Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci
The Clear Path into the Islamic State is the 117th counter narrative video in the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand series. This video features 20-year-old Iraqi Abu Ayad who was interviewed in 2017 in an Iraqi prison in Baghdad, Iraq, by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci. The video clip was video edited and produced by our ICSVE team.
Recruitment into terrorism is most often a face-to-face phenomenon, although many cases also involve initial contacts and interest piqued by watching terrorist propaganda on the Internet. Some experts cast doubt on the idea that terrorist recruitment can occur solely in the digital realm, with no face-to-face contact, yet, at ICSVE, we have talked with quite a few ISIS and al Shabaab members who were recruited entirely over the Internet, with no face-to-face communication whatsoever, and even talked into becoming suicide bombers, as is the case of Abu Ayad. This may reflect the increasing levels of intimacy afforded by online chat and video connections that stand in for actually meeting in person.
In this regard, this underlines the importance of understanding that terrorist recruitment occurs from a nexus of events: the presence, and exposure, of a vulnerable person to a terrorist group, an appealing ideology, social support for both, and individual vulnerabilities that are snagged by the group and its ideology. When these four things come together, a terrorist may be born.
While the Internet giants have taken great strides to reduce the ability of terrorists to operate on their platforms, at ICSVE, we recently identified over 500 active Facebook profiles endorsing and engaging with ISIS material, and in some cases, also distributing their materials in the languages of the Western Balkans, Turkish, Arabic and English, with connections occurring between profiles purportedly located in the Western Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East. While once notified Facebook acted immediately to initiate takedowns, this type of terrorist seduction is concerning. As our research indicates, these types of exposure to a terrorist group and its ideology, as well as the social support offered by groups that are endorsing and positively discussing these issues on the Internet, constitutes a powerful mechanism for terrorism recruitment of those who are vulnerable to such appeals.
In our research, we have found that when the terrorist recruitment processes happens entirely online, an individual’s interest is usually first tweaked by encountering terrorist propaganda on the mainstream platforms of Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, with the next step entailing endorsing it or otherwise indicating an interest—sometimes directly contacting whoever put it up. Often the interested parties then move to WhatsApp, Skype or Telegram, among other less public means of chatting.
In some cases, the recruiter responded to any social media endorsements by initiating contact, knowing that in the wide net cast over the Internet he or she may have caught an interested party. These recruiters are usually adept at identifying the needs of those who engage with them online and immediately begin to cater to those needs. Put differently, the lonely girl is lavished with attention and may be swarmed in upon by others who also suddenly friend or follow her, making her feel popular and sought after; the heartbroken girl is told the recruiter has fallen in love with her and wants to marry or travel away to some dreamed of destination, such as the ISIS Caliphate; the poor are told they can gain riches and opportunities; the young man hoping to marry is offered a wife or other sexual promises; and the ISIS dream of the Caliphate is spun in positive terms with any danger or sacrifice that is discussed termed as a stepping stone to earning Paradise.
Provided the content is quickly taken down, contact initiation, from either side, becomes much harder. In Abu Ayad’s case, his Internet seduction happened as recently as 2016, and as we found in our research with 500+ Facebook profiles that are still distributing and endorsing ISIS material, this kind of dangerous exposure to terrorists and their propaganda materials is still happening today.
In the case of Abu Ayad, he came across ISIS videos on Facebook and Twitter. He also saw and followed news of the group’s activities in Iraq and Syria on mainstream media. Intrigued, he began to watch a series of ISIS videos. He claims that he fast-forwarded through scenes of violence which he said turned him off. Abu Ayad explains that he was interested in changing his socio-economic condition, namely getting a house for his family and being able to marry—arguably normal worries for any young man without means. Of deep concern is the speed and the ease with which he decided to contact those promoting ISIS materials online. Abu Ayad states that he watched only ten videos before he reached out to the person who put them up on Facebook and Twitter in hopes of changing his situation by joining.
The recruiter required Abu Ayad to give his real name, phone number and address before he would talk with him, but once he knew where Abu Ayad lived, he spent a great deal of time on recruiting him. His recruiter, according to Abu Ayad, told him, “We want people to live and have freedom, and everyone becomes free.” Abu Ayad further recalls, “I was convinced that if you join, you’ll have money. That I can go anywhere without anything happening, without even my family, all by myself. I become free. He told me that [they] would give me money, but he didn’t specify how much.”
Abu Ayad was not completely naïve. He admits worrying, “I was afraid that all that they have said would turn out to be lies.” Yet, his recruiter kept drawing him in and Abu Ayad explains that he even tried to take him beyond his material concerns to address the next life, “[He] offered me [to be a suicide bomber], but I didn’t agree. Nor did I refuse. I just kept silent,” Abu Ayad recounts.
The recruiter used Islamic scriptures to try to ensnare Abu Ayad into opting for Paradise: “He talked to me about jannah [Paradise], verses [of the Quran] and some Hadiths, but he didn’t convince me 100%. He told me that you would be done with this life and you will go to jannah. You would be able to rest. There won’t be anyone whom you will need to spend money on, nor a family, nor will you be afraid for anybody. You will go there and rest.” Abu Ayad insists he did not agree, but Iraqi authorities told ICSVE that they had enough compelling evidence to prosecute him for joining the group and agreeing to be a suicide bomber.
Looking back at his Internet seduction, Abu Ayad warns, “They lure people, until they find a way to control you. Then you won’t be able to go back or quit.” Since his recruiter knew where he lived, Abu Ayad notes, “I was afraid that he [might] kill me, that he would reach out and kill me.
That’s what they do. Either you do what they want, or they kill you.”
In the end of the counter narrative video clip, Abu Ayad states, “I joined ISIS because I wanted to have money and a happy life. [Now, I have a] death sentence.”
Abu Ayad fears that his death sentence will be executed. He also fears the other prisoners. He recounts, “I stay by the fence 24 hours. I either cry, or just pray that I get out.” Reflecting on his previous education and his now hopeless future, he states, “Regarding my school, I reached a good level. [But] I destroyed myself.” In regard to his family, he recalls his mother’s deep shock upon his arrest, specifically, “I miss my mother [and hope that she will] forgive me.”
Abu Ayad advises all youth: “Especially young kids not join ISIS, because of what they show on Facebook, Twitter and social media, and how they promise you with a good life and dreams. [Because,] when you join them, after they control you and take your information and you won’t be able to leave and they will threaten to kill you in case you quit. Then you become afraid of either quitting and getting killed, or continuing and also getting killed.”
Abu Ayad adds, “[Joining ISIS is] a clear path to death—certain death. You’re dead in every scenario, either prison or death. So my advice is to stay with your family.”
What do you feel watching this video?
Do you believe Abu Ayad’s story?
What were his vulnerabilities to make him believe ISIS lies?
Do you think he could have been convinced to carry out a suicide mission?
Do you ever encounter terrorist propaganda?
What are the dangers of watching or sharing videos propagating terrorist violence?
Can we stop vulnerable individuals from accessing ISIS and other violent extremist groups’ propaganda, and if so, how?
Are we adequately equipped and prepared to discredit terrorist propaganda once detected online?
How can we address terrorist propaganda that is constantly shifting (e.g. onto new and diverse platforms; quantity of information exchanged, both in private and public spaces, etc.)?
What would you do if a terrorist recruiter started talking to you over social media?
Islamic Scriptures Related to this Video
Transcript of The Clear Path into the Islamic State Caliphate
I joined the Islamic State [in 2016] when I was 18-years-old.[I heard about them] through social media, like TV channels and the Internet and [through] news [and] video clips that their purpose is inviting people to join.
ISIS Suicide Bomber[I watched their videos on] Twitter and Facebook.
They affected me because I was poor. I wanted to improve my living condition [for] marriage. I wanted us to have a house and for me to get married, and to have money.
[I have] 5 brothers and sisters and a father and mother. We’re all students in schools. My father is a teacher and my mother is a housewife.[We were living] in [Baghdad], in Dora. [My family] was good, but we were poor.
I worked in a market, in a shop for shoes during the holidays, and at the times that I didn’t have school. So, if my school is in the morning then I worked in the afternoon.
[I watched]about 10 videos, approximately.
I used to listen only to what was said, and the videos that had killing or blood, I fast-forwarded through them. I didn’t watch them.
I didn’t agree on killing people and things.[I didn’t discuss joining with my brothers or father] because they didn’t approve. They are afraid. [After watching, I contacted] the one who publishes the video or the pages where you find these videos on Twitter and Facebook. [I was asking,] ‘Who are you?’
They answered that we want people to live and have freedom, and everyone becomes free. He told me about the conditions of those who live with them. So I was convinced that if you join, you’ll have money, and become free. That I can go anywhere without anything happening, without even my family, all by myself. I become free.
He told me that [they] would give me money, but he didn’t specify how much.
I was afraid that all that they have said would turn out to be lies [but]
I kept contacting them for a while.[It was] normal talk, like preaching. And in case I didn’t want to move forward, they said, ‘Have courage and so on.’
He offered me [to be a suicide bomber], but I didn’t agree. Nor did I refuse. I just kept silent, I didn’t answer with yes, or no.
He talked to me about Jannah [Paradise], verses [of the Quran] and some Hadiths, but he didn’t convince me 100%.
He told me that you would be done with this life and you will go to jannah. You would be able to rest. There won’t be anyone whom you will need to spend money on, nor a family, nor will you be afraid for anybody. You will go there and rest.
He offered it to me, [but] I didn’t accept.
I didn’t expect them to assign me to such a task, or that he would want me to do such thing. I expected that it would be normal. Someone goes to another place and he just lives there and works.
He kept calling me at the end, and I was afraid because he knew where I was staying.
I only knew his nickname. It was Abu Yahya.
He wouldn’t trust you and talk to you unless you gave him information about yourself—your name, phone number and address.
They lure people, until they find a way to control you. Then you won’t be able to go back or quit.
I was afraid that he [might] kill me, that he would reach out and kill me.
That’s what they do. Either you do what they want, or they kill you.
Honestly, if I tell him no, I would be afraid of him, and if I tell him yes, I would be afraid for myself.
I was still contacting them only, and before I went to meet them, I was arrested in October, 2016.
I shocked [my parents. I heard my mother] cry and scream, ‘Why are you taking him? What did he do?’
Text: Abu Ayad was prosecuted for joining ISIS and agreeing to be a suicide bomber.
I joined ISIS because I wanted to have money and a happy life.
[Now, I have a] death sentence.
I’m afraid that they will execute the sentence. I’m also afraid of prison and even the prisoners. I don’t know how to live in such an environment.
Death is a hard thing, and it’s frightening.
In prison, I stay by the fence 24 hours a day. I either cry, or just pray that I get out, because regarding my school, I reached a good level. [But] I destroyed myself.
I miss my mother [and hope that she will] forgive me.
I advise all youth, especially young kids not to join ISIS, because of what they show on Facebook, Twitter and social media, and how they promise you with a good life and dreams. [Because,] when you join them, after he controls you and takes your information and you won’t be able to leave and they will threaten to kill you in case you quit.
Then you become afraid of either quitting and getting killed, or continuing and also getting killed.[Joining ISIS is] a clear path to death—certain death. You’re dead in every scenario, either prison or death.
So my advice is to stay with your family.
The Truth Behind the Islamic State
Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism
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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 expert 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/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website https://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.