Dr. Anne Speckhard, the woman who faces down terrorists

Expert: “We break that brand that's selling them terrorism”

Dr. Anne Speckhard, crossing from Iraq into Syria (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Anne Speckhard, crossing from Iraq into Syria
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whether the Islamic State has been “defeated” continues to be the topic of political debate the world over. But there also remain other crucial issues that continue to resonate as the result of the group’s reign of terror, from an ISIS that is rebuilding to the lives of thousands from numerous nations – including wives and children – who signed on to terrorist infamy.

Dr. Anne Speckhard is director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown School of Medicine. Dr. Speckhard directs the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narratives Project. She the author of seven books, including The Bride of ISIS and Talking to Terrorists. 

Dr. Speckhard has spoken with more than 700 terrorists to learn what drives their heinous acts and what counterforces could derail a path to terror.

She speaks with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson.

The Media Line:
Is there a working definition of “terrorism”? You know, there was a time when “terrorist” was a new expression. Now we hear a lot about “malign actors.” Does it matter what we call them?

Dr. Anne Speckhard: Of course it matters. There are 500 different definitions of terrorism and the UN has not been able to settle on any of them, but in general, terrorists are organized on behalf of a political cause. They cause violence and in particular, by most definitions, attack civilian targets. So though by some definition, they don’t have to attack civilians. They could also attack the military and they try to spread their fear throughout society. So, they’re not just aimed at their targets. They’re aimed at everyone that uses them so that fear spreads through the societal elements and the terrorists gain power by that.

TML: Covering the Middle East for almost three decades, we see an almost automatic presumption that when we say “terrorist” or “terrorism,” this region is there at some level. Is or was this ever true?

AS: Well, terrorism is all over the Middle East – that’s for sure. You asked me earlier, does the naming matter? Yes, it does matter because some people will say a terrorist is a freedom fighter and not a terrorist, or in the case of ISIS, they’re engaged in a defensive jihad so that they’re defending the people against [others’] offensive action. And that’s really important in how you say things. For me, someone that attacks innocent civilians can never be called a freedom fighter.

TML: When we began to report stories that referenced ISIS, we were told that a basic element separating the Islamic State from other groups is its global outreach and the fervent charge to Muslims that armed attacks are required, not suggested. Is that so?

AS: All of the militant jihadis – Al-Shabaab, al-Qaida, ISIS – follow this narrative in books to friends of jihad. So, they blame Western powers and their own dictators for harming the people. And they say that they are freeing the people, defending the people. And they also have their Muslim followers that almost have an individual duty to jihad. They tell those that live in Europe that they have a duty of suchra, which is to move and live under Sharia law. And these things actually are quite debatable under Islam: the idea of defensive jihad or that Muslims everywhere would have a duty to defend in other parts of the world or that they would have to move because they’re not living under Sharia.

TML: Who are the people who sign on to terrorism?

AS: The people who become terrorists, become terrorists for at least 50 different reasons. So, I’ve come up with this model of the “lethal cocktail of terrorism,” and I would say there are four things that make a terrorist. There’s almost always a group. There’s an ideology, and the ideology has to convince the person to jump over normal moral boundaries and be willing to kill innocents. The third is that they have some level of social support. So, the more social support they have, the more organized their networks are going to be and the more that the individual thinking about joining is going to think, “Oh, this is morally right. Look, all these people agree.” And then the fourth thing is individual motivations and individual vulnerabilities.
And when you look at that level, we usually break out by conflict zone or non-conflict zone. So, if you're in a conflict zone, you would join a terrorist group and sign on to it by theology out of revenge, trauma, frustrated aspirations. If you’re in a non-conflict zone, you can be watching those things happening somewhere else, and become somewhat traumatized by watching them and feel responsibility, feel care and empathy for others in conflict zones, but you also may want to go on an adventure and you might want to make money.

You might want to escape your family. You might fall in love with someone that’s been in terrorism. You might feel that you’re discriminated against, or not only feel it, [but] actually experience discrimination and believe a group like ISIS, [that in] the towns you’ll come to [under the group’s control], you’ll live in dignity and prosperity and you’ll have significance and purpose. 

So, there’s at least 50 individual vulnerabilities and motivations that play into it. So each person is going to be their own story.

TML: Dr. Speckhard, we understand that it’s a myth that all terrorists are from the bottom of the economic strata. You’ve interviewed over 700 terrorists, their families, and even among them ISIS members, including the ISIS ambassador to Turkey. I’m going to say that again, including the ISIS ambassador to Turkey. Is there a common denominator that you can point to?
AS: Well, everyone that joins the terrorist group is joining in hope of meeting some inner needs. So, you’re trying, because people joined ISIS because they believed that it was Islamic utopia. They believe that they would be significant, so they will have purpose. That it will be dignified so that they can live according to Islamic ideals. And a lot of them just put out of their minds the beheadings and the terrible things that ISIS was doing, or tried to justify them by saying, “Well, they’re doing that to their enemies while they set up their caliphate, but the caliphate is going to be utopia.” And, you know, some people joined because they were running away from lesser problems. Some joined because they wanted to get married. Some thought it was a great adventure. Some joined for money. And so the common denominator is they want something and the group tells them, “You can have it with us!”

TML: By way of full disclosure, Steven Sotloff, who was brutally murdered by ISIS, was part of The Media Line. He was part of our team and very tragically we know what happened with ISIS. But he was one of the young people who was trying to uncover what was happening during 2013 and 2014 and even earlier than that, in Syria and in Libya and in Yemen, and trying to understand how ISIS, which wasn’t even called ISIS then, evolved. Sad to say, many in the West were not listening. It fell upon deaf ears.
Why do you think that the United States isn’t always ahead of the game when it comes to seeing and understanding what’s really happening on the ground?

AS: This blindness has a lot to do with the word “fatigue.” So, we had just finished intervening in Iraq with the US-led coalition. The troops had gone home after not successfully negotiating a status support agreement, and everyone was tired. And they also wanted to bring back the troops from Afghanistan that still had not been brought home. And we were trying to arm rebels and overthrow [Syrian President Bashar] Assad, but it wasn’t working and no one wanted to get into another quagmire.

So, nobody asked [the important questions]. And that’s partly why these thousands of young men went to Syria [to join ISIS], because they felt that “if no one is going to do something about Assad and all of his atrocities, we will.” But then the groups that were organizing American jihadists – Al-Nusra, ISIS and all the others – flourished. And we had [turned] a blind eye until we were suddenly surprised by how much land they suddenly took and how they were able to organize their proto-state, The Caliphate. And to be honest, the same thing is happening right now. We’re exhausted from ISIS and we’re exhausted with COVID. And ISIS is regrouping in parts of Iraq and parts of Syria. I don’t think they’ll ever have a territorial caliphate again, but they haven’t gone away and nobody wants to deal with it.
TML: Well, you bring up a very important point and definitely a question that we need to delve into further. Before I do, you know, you direct the Counter-Narratives Project. Is this of the belief that an adherent to ISIS can be offered alternatives to terrorism?

AS: Well, I’m the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and one of our core projects is that I go out and interview. I’ve interviewed 240 ISIS prisoners, defectors and returnees. And we get them on video and then we take small parts of their video interview with their permission, where they tell why they’ve liked ISIS or any militant or any militant jihadi group. If you liked them, you would probably resonate to that and say, “Yeah, I feel discriminated against in Europe,” or “I don’t like the dictator in my country,” or “I don’t feel I can follow my religion” and somebody is offering something better.

But then I ask them to describe what they actually lived. And so, someone that’s thinking about going into ISIS, hearing from an actual insider, it wasn’t Islamic. It was horribly brutal, even for the people that were supposed to be building it. And it was corrupt. These people were cheaters and liars and rapists. It’s horrible.

And then the third thing in the video, the counter-narrative video, is advising others: don’t join! So, they’re hearing this in common language from someone like them that has been on the inside saying, “This is not the answer for you.”

So, as I told you earlier, people only join terrorist groups because they think it’s going to serve some needs that they have inside. And we call our project Breaking the ISIS Brand. We break that brand that’s selling them terrorism and the Caliphate as the answer. But they still have needs, and those needs must be met. So now we’ve started up a website that hopefully also begins to direct them to better ways of meeting their needs then joining a terrorist group.

TML: What does that look like?

AS: Well, we’ve just started it and it’s called therealjihad.org. We’re starting to put resources about all the help centers in every country: where you can go if you want to exit terrorism, where you can go if you have a family member that’s starting to go into it. We’re asking Islamic scholars to write for us. So, on the concept of hijrah [Arabic for emigration], do you have to leave Europe if it’s not a land governed by Sharia on the concept of jihad? Does every Muslim actually have an individual obligation to go fight jihad? So, if you’re living in Belgium, do you have to go to Syria when you see Assad doing terrible things to Sunni Muslims? And on all of these concepts, what is the more middle of the road, moderate, Islamic scholarly view? Because with ISIS clients I’m takfir [Arabic for an apostate]. I’m [a target] of the idea that you could say, “My Islam is the only Islam, and if you don't believe in it, I can kill you and I should kill you.”

All of these things have scholarly answers and they can engage someone with schooling that gets on that website to start to think through and think, “You know, maybe this isn’t the answer for me. Maybe I should call here or do this.” But, of course, the website is not going to provide all the answers that are needed in a society. I mean, a lot of societies do have dictatorial regimes. They need to change. A lot of them have discrimination and marginalization against Muslim immigrants, defense, people. That needs to change. But we’re hoping to put things about civil rights advocacy which are better ways to try to move your country to change that are nonviolent. But again, a website’s not going to change society all by itself.

TML: Dr. Annee Speckhard, you met with and studied terrorists around the world. What have you learned from those who have escaped or have been rescued from the ISIS caliphate?

AS: I’ve learned what their experiences are for. I’ve learned why they weren’t and what attracted them into this group. I learned how they think. And, like for some, they told me, “I didn’t trust the mainstream press. So, when I was hearing bad things about ISIS, I just dismissed it because I’m Muslim and I think that the press is anti-Muslim.” I learned things that we could do to correct our societies that would make terrorist groups like ISIS less attractive to people, and our own societies more attractive to people. And I learned what they suffered and what they wish for in the future.

TML: You write about the need to “un-demonize” the West as part of the counter-narratives approach. What are the key elements of the West as an enemy?

AS: Well, the US in particular, usually in a US-led coalition, has invaded other countries, or on the ground in Afghanistan. We toppled Saddam in Iraq. We’ve done lots of drone killings, and these are things that terrorists point to and say to me, “I’ll send you. Sit here and talk to me about being a terrorist when your own country is a terrorist.” And that’s the kind of demonization that comes from our own actions. So, I worked with the military in the US quite a bit to think about what is our footprint, what is our narrative? How are we being seen by those parts of the world that might organize into terrorist groups to attack us? And we need as much as possible to be seen as doing things that are correct jobs, not overly violent, and you know, think of the concept of collateral damage that we’re willing to kill a terrorist, but we might take out 40 of the family members. Well, from the point of view of the other, that might be seen as terrorism. It doesn’t set up a definition of terrorism. It was more for the definition of a war crime, but collateral damage doesn’t cut it with the other side.
TML: As author of seven books, including “Bride of ISIS,” in your research do you see new revelations about women fighters?

AS: When the Chechens organized and moved from being a rebel movement to a terrorist jihadist movement, they used women’s rights from the start, and it’s probably because women were already in the workplace and it was more acceptable that women had agency. But in the Middle East, we saw that women were encouraged to be the supporters of male fighters and to raise their kids to be fighters, so they were integral to the movement, but they weren’t to be the actual warriors.

But almost always we’ve seen that when the men get blocked or when the entire group gets cornered, suddenly they turn to the women. And then they’re more than happy to use the women as suicide bombers. And this was partly because they’re seen as expendable, and also because they can cross security barriers much more easily than men. They can hide bombs in conservative Islamic clothing. And so it’s fascinating how the women get used, what their own views are about participating − what they wish to do, what they don’t wish to do. And so, yeah, I’ve learned a ton about women as well.

TML: Is there more of a concern about some of these women being involved in sleeper cells?

AS: Well, we should be concerned, because just this week, Turkey is bragging about bringing out a woman [originally] from Moldova, from al-Hol [in northeastern Syria]. Al-Hol is where most of the ISIS women that were captured by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, Uur House, they smuggled her out. She’s being handed over to the Moldovans. And I don’t know if she’ll stand trial or not, but if that’s what they’re bragging about, and they’re being accused of helping to smuggle women out of al-Hol.
We, our center, have seen evidence on Instagram and PayPal that women are raising money to try to get themselves out of al-Hol. It costs between $10,000 and $20,000 to get smuggled into Turkish territory. And where are these women going? If they all go to their consulates and turn themselves in, then go home and live peacefully, I wouldn’t be concerned about them as sleeper cells, but if they’re strongly still pro-ISIS, then we’re possibly really in danger. And where are they living? Are they living in Turkey? Are they going to Idlib [in rebel-held northwestern Syria]? Where are they going?
TML: All good questions, Dr. Speckhard. Has terrorism undergone changes during the past decade? Are we looking at the same terrorists with the same goals, or has life changed as a result of the post 9-11 fight against terror?

I would say the biggest change that we’ve seen since 9-11 is the internet. With social media, it has made it possible for groups like ISIS to put out all kinds of propaganda. And now we have take-down policies. So it doesn’t last very long when they put out their propaganda. But because we have these immediate feedback mechanisms, groups like ISIS can watch who responds to their propaganda. So they, even if they only put out one or two statements before they get taken down on Twitter or Facebook, or Instagram, and a lot of them don’t get taken down so quickly, whoever responds to them, they can immediately home in on them.
So, they put their message out to billions, but it’s hundreds that respond. And those people, because the internet allows for such intimate connections now, I mean, we’re doing this interview over the internet, and I feel like you’re right here talking with me. And it’s the same thing with terrorists. They can be in Syria talking to somebody in London and motivate that person to carry out an attack or motivate them to come to Syria. So, in our study, I’ve interviewed 240 ISIS people. And when we looked at the proportion that came only by being recruited on the internet, it was over 20% and that’s astounding. And we have not seen that in the past.

TML: When political leaders say ISIS has been defeated, should they be believed?

AS: It’s a nuance. ISIS has been defeated territorially. They no longer control what they called their caliphate, but does ISIS still exist on the ground? Absolutely! They terrorize people. They kill judges. They come out at night in villages in Iraq and Syria, and everyone’s afraid to defy them. And basically, they have control of whole villages and towns. And that’s really frightening. They’re still putting out their propaganda, but not at the same rate as they did in the past. They can’t claim a caliphate anymore, but no, they have not been defeated in the sense of being done away with, decimated, gone.

TML: Speaking about frightening, what is your experience regarding children removed from ISIS homes? Have there been a sufficient number from whom to draw conclusions, such as likelihood of joining a [terror] group themselves?

AS: Well, children, you know, you can be talking from 0 to 18, but my view and our center’s view is that the ISIS children that are in Camp Hol, and there’s around 8,000 of them, 750 of them are from are Europe [and] need to be repatriated. They need to be sent home. There’s huge issues around this. One is that, in some cases, well, in most cases, the country does not want the woman to come home.

So you talked to separate these children from their mothers. And if the mother objects you’d have to find a legal way to do that and a moral comfort zone with doing it. In my view, if the children are at risk of dying or being turned over to the Assad regime which really could happen in the next three months, they should be brought home even if they're separated from their mothers. Will they be terrorists when they get home? The little ones, no, of course not. They don't even know what terrorism means. Under 5 they have no idea. Under 11, you have it from [ages] 5 to 11. You have to look at from where they are coming to the caliphate group. If they were, they probably need psychological counseling. Who is ever going to be taking care of them, needs counseling. And we have experience of that of Yazidi mothers getting their kids back. Their boys back that were going to come to the caliphate. And the boys were so brainwashed and so violent that their mothers needed a lot of support to take them back into their homes, which is so sad.

If we're talking about kids between 12 and 18, you might have one, you know, that’s done all kinds of beheadings, been in all kinds of fighting, venues. You do have to think: Is this a dangerous individual? And, should he probably be, but it could be. She also could be tried as an adult. I hope you wouldn't try a 12-year-old as an adult, but maybe a 17-year-old you would. And, so they really have to be looked at individually and carefully. But my view is with good therapy, with good understanding of where the person just came from and good support around them – the whole 360, the school, the community, the family - you can rehabilitate them. Children are malleable. And if they're talking to something, they can be talked back out of it.

TML: Dr. Speckhard, help us to understand what's happening in Syria today. Where does Turkey fit in?

AS: Syria is very interesting right now. They’ve got the Kurds in the north and Turkey is calling the Syrian Defense Forces, which are a majority Arab, but they were formed by and still led by the Kurds. Turkey calls them PKK and PKK is a designated terrorist group. And they want to wipe out the SDF. So in Kurdish towns like Afrin, terrible things are happening there. Turkey pays Syrians, known as Turkish-cracked rebels, and some of them, not all of them, rape, kill, pillage. They are just like ISIS. They are horrible and they require the women to be covered. And the Kurds in the SDF region, they are very feminine. They allow women to be equal in power; in fact, they require it. All of their high government positions require a man and a woman to be in that position so they have a co-presidency, they have co-mayors, co-everything. And women are integral to the society. Some women cover, but you don’t have to cover. Some women dress exactly like Westerners, and they’re comfortable. They fell safe in their community. And imagine one of their towns taken over by these Turkish-backed rebels and now they are being raped and killed.

Russia is also playing games in Syria. Iran is playing games in Syria. I don’t know if Assad will gain his whole territory back. Th SDF is probably going to make a deal with Assad, because the American administration has pulled back from them, even though they were our best ally on the ground defeating ISIS. And one of the things that may happen around the time of the elections of our new US president is that Trump may have already made the SDF so insecure that they may turn over all the ISIS prisoners.

TML: Say that part again. President Trump…

AS: President Trump has made the SDF so insecure that they may turn over all their ISIS prisoners to Assad, so that means now he’s holding these 800 European children, 1,000 Western foreign fighters, and we know how they are in that prison. They were men and women. Can you imagine, well, she’s an acclaimed American. We have Kimberly Pullman who is American and Canadian. I just can’t imagine the trauma of turning these people over to Assad. And I don’t know what he will do. Will he try to use these as bargaining chips with the West? Does the West even care what happens to these people? So we should care. They are human beings and they do have families back home. And it just makes it circular that it comes around again that everyone’s angry for the atrocities.

TML: Do you feel the United States has adequate intelligence on the ground in the Middle East? And if not, what's needed?

AS: Well, the US is pulling way back. So, I understand the fatigue in the US. I understand the economic burden of playing the world’s policeman. But we’ve been pulling back from Iraq. We’ve been pulling back from Syria. And the same thing with Afghanistan, although that’s not the Middle East. So, if we’re going to pull back, we’re going to have to have very good partnerships with intelligence on the ground. We probably need to keep special forces present and we need to keep relationships strong. And that’s very hard to do. And it’s expensive to do. I mean, your competing with people like Iranians that are coming with bags of money which is used to bribe political leaders. [That’s] pretty tough to compete with.

TML: What inspired Anne Speckhard to go talk to terrorists and enter a field for many, many years, trying to really figure out how they tick?

AS: Well, I was teaching a class in Belgium. My husband dragged me over the world because he’s the US ambassador and we were posted in Brussels. And I had a student who told me that he had PTSD and he had it from being at Hebrew University having lunch in the café and walking out after having a contentious discussion where he agreed to disagree with an Israeli soldier about terrorism. He walked out and a backpack bomb exploded and everyone inside was killed. So, he begged me to study the Palestinians which I ended up doing, and he came along for that ride. And also I went to help when the theater was overtaken by the Chechen terrorists, I went to help after the fact. And the idea was to help with a post-traumatic stress disorder researcher in Russia to help with the hostages. And when we started interviewing hostages, they told us about having in-depth, over three days, conversations with the terrorists that held them.

And I realized that no one has ever interviewed a terrorist that’s in a bomb belt for any length of time. I mean, that’s an activated terrorist these hostages had. So I turned to my research associate and said that we have to turn this into a second study which is a secondary interview of an activated interview of the suicide terrorists. And we did. And once we got going, I didn’t stop and now I’ve interviewed over 700 terrorists, or if they’re dead, their family members or hostages. And it’s been fascinating. It’s the question of what makes a terrorist tick. And also, can you rehabilitate this person? Can you ever bring them back into society? [They] are fascinating questions and I haven’t gotten tired.
TML: Well, bold and interesting. It's been really quite a pleasure.
Read more articles from The Media Line.