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Can an ISIS Terrorist be Rehabilitated and Reintegrated into Society?

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Authors: Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Speckhard, A., & Ellenberg, M. D. (2020). ISIS in Their Own Words: Recruitment History, Motivations for Joining, Travel, Experiences in ISIS, and Disillusionment over Time–Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors and Prisoners. Journal of Strategic Security, 13(1), 5.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s note: first published in Homeland Security Today

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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U.S.: From mass airstrikes to targeted terrorist attack

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The U.S.-led military operation “Inherent Resolve” has begun in August 2014. Its ostensible purpose was a struggle with the gaining ground ISIS at that moment. As the operation develops, Australia, France, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Belgium and other countries joined the American airstrikes.

United forces, with purposes to show power and strengthen its influence in the region carried out more than three thousand airstrikes in the first year, resulting in thousands of victims among civilians. It is worth to note that member states of the coalition didn’t try to hide the fact that their actions caused the death of thousands of people. In 2018, British authorities justified civilian deaths by the fact that militants used them as human shields and it was impossible task to minimize losses.

According to “Airwars”, the British non-government organization, from 2014 till 2019 up to 13,190 civilians were killed in Iraq and Syria as a result of the international coalition actions.

However, despite all the “efforts” and the Pentagon’s loud statements about the fight against international terrorism, the fact of the continuously growing territory controlled by the militants testifies the opposite. In addition, since 2015, facts of provided by Washington direct support to terrorists have begun to be revealed. U.S. and its allies produced weapons were repeatedly found in the territories liberated from jihadists. So, for example in 2017 during armed clashes with government troops militants used anti-tank TOW-2 and SAMS air defense systems of the U.S. production. Also, American medicines, communication tools and even component kits for UAVs were found in positions abandoned by terrorists.

The negative reaction of the international community began to rise in this context and Washington had no choice but to change the strategy of its activity in Syria. The practice of mass airstrikes was replaced by targeted terrorist attacks against government forces by their backed militants.

For implementing of such kind of actions, U.S. retained its military presence in Homs province where their military base Al-Tanf is deployed. A huge amount of evidence U.S. servicemen training armed groups fighters is widely accessible. Moreover it’s known that 55 km zone around Al-Tanf has been inaccessible to government troops for years and Syrian army attempts to enter the area were suppressed by the U.S. airstrikes.

At the same time, IS militants have been spotted moving in this region without encumbrance and used the base as a safe zone for regrouping. Terrorists slipped in Deir ez-Zor, Palmyra, as well as Daraa and As-Suwayda from this area. In addition, the U.S. has created the Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra group to fight government forces in the eastern section of the border between Syria and Iraq. Initially, the armed group was created to fight against government troops, but after a number of defeats they started to protect the area around the Al-Tanf.

Up to the date Washington continues to insist on Bashar al-Assad government “illegitimacy” and actively supports so-called moderate opposition. Pursuing its selfish economic and political goals, the United States counters to the international law, completely ignoring the tens of thousands victims among civilians and millions of refugees flooded Europe. Although the role of the White House and its allies in supporting terrorist groups is difficult to overestimate, the United States obviously will not consider it enough.

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FATF: A Sword of Damocles or a tool of financial discipline?

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Pakistan has been groaning under the Financial Action Task Force restrictions. There is marked contrast between Pakistan’s and India’s view of Pakistan’s current status, compliant or tardy with regard to most of the conditions. Pakistan oozes optimism that it has complied with most of the conditions.  India however is pessimistic about Pakistan’s ability to get over the bar anytime soon.

Anti-money-laundering legislation

One hurdle to meet the FATF conditionalities was to have a permanent mechanism to nab and prosecute the offenders. Pakistan’s federal cabinet has already approved a new set of rules to amend Anti-Money-Laundering (Forfeited Properties Management) Rules 2021 and the AML (Referral) Rules 2021. Thus, Pak government is now all set to set to introduce new rules on forfeiture, management and auction of properties and assets relating to Anti-Money Laundering (AML) cases and transfer of investigations and prosecution of AML cases from police, provincial anti-corruption establishments (ACEs) and other similar agencies to specialised agencies to achieve remaining benchmarks of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

These rules and related notifications for certain changes in existing schedule of Anti-Money Laundering Act 2010 (AMLA) would come into force immediately to be followed by appointment of administrators and special public prosecutors for implementation.

These legislative steps would help the FATF determine whether Pakistan has complied with three outstanding benchmarks, out of 27, that blocked its exit from the so-called grey list in February this year. The FATF has planned several meetings in the second week of June, ending in the FATF plenary on June 21-25.

The three outstanding action points (out of total 27) include (i) demonstrating that terrorist financing (TF) investigations and prosecutions target persons and entities acting on behalf or at the directive of the designated persons or entities; (ii) demonstrating that TF prosecutions result in effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions; and (iii) demonstrating effective implementation of targeted financial sanctions against all designated terrorists, particularly those acting for them or on their behalf.

Within framework of the amended rules, the Pak government would appoint dozens of administrators with the powers to confiscate, receive, manage, rent out, auction, transfer or dispose of or take all other measures to preserve the value of the properties and perishable or non-perishable assets (including those at go downs, maalkhanas or any other place) to be confiscated under the AML 2010 rules or court orders pursuant to proceedings under AMLA 2010.

The regional directors of the Anti-Narcotics Force would be designated as administrators for the ANF, customs collectors for the Federal Board of Revenue, directors of directorates of intelligence and investigation of the Inland Revenue Service for the IRS, zonal directors for FIA and additional directors of recovery, disposal and assets management cells for National Accountability Bureau.

Valuation of inventories

The AML (Forfeited Properties Management) Rules 2021 specify how the inventories would be measured, described or defined, protected and evaluated for auction and how to complete all processes thereto, including constitution of auction committees and how properties would be quantified or classified like if a property is of residential, commercial or industrial nature and what should be its market value or sale price etc.

For example, the movable case property worth more than Rs100,000 would be kept in the locker or vault in the State Bank of Pakistan, district or tehsil treasury or any nationalised bank. For withdrawal of such movable properties, the agency concerned would designate two officers of grade-17 or above and prior written permission of next supervisory officer of the agency would be required.

Each agency would establish a central asset recovery office to ensure assets recovery and management of the forfeited property and keep a designated central account with the SBP maintained by the ministry of finance where proceeds of property would be remitted by all agencies after attainment of the finality of forfeiture order by a court. All investigating and prosecuting agencies would exchange financial intelligence and information about the properties with other stakeholders for expeditious confiscation and forfeiture under the AMLA 2010.

Transfer of cases to competent authorities

The Anti-Money Laundering (Referral) Rules, 2021 are being introduced to enable transfer of the cases from one set of investigation agencies to another. If police, the ACEs or any other governmental organisations, other than investigating and prosecution agency under the AMLA, finds that an offence under the AMLA 2010 has been committed and such agency lacks jurisdiction to take cognizance of it, the head of such would refer the matter to the head of the agency concerned having jurisdiction to investigate.

Police, the ACEs or other governmental organisations would continue an inquiry or an investigation of the offence and would take necessary measures to preserve and retrieve the relevant information and evidence and case properties till formal acceptance by the investigating and prosecuting agency concerned as set out in the relevant clause of the AMLA and formal handing over and taking over of complete record.

After acceptance of the case by the competent investigating and prosecuting agency, police or ACEs etc would hand over complete record, including case files, record of proceedings and seizure memos along with relevant evidence, property and other material seized and the accused in custody, if any. Such investigating and prosecuting agencies would resume all the proceedings under the said act including to examine, re-examine persons concerned and other oral and documentary evidence and would expeditiously take steps as necessary for just finalisation of the proceedings.

Adequate number of special public prosecutors would be appointed for the Anti-Narcotics Force and Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) besides a separate panel of lawyers for customs and the Internal Revenue Service of the Federal board of Revenue. Also, law officers not below the rank of assistant director legal would be appointed for the Federal Investigating Agency and special public prosecutors for the National Accountability Bureau.

Pakistan also has to issue “National Policy Statement on Follow the Money (NPSFM)”. Through this statement and rules listed above, Pakistan’s compliance with FATF recommendations in Post Observation Period Report (POPR) would further improve with corresponding enhancement in the ratings or effectiveness of the FATF’s relevant Immediate Outcomes. Pakistan’s POPR would be reviewed by the FATF’s Asia-Pacific Joint Group (A-PJG), and based on the report of this group, the FATF would decide further course of action on Pakistan’s progress on the POPR in its plenary scheduled in June 21-25, 2021.

The NPSFM commits Pakistan to tackling money laundering and terrorist financing as a matter of priority during investigations, prosecutions, and subsequent confiscation in all money laundering, terrorism financing and high risk predicate crimes by adopting universal approach to combating money-laundering and terror-financing through generating sound and effective financial intelligence reports for the consumption of law enforcement agencies and maintaining risk-sensitive anti-money-laundering  regime to enhance cooperation and coordination amongst the such  stakeholders both domestically and internationally.

The government is also committed to protecting the financial system and the broader economy in Pakistan from criminality through a robust financial system to ensure that dirty money does not find its ways into the financial system. The government would ensure a robust beneficiary identification system, deterring financial crime as it deprives criminals of the proceeds of their crimes and removes financial support for terrorism and further ensures that targeted financial sanctions are implemented in letter and spirit.

Further, it would ensure a transparent, robust and efficient approach to investigating money laundering and terrorist financing and to the seizure, confiscation and management of criminal assets by supporting relevant agencies in cooperatively achieving this goal.

Compliance

 The Asia Pacific Group (APG) on Money Laundering has improved Pakistan’s rating on 21 of the 40 technical recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against money laundering and terror financing, but retained it on ‘Enhanced Follow-up’ for sufficient outstanding requirements.

The second Follow-Up Report (FUR) on Mutual Evaluation of Pakistan released by the APG — a regional affiliate of the Paris-based FATF — also downgraded the country on one criterion. The report said Pakistan was re-rated to ‘compliant’ status on five counts and on 15 others to ‘largely compliant’ and on yet another count to ‘partially compliant’.

Overall, Pakistan is now fully ‘compliant’ with seven recommendations and ‘largely compliant’ with 24 others. The country is ‘partially compliant’ with seven recommendations and ‘non-compliant’ with two out of total 40 recommendations. All in all, Pakistan is now compliant or largely compliant with 31 out of 40 FATF recommendations.

The Asia Pacific Group announced,

“Overall, Pakistan has made notable progress in addressing the technical compliance deficiencies identified in its Mutual Evaluation Report (MER) and has been re-rated on 22 recommendations,”.

It said recommendations 14, 19, 20, 21 and 27 had been re-rated to comply. These pertain to money or value transfer services, higher risk countries, reporting of suspicious transactions, tipping-off and confidentiality and powers of supervisors.

The APG said Pakistan was re-rated to largely compliant with 15 recommendations — 1, 6, 7, 8, 12, 17, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30, 31, 32, 35 and 40. These include assessing risk and adopting a risk-based approach, targeted financial sanctions relating to terror and terror financing, targeted financial sanctions related to proliferation, non-profit organisation, politically exposed persons and reliance on third parties.

Also, re-rating was done on designated non-financial business & professions (DNFBP) in terms of due diligence and other measures, transparency in beneficial ownership of legal persons and related legal arrangements, responsibilities of law enforcement and investigation authorities, cash couriers, sanctions and other forms of international cooperation.

Another re-rating to partially compliant status was done on recommendation 28 that pertained to regulation and supervision of DNFBPs. The two recommendations on which Pakistan was downgraded to ‘non-complaint’ were 37 and 38 due to insufficient progress and pertained to mutual legal assistance (MLA) with other countries and freezing and confiscation of assets and accounts.

Negative impact of rigorous compliance

The managers of financial institutions in Pakistan are implementing the FATF conditions  without understanding their purpose. They are harassing honest investors. For instance, the manager of the national Saving Centre Poonch house Rawalpindi refuses to issue an investment certificate  unless the applicant submits a host of documents. These documents include a current bank statement, source-of-income certificate besides biodata along with a passport-size photograph. They call for the documents even if the applicant submits a cheque on his 40-year-old bank account.

Deviation from objectives

The financial Action Task Force has ostensibly noble objectives. It provides a `legal’, regulatory, framework for muzzling the hydra-headed monster of money-laundering. It aims at identifying loopholes in the prevailing financial system and plugging them. But, it has deviated from its declared objectives. It has became a tool to coerce countries, accused of financing terrorism or facilitating money-laundering. The FATF is more interested in disciplining a state like Pakistan, not toeing US policies, than in checking money-laundering. The tacit message is that if Pakistan does not toe USA’s  Afghan policy, and lease out air bases for drone attacks, then it will remain on FATF grey list.  

The consequences of being in the grey list may entail economic sanctions and difficulties in obtaining loans from international donors like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The trade-and-aid difficulties may retard economic progress of a country.

Favoritism towards India: India has a much larger Gross Domestic Product (US$2875 billion , 2019),  than Pakistan’s paltry US$ 264 billion (2020).Similarly India has a much larger and wealthier Diaspora than Pakistan particularly in the Middle East and the USA.

The hawala (hand to hand transactions) and other money transfer practices among Indians and Pakistanis are similar. Yet the FATF keeps Pakistan always in focus and looks the other way when it comes to India.

Pakistan is a bête noire and India a protégé at the FATF only because of stark geo-political interests. Otherwise the money laundering situation in India is no less gruesome in India than in Pakistan. India has even been a conduit of ammunition to the Islamic State study conducted by Conflict Armament Research had confirmed that seven Indian companies were involved in the supply chain of over 700 components, including fuses or detonating cords used by the so-called Islamic State to construct improvised explosive devices.

Concluding remark

Political considerations, not primary objectives, override voting behavior at the FATF.

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Terrorism

The Autopsy of Jihadism in the United States

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The American counter-terrorism establishment is shocked to know that its current terrorist threat, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not foreign but “a large majority of jihadist terrorists in the United States have been American citizens or legal residents”.

A terror threat assessment by NewAmerica, a think tank comprehensive, up-to-date source of online information about terrorist activity in the United States and by Americans overseas since 9/11, 20 years after 9/11 reported: “…while a range of citizenship statuses are represented, every jihadist who conducted a lethal attack inside the United States since 9/11 was a citizen or legal resident except one who was in the United States as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership”.

The ultimate irony is NewAmerica quoting a terrorist to underline the seriousness of the threat: “Yet today, as Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born cleric who became a leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, put it in a 2010 post, ‘Jihad is becoming as American as apple pie’.”

Since 9/11 and today, the United States faced just “one case of a jihadist foreign terrorist organization directing a deadly attack inside the United States since 9/11, or of a deadly jihadist attacker receiving training or support from groups abroad”. The report recalls: “That case is the attack at the Naval Air Station Pensacola on December 6, 2019, when Mohammed Al-Shamrani shot and killed three people. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed the attack and according to the FBI, evidence from Al-Shamrani’s phone  he was in contact with an AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula) militant and AQAP prior to his entry to the United States…”

In the last two decades, “jihadists” have killed 107 people inside the United States. Compare this with deaths occurring due to major crimes: 114 people were killed by far-right terrorism (consisting of anti-government, militia, white supremacist, and anti-abortion violence), 12 and nine people, respectively, killed in attacks “inspired by black separatist/nationalist ideology and ideological misogyny”. Attacks by people with Far-Left views have killed one person. It just goes to show that terrorism inside the United States is no longer the handiwork of foreign or “jihadi” ideologies, but is “homegrown”, the report points out.

The report points out a poor understanding of the terror threat and its roots by the Trump administration. A week into his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry of citizens of seven Muslim countries into the United States. The countries were: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Th order cited “national security” as the reason, but gave no real justification.

Trump’s aides tried to find some justification for the order claiming that in the administration’s assessment the United States was and will be the prime target of terrorist organisations from these countries. The same report clarifies how wrong this assessment was: “None of the deadly attackers since 9/11 emigrated or came from a family that emigrated from one of these countries nor were any of the 9/11 attackers from the listed countries. Nine of the lethal attackers were born American citizens. One of the attackers was in the United States on a non-immigrant visa as part of the U.S.-Saudi military training partnership.”

President Trump had to swallow his pride and gradually revoke his order. In early March of 2017, he revised the order excluding Iraq from the ban list. That September, he dropped Sudan too, but added North Korea, Venezuela and Chad.

In the last two decades since 9/11, there have been 16 “lethal jihadist terrorists in the United States”. Of them, “three are African-Americans, three are from families that hailed originally from Pakistan, one was born in Virginia to Palestinian immigrant parents, one was born in Kuwait to Palestinian-Jordanian parents, one was born in New York to a family from Afghanistan, two are white converts – one born in Texas, another in Florida, two came from Russia as youth, one emigrated from Egypt and conducted his attack a decade after coming to the United States, one emigrated from Uzbekistan and one was a Saudi Air Force officer in the United States for military training”. Nobody from the banned countries, nobody foreign citizens; all were American citizens.

What is more embarrassing for the Trump administration is the report saying: “When the data is extended to include individuals who conducted attacks inside the United States that were foiled or otherwise failed to kill anyone, there are only four cases that the travel ban could have applied to. However, in at least two of those cases, the individual entered the United States as a child. In a third case the individual had a history of mental illness and assault not related to jihadist terrorism. In a fifth, non-lethal attack Adam al-Sahli, who conducted a shooting at a military base in Corpus Christi on May 21, 2020, was born in Syria but was a citizen because his father was an American citizen and thus would not have been subject to the travel ban.”

The NewAmerica assessment, in contrast to the executive order, finds concrete evidence to suggest that the terror threat is “homegrown”. It gives the example of Mohammed Reza Taheri-Azar, “a naturalised citizen from Iran”, who on March 3, 2006 drove a car into a group of students at the University of North Carolina, injuring nine people. “Taheri-Azar, though born in Iran, came to the United States at the age of two” and “his radicalization was homegrown inside the United States”. On September 17, 2016 Dahir Adan, a naturalized citizen from Somalia, injured 10 people while wielding a knife at a mall in Minnesota. He too had come to the United States as a young child.

There are more such instances: “On November 28, 2016 Abdul Razak Ali Artan, an 18-year-old legal permanent resident who came to the United States as a refugee from Somalia in 2014 — having left Somalia for Pakistan in 2007 — injured eleven people when he rammed a car into his fellow students on the campus of Ohio State University…However, it is not clear that the attack provides support for Trump’s travel ban.

In Artan’s case, he left Somalia as a pre-teen, and “if he was radicalized abroad, it most likely occurred while in Pakistan”, which is not included on the travel ban. The report says the chances of him being radicalised inside the United States are more. This is based on the fact that “in a Facebook posting prior to his attack, he cited Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American cleric born in the United States, whose work — which draws largely upon American culture and history — has helped radicalize a wide range of extremists in the United States including those born in the United States”.

There are several other pointers to the “homegrown” theory. For one, a “large proportion of jihadists in the United States since 9/11 have been converts”. There are “jihadists” who are non-Muslims. These facts “challenge visions of counterterrorism policy that rely on immigration restrictions or focus almost entirely on second generation immigrant populations”, the report says, debunking the Trump executive order.

The NewAmerica report debunks the assumption that only “hot headed” people are attracted to jihadist extremism. It finds that “participation in jihadist terrorism has appealed to individuals ranging from young teenagers to those in their advanced years (and) many of those involved have been married and even had kids – far from the stereotype of the lone, angry youngster”.

Women have broken the glass ceiling of jihadist terrorism as “more women have been accused of jihadist terrorism crimes in recent years” inside the United States.

The expansion of the social media world has played a singular role in radicalising American youth. “Many extremists today either maintain public social media profiles displaying jihadist rhetoric or imagery or have communicated online using encrypted messaging apps. The percentage of cases involving such online activity has increased over time.” Al Qaeda terrorists became key figures in this proliferation. They “fine-tuned the message and the distribution apparatus” and “put out extremist propaganda via websites and YouTube videos”.

America’s jihadists were never an immigration problem, the biggest jihadist terror threat U.S faces today is “homegrown”.

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