shocking and detrimental toll” on women and children, who accounted for 43 per cent of all civilian casualties – 30 per cent children and 13 per cent women. 

“This report shows the acute, lasting needs of victims of the armed conflict and demonstrates how much remains to be done to meet those needs in a meaningful way”, High Commissioner Bachelet said. 

“The violence that has brought so much pain and suffering to the Afghan population for decades must stop and steps towards reaching a lasting peace must continue.” 

Attacking civilians ‘serious violations’ 

With the conflict continuing, parties must do more to prevent and mitigate civilian casualties, the report said, urging them to fully implement the report’s recommendations and to ensure that respect and protection of human rights is central to the ongoing peace negotiations. 

It also reminded the parties that deliberately attacking civilians or civilian objects are serious violations of international humanitarian law that may amount to war crimes. 

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Terrorism

Is Blacklisting on Cards for Pakistan?

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Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has been an integral part of the economic decision making and regulatory procedures of the country. The days of the ultimate decision are finally on cards as the Global Watchdog is expected to evaluate and review the performance and strategies of Pakistan via virtual meeting tentatively scheduled for February 22-25, 2021. This would be a much-anticipated review since a keen eye would be payed following a long hiatus to the litigations recently undertaken by the country to eliminate the risks and gaps in the financial framework which might earn Pakistan, a way out from the grey list. However, while the preceding meeting only guided more hopes for better litigation and measures to curb terror financing, brimming foreign propaganda and nefarious rulings within the country itself might hamper the way out but instead could dig the trench further towards a harrowing financial turmoil.

Pakistan was placed on the grey list back in June 2018 due to strategic deficiencies. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in the world, Pakistan was allowed a breather of 4-months to comply with the 27-point action plan; of which Pakistan met only 14 targets while missing out on the rest of 13 targets. Moreover, Pakistan could only satisfy 10 of a total of 40 recommendations devised by the task force. These lags led to a major pitfall in the Pakistan’s Stock Market; PSX plummeting bellow 30,000 points. Furthermore, a bitter narrative started blooming regarding arch-rival India pulling all the strings to push Pakistan down further, even in the blacklist. This was largely shunned by the Indian representatives but the failure of the economic and diplomatic front of Pakistan was evident by now.

The FATF plenary was scheduled, like traditionally, in June. However, all scheduled evaluations and review procedures were deferred for 4-months in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing yet another unforeseen yet thoroughly welcomed relief span to Pakistan to strive more actively to meet the requirements.

In the preceding 4 months, Pakistan acutely worked to amend the contradicting laws and policies, the parliament playing an agile role to introduce new bills relating to counter-terrorism and countering money laundering as an act to expedite compliance to the international laws and ultimately meeting up all 27 points in the action plan. Almost all the bills presented, albeit some political resistance, were eventually passed which even led to optimism in the stock market; PSX climbing back over 40,000 points after more than half a year, rallying to record high levels despite of the pandemic wreaking havoc on the investors’ mentality across the globe.

The meeting held, after a steep deferral, back in October 2020; the FATF committee observed and commended on the vigilant stance assumed by Pakistan to crawl out of the Grey list. Pakistan has since delivered on 22 out of the 27 core points of the action plan defined. However, the meetings adjourned till February, retaining Pakistan in the grey list under the tag of ‘jurisdiction under enhanced monitoring’ whilst praising the steps of counter-terrorism and anti-money laundering adopted by Islamabad.

Pakistan was warned back in February last year that if not complied by the 27-point action plan, it could be a great threat to the foreign mechanism and would be eventually moved to the monitored jurisdiction, notoriously also known as the ‘Blacklist’. Later this month, FATF would examine if Pakistan meets the 8 key categories of the action plan; remedial actions taken against money laundering, counterfeit terrorism while also reviewing the vigilance of the institutions in countering Terror Financing and actively managing risk. The committee representing Pakistan would perpetually convince the plenary that the country in-fact meets the criteria and transitioning over the next month, the fate of the tormented economy would finally prevail in light of the decision made.

However, Pakistan has been sluggish in taking action against the notorious entities linked to terrorism around the region. The meeting nears with the pinned watch of UN regarding Pakistan’s role of providing a safe haven to Lashkar-e-Taiba founder, Hafiz Saeed, or the notorious acquittal of Ahmed Omer Sheikh, the prime culprit of the Daniel Pearle Murder case of 2002. Pakistan, however, claims to have made virtue on 22 of the defined 27 points while has garnered ‘Substantial progress’ on the remaining 5 points. Thus, the optimism brews that the meeting would push the country out of the list and would open more financial avenues especially in these distressful conditions.

Although Pakistan’s Foreign Office including the Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, appears optimistic to climb out of the grey list after 3 years, the infamous decisions passed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the excessive money laundering cases surging against the ex-office holders of Pakistan and the determined efforts of India to subvert Pakistan in global politics, all thwart down that optimism bit by bit. And while some of the economic experts claim that the decision of advancing Pakistan off the Grey list would be naïve move and would arguably impact regional dynamics, the decision could fall in tandem with the preceding outcome of sustaining the grey list status or could deteriorate the level further as gauged by a political expert, opining his narrative: “The facts demand that Pakistan remain on the grey list. The FATF shouldn’t just keep Pakistan on the grey list. It should rather warn Islamabad that absent rapid and wide-ranging reform; blacklisting is coming”.

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