Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci
A Belgian Family in the Islamic State is the 77th counter narrative video in the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brandseries. This video features 22-year-old Belgian, Salma who was interviewed by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci in August of 2018 in a detention facility in northern Syria run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The video clip was video edited and produced by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team.
Salma, like many who join ISIS, followed a family member into the group. In her case, her father, a Tunisian immigrant in Belgium, had been searching for a place where he could live what he considered a truly Islamic life. He had tried living in Tunisia but was disappointed. In 2015, he decided to go and join the so-called Islamic State Caliphate. “My dad, he wanted to live [a] really Islamic life,” Salma tells viewers. “He just said life is better here. You can wear your whole hijab and we’re not oppressed here.” In Belgium, Salma was wearing a full hijab, covering her neck and shoulders. She explains how she experienced discomfort mixing with mainstream Belgian society because of it.
Salma’s parents had divorced, leaving her vulnerable, and she was also very attached to her father. She admits being very naïve about ISIS, saying, “I never watched [ISIS YouTube videos],” and that she didn’t know much about the group. Her father’s endorsement was enough to convince her to follow him. On that note, she explains, “Just for my dad to say ‘I’m not coming back!’[from Syria] was enough for me to come actually.”
She admits doing a cursory search on the Internet. “I looked up, like, “how’s life in ISIS?” but that wasn’t really anything on YouTube.” Just 19 years old, Salma flew to Istanbul without telling her mother. With the help of someone she met on Twitter, she then crossed into Syria.
Salma entered ISIS territory and moved in with her father, who was already working for ISIS. Soon after, her father arranged with a co-worker for her to marry his son. Salma’s husband fought for ISIS in Iraq but soon became disillusioned with the group. “He didn’t like it anymore. He didn’t like the way ISIS thinks,” she explains. Salma’s father also become disillusioned and together the three decided to defect and return home to Belgium through Turkey.
Salma, however, was already pregnant. The family decided to simply try to drive out of ISIS territory but were stopped on the way. “They took my dad to prison. They interrogated him,” Salma recalls. “And then they came and took us. They put us in prison,” she further adds. ISIS tortured her father and husband in prison.
While her husband was held in prison for refusing to fight with ISIS, her father convinced her to try to flee with him again, telling her that it would be easier for her husband to escape on his own rather than burdened with a wife and newborn. Salma and her father tried to flee again, but their smuggler who was working for ISIS betrayed them. Apprehended at a checkpoint, Salma’s father, knowing he would end in prison and likely be beheaded as is the ISIS practice for a second attempt at escaping, began to walk away. “They started shooting on us. Theykilled all the men. [My father] died in front of me,” Salma recounts. “I got a bullet in my back and a bullet [in] other places.” Salma ended up separated from her newborn and was put in an ISIS prison for a month.
Despite what happened to her father, Salma and her husband tried to escape again. In that attempt, they made it out of ISIS territory, but were apprehended by the Syrian Kurdish forces (YPG). She is now detained in the Syrian territory controlled by the YPG.
“Of course [being detained is] hard! You want freedom,” Salma explains. “You want to get out. It’s just psychological. It’s difficult. I have a son and I’m pregnant seven months.” She has since had her baby and returned with her newborn to the camp, despite the poor medical conditions in the camp. “Of course, I wanna go home. I wanna go to my mother,” Salma states. She doesn’t know if Belgium will allow her to come home or accept her children back. “Being in prison with your kid is worse, I think than being in prison alone, because you see him suffer,” she states, reflecting on the collective punishment that is occurring, where children are being detained due to their mother’s traveling to ISIS-controlled territory.
Reflecting on her time inside ISIS, Salma doesn’t think that ISIS follows Islam. “They’re bad Muslims. They’re not Muslims! Don’t even call them Muslims, please! It just gives a bad name to Muslims,” she states.
Salma agrees that Belgium has the right to prosecute her. “If they put me in prison, that’s the consequences of my mistakes,” she states. To her viewers, she warns, “Don’t even look up ISIS. Forget ISIS.”
What do you feel watching this video?
Do you believe Salma is telling the truth about her time in ISIS?
What do you think of her blindly following her father into ISIS?
Do you think Salma is at present—or will be in the future—a danger to Belgian society or would ever return to ISIS after her father was killed by them?
Do you believe that having a close family member already involved in a violent extremist group can serve as a predictor of an individual becoming involved in violence or violent extremism? If so, why?
What do you think about collective punishment—that is, holding children of ISIS parents in detention with them?
Do you believe that detention camps housing ISIS wives, including their children, may breed a new generation of militants?
What do you believe should be done with ISIS wives who did not fight or engage in violence?
What do you believe should be done with their children?
If returned to their home countries, what can be done in the case of children who may be too young to understand ISIS-related stigma (e.g. discussing the death of their ISIS fathers, bombs, caliphate)? What can be done to bring more sensitivity to the issue, including avoiding alarming others about these children’s return?
Transcript of A Belgian Family in the Islamic State
Wife of an ISIS Soldier
My dad, he wanted to live [a] really Islamic life.
My dad came first [to the Islamic State]
and then he called me [in July 2015].
He just said, ‘Life is better here. You can wear your whole hijab and we’re not oppressed here.’
Just that my dad said, ‘I’m not coming back!’ was enough for me to come actually.
I never watched [ISIS YouTube videos].
When my dad called me, I tried to watch on YouTube.
I looked up, like, ‘How’s life in ISIS?’ but there wasn’t really anything on YouTube.
And, he convinced me to come.So I came.
TEXT: Just 19 years old, Salma flew to Istanbul without telling her mother with whom she lived.
With the help of someone she met on Twitter, she then crossed into Syria.
They entered me in a pickup [truck] and they took to a women’s house.
In Bab Lemon, I stayed for a week and then they [took] me to Raqqa.
In Raqqa, it’s like a big house full of women.
I told them that I have my dad here and they looked up for him and they brought him.
TEXT: Eventually, Salma got married to a Tunisian ISIS fighter. Her father is originally from Tunisia.
My husband was a soldier in Iraq.
But when we got married, he went [to fight in Iraq] three times.
And then he stopped going.
He didn’t like it anymore. He didn’t like the way ISIS thinks.
They have a problem in the religion, how they do stuff.
Mostly they punish with death. It’s the most common punishment.
And, after almost three months of marriage, I got pregnant.
He stopped going to work and then [my father, husband and I] tried to get out of ISIS.
But so many things happened.
It’s very difficult to get out.
We were gonna cross the border.
We went to the last [check]point of the last town.
The problem is we were a [large group] and the Free Syrian Army was advancing
and everybody was evacuating from that little town.
Us going to there was a little bit suspicious and when we are going there’s a car of [the ISIS] police that comes.
They’re saying to my dad, ‘Why are you taking your family?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, [we are] just [going] here.’[The ISIS police] were like, ‘Yeah, no. We know.’
And then they came and took my dad. They left us in a house first.
They took my dad to prison. They interrogated him.
And then they came and took us. They put us in prison.
But then we needed to evacuate al Bab, so they evacuated and they took us to Raqqa.
They wanted us, to put us in a women house but we women, we ran away.
When they put my husband and my dad in prison, my dad, because he’s older, he just stayed two weeks and he got out.
But my husband, because he’s younger, he stayed a long time.
He stayed like almost six months.
TEXT: ISIS tortured her father and husband.
TEXT: Salma and her father tried to flee again, but their smuggler was actually working for ISIS and betrayed them.
TEXT: They were stopped at a checkpoint.
So my dad was like, ‘Yeah, no, I’m not staying here. Let’s go!’
So we started walking and then they started shooting on us.
They started shooting on us. They killed all the men.[My father] died in front of me.
I got a bullet in my back and a bullet [in] other places.
TEXT: Salma ended up in an ISIS prison for a month.
They came and interrogated me like, ‘Why do you want to go? You should fear God.’
And, I said, ‘Yeah, big mistake!’ Just playing the game with them.
And then I got out. They put me in a women’s house and then my husband got out of prison.
TEXT: Salma and her husband then tried to escape again.
Two months we stayed and we got out [of ISIS-held areas].
TEXT: Then, in January 2018, she was caught by Syrian Kurdish forces known as the YPG.
She is now detained in Camp Roj in Syrian territory held by the YPG.
Of course, [being detained is] hard. You want freedom.
You want to get out. It’s just psychological. It’s difficult.
I have a son and I’m pregnant seven months.
But, being in prison with your kid is worse, I think, than being in prison alone, because you see him suffer.
He’s one year and a half, so he doesn’t really understand.
So he thinks it’s fun.
He goes out. He sits in front of the tent, takes stones and starts throwing [at] everyone. So, it’s all fun.
But, for me, really, just seeing him like this, he almost needs to go to school.
Normally he needs to play with stuff.
TEXT: Salma doesn’t think that ISIS follows Islam.
They can say, ‘It’s Islam,’ but it’s not really.
No, no, they’re bad Muslims. They’re not Muslims.
Don’t even call them Muslims, please! That just gives a bad name to Muslims.
When you go to Syria, they hate us. They hate them. They hate ISIS.
I heard about slaves. I heard about how they treat slaves.
That was also a reason [to leave ISIS]. That’s why I’m saying they’re wrong.
Because how they treat slaves was not [in] the Islamic way of treating slaves.
TEXT: Salma may be imprisoned if she returns to Belgium.
Her husband may be sent back to Tunisia, if his country takes him.
Of course, I wanna go home. I wanna go to my mother.
My sister got so many kids. I don’t even know them. My family doesn’t know my kid.
If they put me in prison, that’s the consequences of my mistakes so I will have to live with them.
Don’t even look up ISIS. Forget ISIS.
The Truth Behind the Islamic State
Sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism www.ICSVE.org
See more at www.TheRealJihad.org
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.