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ISIS Operative Salah Abdeslam

ISIS Operative Salah Abdeslam: A Not so True-Believer Terrorist

A key member of the ISIS cell and only survivor of nine cadres who are believed to have been directly involved in the Paris attacks was caught alive this past week through a police operation in Molenbeek, Belgium.

When we look at the past of Abdeslam, we can see that his traits fit closely to other terrorist profiles with the exception of the ideological part of the pattern. Terrorist are usually made from four main elements, one which is a group of dedicated people, second the social support they enjoy; third their ideology; and fourth the individual motivations and vulnerabilities that resonate to the first three. Although in actual practice not all of these elements are always present.  From time to time we see a lone actor who creates his own ideology and manages to equip and carry out his terrorist act(s) independent of any group.  Similarly ideology is not always adopted by everyone in a terrorist group—members may be more motivated on the individual level by physical and monetary gains similar to members of an organized crime group or by other ties and loyalties that for him are stronger than the ideology and bind him in other ways to the actions of the group.  Salah Abdeslam appears to us to be one of these.

From the point of view of the terrorist group’s goals, the first and most important factor of recruiting new members to become terrorists is having them become true believers of the terrorist ideology—convinced in the justification for and willing to carry out violence to help win the political goals the group is aiming for. Hence, almost all terrorist organizations have their new members go through a serious ideological training processes, although with the advent of suicide terrorism this ideological training is not always necessary.  If a future cadre can be motivated in a short time to carry out a suicide mission the depth of commitment need not be to the group, but to the act itself, since if organized well and carried out to completion it will end in the terrorist’s death and result in maintaining the group’s security while scoring one more for their side.  In groups where members will continue to live and interact with one another ideological commitment ensures loyalty, security and longevity for the group.

In terrorist organizations using highjacked and distorted Islamic scriptures to justify their causes, this process is usually called shariah training and lasts around a month of dedicated training and continues as the newly recruited member start to serve as a member of that terrorist group. We confirmed this process through our ISIS Defectors Interview Project, with the exception of one experienced and senior former Al-Qaeda-related terrorist (from Jabhat al-Nusra), all of the ISIS members we interviewed went through such ideological training processes. Furthermore, ideological training alone is not enough for ISIS, as the participants are harshly expected to apply and practice what they are taught in their daily lives and other members and sheiks closely observe if the members of the groups are practicing the teachings of that terrorist organization. This is also true for the leftist terrorist organizations. For example, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) members went through ideological trainings using different books and indoctrinations. Similarly, the DHKP/C (a Turkish leftist terrorist organization recognized in the list of the U.S. State Department Foreign Terrorist Organizations) requires its members to read at least four hundred pages of its Marxist-Leninist literature a day and take notes and make summaries to ensure that the members are well indoctrinated and become true and practicing believers of its ideology during their training process.  Indeed they do, and in this latter case we, in Turkey, have found the DHKP/C members extremely loyal to their groups and difficult to break down during interrogation.

Abdeslam’s case, reflects a different trend we begin to see with groups organizing suicide terrorism, and may reflect also a rising phenomenon we will start to see with ISIS, especially with its Western operatives. Abdeslam was a drug user, and along with his brother, was running a bar. First viewing his picture, it did not seem that he could not be a true ISIS operative, as his face and expressions did not quite reflect a true ideological believer. Later after studying his life, we realized that he was not fully indoctrinated and had not became a true practicing believer of the ISIS ideology which requires he practice at the most basic, a form of conservative Salafi Islam, which he was not living.

Most probably Abdeslam rather joined ISIS through his brother who killed himself as a suicide bomber during the Paris attacks, or through the some of the other members of his Belgian cell simply because he was very close friends with them, emotionally tied, angry at local grievances in Belgium and geopolitics and was drawn in by their invitations. In this case, trust issues become an all important factor. We can easily assume that the cell trusted Abdeslam most likely through his brother, although he too was not living a conservative Salafi Islamic life.  The two brothers may however have truly hated the West, if they—like many Belgians of Moroccan descent have felt blocked from their true potentials; underemployed and sequestered in Molenbeek—versus accepted into mainstream society.  If the brothers were not true believers in the Salafi lifestyle, but vehemently hated, it might have been enough to trust them—especially given that the plan was for them to die anyway, resulting in none of them later being able to speak out about the others (Salah’s suicide vest, it appears was found later on, and he did not ignite his vest—and is now admitting this was by choice).

We can make a few assumptions in this situation. First of all, as a rule of thumb, the Belgian cell of ISIS acted at utmost security and applied the rules of clandestine cell operations. Therefore, they should have been very careful in recruiting members for the attack and approached only the people they knew very closely and whom they could trust, even if they were not ideologically committed to Salafi Islam and as ISIS takes it—even Takfiri Islamic practices. Secondly, they were out of options in terms of finding new recruits and they had to settle with someone like Abdeslam who was not a practicing Salafist.

This second option is highly unlikely because it is a well-known fact that there is no shortage of Salafists in Europe, especially in Molenbeek. Therefore, this cell appears to have not wanted to find new recruits, maybe for two reasons. The first is they did not want to risk their operations simply because any new member might mean a security breach—with moles planted everywhere, there is always a risk. Also, recruiting a new member takes too much time. The second is most probably Abdeslam’s case. He was already around the people in the Belgian cell and they knew him from the past and had close friendship and even family ties with him.  Presumably, they offered him to become a “martyr” and cleanse his past sins through the Paris attacks and to become a hero for ISIS while guaranteeing his life here after—based on the ISIS ideology. And they also must have played also upon any hatred and anger he had at the West for any discrimination and marginalization he felt while living in Molenbeek and for Western interventions and lack thereof (i.e. Palestinians) in Islamic countries of recent years.

This kind of recruitment has been experienced with ISIS several times. During our ISIS Defectors Interview Project, several of the interviewees mentioned about ISIS fighters whose past lives were not clean and who became ISIS members to cleanse themselves.  The same appears to be true in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers—the elder may have carried out a murder of his drug-dealing friends and wanted to cleanse himself, while—similar to this case—taking his less ideologically committed brother along with him. Actually, it is a tactic of ISIS recruiters, and al-Qaeda before them, to persuade people to join the terrorist organization and commit to “martyrdom” as a way to cleanse themselves and ensure their eternal life in paradise. However, in the ideal scenario (from the terrorist group’s perspective) those members also go through extensive shariah training ensuring they leave their past lives behind. Indeed a lawyer in Belgium told me today that his Salafi clients sometimes even refuse to discuss their pasts saying they are no longer that person. In any case, when an act is going to end in suicide terrorism, the group may be willing to take less ideologically committed individuals who are fired up with hate and who will die anyway. We certainly saw this in the second intifada among Palestinians who routinely volunteered themselves for suicide missions and were at times activated within a matter of weeks with little to no ideological training.

In Abdeslam’s case, the Belgian cell members were both wrong and right. Due to their emotional ties, with this brother and the other members of the Belgian cell, Abdeslam most probably accepted their offer to take part in the Paris attacks—perhaps reveling in the euphoria of a group contemplating going out in a “blaze of glory.” Indeed some research has shown that a “high”—likely endorphin mediated—occurs upon contemplating suicide terrorism and can actually deliver a feeling of blissful peace and empowerment. We know Abdeslam liked to self-medicate so this too would likely appeal. However, since he was not well enough indoctrinated, he did not fully and ultimately commit his life for the cause of the terrorist organization and explode his suicide vest as plans called for, leaving him out there alone without the support of members of his Belgian cell. He appears to have chickened out in the face of murder and suicide.

So, what will Abdeslam do in this case? According to this lawyer, he is cooperating with the authorities as expected by the authors of this report. Terrorists have few options after their capture. Many radical terrorist organizations encourage their members to kill themselves so that they do not have to go through an interrogation process, especially in the Middle East and Russia, where they can expect fierce torture sessions. Many ISIS and al-Qaeda members in such milieu wear suicide vests at all times to ensure that they are not captured alive, and in fact try to kill their capturers along with themselves if they realize their options are coming to an end. This option has been witnessed especially with Chechens and Salafist terrorists including those who carried out the Madrid train attacks, and we have also seen them with some others, including leftist terrorist groups like the DHKP/C.

The second option is not talking at all after capture. Being completely silent is expected from ideologically true-believer terrorists, who dedicate themselves one hundred percent to the ideology and the existence of their terrorist organizations. There are many examples of this option from different backgrounds of terrorist organizations. Most of those kind of terrorists, would not answer any questions, including questions even about their names and who they are, much less give any information regarding their terrorist activities or a terrorist attack. Most of the time they would look at the ceiling of the room where they are being interviewed or interrogated, hiding their gazes from the interviewers. And they would initially resist arrest, using firearms and shooting, and if those means are not available, by fighting back through kicking and biting. Some would spit at the officers when asked what their names were and would not cooperate at all. Those kind of hardcore terrorists are very difficult to break and they would likely not talk or cooperate at all—even after a long time under interrogation and incarceration. Hence we see the soft-torture abuses carried out by frustrated interrogators in Abu Ghraib and in Guantanamo Bay.

The third option is talking but trying to mislead the investigators. Some terrorists depending on their positions in the hierarchy and what they know and try to mislead the investigators by giving false information whether it be about people or places of importance, such as cell locations and where the weapons are etc. There might be several reasons for that. The first is usually gaining and buying time by giving opportunities to the rest of the cell members to flee or clean up the evidence related with a terrorist organization or simply to make the rest of the team aware of the fact that person is taken into custody. The second option in misleading involves traps. The person in question basically misleads the authorities to a secluded area where there are booby traps in the hopes to kill more people. The third reason for misleading is to tell untrue narratives pretending to be cooperating.

The fourth option is giving away small bits of pieces of true information alongside false bits of information basically trying to draw a picture of a cooperating suspect in the eyes of the authorities but at the same time thinking ahead and getting ready for the future in prison where there is good chance he or she has to confess to other members of the terrorist organizations about what was admitted to during his or her police interviews. These types of subjects try to balance their situation by not giving up important information but rather giving already known information so that they do not risk their lives at the hands of their terrorist organizations inside of prison due to any accusations to them of betrayal and treachery. These are not imaginations by any means on the part of terrorists.  In Camp Bucca in Iraq, for instance, those who were seen as traitors by the extremists had their arms or legs broken while inside the prison.  Likewise with ISIS we find that cadres who get imprisoned in Syria and Iraq fear that reprisals for talking can also be carried out upon their family members who still reside in ISIS territory.  Similarly Belgians of Moroccan descent living in Belgian Moroccan communities express concern about the repercussions to family that can occur from “snitching.”

The last option upon capture is cooperating with the authorities completely and giving up all the information they have regarding a terrorist organization and its activities. Terrorists opt for this option for a variety of reasons. The first is of course to get lesser sentences. The second option would be because they lost their belief and trust in their organization. The third option would come from the fear of being harmed personally or their families harmed by the terrorist organization in question either inside prison or later and a belief that authorities can and will protect them.

It looks like Abdeslam is choosing to cooperate for all of the reasons listed above. He must be thinking of getting a better sentence through his cooperation. Also, most probably, because he was not indoctrinated well enough initially and has not become a practicing true-believer he does not have any ideological commitment to help him stay the course.  Instead, he gave up very easily upon arrest and decided eventually when he was in hiding, or perhaps in the heat of the actual attacks, that what he did was wrong. Of course, in this case, he would be afraid for his life and it is possible that if he is imprisoned in a common prison, ISIS will reach him there to kill him for his betrayal to the organization, or make his family members miserable.  It is interesting that he was hiding out nearby to his family and they either knew he was there or he was likely very much longing to make his presence known to them.

When it comes to implications of ISIS’s using members who are not ideologically aligned with and fully committed to the terrorist groups indoctrination, it is difficult to make assumptions for the future because it makes preventing and countering terrorism more difficult for a variety of reasons. As happened with Abdeslam case, if ISIS and al-Qaeda show increasingly a patter to recruit and use members who are not necessarily ideologically committed, instead capitalizing on their anger, frustration and hate that in Europe often results from discrimination and marginalization, its recruitment angle broadens very widely. All of a sudden unexpected, and maybe not so radical youth, become the target of ISIS as new recruits, dramatically cutting the time and efforts to find new members. And if they can be convinced to carry out suicide missions their commitment only needs to be short-lived. In recent years, with the use of suicide terrorism, it appears that this is the new course that terrorists groups are taking, making the law enforcement and intelligence communities’ jobs much more difficult.  Although on the down side for terrorists, cadres who they work with are less committed ideologically and may not carry out their ultimate assignment, and may much more easily talk under interrogation when picked up by police in the case of their second thoughts.

In the case of Abdeslam, if this type of recruitment was preferred because this was a one-time opportunity with the Belgian cell of ISIS and because the cell leader thought that Abdeslam would eventually die in the suicide attack anyway and they need not worry about him talking after the attack, they were not correct in their decision. The circumstances along with his family and friendship bonds might have lured Abdeslam to join the Belgian cell, however it was not enough to get the job done completely, and not for him to give up any more information regarding the ISIS structures that may exist in France and Belgium and linked back to ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Therefore, ISIS most probably will take lessons from this case. The implications for the terrorist organization might simply be ordering its foreign cadres, especially in Europe not to work with anyone who is not trustworthy one hundred percent, or simply to kill any person used in any attacks who cannot be trusted completely—to have an enforcer of sorts.  Although this does not look good for ISIS in the eyes of its followers, who want to believe that self “martyrdom” is a glorious act.  Or groups like ISIS may simply accept working with less ideologically committed cadres who in the short-term will commit to “martyrdom,” as long as most of them carry out their acts—and organize in ways that those who are less trustworthy do not know the actual leaders of the cells.

Furthermore, Abdeslam’s case shows once again, the opportunity for terrorist organizations like ISIS to target the West, including the United States, without moving its members to the U.S. homeland.  If they can tap into the frustrations, anger and angst of disaffected youth in the West and galvanize a few close circle friends or relatives without much prior indoctrination and preparation and get them to act quickly and decisively in self-destructive and murderous acts, they have achieved part of their goals.  We have seen that repeatedly played out now in Canada and also in Europe and before that in Iraq and the Palestinian second intifada. Simply, an experienced hardcore member can use different cell structures, which are not ideal in terms of required terrorist structures but readied to be used through different and most of the time emotional factors.  This is greatly facilitated at present, as now, with the Internet providing the intimacy of visual and vocal communications, the dedicated hardcore member does not even have to be physically present or later discoverable, via those he is motivating into action.

In addition to the people in the Belgian cell, there were obvious mistakes as well, which lead the police to their cells. In an ideal setting of a terrorist cell, cell members should not have left any leads or evidence that would point the police to their hideouts and previous activities. Among the obvious mistakes of the ISIS cadres attacking in Paris was dumping the mobile phones they used before the attacks, very close to the areas they attacked, renting cars in their own names, not changing the plates of the cars they were driving, staying in hotels with their identities known, and not covering their faces while they were driving around, giving lots of opportunities for video recordings in and out of the cars. Abdeslam also failed to disguise himself by not changing his uniquely orange colored shoes, which was also an important factor in revealing his identity.  We see in the San Bernardino case, a higher level of operational security in those actors completely destroying, drowning and locking their devices and Internet trail as best they could prior to acting—although they were likely more closely adhering to al-Qaeda Internet based training than ISIS, which has always been much more cautious.

Of course there were also obvious mistakes made by the police as well. The most important one was the fact that Abdeslam managed to flee at the initial raid in Forest. In such serious cases, it is always the rule of the thumb that all operations and investigations must be carried out as if the hardcore and armed terrorists are going to be countered—so the assumption that the house would be empty was a foolhardy one. For this, in all such investigative and operative activities, the house or the place of the subject should have been surrounded by well-armed officers and controlled the parameters of the place in question, to ensure the safety of the other officers and civilians. Every movement towards the place should be planned as if the armed terrorist would strike back as soon as the door is knocked upon. In fact, many terrorist organizations teach their cadres to shoot first if the knock at the door of a terrorist cell is coming from the police and to booby trap and plant secondary explosives which would be activated after the incidents start, or as the police enters the building, as we have seen in Chechen cells and in the Madrid train bombings. Therefore, in such operations there also needs to be precautionary measures including cutting the mobile phone signals though jammers or preventing communications of the terrorists and their triggering of explosive devices. In Abdeslam’s case, based on the news reports, we can assume that the police went to the scene as if the subject in question was a regular criminal and that the site would be empty.

The quick and lethal mobilization of disenchanted and angered youth in the West is a problem that is going to continue to haunt as long as groups like ISIS can pour gasoline upon the smoldering embers of real grievances—including discrimination, marginalization, frustrated aspirations, unemployment, and anger over geopolitics.  The solutions are multi-faceted: to work both against the terrorist groups to discredit their acts and their ideologies, to dismantle them, and to address the real social issues which can decrease the level of anger in the vulnerable populations that are currently resonating to their terrorist calls.

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is the Deputy Director of ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Counter-terrorism and Operations Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for countering the threats of terrorism”.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.  is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Turkey Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles.  Website:

Reference for this paper: Yayla, Ahmet S. & Speckhard, Anne (March 21, 2016) ISIS Operative Salah Abdeslam: A Not so True-Believer Terrorist.

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