Stories of defectors can provide counter-narrative
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?”