Connect with us

Terrorism

Lessons from Chernobyl, Terrorism on Dealing with Mental Health Challenges of COVID-19

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

Published

on

With COVID-19 we are dealing with an invisible stressor and the potentially traumatic threat of death to ourselves and our loved ones. Both of these are creating widespread feelings of anxiety and depression, and may in the long run, if we get the hundreds of thousands of deaths as potentially predicted, cause a new kind of post-traumatic stress in some, and complicated grieving in others. I’ve been involved in two similar-type traumatic stressors: one, the Chernobyl power plant explosion, a technological disaster spewing radioactive particles over a vast area of land, and the other involving nonstate terrorist actors killing some, while threatening to kill all, that may have lessons to teach us about how to psychologically cope better on an individual and national level with COVID-19. What can we learn from other similar stressors to brace and get through this one?

Terrorists – We Can Kill You Anywhere, at Any Time. The global COVID-19 threat is completely different, yet not totally unlike, than terrorists who, after successfully carrying out one spectacular attack or a campaign of attacks that are widely nationally or internationally broadcast, spread fear and anxiety throughout entire societies. It’s not rational, really; terrorists who in reality only killed dozens somehow manage to convince entire populations that they can be killed at anytime, anywhere, and thus make us all fear.

What we learned with the terrorist threat is that the news media, particularly during and right after an attack, is deeply important – that it’s crucial to have broadcasters who don’t sensationalize and whip up the fear any more than is necessary to take wise precautions and leaders and spokespersons who instill trust and calm throughout the nation. We need to be able to turn to credible leaders to pass true and trustworthy information so that the population follows their instructions and doesn’t begin to doubt and look for their own, often misguided, sources of information. We already have seen this with the couple who recently ingested a substance that President Trump touted as a potential cure for COVID-19, yet the form they took killed one of them.

Likewise, it’s important for parents to realize that children are also viewing the news as well and are too young to make sense of it and are frightened by it. For instance, after 9/11, even children in Italy were reporting nightmares of planes crashing into their apartment buildings after viewing the planes of 9/11 hitting the twin towers in New York too many times, with too many heightened emotions. Similarly, I recently heard about one 3-year-old child who, after hearing too much scary COVID-19 news, began to ask his mother, “Are there viruses here in our home too?” Sometimes it’s good to shut off the news when small children are around. These days, with Twitter also giving adults endless and frightening news, adults too may need to exercise self-discipline and not overload their emotional capacities.

Chernobyl: The Invisible Stressor of Radiation Poisoning

The Chernobyl disaster also gives us lessons about facing an invisible stressor, much like the COVID-19 virus that can’t be seen by the naked eye, but can be lethal nonetheless. While many are frustrated by the lack of COVID-19 testing, all of us are inundated with the news of its highly contagious nature leading many to speculate about what may be in their futures if they too become infected. For instance, a mother in Europe told me her son had bronchitis and due to the restrictions had to have the doctor come to them. She relayed how the healthcare workers arrived fully suited to test her young toddler. While he tested negative, she could only imagine what might have happened if he tested positive. Would they have separated him from his mother and taken him to the hospital alone?

How many deaths will occur with family members unable to be at their loved ones’ bedsides, unable to say goodbye? It haunts all of us when a loved one begins to cough or complain of any symptoms resembling those of COVID-19.

This is not unlike our experiences in 1997, when my husband was posted as U.S. Ambassador in Belarus, the former Soviet Union country hit hardest by the Chernobyl disaster, with most of the radioactive fallout landing on Belarusian territory. We had three young children with us and were naturally concerned about their being exposed. I wasn’t the only one worried. It was 11 years after the disaster but the “Chernobyl necklaces” – scars crossing the throats of children who had developed thyroid cancer – were sobering reminders of the dangers that may still lurk in the food, soil and air. Mothers were terrified when their children sneezed or fell ill, fearing the worst – that they had been radiated and now had cancer. It’s not unlike COVID-19 today with everyone wondering what they might touch, walk upon, or breathe that could bring the toxic death virus inside their bodies and homes. It’s not irrational to have fears as we watch the fatality numbers growing and the predictions that hundreds of thousands may die.

In Belarus, the Chernobyl liquidators, brave men and women who had gone to shut down the nuclear reactor, some even working on the rooftop to build a giant sarcophagus to contain it, asked me to study their post-traumatic responses years after having been exposed to radiation, as some of their comrades had died of radiation poisoning afterwards. They all feared early deaths, cancers and some even had partners who didn’t want to risk having children for fear of potential birth defects due to radiation mutations.

Studying their responses, I and others learned that the Chernobyl liquidators had all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD]. They had faced an event that threatened all of their lives, had learned of others dying horrific deaths in wards shuttered from public visits, and they as a result suffered extreme fear, anxiety and depression, and a sense of heightened arousal in their bodies. They suffered nightmares and found it difficult to sleep. They tried hard to avoid thinking or talking about the disaster, but often felt they could not and then resorted to drinking and other maladaptive methods of trying to calm themselves.

But the one thing they didn’t suffer were flashbacks of the event. That was because they had faced an invisible stressor, something unlike other traumas, where the threat to life involves a painfully and overwhelmingly visible traumatic stressor, which is remembered over and over again after the event. Many PTSD survivors refer to these post-traumatic flashbacks, which repeatedly intrude into their everyday thoughts, as being like full-sensory films, in which they painfully relive the traumatic event with the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and sensations of the traumatic event still all intact – to be relived again in every gory detail.

There were no such traumatic flashbacks for the Chernobyl liquidators because their trauma was informational, and the stressor was invisible. Most had only learned later of the grave dangers they had undergone while being exposed to this invisible stressor of radiation. It is the same now for COVID-19 exposure. While as a collective society we are all exposed to the COVID-19 crisis, none of us know as individuals, until we fall ill, if we have been exposed and may die of it. But that doesn’t stop our minds from conjuring up ill-fated futures with which to torture us. In the case of the Chernobyl liquidators, they experienced what I began to refer to as flash-forwards – traumatic images that played in their minds of falling ill with cancer, of dying early, or of being rejected by others, and these robbed them of their joy and caused them the same deep distress often seen in PTSD. In fact, I believe they had PTSD from the Chernobyl event, but with this one feature specifically different – the horror playing in their minds was not of a past event, but of a poisoned future.

So how can we as a collective society, and individually, deal with the stress and anxiety and potential trauma of COVID-19? First is to realize the stress and traumas may raise cortisol levels in our bodies and that we can do things to antagonize that. One is engaging in attachment behaviors that release oxytocin in our brains and bodies, a hormone that naturally antagonizes cortisol and lowers it. That’s why you see toddlers who are exploring their worlds, when frightened, turning back to their parents for a reassuring gaze or vocalization, or even running back for a hug, to let them know the fear is not overwhelming and that they can carry on. It’s a natural stress inhibitor to engage in attachment behaviors. Okay, so we can’t hug and touch anymore, except in our immediate families, but a phone call, reaching out to others and knowing you are not facing this alone, and some laughter can be very strong medicine to keep stress levels in check, as can diverting your attention from the stressor by absorbing yourself in things that bring joy or take your thoughts elsewhere. Likewise, exercise is good.

While we don’t want to dwell on the negative, we also need to face that some of us will lose loved ones, which is why we all must take social distancing seriously and try to minimize the number of losses. For those who do suffer losses, we can expect to see complicated grieving. We may not be able to be at the bedside or even enter the hospitals where our loved ones are treated, or be able to hold funerals and burials for some. This will inhibit grieving and we will have to find other ways to hold delayed memorials and to grieve with rituals that differ from those relied upon in the past.

But we also need to put our fears into perspective. When 9/11 happened, I was in Brussels and held stress debriefings for expats who feared for family members back home, about flights and about the next attack, which al-Qaeda had announced would be at NATO headquarters in Brussels in October. Government officials suddenly went to militarized workplaces, passing armed guards and tanks on their way into their offices and heard about real and fake anthrax arriving into many of the U.S. embassies around the world. They became terrified and started ruminating about their fears.

I told them to put it into perspective and asked how many had driven to the meeting we were holding? How many had partaken of the snacks served? Who dared to sit under the chandelier that might fall down and kill them if it dislodged from its hook in the ceiling? There are many ways to die and we generally block them all out. COVID-19 is making us acutely aware in these uncertain times of our own, and our loved ones’, mortality. Aside from giving us a terrifying glimpse of our potential grim futures, it might also be a good thing.

Realizing that those around you, those you work with, those you interact with on a daily basis, your family members and even the strangers you pass never to see again are all mortal has the potential to instill deep terror inside. It also has the potential to make you a better human being, one filled with compassion and love for your fellow human traveler. We are all here only for a short time and this can be a time when we take the extra steps to be kind to one another and show love for all. COVID-19 is a pandemic of epic proportions but if we all refuse to give into fear and choose to respond with love and care it can also be a blessing in disguise.

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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

Continue Reading
Comments

Terrorism

Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

Published

on

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

Continue Reading

Terrorism

Firearms trafficking, ‘enabler and multiplier of violence’ worldwide

Newsroom

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Terrorism

Terrorism in the EU: Terror attacks, deaths and arrests in 2019

Newsroom

Published

on

The number of terrorist attacks and victims of terror in the EU continued to decrease in 2019. Check out the graph to see the evolution of jihadist terrorism since 2014.

There were 119 terrorist attempts in Europe in 2019 counting the ones that were successfully carried out and those that failed or were foiled. Of those, 21 are attributed to jihadist terrorism. Although they represent only a sixth of all attacks in the EU, jihadist terrorists were responsible for all 10 deaths and 26 out 27 people who got injured.

About half of terrorist attacks in the EU are ethno-nationalist and separatist (57 in 2019, all but one in Northern Ireland) with the other main categories of terrorists being far-right (6) and far-left (26).

The numbers of victims of jihadist terrorism has further decreased since its peak in 2015 and in 2019 the number of attacks foiled by member state authorities was double the number completed or failed. However, according to Manuel Navarrete, the head of Europol’s counter-terrorism centre, the threat level is still relatively high.

Navarete presented Europol’s annual report on terrorist trends to Parliament’s civil liberties committee on 23 June. He said that there is the same trend of online communities instigating violence in right wing and jihadist milieus: “For the jihadists, terrorists are holy war martyrs, for right wing extremists, they are the saints of a racial war.”

Fewer terrorist attacks and terrorism victims

Ten people lost their lives in three completed jihadist attacks in the EU last year in Utrecht, Paris and London, compared to 13 deaths in seven attacks in 2018.

Eight EU countries suffered terrorist attempts in 2019.

Twice as many foiled attacks as completed or failed ones

In 2019, four jihadist attacks failed while 14 incidents were foiled, compared to one failed atack and 16 foiled ones in 2018. In both years, the number of plots foiled by authorities is double the number of completed or failed attacks. Jihadist-inspired attacks mostly target public places and police or military officers.

The completed and failed jihadist attacks were mostly carried out using knives and firearms,. All plots involving the use of explosives were disrupted. The majority of the perpetrators were acting or were planning to act alone.

In 2019, 436 individuals were arrested on suspicion of offences related to jihadist terrorism. The arrests occurred in15 countries. By far the most in France (202), between 32 and 56 in Spain, Austria and Germany and between 18 and 27 arrests in Italy, Denmark and the Netherlands. This figure is also lower than the previous year when a total of 511 people were arrested.

The threat of radicalised prisoners

People in prison for terrorist offences and those radicalised in prison pose a threat. In many European countries, a number of radicalised prisoners will soon be released and this could increase the security threat, Navarrette warned. In 2019 one failed attack, one foiled and one successful one were carried out by radicalised prisoners.

EU cooperation

Reinforced cooperation between EU countries and information sharing have helped to prevent attacks or limit their impact, according to the head of Europol’s counter-terrorism centre. “Because of the information exchange, because of the connections that we have, member states manage to be early on the scene to identify the risks. For me it’s a good sign that two thirds of the attacks were identified and foiled thanks to the cooperation that is in place.”

No systematic use of migration routes by terrorists

Some have been concerned about the risk posed by migrants trying to enter Europe. Europol ’s report reiterates that as in previous years there are no signs of systematic use of irregular migration by terrorist organisations. In fact, in more than 70% of arrests related to jihadist terrorism, for which citizenship was reported to Europol, the individuals were nationals of the EU country in question.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Southeast Asia49 mins ago

Countering Chinese String of Pearls, India’s ‘Double Fish Hook’ Strategy

India and Indonesia held their defence dialogue between the defence ministers on July 27, 2020 and discussed issues related to...

Middle East3 hours ago

Are The U.S. And Its Partners Losing The Grip On Syria’s North East?

The oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor located in Eastern Syria has witnessed another escalation between the local Arab populace and...

Newsdesk5 hours ago

Niger: World Bank Approves $250 Million to Boost Long-Term Growth

The World Bank Board of Directors today approved a total amount of $250 million in International Development Association (IDA) credit...

Economy7 hours ago

Pandemic Recovery: Three Sudden Surprise Gifts

A new shine across the globe is entering into boardrooms; a new awakening is enforced and a new shift emerges…...

Newsdesk9 hours ago

World Bank releases first comprehensive stock-taking of infrastructure services in Asia

A new World Bank report presents data about infrastructure provision in three key sectors is Asia: road transport, electricity, and...

Newsdesk11 hours ago

Global cooperation is our only choice against COVID-19

With more than 18.5 million cases of COVID-19 reported worldwide as of Thursday, and 700,000 deaths, the UN’s top health...

Middle East13 hours ago

The Looming Disaster of the Safer Oil Tanker Moored off the Coast of Yemen

Amidst the raging conflict in Yemen, the challenge of the Safer Oil Tanker emerges as one of the most hazardous...

Trending