Anne Speckhard, Molly Ellenberg, & Sheikh Ali Executive Summary: This article explores prison-based radicalization to…
by Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., Grace Wakim
Allah Akbar (meaning God is Greatest) is a colloquial expression commonly used by Muslims, especially in the Arab world, to praise God and express commitment to the religion of Islam. Muslims often use the term to express emotions, such as gratitude, fear, and joy. Sometimes, it is overused and clichéd—to the point of losing its intended meaning—such as when chanted during soccer matches.  To many in the West, Allah Akbar represents a petrifying expression, especially when used in relation to al-Qaeda’s, and now ISIS’, version of their so-called “martyrdom” operations. However, for the people of Mosul, it should now serve as one of the most meaningful phrases. Indeed, as the recapture of Mosul from the Islamic State is drawing to an end, the citizens of Mosul can joyfully repeat this familiar term—and without any terrorism connotations or undertones.
The military assault to recapture Mosul from ISIS started in October 2016. At the time, ICSVE researchers wrote, Competing Interests, Civilian Confusion, Conspiracy Theories and Chaos in the Assault on Mosul. Now, facing liberation, we wonder whether the same observations apply post-liberation? Will the sectarian conflicts that already existed well before ISIS took over territories in Iraq be more accentuated following the fall of ISIS? Can those who lived under ISIS, particularly impressionable youth who have become entrenched in ISIS’ doctrines and their malevolent beliefs, be able to recover? Can they be rehabilitated in detention? If so, can they safely be reintegrated into communities ravaged by the brutalities of ISIS?
Many would argue that by losing Mosul, ISIS lost an important battle. There are still many unknown challenges, however, and celebrations for some have been cut short by worrying signals of potential strife to come. Despite losing their territory, ISIS is still recruiting online while its homegrown and directed “lone wolf” extremists have, and continue to be, deployed around the world. Their threat remains global. Locally speaking, in Iraq, ISIS still has many of their members and supporters hiding out in urban environments and refugee camps, among others. Peshmerga leadership shared with ICSVE researchers that they have pieced together a list of approximately 20,000 ISIS cadres and ISIS affiliates and supporters. This crucial intelligence is being used to target and hunt down such individuals in the region.
ISIS militants are also known to pursue defectors who flee the group, as revealed in our interviews with ISIS prisoners. One Iraqi boy who escaped ISIS in the past year and made it into a refugee camp told ICSVE researchers how his ISIS emir repeatedly contacted him, stalking and telling him that he could not leave and that he needed to act as a sleeper agent. His safety and true separation from the group actually came with arrest. Yet, Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, shared that when youth or family members of ISIS cadres are arrested and detained, authorities often face legal, process-related, and ethical barriers in assessing how to deal with them. While at the same time, we heard repeatedly a genuine desire by prison and government officials to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth.
In addition to challenges associated with rebuilding and reconstructing the physical Mosul, the challenge of rewiring the psychological state—at a minimum, to its pre-ISIS capture state—of its residents will remain a daunting task, particularly in the context of children who were molded under ISIS’ tutelage and the wider traumatized population. The citizens of Mosul have witnessed beheadings, hand-cuttings, torture, murders, and other forms of violence. In some cases, some even had to reluctantly participate and engage in these activities. ISIS defectors told ICSVE interviewers how men and women, and even children, were forcibly gathered to watch the beheadings of people on the streets, which represented ISIS’ way of making clear that any resistance was futile and would lead to brutal punishment. The group put big screens up in the streets to inundate residents, including children, with their propaganda videos and atrocities—all framed in terms of glorious actions and with the purpose of desensitizing its residents to violence. Defectors spoke about the normalization of brutality, among both children and adults. One ICSVE interviewed defector expressed concerns about the dangerous effects of violence on children in particular—that is, how they will ever be recovered after having grown up under extreme brutality.
Populations in conflict zones almost always have high rates of traumatization and usually display serious symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Saddam’s Baathist regime, the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion, and the post-2003 events that further widened the Sunni-Shia divide and violence are deeply entrenched in Iraq’s collective consciousness, creating a normalcy in repeated traumatization and post-traumatic arousal states among the general population. One woman who escaped to Baghdad after being subjected to the brutal rule of ISIS relayed her inability to stop compulsively washing her hands, and even her hair, sometimes using harsh bleach to attempt to, as she described, “remove from her body, and her mind, the dirty realities of life under ISIS.” Trauma is rife throughout the population, and mental health issues can be expected to be as well.
Recent research by the organization Save the Children revealed that Mosul’s children have shown “dangerous levels of psychological damage,” and even exhibited “toxic stress” signs, all conditions that affect children’s “mental and physical health.” The organization is trying to raise awareness about the issue as well as asking for funding and support from the government of Iraq to provide trained psychologists for the affected populations. Many other organizations are also providing mental health support for internally displaced people, but there still exists a huge need for long-term help, especially in the case of those who are not easy to identify and reach.
According to government officials in Iraq, an estimated half a million youth lived and served under ISIS-dominated territory in Iraq. Some became Cubs of the Caliphate. Others attended ISIS schools where beheadings and brutality served as the norm. Even those kept at home still witnessed atrocities out on the streets. Having the appropriate treatment and care is crucial to prevent those kids who did not get sucked into violence, including those who did, from continuing a path set out by ISIS to continue the cycle of violence and become perpetrators of violence themselves.
ICSVE interviews with government officials and mental healthcare practitioners in Iraq revealed that, generally speaking, Iraqis, and Syrians for that matter, often have strong stigmas against addressing mental illness or pursuing psychological therapy altogether. Equally important, Iraq is bereft of many of the well-trained psychologists and psychiatrists they once had, with many having moved to the Gulf States and Jordan during the 2003 U.S.- led coalition invasion of Iraq. In 2006, when we introduced the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the U.S. Department of Defense to address the 23,000 detainees and 800 juveniles held at the time in Iraq, we found it difficult to find qualified Iraqi psychologists and social workers. The situation has only worsened since then. How will the psychological problems be dealt with remains yet to be discovered.
Laudably, the Prime Minister’s office in Iraq has already introduced a number of measures focused on education and deploying psychologists to survey teachers and youth in the affected areas to learn how to identify and serve their needs. Similarly, prison officials in Iraq are also looking at how to develop rehabilitation and reintegration programs for youth currently imprisoned who served under ISIS.
There appears to be hope on the part of the government of Iraq to release youth who served under ISIS while their elder cadres who organized and took part in systematic rapes, beheadings, and killings will generally face death sentences. The will of Iraqi officials, both in Kurdistan and Baghdad, to rehabilitate and reintegrate detained youth and the spouses of ISIS cadres and their children who have been detained in camps—with their movements restricted—is laudable. More importantly, such efforts are necessary as this is not a problem that interested parties can overlook or kill their way through—there simply are too many youth and families who have been affected. These are complex issues that require effective rehabilitation and careful release programs that work not only with the youth held in prison but also with their family members and communities to whom they are being released.
A senior police officer in the Mosul region whose brother was abducted by Islamic State militants told journalists, “I am affected — and there are a lot of people who are affected like me…[I] don’t believe that anyone who lost a family member will forget this.”  Indeed, the fact of having served under ISIS is not easily forgivable, even for youth who did not rape, torture, or kill, as well as ISIS family members—including the wives of ISIS members—who did engage in or carried out such atrocities. The fact of having served or having been a family member of cadres in such a heinous organization can make it difficult to be welcomed back or to live safely in one’s community without social stigma or actual revenge occurring.
Arguably, one of the thorny problems is that Iraqi culture assumes a culture of revenge, enacted in the years of absence of adequate safety and security in many areas of Iraq. With the 2003 U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq, Iraqi society has witnessed tribes, militias, and individuals often taking matters of justice into their own hands. Sectarian violence unleashed by Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq slashed open societal rifts that have not yet healed. This was followed by revenge narratives that became especially pronounced during the period of Maliki’s second term in power—often seen as largely responsible for sidelining the Sunni population in Iraq and eventually leading to the rise of ISIS in Iraq. To this this day, such narratives still permeate popular culture on both sides of the sectarian divide.
Revenge attacks and killings continue to occur in post-ISIS Mosul as well. In an area near Mosul, fifteen family members of ISIS cadres were reportedly beaten to death while spouses of ISIS cadres report being terrified. ISIS youth we interviewed in prison in Kurdistan also expressed fears that if released Shia death squads would hunt them down and kill them. Indeed, stories abound of Shia militias who have taken justice into their own hands, throwing ISIS cadres off cliffs and conducting systematic summary executions—to just name a few. There are also reports of young people being detained and brutally attacked while fleeing Mosul without any proof of them being ISIS members. The Associated Press (AP) reported the Iraqi government forces at checkpoints treated those fleeing from Mosul as ISIS’ family members versus as innocent civilians fleeing a terrorist group. Unless addressed, such stereotypes will further widen the gap between the people of Mosul and the rest of the population of Iraq.
One interesting effort at reconciliation and healing has been made to break through the ideological indoctrination and terror techniques that ISIS engaged in and break stereotypes they instilled in the youth of Mosul and the rest of Iraq. This effort brings together hundreds of Sunni young men from Mosul who lived under ISIS rules to meet with Shia’ people from Iraq’s southern provinces. It was made to break the misconception that both groups harbor about each other. The initiative was filmed and is called Hala Bikkon, or You’re Welcome.
The short documentary showcases young men of Mosul who were taught by ISIS that the southerners [Shia’] were their enemy and told to wipe them from the face of the earth, now meeting these Shia in person. One of the young men states, “When Daesh came, we were told that people of the south hated Sunnis, southerners were going to kill us.” While the sectarian strife in Iraq is longstanding, and although many of the young men knew that such characterizations were only partially true, if true at all, they did not feel equipped or courageous enough to argue with Daesh.
That Sunni and Shia citizens alike call today for unity in Iraq and to denounce the ethnic and sectarian division that Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq unleashed after the U.S.-led coalition invasion of Iraq and that Daesh has been capitalizing on—and trying once again to magnify—is commendable. One of the bus riders optimistically asserted that despite ISIS’ evil indoctrination, “the youth of Mosul have not been influenced by Daesh’s ideology,” instilling hope in the viewer. The filmed visit between the two groups of young men went well, and trips to other places in Iraq are being planned in the future. This and similar initiatives are important and necessary to rebuild unity across sectarian divides that terrorist groups have exploited, but they also have to happen on the higher policy and grassroots levels as well as be reflected in actual governance and security measures. The simple breaking of stereotypes is unlikely to be enough to rebuild confidence and trust between the different ethnic groups who have experienced all the brutality that has transpired.
Any efforts at rehabilitation of ISIS youth, spouses and wider family members must seriously take into account the issue of deep traumatization and family and community reintegration. In a context in which collective punishment is occurring and revenge is at times generalized to anyone connected to ISIS, the government of Iraq will have to find a way to carefully work not only with former cadres and family members they wish to release back into society, but also with their communities, tribes, and wider family members who must be ready and willing to take them back.
Our ICSVE research already revealed setbacks with Yazidi boys, who after being forced into the Cubs of the Caliphate, were released back to their traumatized mothers (who had also witnessed the killings of their family members and who may also have been rape victims). These boys had been ideologically indoctrinated into ISIS, witnessed extreme brutality, were taught to be brutal themselves, and were then released back to their equally traumatized mothers without any good treatment. They are reported to be confused and aggressive while their mothers are unable to cope in the face of these young boys predictably acting out their overwhelming trauma in extreme conduct disorders. In Erbil, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, ICSVE researchers were also informed about a young boy who had been part of ISIS and was released without any adequate planning and preparation while his parents had gone missing. Having nowhere secure to return to, the boy went back to his ISIS connections. Meanwhile, human rights workers, as well as family members of ISIS cadres, report being on the receiving end of threats. They are told to leave, face collective punishments, round-ups, and detention of entire families.
Reconciliation and peacebuilding in post-ISIS Mosul, including post-ISIS Iraq, requires strong political will and determination. Strictly speaking in the context of liberated Mosul, sentiments and attitudes of projecting collective guilt upon those who lived under ISIS must be countered. The manner in which justice and reconciliation is carried out in post-ISIS Mosul will have a huge bearing on the future Shia-Sunni relationship in Iraq. Equally important, while crimes against all communities must be investigated, acts of arbitrary revenge towards select communities must be avoided at all costs. Such crimes must beinvestigated and properly dealt with when they do occur. Security and justice for all is paramount to successful rebuilding. Such an approach is necessary to safeguarding the long-term success of Iraqi forces in defeating ISIS in Mosul, and in the wider Iraq, and to minimize the prospect for the reemergence of conditions that led to the rise of ISIS in the first place. By the same token, those who once lived in the ISIS-held territory in Iraq must begin to trust their government and have confidence in their ability to provide for their security and ensure justice.
Given that in reality it is impossible to eliminate everyone who fell prey to ISIS and who offered support to them, a transparent legal mechanism must be put in place to sort out those who are truly guilty and separate them from those able to be rehabilitated and reintegrated. Robust deradicalization and post-traumatic stress disorder programs then must be introduced to address and heal the wounds that exist in the psyche of young children, families, and wider communities. Failure to rehabilitate and reintegrate the youth, particularly those who lived under ISIS, could jeopardize the long-term success of the successful operation against ISIS in Mosul and potentially result in the return of ISIS or other radical violent elements representing the Sunni struggle in Iraq through violence. Arguably, these rehabilitation efforts are costly and will not be easy to achieve, but the costs of failing are even higher in terms of seeing a resurgence of ISIS or similar to ISIS ideology and violence.
Reference for this Article: Speckhard, A., Wakim, G., & Shajkovci, A. (July 27, 2017) Ensuring a Long-term Win Against ISIS In Mosul: The Need for Rehabilitation, Reintegration & Restoring Security and Justice. ICSVE Research Reports
About the Authors:
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) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Interviews Project. She is the author of: Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS and coauthor of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate; Undercover Jihadi; and Warrior Princess. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and many countries in Europe. 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. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhardWebsite: https://www.icsve.org
Grace Wakim – is a Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) working on the ISIS Defectors Interviews Project and providing linguistic and subject matter expertise on the Middle East. She is a native Arabic speaker and has a BA in English with a concentration in Linguistics from George Mason University. She comes from years of experience working in the Arab media where she was a promotion producer for different Arabic channels, including news channels. She is pursuing an advanced degree in International Security.
 See for example Daniel Engber. Available at http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2006/09/god_is_still_great.html
 ICSVE Interviews with officials at the Ministry of Peshmerga, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).
 Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla. “ISIS Defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC, 2016.
 Save the Children (July 5, 2017). “Mosul’s children mentally scared by brutal conflicts,” available at http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/2017-07/mosul%E2%80%99s-children-mentally-scarred-brutal-conflict
 ICSVE interviews with officials in Baghdad, Iraq. “Education in Iraq Post Daesh-ISIL Terror,” Conference (March 29-30, 2017).
 First author personal accounts in Iraq while tasked with the program.
 In both cases ICSVE researchers have been giving their time and expertise to aid in such efforts; Charles Stafford. (July 2017). “Iraqi prison hopes to reform ISIL recruits. “Al-Jazeera. Available at http://www.aljazeera.com/video/news/2017/07/iraqi-prison-hopes-reform-isil-recruits-170721114348232.html
 Anna Lekas Miller. (July 19, 2017). “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq,” The Intercept. Available at https://theintercept.com/2017/07/19/revenge-attacks-on-families-of-isis-members-could-start-a-new-cycle-of-violence-in-iraq/.
 Anna Lekas Miller. “Revenge attacks on families of ISIS could start a new cycle of violence in Iraq.”
 Patrick Cockburn. (July 18, 2017). “More than just revenge: Why ISIS fighters are being thrown off buildings in Mosul.” Independent. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-mosul-iraq-fighters-killed-thrown-off-buildings-reasons-corruption-revenge-patrick-cockburn-a7845846.html; Zubeda, Personal communication (July 2017).
 Associated Press. (July 2017). “Tensions rise in waning days of Mosul battle.” Available at
 Human Rights Watch. (July 13, 2017).”Iraq: Alleged ISIS families sent to ‘rehabilitation camp:’ Evictions, detentions amount to collective punishment.” The Intercept. Available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/13/iraq-alleged-isis-families-sent-rehabilitation-camp; ICSVE researcher personal communication with human rights advocates. Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (June 2017).