Stories of defectors can provide counter-narrative

Sunday 17/04/2016
Anne Speckhard

Washington - Foreign jihadists hold privi­leged positions within the Islamic State (ISIS) as they impose cruelty and misery on Syrians who live under their rule, according to testimonies from defectors to be published this spring.
“The Westerners joining ISIS usu­ally go because they believe in the caliphate. They’re ideologically driven. When they arrive, they be­come highly privileged within ISIS, and they act with impunity, and the locals don’t like them,” said Anne Speckhard.
Speckhard teaches psychology at Georgetown University and is au­thor of several books on terrorism. She has interviewed more than 500 terror suspects from many coun­tries and has worked with the US officials on de-radicalisation pro­grammes in Iraq.
More recently, she and Ahmet Yayla, Turkish former chief of coun­terterrorism who resides in the United States, have been interview­ing Syrian ISIS defectors hiding in Turkey.
An estimated two-thirds of ji­hadists fighting for ISIS in Syria are foreign. This figure includes Arab nationals and other non-Westerners in addition to fighters from Europe and North America. A majority of the sheikhs who conduct sharia training as well as emirs — provin­cial leaders who earn their positions after demonstrating unwavering loyalty to ISIS — are foreign.
Even among the women’s ranks in the hisbah (vice) police, foreign­ers are visible and often hold top positions. They are in charge of im­plementing the ISIS interpretation of sharia, even when it undermines the local economy, such as forcing women who traditionally farm to remain indoors or wear a full niqab, which makes their work difficult.
Speckhard and Yayla also iden­tify a little publicised psychological phenomenon that helps make a ter­rorist.
“It’s called ‘euphoria of martyr­dom’. We did a study and found that terrorists can feel very powerful, even euphoric, in the time leading up to their suicide attack,” Speck­hard said, referring to interviews with terror suspects who survived or aborted their attacks. “We see the same phenomenon in people who attempt to commit suicide. It’s the brain giving endorphins when you’re in a state of extreme fear.”
Speckhard lived in Belgium for seven years until 2007. Her research revealed blatant prejudice in hiring practices involving immigrants of North African descent and some­times witnessed discrimination by Belgian authorities. In one case, a young American woman was physi­cally accosted by Belgian boys of North African descent, she said.
“The police rounded up the first North African kid they saw and asked the assault victim to identify him as the perpetrator,” Speckhard said. “The police didn’t care wheth­er the guy they had in custody was [the right one]. They just wanted the victim to press charges. The vic­tim was actually more distraught by this than by the attack itself.”
Speckhard added that discrimina­tion against Muslims might have led Belgian authorities to dismiss the threat of ISIS recruitment. Belgian authorities have been criticised for poor coordination with European counterparts and Turkish law en­forcement. The Turks claim that they warned Brussels about the men who carried out recent attacks.
“The easiest thing from a policy standpoint is to wish they would die in Syria,” said Speckhard, refer­ring to Belgian jihadists. She echoed a sentiment expressed privately by Western diplomats in Washington who say their governments have not been doing enough to pursue lo­cally born jihadists in the hope they would be killed in Syria.
While some jihadists, might vol­unteer for suicide attacks, ISIS has been known to coerce the local population into volunteering their young children for the grim task. A former Syrian child soldier who defected from ISIS described to Speckhard and Yayla how the terror group ran a camp for the “Caliphate Cubs”, training boys as young as 7 to become suicide attackers.
Yayla said economics and other pragmatic reasons often push Syr­ians who live under ISIS rule to join the terror group.
“When ISIS controls territory, they control all economic means — the oil, the wheat, all jobs,” said Yayla. “Out of the 25 we’ve inter­viewed so far, only three or four told us they joined ISIS based on ideol­ogy. Another three or four told us that ISIS forced them to join or be killed. Two were female and they were ISIS brides. The rest joined out of circumstance, like hunger.”
Speckhard and Yayla are helping Western governments develop a narrative to counter terror recruit­ment. They say that listening to the horrifying stories of defectors might be the best deterrent for Western ji­hadists who might join ISIS believ­ing they are helping “fellow Mus­lims”.
“The best way to counter terror­ism recruitment is to hear the sto­ries of defectors — why they left ISIS and why anyone thinking of joining shouldn’t,” said Speckhard. “We do this to counter gang violence and recruitment. So why not with ter­rorism?”

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