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Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar al-Awlaki Into ISIS

Anwar al-Awlaki (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula video)
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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“I was born in Somalia, in Mogadishu,” Ibn Adam tells me as we start his interview in a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prison reception area. Ibn Adam is a big black 29-year-old Somali man. He’s got a scar on his forehead and looks like he could reach out and strangle me quite easily, but his smile and his voice are warm as he begins to speak in English with me, answering my questions of how he decided to leave his home in Europe to go and join ISIS.

Ibn Adam came from Somalia to Europe as a war refugee at six years old. He’s one of the refugees that didn’t integrate well and eventually ended up falling into militant jihadist online seduction and traveling for jihad to Syria. Like many Somalis whose families fled war-torn Somalia, Ibn Adam doesn’t remember his father who went missing in the war and after his mother also died of illness, he was raised by a mix of relatives.

“We were pretty much a happy family,” Ibn Adam recalls of his aunt and grandmother who brought him with them to Europe, although they grew up in a poor immigrant neighborhood where Ibn Adam fell into a bad crowd. “She had benefits from the state,” he explains.

“Auntie loves me,” Ibn Adam says with a sweet smile crossing his face as he remembers her. “Last time I talked to her [while still in ISIS], she was telling me to come back, that she can’t sleep.”

“I was a bit of a trouble-maker,” Ibn Adam admits, telling how his aunt followed a common immigrant cure of trying to get him straightened out when he was showing signs of going down the criminal path as a preteen, by taking him back to the home country. In his case, she took Ibn Adam to live with his cousins in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, an area populated by so many Somalis that it is sometimes referred to as “Little Mogadishu.”

“She took me because I was in trouble. I was stealing from the teachers’ cigarettes and smoking [and stealing] candies.” The last straw was when Ibn Adam got caught stealing cookies from a kindergarten and was taken home by the police who decided not to press charges. “Gramma was home. She was angry.”

Ibn Adam spent two years in Kenya with extended family there, learning to follow the rules. “I became better and calm. I went to school [in Kenya,] but I always wanted to go back to Europe. [After two years,] they agreed for me to go back.”

At that point Ibn Adam was in the 9th grade and turning 16. “Teachers were saying I was smart,” Ibn Adam recalls. “It was easy, but I was lazy. I was studying media and liked to be on the computer.” Like many teen boys he recalls that he was more absorbed by computer games and sports than classwork. “I played games and did Free Running—stunts jumping from buildings.” Ibn Adam recalls one particular good influence in his life, “I liked English. I had the best teacher I had in all my life. Until today I still think about her. She was so kind. She cares about you. Everyone feels this, that she cares about you.”

Despite having a good mentor in high school and being smart, Ibn Adam didn’t attend university due to tragic events that occurred in his family. “My cousin got killed. He was on his way to the mosque, to do morning prayer, but there was a party in the parking lot, [a party] of Somalis. He told them it’s not good. He had a fight with one of them and he stabbed him. I got depressed, so I graduated from high school, but I didn’t go to uni. I started working instead.”

In regard to religion Ibn Adam recalls, “I was not practicing. My aunties and grandmother prayed, but I was never told to pray. I wanted to fast in winter [during Ramadan], but they didn’t let me. They said, ‘You fast at nighttime.’

“When I came back from Kenya, I was more religious,” Ibn Adam explains. “I had stages, on and off, up and down.” Ibn Adam was also not particularly interested in events in Syria either. “I was not a guy who watched the news.” Ibn Adam had other interests. “My life was all about Parkour [Free Running], training, watching animation and Play Station. I loved to watch Japanese animations. I want to hear about [Parkour], what they are doing, cartwheels and flips with buildings.” While he had many vulnerabilities to being interested in groups like ISIS, from his profile at the time, Ibn Adam should have never ended up going to join ISIS, given he had no exposure to ISIS propaganda or recruiters. No one was seducing Ibn Adam by telling him that ISIS could meet many of his unmet needs and frustrated aspirations.

However, things have a way of taking their own turns in people’s lives and Ibn Adam’s was no different in that regard. “The first time I heard about Syria was late 2013 and 2014,” Ibn Adam recalls. “I had a friend who was here [in Syria]. I heard he was here. We were not very close friends, but I knew him. We grew up in the same neighborhood.” In 2014, Ibn Adam’s friend returned from Syria, ostensibly to recruit others to join ISIS. “I saw him in mosque, at Eid. He bought me an I-Pad with lectures of Anwar al Awlaki.”

Awlaki, an infamous Yemeni imam lecturing in English is credited with convincing thousands of Muslims all over the Western world that militant jihad was their individual obligation, as was hijra—that is, moving to lands ruled by shariah law—and that building an Islamic Caliphate should be their goal as they fought jihad tirelessly till the end times. When Ibn Adam was introduced to Awlaki’s virulent influence, Awlaki was already dead, drone killed in Yemen by the American forces. Yet Awlaki was still alive and well on the Internet, as he lectured from beyond the grave and continued to draw young and impressionable Muslims into groups like ISIS.

“He knows how to speak,” Ibn Adam recalls of Awlaki, who was indeed a gifted orator. “Every lecture is one hour to two hours. I was a bus driver. I was bored. Before I used to listen to Quran [while driving the bus], so I started to listen to his lectures.” Awlaki, although already dead, lost no time in drawing Ibn Adam into ISIS. “I was listening to the life of Abu Bakr and about the Caliphate after Abu Bakr, and then onward. After I listened to these two lectures I said, ‘I want to go [to Syria].’”

Ibn Adam told his ISIS friend, who replied, “Good.”

“At that time, I didn’t know there were Muslims against going to Syria. I thought all the Muslims were for it and all non-Muslims against,” Ibn Adam explains.

Life events intervened again, however, preventing Ibn Adam from throwing his life away in Syria. “My grandmother was getting old and she wanted to die in Somalia. I took my grandmother and left her there, [but] before I went back, I told my friend in Somalia, ‘I want to go to Syria.’ He said, ‘It’s not allowed to go to Syria and fight there. You have to ask your parents’ permission and these people, what they are doing is wrong.’ I was shocked, but he said he had asked his Islamic teacher. I went back to Europe and said [to my other friend] ‘I’m not going. I prefer to go to Egypt and study my religion.’”

The recruiter friend answered shrewdly, “You have to ask someone who has been there. You can’t ask someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t been there.” Ibn Adam, however, wasn’t convinced by this until he went back to listening to Anwar al Awlaki, this time about the constants of Jihad, which he admitted had a hypnotic effect upon him and renewed his desire to join the ISIS jihad in Syria.

Ibn Adam reached out again to his friend who had already returned to Syria and got the contacts for a smuggler to help him cross into Syria from Turkey. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he recalls. “I thought they will stop me.” Yet his family sensed something amiss. “I remember I was speaking to my cousin at my auntie’s house. She was telling me in a joking way, ‘If you would go to Syria, would you tell us?’ I was shocked. I said, ‘What? Why would I tell you? Why would I tell someone that would try to prevent me?’”

“I don’t know how they found out,” Ibn Adam explains, “but they found out when I was in Turkey and she wrote to me on Facebook [Messenger]. ‘Why did you do this? Why you leave us?’ [I answered,] ‘What are you talking about?’ I was trying to act normal because she might call the cops and they catch me. I was in Urfa [southern Turkey].” Indeed, some of the ISIS cadres I have interviewed had friends, or were themselves stopped in Turkey, when their home country police learned in enough time to prevent them, with the help of Turkish security officials, from crossing into Syria. Ibn Adam didn’t want that to happen to him.

“We met in Urfa,” Ibn Adam explains about the ISIS smuggler. “He took me to a safehouse. I stayed for about a day, [then I entered Syria. I] jumped over a fence.” Making use of his Parkour training, Ibn Adam recalls, “I made like a flip, otherwise I’d be stuck. We were 14 guys, men from Libya, Yemen, Palestine. First we threw our bags [over the fence] and then jumped over it. A lot of guys got stuck. It was daytime. I didn’t see Turkish soldiers, but I heard bullets. I don’t think they were shooting at us, but shooting to scare us. One guy said he saw the bullets in front of him hitting the ground.”

Upon his arrival into ISIS, Ibn Adam was first drafted into driving a minibus for newcomers coming through the Turkish/Syrian border. Next he was taken for military training in Iraq. Ibn Adam was not aware that being sent to the Iraqi battleground was essentially a death sentence but he soon understood when he was about to be deployed to Fallujah. Wising up, Ibn Adam refused to go, and was sent to Haditha instead from where he made his way back into Syria, to Raqqa. “In Raqqa the emir tells me I have to go back to Iraq,” Ibn Adam recalls, but he managed to evade it by finding Somali friends who came and took him into their ranks.

Reflecting back on the vision he held that had fueled his travel from Europe to Syria to join ISIS, Ibn Adam recalls, “When I thought about this place I thought everyone is angels, everyone is perfect. They will they will give me a car and a house, everything I need. I thought it would be like the days of the Companions. I thought everything was perfect. It was not.”

Ibn Adam admits, “I didn’t watch their videos, but as an Islamic State, I thought everyone will be acting according to Islam one hundred percent.” He recalls, “I was not disappointed in the beginning, but it was not exactly what I thought. He recalls the way his trainers in Iraq lied about the training schedule always claiming things would begin the next day, “In Islam it’s not allowed to lie, but when I see these guys say tomorrow, tomorrow…” Ironically, many of the European ISIS members were exasperated by this trait among the Arab ISIS leaders of failing to state things directly. And German ISIS joiners were even more infuriated by their Arab leaders’ total lack of punctuality.

Back in Syria, Ibn Adam realized he needed to join some fighting group. “I saw some guy asking people to go and fight, so I went with him. They didn’t give me weapon or grenade and battle vest. They were saying, ‘You’ll get it later. Jump on the truck. When you reach that place…’ I was scared, thinking why did I come? I was not in the front. I was in ribat [at the borders]. It was the first time I hear airstrikes and bullets and stuff like that. We went in. One guy was showing us the way. They try to hide from the drones, walking and hiding. Then, he was sitting and when he got up he got shot by a sniper.”

“No one else knew the way. We don’t know how to go back. We don’t know where to go. Then some other guys from Dawlah [ISIS] came. They took us to their place. We stayed for a day or two, then the room I was sleeping in they made a flash bang. I felt like I was in a tunnel. Everything is white after a flash bang. We retreated a bit. After a day or two, I wanted to go back. I couldn’t understand the structure. I can’t speak Arabic. They said you have to speak to the emir, he’s a French guy.”

Ibn Adam went to the emir saying “‘I want to go back.’ That’s the last thing I remember. Airstrike. I woke up in hospital. I was not one hundred percent. The guys took out cartilage in my knee, [put a] metal plate in my forehead. One guy said, ‘When you get shot, the bullet will go back.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ It was the metal plate he was talking about. My finger was broken also.”

Ibn Adam recalls staying in hospital for two months and getting his regular pay alongside a payment for being injured, although his money was all stolen while he drifted in and out of consciousness. Upon his release from hospital, Ibn Adam was signed up to one of the brigades of foreign fighters. Its name was the Anwar al Awlaki katiba after the man who had incited him to join ISIS in the first place.

Ibn Adam was too injured to join the fighting again. But he was well enough to have ISIS help him to arrange to marry a Somali also coming from Europe. They had three children together although only one survived childbirth.

When he recovered, Ibn Adam changed to another katiba and drove a truck mounted with a heavy weapon. “I stayed through the siege in Raqqa,” Ibn Adam recalls. “[I got] mortared, small injury, shrapnel in my body. [There were] bombs close by. One time my house got bombed.” Ibn Adam recalls being so numb at that point that he wasn’t very scared. “There were a lot of people afraid. [There were] phantom drones. You know something is coming. If I see those in the area I go to another area. It comes to see everything, and I know mortar is coming. The other drones I didn’t think they will hit me. I was not in a high position.”

Like so many of the ISIS cadres I’ve interviewed who lived in Raqqa, Ibn Adam liked it at first, finding Raqqa a hospitable place that he and his family could enjoy. “Before the siege I liked it. It was pretty nice.” When asked about the punishments going on and the ISIS brutality Ibn Adam shrugs it off saying, “You hear sometimes people doing wrong, but you can live with it. I heard about if people leave they punish them. If someone wants to leave, why keep him here? He’s extra luggage. He will start to hate you even more, become a spy. If they want to leave, let him leave.”

When asked about the oppressive ISIS hisbah, or morality police, or their intelligence arm, the emni, Ibn Adam recalls having no dealings with them. “Nobody would come and speak to my wife.” Although he does admit, “Some people were very harsh. For example I saw one guy tell a woman to cover her eyes. She didn’t. I saw him stomp on the ground and scare her. ‘Cover your eyes!’ I got scared. If she doesn’t want to, leave her.”

Ibn Adam recalls happening upon the corpses of an ISIS execution carried out in Naim Square in Raqqa. “I felt sorry for them, depending on what these guys did. There was a lot of harshness in the State,” he adds, explaining that in the beginning he believed it was the fault of individuals, but not systematic brutality within ISIS governance itself. Ibn Adam was still naïve in the beginning recalling, “I came for a true Islamic State like in the days of the Companions. I thought everyone will be perfect.”

Ibn Adam and his small family escaped from the siege of Raqqa during a truce with the SDF. “There were busses and trailers,” he recalls. “They took us to Deir ez Zor area, to an area near Hajin.”

Recalling leaving Raqqa, Ibn Adam explains, “I didn’t quit at that time. When we came out from Raqqa, there was no paperwork. It was chaos, especially for those coming from Raqqa. The traffic police were stopping people, telling them they have to go sign up. After a month or two I joined [a katiba] again. You had to join to get pay, help, even to go to the hospital. If you don’t have their ID card, if you do things on your own, it’s difficult, apartment on your own, treatment in hospital.”

Ibn Adam and his wife settled in a small village with very welcoming Syrian neighbors, but it “didn’t last for long. Bashar coming across the river. I went to Bookimal for two, three weeks, then retreat after retreat.”

At this point Ibn Adam realized, “It is not what I thought. I thought I’d like to be in a real Islamic State. I wasn’t thinking I have to get out, but things were bothering me, especially the emni intelligence of the State, stories about them. It makes rage—the injustice. You hear about people going in prison, how they treat people, the very bad treatment, but you cannot speak about injustice openly. I was in Friday prayers and one guy lectured on injustice. I saw him later and he said, ‘I’m not allowed to preach anymore.’ He was in prison. Then the prison was bombed.”

“In Kishma it was like war, everyone was retreating. I borrowed some money and I bought 25 kg of rice. [When] it got finished, food got very expensive. I remember buying food for $1000—a half kilo of rice, 10 kilos of flour, ten packs of tuna, powdered milk and five 6-packs of lentils. That was cheap compared to Baghouz.”

“[I got injured] in Shafaa. [I was at that time] sleeping in the mosque. My wife was in a small school. I went to her and she asked me to buy food. Something exploded in the school. I got shrapnel in my leg. I went to hospital. They put a bandage and told me to go. They gave me a stick go to Sousa.” In Sousa, Ibn Adam found an abandoned pair of crutches in the mosque. He is, however, bitter to this day that ISIS didn’t help him when he was crippled by his injury, “Afterward I heard there were lot of crutches, but they didn’t give them out.”

At that point in the retreat, many foreign fighters were feeling that ISIS didn’t care about them and many feared being accused of being spies and executed. Others were angry that the Iraqis appeared to have everything needed—food, Kia trucks, money to rent nice housing, etc. while many foreign fighters dug trenches in the ground and lived under plastic sheeting overhead. “I heard that Iraqis had it very good. I see them selling stuff, so I know they had food. But where did it come from? They were selling it very expensive, which leads to another thing. If they are selling it, it means they have more, or what would they eat?” Ibn Adam asks.

At that point in retreating from ISIS’s crumbling statehood many were also deeply disappointed in the failure of the ISIS leaders to take charge to inspire the ranks. “There were a lot of people disappointed that Baghdadi did not make a speech,” Ibn Adam recalls.

Rumors were also flying about, many of them purposely started by ISIS to discourage fighters from abandoning the State. Ibn Adam recalls rumors about, “People will go out and stay [detained] for two months and then go to camps. They will send the women out, but it doesn’t make sense to me. How are you going to send your wife and kids to people you are fighting? We have been fighting them for years. They are going to suddenly take you and only take you for two months?”

Like many foreign fighters who couldn’t find housing in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls, “I lived in a trench. I found one that was ready. I tried to dig one, one time but I didn’t have energy. I was very tired. For two or three days we were in the trench.” Unlike most who recalled the trenches as pure hell, Ibn Adam recalls the trench being much better than the overcrowded home he had just abandoned. “It had a carpet. They made it very nice. It had a small wall in it. In the house we lived in first there were maybe 70 people, women and children in one side and men on the other side. There was no privacy. There was arguing with his wife to go get water. In the tent [trench] we had privacy.”

All the same, Ibn Adam had to crawl out of his trench to go get water and food. “I saw death.” Although he recalls witnessing the worst in that regard in Raqqa, “The most [death I saw was] in the siege of Raqqa, bodies.” In Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls seeing a man shot dead in front of him, “He was walking with his wife. He got shot in the heart. He fell down from a sniper from the Syrian army.”

In Baghouz there was no longer food and many of the foreign fighters started eating the grain husks used for animal feed. Others boiled grass to feed their families. “[We used the husks of] grains for the animals. We made bread from it, dark bread, from the parts you usually throw away. It was harsh on the stomach.” While ISIS had previously fed its members, in Baghouz they fought only the fighters, ignoring even the injured ones. “If you were not fighting they gave one sardine for two guys, or one teacup of lentils.”

Remembering that Ibn Adam’s former friend and recruiter had told him he should only trust an ISIS insider, someone who had been there, to know whether to join or not, I ask him now from his experiences with ISIS if he has advice for others about joining the group. “With all this experience I would tell them live your life,” Ibn Adam answers without hesitation. “Think before you act. Problem is, I learn after I act. Smart ones learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s good. Good you learn. But to learn from others’ mistakes is better.”

Before Baghdadi was killed, his last video rallied ISIS supporters to revenge against Western powers for destroying the ISIS territorial Caliphate and for Baghouz. I ask Ibn Adam what he thinks about Baghdadi’s plea for revenge attacks at home in Europe. “That is not something I personally would do. Jack, or John, or Ahmed did this act and got caught and went to prison. What is the benefit? What did he get out of it? If you are injured laying on floor, or killed, he didn’t get benefit from it and it doesn’t bring back the dead to life. Why do it? What is the benefit?”

Since I was waiting for my taxi to the airport on the day in March 2016 that ISIS blew up the Brussels airport, I often ask ISIS members how they feel about that attack, curious to know what they’ll say. Some endorse it, making me angry inside, others strongly decry it. Ibn Adam is neutral on the subject. “I didn’t feel good, nor did I feel bad. I didn’t really feel anything. Something happened somewhere else, it didn’t affect you too much.” Similar to how he was earlier in his life, he recalls, “I didn’t follow the news too much.”

“I should care for others, but it’s not happening in front me of me, so I don’t feel too much,” he explains. But then he goes on to qualify his statement, “I don’t know anything in Islam that tells you can attack civilians. If I am a Muslim, I should talk to them in a good way, try to make people convert. Our Prophet said you have a package. It’s the way you deliver. You can knock on the door or throw it at him, or make it beautiful and say, ‘This is for you.’ Either way you delivered the message. I don’t know anything in Islam that says you are allowed to attack civilians, and that you should. Our Prophet said, ‘Don’t kill an old man who is not fighting, nor a woman who is not fighting. Don’t break the branches of trees, or burn them. Don’t fight those who are not doing anything.” Indeed, Ibn Adam paraphrases the scriptures of Islam, but he forgets how Awlaki and ISIS twisted other scriptures to convince people like him to come support their heinous acts against innocents.

While still debating his future in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls his father-in-law advising him to surrender after sending his wife out to the camps. Ibn Adam replied, “If I go out, only bad news will happen. You won’t hear about me. We heard the women reached the camps, but men no.” Yet when Ibn Adam finally surrendered himself to the SDF he recalls how good they were to him. “They gave me chicken and potatoes. I ate like a mad man. It was up on the mountain. They did a body search, then brought bread, eggs, chicken and potatoes. I loved the food. I didn’t have bread for a long time.” Most of the ISIS prisoners I’ve interviewed in SDF territory tell a similar story of relatively good treatment given the constraints of the overcrowded prisons and limited funds for staffing and food.

Ibn Adam will likely remain imprisoned in SDF territory for a long time given his country does not have any plans for repatriating citizens and weak laws for prosecuting returnees. Yet he seems like a good candidate for repatriation, to be brought to justice at home. He appears battle fatigued and claims he wouldn’t be interested to rejoin ISIS if it made a comeback. “After all I went through, go again? No! After all of this oppression and injustice?”

Interestingly, Ibn Adam states that of the men housed in his prison at least “90 percent are disappointed” in ISIS and feel the same way—that they would never go back. Whether or not he is telling the truth is impossible to say, but given his experiences of being repeatedly disappointed by ISIS, it seems likely.

“I want to go home,” Ibn Adam says. “I miss Europe. I miss even Somalia. I used to think it was harsh there, but after here I think I can go through anything.”

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

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Terrorism

Sri Lanka’s fight against LTTE terrorism: In retrospect

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

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

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

How Sri Lanka won the war

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

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

Tamil Ealam Cyber force

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

A raucous Tamil diaspora

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

Moving forward

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

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

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Terrorism

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotional Responses to Suffering Used to Influence Terrorist Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will to Fight

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

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

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

Disillusionment with ISIS over its Dealings with Assad

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Assad remains both free and in power.

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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Terrorism

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

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D

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ISIS photo

Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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