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If You Come To Al Shabaab, Your Sins Will Be Forgiven

If you Come to al Shabaab, Your Sins will be Forgiven

by Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci

If you Come to al Shabaab, Your Sins will be Forgiven is the 114th counter narrative video in the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand series and the tenth video clip featuring interviews with al Shabaab members. This video features a 37-year-old Kenyan, Abu Layth, who was interviewed by Anne Speckhard and Ardian Shajkovci in October 2018 in a prison in Kenya. The video clip was video edited and produced by Zack Baddorf and our ICSVE team.

“I ended up doing a lot of bad stuff,” Abu Layth begins speaking about his, as he describes, sin-filled past. “Maybe abusing, maybe smoking weed. Playing women and stuff like that. Spending my nights in the club. I’d be coming from the club and people are going to the mosque. Now we are just, just like this,” he says, indicating their crossing paths.

“It was not good. At one point, I saw like I was dirty,” Abu Layth explains, adding, “And I was deep in sin. I was going to burn in hell. After that, I heard these guys saying that, ‘If you come [join al Shabaab], your sins will be forgiven.’ ‘Come. You’ll be accepted here [in Somalia]. You’ll have this and this and this.’” The idea of finding redemption by joining to fight for a militant jihadist group is commonly found among those who joined al Qaeda, ISIS and al Shabaab.  Perhaps because these Muslim young men know that they have not lived up to the purity standards of their religion and believe that their sins will ultimately be weighed against their good deeds, they seek new behaviors that might offer them redemption. Abu Layth was looking for this kind of redemption.

“When I was going to Somalia,” he explains, “I had this dream of making an Islamic state that is going to cater for my beliefs. Somewhere I could profess my religion freely and we could govern

with our own laws.” He discusses this in the context of having grown up in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, and as a member of the minority group of Kenyan Muslims, some of whom feel discriminated against.

“When I went to training, I think something was taken away from me,” Abu Layth states, referring to how dehumanizing the al Shabaab training regime was and how he basically became divorced from his emotions as a result. “Maybe if I knew that, I would have made a different decision,” he adds.

“You don’t know what to expect there,” Abu Layth states. “When you get there, everything you had hoped for is different.” He, like many imprisoned terrorists we have interviewed to date, admits to being traumatized by his experiences inside a terrorist organization. In his case, he became isolated as his traumatization deepened. “When you start experiencing trauma, you stop communicating with your family. You miss them. If you used to chat on social media, you start missing that, ”he shares. He further adds that the traumas become cumulative and overwhelming, stating, “So you haven’t dealt with that trauma. Then there’s another trauma. Planes drop bombs. You feel it. [The African Union Mission in Somalia] AMISOM lays assault the whole night with ballistic missiles and stuff. You’re not done dealing with that trauma, but you get put into training. They make you so tired that you don’t think, then they torture you. You cannot even say that you are sick. No one is going to listen to you.”

“I have a lot of nightmares,” Abu Layth admits. “Mostly, I find myself being chased by helicopters. Even last night, I dreamt that I was being chased by a Predator drone. I was running away. Sometimes, I just see those people who have died. Sometimes, I see like I’m fighting, and bullets are coming. I have those nightmares from time to time,” he notes.

The dissociative aspects of trauma in which emotions get shut off and the individual begins to feel robotic were not limited to just Abu Layth. “I was not alone [in changing],” he recalls. One of the guys, his father died.  He was told that, ‘Your father has … He didn’t even blink.’ He was just like, Oh, okay,’ “he states.

“People are dying every day,” Abu Layth recounts in regard to the overwhelming sense of traumatization. “Maybe your friend dies, another one dies. You stop caring, in short. You know, the bombings, the killings, the blood. Like one time we were in Kismayo and there was a bomb dropped by, I think, KDF.  And when I went to that scene, there were [dead] children, donkeys, everything. It’s traumatizing.” Insightful about how his posttraumatic stress, dissociation from normal emotions and sense of alienation occurred, he explains. He further adds, “When you are traumatized again and again and again and again, it reaches a point that you no longer care. I was not even afraid.  I was not even emotional.”

Abu Layth, like all the 185+ ISIS and al Shabaab terrorist cadres we have interviewed thus far, was not at all prepared for the brutal violence he would encounter inside the group. “They don’t tell you anything [to prepare you]. When you come here, you just have your own emotions in your head,” he explains.

Like all violent extremist and terrorist groups, al Shabaab, too, imposed binary thinking on their members. “They taught us to see the world in black and white,” Abu Layth tells us, adding, “There was no intermediate tones. You’re either a friend or you’re an enemy. The friends were comrades and everyone else was your enemy.”

“People should know that once you go there, you are not going to come back home,” Abu Layth warns. In further describing life in the shadow of al Shabaab, he adds, “You are not going to be allowed to call your people at home. You find that you cannot leave [al Shabaab]. What will make those people kill you is if they suspect you are spying. You’re taken to court and the judge now sentences you to death. Now they can shoot you. They make it public. They call the public. Everybody is called. It’s like scaring people, ‘If you do this, this will happen to you.’”

“Some people in al Shabaab don’t know anything about the religion of Islam,” Abu Layth explains. “Some of them will not even read Arabic or speak Arabic. They mostly concentrate

on military, more than religion. Most of the time they spend hardening people and fighting,” he states.

Looking back on his trajectory into terrorism, Abu Layth reflects, “If maybe I was not arrested,

I think I would have done a lot of horrible things by now.”  Prison, as witnessed in a number of responses from violent extremists and terrorists we have interviewed to date, serves as a time  of reflection, true repentance, and mellowing, as Abu Layth explains, “But at least, while I’m here, I think I’m finding closeness with my God and just praying and stuff like that. I saw [al Shabaab] was a shortcut [to redemption], but actually it’s not like that. I think you have to deal with your God. You should not do stuff like that. You should first concentrate on [yourself]. So, I should have concentrated on my nafs [soul].

Discussion Questions:

What do you feel watching this video?

Do you believe Abu Layth is who he says he is and is telling the truth of his experiences in al Shabaab?

If one’s sins are measured against one’s good deed, what can a young Muslim man or woman who has sinned, according to Islam’s view on sin, do to redeem himself?

Is it possible to obtain forgiveness without going to fight jihad or becoming a “martyr” for Islam?

It is often argued that groups like al Shabaab offer the youth a perceived chance at redemption and success by engaging in so-called jihad. What are your thoughts?

Some who join groups like al Shabaab and ISIS claim to do so in pursuit of a “true Islamic” lifestyle and never wanting to take part in combat or violence. Do you think it’s necessary to fight “jihad” in order to fulfull one’s desire to live under a true Islamic state?

How can one deal with the anxiety of not knowing for sure he or she is forgiven?

Do you believe that joining a terrorist group, fighting jihad, or going on a suicide mission will earn anyone Islamic Paradise?

Some experts suggest that prison programs s can disengage individuals from their terrorist group. The case of Abu Layth seems to suggest that individuals could also deradicalize on their own in prison. What do you think about how that may be working?  Would it be likely a person could deradicalize when he or she is sitting alone with his own thoughts and reflections?

What are your thoughts on the black-and-white thinking that Abu Layth says al Shabaab imposed on its members?

What do you think of a violent extremist or terrorist groups that sanctions its members by death in the event they want to leave?

Do you believe al Shabaab can function well as an Islamic State?  Why or why not?

Islamic Scriptures Related to this Video

Despair is one of the strongest weapons used by ISIS and groups like it. They exaggerate committing a sin and restrict the way of repentance by only following their way, mainly committing suicide operations. The Quran says: “Say: ‘O My worshipers, who have sinned excessively against themselves, do not despair of the Mercy of Allah, surely, Allah forgives all sins. He is the Forgiver, the Most Merciful.” Surah al-Zumar (the troops), Ayah No. 53. Repentance is an easy task in Islam, requiring only for the sinner to:

  1. Stop committing the sin.
  2. Feel remorse.
  3. Ask forgiveness from Allah.
  4. Never return to that sin.
  5. If the sin was related to a human being like stealing, he has to turn the stolen property back to its owner, directly or indirectly.

That is for the major sins, i.e. the big ones like adultery, stealing, drinking alcohol …etc. As for the minor sins, they are already forgiven if you don’t commit the major sins. The Quran says: “If you avoid the major sins that are forbidden to you, we shall pardon your evil deeds and admit you by an entrance of honor.” Surah al-Nisaa (women), Ayah No. 31. And the Prophet (PBUH) said: “Fear Allah wherever you are, do good deeds after doing bad ones, the former will wipe out the latter, and behave decently towards people” al-Tirmithi, Book No. 1, hadith No. 61.

A companion of the Prophet called Ibn Mas’ud narrated that a man unlawfully kissed a woman. So he came to the Prophet (PBUH) to ask him about its atonement. So (the following) Ayah was revealed: “And perform the Salat (prayer), at the two ends of the day and in some hours of the night” Surah al-Israa (the night journey), Ayah No. 114. The man said: “Is this for me O Messenger of Allah?” He said: “For you and for whoever does that among my Ummah (nation).” Al-Tirmithi, Book No. 47, Hadith No. 3402. The Prophet (PBUH) also said: “Allah accepts a slave’s repentance as long as the latter is not on his death bed (that is, before the soul of the dying person reaches the throat)”. Al-Tirmithi, Book No.1, Ayah No.18. So when a person commits a major sin and does the conditions to repent, his sin will be wiped out.

Terrorist groups restrict and shrink the path of Islam in to their ideology, capitalizing on fear and offering only suicide terrorism which they refer to as “martyrdom” as the pathway of redemption, so as to recruit more people, for their way is death, not life. Islam on the other hand, deals with life and how to prosper and thrive in and for your society to live a better life. Even regarding working up to the final moments of the earth’s existence, the Prophet (PBUH) advised: “If the Final Hour (doomsday) comes while you have a palm-cutting in your hands and it is possible to plant it before the Hour comes, you should plant it.” Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, book No. 1. Hadith No. 479.

Joining terrorist groups or any party which have their own agenda and restrictions, interpreting Islam to their advantage and misleading followers, is definitely not Islamic. The Quran denies such actions as it says: “Yet they have split their affairs between themselves into sects, each rejoicing in what it has.” Surah al-Muminoon (the believers), Ayah No.53. And it says: “And hold fast to the Bond of Allah, together, and do not scatter. Remember the Favor of Allah bestowed upon you when you were enemies, and how He united your hearts, so that by His Favor you became brothers. And how He saved you from the Pit of Fire when you were on the brink of it. And so Allah makes plain to you His verses, in order that you will be guided.” Surah Al Imran (the family of Imran), Ayah No. 103

Transcript of If you Come to al Shabaab Your Sins will be Forgiven

I ended up doing a lot of bad stuff.

Maybe abusing, maybe smoking weed. 

Playing women and stuff like that.

Spending my nights in the club.

I’d be coming from the club

and people are going to the mosque.

ABU LAYTH 37-year-old Kenyan

Former al Shabaab Member

Now we are just, just like this.

 It was not good.

At one point,

 I saw like I was dirty.

And I was deep in sin.

I was going to burn in hell.

After that, I heard these guys saying that,

‘If you come [join al Shabaab], your sins will be forgiven.’

‘Come. You’ll be accepted here [in Somalia].

You’ll have this and this and this.’

When I was going to Somalia,

I had this dream of making an Islamic state

that is going to

cater for my beliefs.

Somewhere I could

profess my religion freely

and we could govern

 with our own laws.

When I went to training,

I think something was taken away from me.

Maybe if I knew that,

 I would have made a different decision.

You don’t know what to expect there.

When you get there,

everything you had hoped for is different.

When you start experiencing trauma,

you stop communicating with your family.

You miss them. If you used to chat on social media,

 you start missing that.

So you haven’t dealt with that trauma.

Then there’s another trauma.

Planes drop bombs.

You feel it. 

AMISOM lays assault the whole night

with ballistic missiles and stuff.

You’re not done dealing with that trauma,

but you get put into training. 

They make you so tired that you don’t think,

then they torture you.

You cannot even say that you are sick.

No one is going to listen to you.

I have a lot of nightmares.

Mostly, I find myself

being chased by helicopters.

Even last night, I dreamt that

 I was being chased by a Predator drone. 

 I was running away.

Sometimes I just see

those people who have died.

Sometimes I see like

I’m fighting and bullets are coming.

I have those nightmares

 from time to time.

I was not alone [in changing].

One of the guys, his father died.

He was told that, ‘Your father has … .

 He didn’t even blink.’

He was just like,

‘Oh, okay.’

They taught us to see the world in black and white.

There was no intermediate tones.

You’re either a friend

 or you’re an enemy.

The friends were comrades

and everyone else was your enemy.

People are dying every day.

Maybe your friend dies, another one dies.

You stop caring, in short.

You know, the bombings,

the killings, the blood.

Like one time we were in Kismayo

and there was a bomb dropped by, I think, KDF.

And when I went to that scene,

there were [dead] children, donkeys, everything.

It’s traumatizing.

When you are traumatized

again and again and again and again,

it reaches a point that

 you no longer care.

I was not even afraid.  

I was not even emotional.

They don’t tell you anything

[to prepare you].

When you come here,

you just have your own emotions in your head.

People should know that once you go there,

you are not going to come back home.

You are not going to be allowed

to call your people at home.

You find that you cannot leave [al Shabaab].

What will make those people kill you is

 if they suspect you are spying.

You’re taken to court and

 the judge now sentences you to death.

Now they can shoot you.

They make it public. They call the public.

Everybody is called.

It’s like scaring people,

‘If you do this, this will happen to you.’

  Some people in al Shabaab don’t know

anything about the religion of Islam.

Some of them will not even

 read Arabic or speak Arabic.

They mostly concentrate

on military more than religion.

Most of the time they spend

 hardening people and fighting.

If maybe I was not arrested,

I think I would have done a lot of horrible things by now.

But at least while I’m here, I think I’m finding closeness

with my God and just praying and stuff like that.

I saw [al Shabaab] was a shortcut [to redemption],

 but actually it’s not like that.

I think you have to deal with your God. 

You should not do stuff like that.

You should first concentrate on [yourself].

So, I should have

concentrated on my nafs [soul].

The Truth Behind al Shabaab

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=169) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the 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 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. 

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