Future Fighters of the Islamic State are Adolescents Being Smuggled out of Al-Hol by their Mothers and ISIS Aligned Financial Networks
Mona Thakkar & Anne Speckhard Despite notable repatriation progress in early 2023, involving 14 countries…
From the President’s Corner:
2018 has been an exciting and eventful year for the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). We started and opened our Brussels, Belgium, branch in addition to our Washington, D.C. headquarters. We also held our first ICSVE-sponsored events in Washington, DC, New York, Doha, Qatar and Brussels, Belgium, namely Challenges of Radicalization to Violent Extremism in Europe and Beyond—an ICSVE EU and Beyond the Horizon Event in Belgium, Breaking the ISIS Brand: Understanding Trajectories into and out of Terrorism and Using Counter messaging to Prevent and Intervene in Terrorism and Violent Extremism, ICSVE’s Soft Power Approaches to Countering Terrorism Panel at the National Press Club, Doha Forum: Recruitment, Rhetoric and Radicalization, and ICSVE’s UNGA Side Event : Training Tools in and the Use of Counter Narratives in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism.
We are very grateful to the high-level policy, law enforcement, security, academic and CVE professionals, from Gilles de Kerchove, a senior EU official and the EU Counter-terrorism Coordinator; to Gert Vercauteren, Deputy Director of Belgium’s OCAD (Organ Voor de Coordinatie en de Analyse van de Dreiging); to Her Excellency Alya bint Ahmed al Thani, Permanent Representative of Qatar to United the United Nations; to David Scharia, Director, Chief of Branch at the UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (CTED); Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, President of the Middleeast Broadcast Network; to Christopher Dickey, Foreign Editor of the Daily Beast who have supported our work and made these events a success. Among others, our ICSVE events served to shed light on the importance of “soft-power” measures focused on fighting violent extremist appeals, especially the ones leveraged on social media platforms, and the fact that the collapse of the so-called Islamic State may be an impetus for the groups like ISIS to amplify the reach, scope, and speed of its global recruitment efforts as well as attempts to encourage homegrown attacks.
At our recent Brussels event, we proudly presented an innovative aspect of our counter messaging efforts by displaying posters of more than 30 ISIS male and female foreign fighters. The posters expressed the experiences of such individuals from Europe, the Balkans, Iraq, and Syria, among others, and told in first-person vernacular about their having been deceived by and experiences living inside the so-called Islamic State. These same posters are digitally available now on our website and are being used in our Internet based counter narrative campaigns.
In the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narratives Project, in which we use disillusioned terrorist insiders to denounce the groups they once served, ICSVE researchers have up to thus far interviewed 101 ISIS and 16 al Shabaab returnees, defectors, and ISIS/al Shabaab cadre prisoners, as well as 25 family members and 2 ideologues. In this regard, through the help and cooperation of our Kurdish allies in Northern Syria, we were able to gain access to prisons and detention centers housing foreign fighters and their wives and children. We are also grateful to Albania’s Ministry of Justice and prison officials for granting us access to prisons in Albania and thankful to Kenya’s National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC) staff for their support of our project and who have given us access to former al-Shabaab fighters and their family members in Kenya. We in turn serve all of our many country partners by creating creative counter narrative materials, videos and posters, and running trainings as well as Internet based campaigns to fight terrorism in their countries.
Thus far, out of the 101 full-length interviews, ICSVE staff have produced 79 counter narrative video clips that can be viewed on our website and YouTube channel. We continue to produce our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative video clips at a pace of two per week and subtitle them in the twenty plus languages in which ISIS recruits: English, Arabic, Russian, French, German, Dutch, Danish, Italian, Bosnian, Albanian, Malay, Kyrgyz, Bahasa, and Uzbek, among many others, and are being used worldwide.
This year, our Center staff has continued to leverage its expertise and resources to take a more proactive and social media communications role that could help dissuade active terrorist sympathizers and those considering joining a terrorist group. We believe that this is persuasively done when relying on ISIS and other terrorist group defectors and returnees to disseminate truthful accounts of their recruitment into and experiences living under a terrorist group. Facebook has partnered with ICSVE to make our 60+ Facebook awareness campaigns launched worldwide. Thus far we have published our results targeting audiences in Iraq, U.S, UK, Canada, and Australia. Results of more targeted interventions in places like Kenya, Iraq, Somalia, Belgium, France, Trinidad and Tobago, Kosovo, Albania, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and so forth, will be published in the months to come.
We also continue to scientifically study trajectories into and back out of violent extremism and terrorism as well as evaluate engagement, outreach, and other community-level efforts to fight the appeal of violent extremist groups. As field practitioners, our researchers are also paying close attention to the role that the Internet and social media play in promoting grievances for radicalization, including radicalization leading to violence, and in reaching greater numbers of potential recruits. We continue to refine our targeting and methodological approach online to mirror, as much as we are able, what the terrorists are doing as they continually morph their methods to get around takedown policies and security measures.
All of our products and publications are free for anyone fighting terrorism to use. We publish much of our work in major scientific journals as well as in news and security-related media outlets and on our webpage. Sample 2018 publications include Selling out our allies in Syria, Prison: Militant jihadist recruiting grounds or refuge for rehabilitation, Challenges in creating, deploying counter narratives to deter would-be terrorist, Ten reasons western women seek jihad and join terror groups, Yazidi survivors of ISIS’ cruelty face hurdles in fighting ISIS, Returning ISIS fighters: Radicalization challenges for the Justice System, Born in Belgium raised in ISIS: I want to come home, ISIS women: Victims, criminals or both, Fighting ISIS in the digital space in Jordan, Engaging English speaking Facebook users in an Anti-ISIS Awareness Campaign, Mounting a Facebook Brand Awareness and Safety ad campaign to Break the ISIS Brand, After a new massacre, charges that ISIS is operating with Assad and the Russians, When serving terrorism is an all in the family affair –how to recover the lost children and spouses of ISIS, Fighting ISIS on Facebook—Breaking the ISIS brand counter-narratives project, The Balkan jihad: Recruitment to violent extremism and issues facing returning foreign fighters in Kosovo and Southern Serbia, Confronting an ISIS emir: ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand counter narratives project videos, Mother’s deadly day: She blew up herself and her two girls to murder Christians, Wanted dead or alive: The frustrating, failing hunt for ISIS leader Baghdadi, Will ISIS live on in Iraq, with many more pending publications in the weeks and months to come.
Stay tuned for our upcoming scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals on al-Shabaab recruitment in Kenya and the use of counter-narratives with members of Somali American community in San Diego, California. We are also expecting the publication of our chapter contributions with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Horn Institute) and Routledge on “ Psycho-social and Islamic challenge approaches to in-prison treatment of militant jihadis.”
This year, we have presented our Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project around the world, including at the Doha Forum in Qatar; at “Achieving victory in the war against al-Qaeda Groups” in Kenya, at the “Countering Violent Extremism Forum,” in Amman; at Aqdar World Summit in Abu Dhabi, to the OSCE-sponsored “ Reverse flow of foreign fighters” in Rome, in Oslo as well as many other events and conferences.
ICSVE staff recognize that security experts, educators, religious figures, and community members are best suited to help identify and respond in the case of those exhibiting extremist and violent behaviors and that they need trainings and tools to best do so. This year, ICSVE staff have continued such trainings in Iraq, Syria, Belgium, Kosovo, and Kazakhstan—to name just a few. ICSVE staff trained the elite Falcon Intelligence Cell interrogators in Iraq, shared its experience with female religious activists in Kosovo, held trainings with Belgium’s National Police and local polices offices as well, the Hague National Police, and with prison officials at the recently United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) sponsored event in Astana, Kazakhstan. Likewise our staff has worked on implementing and delivering tools and training manuals to help frontline workers fight terrorism.
Groups like ISIS have managed to attract upwards of 50,000 travelers to the conflict zones in Iraq and Syria. A considerable number of the travelers are women. ICSVE researchers have continued to study women unique trajectories into terrorism, their vulnerabilities and motivations for joining, their roles and experiences living inside the terrorist group, and their reasons for leaving in the cases of those who left. This year, ICSVE researchers collaborated with UN Women in the Balkans and Central Asia and wrote their training manual, “ Women in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism.”
We also welcomed the Center’s new research fellow, Haider Shaghati, a security expert and Ph.D. student in counter terrorism and security studies.
As the year closes, it’s especially important to say how grateful we are to our major funders including the Embassy of Qatar in the U.S. who put our project on steroids over the last year, as well as to all of our smaller funders. All donations are gratefully received and put immediately to work fighting terrorism. Please consider joining our supporters by donating at our ICSVE website: You can also donate through our Facebook page. Or contact me personally for directions on sending a check.
Thank you for your continued support. We simply could not have done it without you. We greatly appreciate your real and lasting support of our Center as we undertake the important task of defeating violent extremist appeal and ideologies.
Happy Holiday Season and wishing you a safe and prosperous 2019!