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…
Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg
As published in Homeland Security Today
It is no secret that white supremacist groups are racist, antisemitic, Islamophobic, and xenophobic. They are also violently homophobic and transphobic. Indeed, sexual orientation and gender identity is the third most common hate crime motivation, behind race, ethnicity, and nationality and religion, with 171 hate crime offenders being motivated by transphobia or homophobia since 1990. This trend is unsurprising when one considers that white supremacists are often conservative Christians who condemn anything but binary sexual identities and extol traditional sex roles for men and women. Additionally, one of the most famous white supremacist slogans, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”, implies a requirement for heterosexual sex for the purpose of procreation and, in the eyes of white supremacists, strict gender binaries wherein women are responsible for producing and raising the future generations. White supremacists also tend to portray gay men and transgender women, in particular, as being predators who groom children for pedophilia. Therefore, white supremacists’ ire directed at the LGBTQ+ community in general and specifically white people within it who are viewed as sexually perverted, a danger to their children, and as failing to do their duty to the race (i.e., maintaining traditional family values and procreating). Of course, all of these hateful ideas are incorporated into these groups’ overarching ideology which directs most of its hate toward Jews, positing that when Jews are not conducting the “great replacement” through immigration and interracial marriage, they are doing so by perverting culture and promoting homosexuality and gender fluidity. According to some white supremacist ideologies, “turning white men gay” also makes them easier to control.
It may be surprising, then, for the outside observer to learn that many far-right violent extremist groups advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and even have openly LGBTQ+ leaders and public faces. For example, Milo Yiannopoulos, who has decried “feminazis” as breaking down (white) male hegemony, is gay and claims Jewish ancestry as well. Indeed, doing so allows these violent groups to mainstream their racist claims and at the same time degrade and demonize cultures they view as “backward,” namely Islam. Similarly, whereas white supremacist groups typically view women as “breeders” who should be valued only as wives and mothers, many far-right, ultra-nationalist groups are led by women who feel empowered, albeit often because they feel as though they are exceptional and special in being respected by otherwise misogynistic men. Notably, ISIS, too, presented its strict enforcement of traditional gender roles as a means of subjugating women while making them feel empowered in their decision to adhere to the strictest interpretation of their religion.
Whether they must hide their true identities for fear of harassment or outright assault, or have their identities exploited for the purpose of degrading and dehumanizing others, there seems to be strong reason for members of the LGBTQ community to steer clear of white supremacism and the alt-right. Yet, their participation is not uncommon, particularly among white, cisgender gay men who are perceived as “substandard allies”, provided they are deemed to be sufficiently masculine and reject all aspects of gay culture, including having a family. Indeed, an unattached gay white man can be seen as having no familial responsibilities and thus having more time and energy to devote to the white supremacist cause. They are even more valuable to these groups if they are antifeminist and willing to verbally abuse women.
The question remains, then, as to why someone who identifies as LGBTQ+ would participate in such a group or movement, if doing so would require them to either hide their identity (to “remain in the closet”) or to use their identity to hurt others, including to hurt other LGBTQ+ people. Our research using in-depth psychological interviews with 51 current and former members of far-right, white supremacist, and hate groups, five of whom identified as being part of the LGBTQ+ community, participating in white supremacism may be a defense mechanism against negative thoughts about oneself – internalized homophobia and transphobia arising out of cultural or familial norms which are intolerant of such identities. We refer to this process as Projected Hate, in which one who has been raised in a family, religious group, or society which rejects LGBTQ+ identities deals with the anxiety caused by being a member of this community by partially or in totality hiding this aspect of their identity and joining a homophobic or transphobic violent extremist group as part of an effort to disavow and split off an unwanted part of one’s own identity. The individual subsequently projects that self-hatred onto others holding the LGBTQ+ identity and may even try to destroy them, thereby symbolically vanquishing the hated or disavowed part of the self. A slightly lesser splitting and projection process can also occur in which members of the LGBTQ+ community join such groups and split off part of their self in a less radical way but then use their sexual or gender identity as a weapon in a violent extremist group as a mechanism for building self-esteem and distinguishing oneself as unlike other members of the LGBTQ community whom they vilify. In this case, they are often trying to be the “exception” that is embraced by the group while hating others from the same community.
Scott E., aged 42, describes themselves as a “latch-key kid.” Scott recalls of childhood, “It was a happy family, but we were not the most loving family in the world. [The] type of family [where] whenever things happen, [it’s] a ‘suck it up, buttercup’ type of situation. My dad was a bit abusive when I was a kid. Not extremely.” Scott says that the abuse “got better as [the] years went,” although perhaps this was more due to their being able to defend themselves (“I was 15 [and] ended up choking him on the floor to defend myself”) than due to his father realizing his wrongdoings. Prior to getting into white nationalism, however, Scott hung out with a number of men along the gender and sexual spectrum, “but I realized I wasn’t into men. I really don’t like masculinity.” Later, Scott became highly engaged on the white supremacist web forum Stormfront, where “I had to hide some things.” Scott’s involvement on Stormfront began with the band Prussian Blue, which featured two young girls as singers, who were managed by their mother, April Gaede. Scott saw online that a man claiming to be part of Antifa wanted “Black guys to go to April Gaede’s house and rape these 11- and 12-year-old girls, because their mother was a white nationalist. He included a map to their house. I contacted the feds. They didn’t take it seriously; said they were aware. They told me to make the parents aware of it. I contacted them, told them who I was. I wasn’t worldly when it came to white nationalism, and I became a friend of the family. They even made me a moderator on the Prussian Blue forum. Later on, Scott moved to Montana where the Gaede family lived and became involved with April’s organization, a whites-only community called Pioneer Little Europe [PLE]. Scott’s belief in white nationalism ebbed and flowed. Scott’s job was to make the PLE ideology more palatable, including by saying that white gay men could be white nationalists. Scott reflects back, “I was worse than a Hitler lover […] because I made it more acceptable to be horrible, and that’s arguably worse. I was in it for the community […] My mindset was never fully in it. I was trying to make white nationalism what I wanted it to be.”
Phoebe Rose was also physically and emotionally abused by her father. Growing up in the body of a boy, Phoebe Rose says her father “never understood me. I never fit the narrative he wanted. He couldn’t handle me knowing more than him, any defiance, any individuality, not what he expected.” Phoebe began a social transition at age 15 but felt misunderstood by doctors, leading her to attempt a male-presenting lifestyle at university and later in the British Army. The psychological strife of remaining closeted as a transwoman contributed to a mental health breakdown, after which she was honorable discharged for medical reasons. Further mental health challenges developed after being raped by a transwoman who had already surgically transitioned. At age 26, Phoebe traveled to Thailand for gender-affirming surgery. She recalls, “This trip to Thailand changed my life in more ways than I can imagine. I met an American girl with a very troubled background. She was the most intelligent person I have ever encountered in my life. She started to radicalize me to the extreme right.” At the time, Phoebe had been working in an organization in England which served asylum seekers, where she began to harbor Islamophobic thoughts about “Albanian Muslim men trying to take the piss out of the system. Afghanis came to the UK to be pedophiles, lying about their age, saying they were children when they weren’t […] We would see schoolgirls going into this 40-year-old’s place. Social services would do an age assessment and say he was 17. Afghanis are fanatics.”
Phoebe met white nationalists online and, surprisingly enough, “for the first time I found someone interested in me for just being me. [They] didn’t give a toss that I [had converted to become] Jewish, that I was trans, that I was in a same-sex relationship.” From there, Phoebe was connected with the English Defence League, which “wanted what I wanted, Muslims out of Britain.” Phoebe admits adopting a zealous, if not extremist, form of Zionism: “EDL wanted England for the English. I wanted Israel for the Jews. Who is in the way? Dirty, stinking Muslims.” Phoebe Rose became a prominent speaker for the EDL: “I got a thrill out of it, I got a rush. Someone gave me a microphone and gave me the stage. I had them in the palm of my hand. I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t need a script. I knew what I was going to say, how to get them going. By the end of it, they were all standing and cheering, they had come to listen to people, but I don’t think they expected a 20-something Jewish, white trans girl to steal it.” Later on, she felt even more powerful: “The police were scared of me because of who I am. They didn’t want to arrest a Jewish woman, a trans woman. Police arrest a Jewish woman at an EDL rally, [they’d] get laughed at, ‘what, are you stupid?’ That was lovely. They were scared of me. The police, the people I’m supposed to be scared of, are scared of me. They have a file on me. I requested it but most is blacked out. Police officers were assigned to just me.”
Viktoria, whose mother was in the U.S. Air Force but moved to East Germany after becoming pregnant, grew up in “not a happy family. [My] biological father was never in the picture. Another gentleman stepped in. [He was a] pedophile and violent felon. He tried to kill my mother and me several times. We were in the hospital several times due to beatings. He used blunt objects. He signed the birth certificate. I think my mother had slept with a random man at a bar [and] I was conceived. [The] abusive guy stepped in and signed the birth certificate. My mother refused to speak about it. When I investigated, all I can learn is my [step]father is a German nationalist and terrorist.” The trauma from her early childhood continued in West Virginia, where her “uncle was in a militia. He trained all the kids how to kill people. We would name the hunted animals names of people we didn’t like. He’d call them enemies, race traitors. We would hunt and visualize killing them. He was psychologically preparing us for murder.” Over time, Viktoria developed a deep and violent commitment to white supremacism, but says that “piece by piece over time, there were significant things. I saw how people saw me. I had a girlfriend younger than me. She grew up in an extremely peaceful, sheltered household, saw pieces of things I did, the way she responded. I hadn’t seen that because I was surrounded by like-minded people, so unbelievably shattered just by the tip of the iceberg, how far I had gone. My sexuality, gender, queerness interfered as well. I had always known I was queer. I thought I was degenerate. I went to conversion therapy.” When Viktoria came out to her family, “they sent me death threats and pipe bombs.” Viktoria reflects on her experience and highlights what Phoebe and Scott may have experienced in their own groups: “I was not queer in the movement. That’s a death sentence. Modern groups will accept [queer people] on the outside, [but] never will make it to the inside. Useful idiots, they throw them away later, no regard for their wellbeing. Being queer in the movement is impossible. It’s like being required to work in a factory and cutting off both of your arms, always this inner monologue in the back of your mind that won’t stop. I tried every conversion therapy, even electroshock. [It] just builds an unbearable amount of shame.” Now, she says, “For self-love, coming out as queer was the best thing I ever did.”
Finally, Jason V. spoke about his experience being openly queer while employed by the Oath Keepers as their national spokesperson. Jason explains that he was initially interested in the Oath Keepers when he perceived them as being libertarian, as he was, but became disillusioned with the group when they “started courting the alt-right, [Richard] Spencer, the actual Nazis, Proud Boys, I just couldn’t do it.” Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers who hired Jason, knew that he was queer and generally accepted it, though he made clear that Jason, alongside another gay couple providing support to the group, needed to hide their sexual identities from the people whom Jason was reaching and radicalizing through his propaganda. For instance, when covering the Oath Keepers’ support for Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, “I wrote it from the perspective of the queer person, [saying] we need to protect same-sex growers growing pot. That was rejected by Stewart. He rewrote it.” Jason cynically explains how Alex Jones, the InfoWars conspiracy theorist made millions selling “snake oil” and “Stewart caters his messaging to where he feels he’s going to make the most money. and you know, the county clerk obviously was resounding with an anti queer sentiment within the membership and paying donors.” Thus, in contrast to Phoebe and Scott’s groups which exploited members of the LGBTQ+ community in order to mainstream their ideologies, Jason’s group, whose core leadership did in fact accept his identity, forced him to hide it in order to appeal to “paying donors.”
As can be observed from the stories in this article, growing up in an environment which makes one feel as though they do not fit into the expected, traditional gender norms can cause a great deal of emotional strain. The process of Projected Hate can be observed to different extents among the five short case studies described above. Most hid their sexual identity from their groups, knowing that it was viewed as degenerate and an anathema to the groups, unless it could be used by them. Some, like Viktoria, were actively steeped in self-hatred and shame over being gay and tried to vanquish it in themselves while going along with groups that openly and violently targeted the community of which they were a part. Most split off or at least did not publicly acknowledge their LGBTQ+ identity while in the group and supported a group that attacked and even wished to kill LGBTQ members. We saw the same occurring in ISIS, perhaps the most famous case being Omar Mateen, who came from an Afghani background and may have disavowed his homosexuality but then projected his hatred of this community by going to the same night club in Orlando he was known to have frequented to kill members of the LGBTQ+ community.
These case studies yield implications for practitioners working to prevent, counter, and intervene in violent extremism. Most importantly, practitioners must understand that hatred toward others can often arise as a defense against self-hatred which arises particularly in LGBTQ+ individuals who were raised with complete intolerance of this identity. As is clear from the interviewees quoted, learning self-love can also be a pivotal step in turning away from hate groups and movements.
About the Authors:
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 700 terrorists, violent extremists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past five years, she has in-depth psychologically interviewed over 270 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres (and also interviewed their family members as well as ideologues) studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab). She, with ICSVE, has also developed the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 250 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. Since 2020 she has also launched the ICSVE Escape Hate Counter Narrative Project interviewing over 50 white supremacists and members of hate groups developing counternarratives from their interviews as well. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, UN Women, UNCTED, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, CBC and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly writes a column for Homeland Security Today and speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her research has also been published in Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of African Security, Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, Journal for Deradicalization, Perspectives on Terrorism and the International Studies Journal to name a few. Her academic publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org
Molly Ellenberg is the Facebook Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism [ICSVE]. Molly is a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. Her research focuses on radicalization to and deradicalization from militant jihadist and white supremacist violent extremism, the quest for significance, and intolerance of uncertainty. Molly has presented original research at NATO Advanced Research Workshops and Advanced Training Courses, the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma, the GCTC International Counter Terrorism Conference, UC San Diego Research Conferences, and for security professionals in the European Union. She is also an inaugural member of the UNAOC’s first youth consultation for preventing violent extremism through sport. Her research has been cited over 100 times and has been published in Psychological Inquiry, Global Security: Health, Science and Policy, AJOB Neuroscience, Frontiers in Psychology, Motivation and Emotion, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, Women & Criminal Justice, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, Bidhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.