Returning ISIS Foreign Fighters: Radicalization Challenges for the Justice System

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by Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci

as published in Homeland Security Today

PDF here

During its heyday, ISIS and other militant groups attracted 40,000 foreign fighters in an unprecedented migration of men, women, and children to the battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq. Now, with the near territorial defeat of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, most foreign fighters have been killed, rounded up into prisons and detention centers, or have returned home. Those who made it home to Europe and the Balkans are often receiving short prison sentences, if sentenced at all, with some already released, creating challenges both for the justice system and society at large. Here, we discuss the case of Abu Albani (a pseudonym), who in our experience is not an anomalous case of an individual having served time in ISIS and now returned home still highly radicalized. Abu Albani was interviewed twice by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE), once in 2016 during his incarceration and again in 2018 after his release.

The Case of Abu Albani, Kosovo

Abu Albani, a 28-year-old Kosovo national, travelled to Syria twice during the conflicts: first in 2013, at the very onset of the conflicts, and later in 2014, after the ISIS so-called caliphate had been declared. The first time he travelled to join and fight with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He shared how his travel was motivated by memories of the 1999 Kosovo war and deep humanitarian concerns for the Syrian victims of Bashar al Assad’s atrocities, alongside memories of international intervention in Kosovo, namely the UN peacekeeping forces, Americans included, who came to save Kosovars. On his second trip, he took his wife with him, evading security measures and Kosovo government prohibitions on his travel, flying from Montenegro to enter Syria via Turkey to join ISIS.

Abu Albani enthusiastically joined the Islamic State with a strong desire to help build and fight for the ISIS caliphate. He already had met the Albanian leaders in the caliphate during his first trip to Syria and hoped to rise in their ranks.

Abu Albani stayed with ISIS six months and admited to partaking in many battles. One of the battles during that time was against the Sunni al Sheitat tribe, which controlled considerable oil fields and refused to submit to ISIS. The battle, which has been described in detail to ICSVE researchers by others involved in it, included the genocidal murder of men, women and children—including desecration of their bodies—as well as taking surviving females as captives to become sex slaves for the ISIS caliphate.

Also, during the time that Abu Albani served with the Albanian ISIS cadres in Syria, one of their leaders, Lavdrim Muhaxheri, was filmed by ISIS cadres killing a man accused of being an ISIS traitor by tying him to a pole and firing an RPG at short range into his body. Other Albanian voices clearly supporting the action are heard in the video. Whether Abu Albani was present, or not, remains unclear.

During his time in ISIS, Abu Albani lived in and fought with the Albanian contingent in ISIS. However, he ultimately became disillusioned and defected. He escaped ISIS and traveled back to Kosovo via Turkey by paying smugglers to help him cross the border. He claims that he defected over concerns and arguments with the Albanian ISIS leadership over the treatment of ISIS widows, who he says were not being paid their widow stipends and effectively being forced to remarry. He also expressed concerns and anger over his wife being ill and ISIS refusing to support the travel of ISIS wives for medical treatment.

Lastly, he became concerned about a young boy, Ardian (a pseudonym), whose father had brought him to Syria and abandoned him to the care of the Albanian ISIS community while he went into Iraq to fight. Abu Albani appears to have strongly identified with Ardian, who was the same age Abu Albani had been when he witnessed Serbs entering his village and home to torment his family. Abu Albani claims ISIS leadership were beating and mistreating Ardian and that he was not allowed to communicate with his mother. Risking his own life, Abu Albani took Ardian on a motorcycle to the ISIS Internet cafes to contact his mother. Ultimately, Abu Albani decided to take Ardian out of ISIS when he and his wife defected, to return him to Kosovo and his mother.

ICSVE researchers interviewed Abu Albani in prison in June 2016 for five hours and in July 2018 for three hours. In both instances, Abu Albani expressed alignment with ISIS. In June 2016, Abu Albani stated that he was very angry with Kosovar authorities, who he believed had brokered a deal to not imprison him in return for bringing Ardian home to his mother. He expressed fear of the other ISIS cadres in prison, namely that they would kill him for defecting, and said he spent most of his time in solitary confinement as a result. In addition, he also stated he would rather go back to ISIS than spend any more time in prison. When it was pointed out to him that ISIS routinely beheads defectors, he said he thought that was a more just result than what had happened to him in Kosovo. He also expressed support for ISIS attacks on civilians in Paris, including the 2016 Brussels airport explosions, citing the U.S.- led coalition killings of civilians in Syria and Iraq as rightful revenge.

July, Abu Albani was free from serving his reduced 3.5-year prison sentence and had just gotten a job as a security guard at a hospital working 11-hour shifts. He is married and has a 3-year-old boy whom he supports. The Kosovo judiciary at present does not have a strict system of probation for released inmates and he is not required to check in or receive any treatment of any kind once released. Abu Albani said the Kosovar authorities had helped him secure the job, but that he was neither rehabilitated nor reintegrated into society, and that he rejects Kosovar, as he explained, non-sharia governed society, and any non-sharia governed society for that matter.

When asked if he had any message for the world, he said yes, that he would repeat the words of Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, ISIS’ now deceased leader of the intelligence (Emni) and propaganda arm of ISIS: that “you need to attack in every place and at every time.” He also bemoaned the fact that Muslims around the world are afraid to heed these words but said that soon enough they would. When asked if he was a danger to the American interviewers he was sitting with, he answered, “I hate all Americans.”  He also said, “Killing Americans is an obligation of all mujahedeen [holy warriors], with the exception of Muslim Americans.” He qualified this statement with, “I am not [currently] a mujahedeen, but that is their obligation, to terrorize all Americans. One should terrorize in the same way you are being terrorized.” He felt that all ISIS aggression was defensive in nature and conceived in response to the West terrorizing Muslim populations the world over.

In regard to his 2016 remarks about ISIS, he stated, “I feel that I betrayed them. I’d go back in a second if I could.” He pointed out that he does not currently have a passport, citing that he burned his Kosovar passport while in ISIS and that he doesn’t think the authorities will grant him a new one. He stated, while laughing, that he wanted to get a fake one in Serbia and that he would like nothing better than to take his wife and 3-year-old son back to ISIS. He cited his beliefs about hijra [migration to Islamic, shariah-ruled lands], stating, “God also says when people try to take your soul, you should migrate. It is the obligation of the believers — hijra. Otherwise, you have to respond [to Allah at the end of your life] to why you didn’t do that. As long as there is an Islamic State, you must respond to it, or you have to strive or do the best you can to create one.”

In regard to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Abu Albani said, “We had a very smart caliph.” When asked if he still loved him, he answered, “No doubt, yes.” In regard to al-Adani, he stated, “The beauty of the Khalifa [Caliphate] and al-Adani is that when they call on you to do something, it’s praiseworthy, but we haven’t responded to their calls.” When asked if he would respond, he cited impediments and obstacles, arguably referring to the fact that he is under security surveillance in Kosovo.

“There’s a lot of people who prefer death over life,” Abu Albani explained, “[but] there is this obstacle that prevents us from getting where we want to be. Many of us, we just need a small encouragement, just a small push and we’ll get there.” He went on to describe how one lights a small fire while camping in the mountains by blowing upon it. “Like blowing on a small fire, to make the big flames. That’s what we are waiting for. For someone to do that kind of blowing.”

In both his 2016 and 2018 interviews with ICSVE, Abu Albani referred to himself as a seasoned fighter, skillful at using an AK-47. He also said he had trained his wife during their time in ISIS to use an AK-47, and that she was able to operate it skillfully as well.

In regard to the prison deradicalization program that officials in Kosovo explained was only formally put in place around the same time when Abu Albani was released from prison, Abu Albani spoke disparagingly. “They tried engaging me in the program, but I rejected it,” he said. “They brought an imam from BIK [the Kosovo Islamic Community] and they tried to force me to talk to him. I never accepted.” Abu Albani is confident that he knows Islamic scriptures and his Muslim duties well enough from his time in ISIS, and what he also learned from studying the writings of al-Qaeda’s violent extremist ideologue, Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who was also Zarqawi’s mentor in prison. Abu Albani stated that he and “the brothers’ studied Maqdisi’s Millat Ibrahim while in Kosovo prison, adding, “We don’t need to learn anything from them.”

In response to the claims made by officials in Kosovo that Abu Albani does not represent the entire radicalized prison population in Kosovo and is hardly their spokesman, Abu Albani stated, “[That] out of all of those who are put in prison for terrorism-related offenses [Kosovo], only two decided to talk to them.” He stated that the two prisoners who engaged in the program were merely Muslims who had decided to pray in prison versus those serving for terrorism-related offenses, adding, “Actually, those who accepted to talk were not in for terrorism-related offenses. They were simply praying in prison, after which [the prison deradicalization program put in place] started addressing them.”

Abu Albani also said that he studied with other inmates convicted of terrorism-related offenses and that they were able to obtain digital copies of the writings of al Qaeda’s al Maqdisi, translated into Albanian. He stated, “All of us were eating and sitting around like this[referring to the interview room set-up]. [We] were talking the jihad.” He explained that while in prison, they were able to pore over and study Maqdisi’s Millat Ibrahim and encourage each other further in their commitment to groups like ISIS.

In the Millat Ibrahim, a publication known and followed by most militant jihadis, Maqdisi stresses the need for Muslims to employ the concept of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’ (loyalty and disavowal) in their lives, meaning embracing only sharia law and rejecting everything un-Islamic, including non-sharia form of governance. According to Maqdisi, adherence to man-made laws and obedience to worldly rulers effectively amounts to polytheism and worshipping other gods, apart from the oneness of Allah. According to Maqdisi, Muslims should not adhere to non-Islamic laws, nor obey even the leaders of Muslim countries, whom he considers infidels (kuffar) for not fully applying Islamic law (shari`a). Al-Maqdisi views all manifestations of unbelief (kufr) as things to be rejected and teaches that Muslims should have no positive feelings or loyalty toward them.

Abu Albani stated that he strengthened his commitment to ISIS and militant jihad in Kosovo prison, namely through studies and informal discussions with other prisoners. He also increased his commitment to Tahweed(the oneness of God) and jihad while in prison. He does not believe he can freely practice his faith in Kosovo and cited his desire to go anywhere to live under an Islamic state: “I would go to any place where there is an Islamic state, or group of people that are given trust to be guided by [shariah law].  Boko Haram, or al Shabaab, or Philippines, I should try,” he stated in a somewhat taunting manner.

When asked if he could achieve what he wants while living in a state that allows free expression of religion, he answered no, and added that violence was the only option. “There is no other way,” he said. “We are not given the option.” When asked if he is an enemy to the state of Kosovo, he answered, “I hope I am one of them. It’s very difficult to be among the enemies of the state, but at the same time, I consider it an honor, especially if they are kuffar. I told the intel and counterterrorism [officials], if I was in the position [of power], I would revamp the entire legal system [to shariah]. It’s actually the desire of every serious believer to be guided by Allah’s law,” he explained, and further repeated that it has “to happen by violence.” He also stated, “It’s true. We use violence a lot when we have to.”

Abu Albani also expressed anger over what he regarded as physical and psychological mistreatment in prison and explained that as a result he would never re-socialize. He stated, “[The prison program] is B.S. Tell me who is re-socialized, or reintegrated? We have nothing. I have a job, but I don’t call it reintegration or re-socialization.” He went on to express his anger, stating, “They terrorized us in the prisons. Prison staff mistreated us in every way, physically, psychologically, in every way. They beat a lot of Muslims in the prison. [These] guards [were acting] with permission of the prison officials. When you have international observer coming in, they take them to the silent ones who don’t talk. They are afraid to take them to ***** who is not afraid to say anything.” He went on to say that he could name who got beaten and by whom. He also added, “I will never re-socialize. You know, as Albanians, we are very revengeful. If given the opportunity, we will revenge.”

What Abu Albani said about his experience in Kosovo prison may not be true, or be a gross exaggeration. However, if his words are at all an accurate representation of what is happening in the Kosovar prison disengagement/deradicalization program, one should be seriously concerned. The outcome of him having been released, still completely radicalized and, in fact, even more committed and learned about militant jihadi teachings that he found inside the prison, bodes ill for all.

Psychologically speaking, Abu Albani suffered massive trauma as a small boy when Serbs entered his village and home. He recalls being 8 or 9 years-old when all the able-bodied men fled the village, as Serbs entered it, but his sight-impaired older brother could not. Serbs entered and searched homes, at which point his brother was discovered and, according to Abu Albani, bayonetted in his skull, leaving him permanently paralyzed and bedridden. Abu Albani said the soldiers left his home after the assault, only to return again at night to find his brother hidden under bedclothes. Abu Albani recalled that they strung his brother up in the doorway and played with their rifles, directing their laser beams on his brother’s body, as if to shoot him. Abu Albani recalls his terror that his brother would be shot and killed by the soldiers who were drinking and tormenting his family. When asked if his mother was raped, he denied it, although, given the history of the conflict in Kosovo, the other torments they engaged in, and that the soldiers were drinking, along with rape representing a culturally sensitive topic, which he would also likely deny it, rape of his mother may or may not also be part of his story.

Inside ISIS, Abu Albani claimed he strongly identified with the young boy Ardian and risked his own life to save him and return him to his mother. He also admitted in his 2016 interview that he felt very protective of women, having been raised by his mother alone, as his father died before the Kosovo war. Abu Albani has had a hard life and serious traumas in his background. He was also raised in a culture where showing toughness and bravado brings respect. His involvement in ISIS and immersion in their strict Islamic system of laws conveyed upon him instant respect, not to mention fear, among those he was granted authority over. These things also likely psychologically placed him in a position where he is able to defend against the childhood feelings of abject powerlessness, terror, and sorrow he likely felt at the hands of his Serb tormenters. He is unlikely to give terrorism up if he doesn’t find an equally strong alternative to deal with his past traumas and his human need for dignity, significance, and respect.

An interesting aspect of Abu Albani’s personality is that he seems to love to horrify and terrify others with his “jihadi” threats. At the end of his 2018 interview, he said he hoped his 3-year-old son will become a shaheed [Islamic “martyr”] and played out with his hands the motions of self-detonation. He also said he hoped the researchers would fall into the hands of ISIS in their then upcoming trip to Syria and be beheaded, as he also played out the motions of beheading. He clearly enjoyed horrifying, and this too may be an aspect of grandiosity and transferring terror to others that he uses as a psychological defense to his own feelings of fear and powerlessness experienced as a boy.

Abu Albani is obviously intelligent, and somewhat charming, as are many psychopaths. He does not mince words; he speaks very openly and says exactly what he thinks. He answers all questions put to him and appears self-insightful. He would likely engage with someone skilled in psychology and violent extremist viewpoints who showed concern and respect for him and his religious views. In regard to any type of Islamic challenge program, he would need to engage with someone who can speak his “language,” who understands militant jihadi thinking and ideology, and who is able to answer it verse by verse, hadith by hadith, to delegitimize, or at least to temper, his beliefs to commitment to something less violent than militant jihad.

Our ICSVE recommendation is that he receives in-depth psychological treatment and engages with an Islamic scholar who knows the writings of Maqdisi and other militant jihadis enough to refute them. It’s unfortunate that Kosovo judiciary does not have a sufficiently robust probation system, and that engaging in the above-proposed treatment  wasn’t a condition of his release.

Abu Albani is not an outlier in this regard. At ICSVE, we have spoken to other European foreign fighters and their family members returned home who went through the judicial system but were not mandated into any psychological or ideological treatment. Some of these are still highly radicalized and at large. In the absence of in-depth and highly skilled treatment, and even with it, Abu Albani and others like him need constant surveillance to ensure they don’t  suddenly find that “wind” to spark them into violent action again.

Reference for this Paper: Speckhard, Anne & Shajkovci, Ardian (November 4, 2018)  Returning ISIS Foreign Fighters: Radicalization Challenges for the Justice System Homeland Security Today 

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 600 terrorists, 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 two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. 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 experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly 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 publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org  Follow @AnneSpeckhard

Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D. – is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE).  He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College.

Anne Speckhard

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine and has also taught the Psychology of Terrorism for the Security Studies Department in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. Dr. Speckhard has been working in the field of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the 1980’s and has extensive experience working in Europe, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union.