Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. While some in camps for foreign ISIS-affiliated women want no more to…
Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar al-Awlaki Into ISIS
As published in Homeland Security Today:
“I was born in Somalia, in Mogadishu,” Ibn Adam tells me as we start his interview in a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prison reception area. Ibn Adam is a big black 29-year-old Somali man. He’s got a scar on his forehead and looks like he could reach out and strangle me quite easily, but his smile and his voice are warm as he begins to speak in English with me, answering my questions of how he decided to leave his home in Europe to go and join ISIS.
Ibn Adam came from Somalia to Europe as a war refugee at six years old. He’s one of the refugees that didn’t integrate well and eventually ended up falling into militant jihadist online seduction and traveling for jihad to Syria. Like many Somalis whose families fled war-torn Somalia, Ibn Adam doesn’t remember his father who went missing in the war and after his mother also died of illness, he was raised by a mix of relatives.
“We were pretty much a happy family,” Ibn Adam recalls of his aunt and grandmother who brought him with them to Europe, although they grew up in a poor immigrant neighborhood where Ibn Adam fell into a bad crowd. “She had benefits from the state,” he explains.
“Auntie loves me,” Ibn Adam says with a sweet smile crossing his face as he remembers her. “Last time I talked to her [while still in ISIS], she was telling me to come back, that she can’t sleep.”
“I was a bit of a trouble-maker,” Ibn Adam admits, telling how his aunt followed a common immigrant cure of trying to get him straightened out when he was showing signs of going down the criminal path as a preteen, by taking him back to the home country. In his case, she took Ibn Adam to live with his cousins in the Eastleigh neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya, an area populated by so many Somalis that it is sometimes referred to as “Little Mogadishu.”
“She took me because I was in trouble. I was stealing from the teachers’ cigarettes and smoking [and stealing] candies.” The last straw was when Ibn Adam got caught stealing cookies from a kindergarten and was taken home by the police who decided not to press charges. “Gramma was home. She was angry.”
Ibn Adam spent two years in Kenya with extended family there, learning to follow the rules. “I became better and calm. I went to school [in Kenya,] but I always wanted to go back to Europe. [After two years,] they agreed for me to go back.”
At that point Ibn Adam was in the 9th grade and turning 16. “Teachers were saying I was smart,” Ibn Adam recalls. “It was easy, but I was lazy. I was studying media and liked to be on the computer.” Like many teen boys he recalls that he was more absorbed by computer games and sports than classwork. “I played games and did Free Running—stunts jumping from buildings.” Ibn Adam recalls one particular good influence in his life, “I liked English. I had the best teacher I had in all my life. Until today I still think about her. She was so kind. She cares about you. Everyone feels this, that she cares about you.”
Despite having a good mentor in high school and being smart, Ibn Adam didn’t attend university due to tragic events that occurred in his family. “My cousin got killed. He was on his way to the mosque, to do morning prayer, but there was a party in the parking lot, [a party] of Somalis. He told them it’s not good. He had a fight with one of them and he stabbed him. I got depressed, so I graduated from high school, but I didn’t go to uni. I started working instead.”
In regard to religion Ibn Adam recalls, “I was not practicing. My aunties and grandmother prayed, but I was never told to pray. I wanted to fast in winter [during Ramadan], but they didn’t let me. They said, ‘You fast at nighttime.’
“When I came back from Kenya, I was more religious,” Ibn Adam explains. “I had stages, on and off, up and down.” Ibn Adam was also not particularly interested in events in Syria either. “I was not a guy who watched the news.” Ibn Adam had other interests. “My life was all about Parkour [Free Running], training, watching animation and Play Station. I loved to watch Japanese animations. I want to hear about [Parkour], what they are doing, cartwheels and flips with buildings.” While he had many vulnerabilities to being interested in groups like ISIS, from his profile at the time, Ibn Adam should have never ended up going to join ISIS, given he had no exposure to ISIS propaganda or recruiters. No one was seducing Ibn Adam by telling him that ISIS could meet many of his unmet needs and frustrated aspirations.
However, things have a way of taking their own turns in people’s lives and Ibn Adam’s was no different in that regard. “The first time I heard about Syria was late 2013 and 2014,” Ibn Adam recalls. “I had a friend who was here [in Syria]. I heard he was here. We were not very close friends, but I knew him. We grew up in the same neighborhood.” In 2014, Ibn Adam’s friend returned from Syria, ostensibly to recruit others to join ISIS. “I saw him in mosque, at Eid. He bought me an I-Pad with lectures of Anwar al Awlaki.”
Awlaki, an infamous Yemeni imam lecturing in English is credited with convincing thousands of Muslims all over the Western world that militant jihad was their individual obligation, as was hijra—that is, moving to lands ruled by shariah law—and that building an Islamic Caliphate should be their goal as they fought jihad tirelessly till the end times. When Ibn Adam was introduced to Awlaki’s virulent influence, Awlaki was already dead, drone killed in Yemen by the American forces. Yet Awlaki was still alive and well on the Internet, as he lectured from beyond the grave and continued to draw young and impressionable Muslims into groups like ISIS.
“He knows how to speak,” Ibn Adam recalls of Awlaki, who was indeed a gifted orator. “Every lecture is one hour to two hours. I was a bus driver. I was bored. Before I used to listen to Quran [while driving the bus], so I started to listen to his lectures.” Awlaki, although already dead, lost no time in drawing Ibn Adam into ISIS. “I was listening to the life of Abu Bakr and about the Caliphate after Abu Bakr, and then onward. After I listened to these two lectures I said, ‘I want to go [to Syria].’”
Ibn Adam told his ISIS friend, who replied, “Good.”
“At that time, I didn’t know there were Muslims against going to Syria. I thought all the Muslims were for it and all non-Muslims against,” Ibn Adam explains.
Life events intervened again, however, preventing Ibn Adam from throwing his life away in Syria. “My grandmother was getting old and she wanted to die in Somalia. I took my grandmother and left her there, [but] before I went back, I told my friend in Somalia, ‘I want to go to Syria.’ He said, ‘It’s not allowed to go to Syria and fight there. You have to ask your parents’ permission and these people, what they are doing is wrong.’ I was shocked, but he said he had asked his Islamic teacher. I went back to Europe and said [to my other friend] ‘I’m not going. I prefer to go to Egypt and study my religion.’”
The recruiter friend answered shrewdly, “You have to ask someone who has been there. You can’t ask someone who doesn’t know, who hasn’t been there.” Ibn Adam, however, wasn’t convinced by this until he went back to listening to Anwar al Awlaki, this time about the constants of Jihad, which he admitted had a hypnotic effect upon him and renewed his desire to join the ISIS jihad in Syria.
Ibn Adam reached out again to his friend who had already returned to Syria and got the contacts for a smuggler to help him cross into Syria from Turkey. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he recalls. “I thought they will stop me.” Yet his family sensed something amiss. “I remember I was speaking to my cousin at my auntie’s house. She was telling me in a joking way, ‘If you would go to Syria, would you tell us?’ I was shocked. I said, ‘What? Why would I tell you? Why would I tell someone that would try to prevent me?’”
“I don’t know how they found out,” Ibn Adam explains, “but they found out when I was in Turkey and she wrote to me on Facebook [Messenger]. ‘Why did you do this? Why you leave us?’ [I answered,] ‘What are you talking about?’ I was trying to act normal because she might call the cops and they catch me. I was in Urfa [southern Turkey].” Indeed, some of the ISIS cadres I have interviewed had friends, or were themselves stopped in Turkey, when their home country police learned in enough time to prevent them, with the help of Turkish security officials, from crossing into Syria. Ibn Adam didn’t want that to happen to him.
“We met in Urfa,” Ibn Adam explains about the ISIS smuggler. “He took me to a safehouse. I stayed for about a day, [then I entered Syria. I] jumped over a fence.” Making use of his Parkour training, Ibn Adam recalls, “I made like a flip, otherwise I’d be stuck. We were 14 guys, men from Libya, Yemen, Palestine. First we threw our bags [over the fence] and then jumped over it. A lot of guys got stuck. It was daytime. I didn’t see Turkish soldiers, but I heard bullets. I don’t think they were shooting at us, but shooting to scare us. One guy said he saw the bullets in front of him hitting the ground.”
Upon his arrival into ISIS, Ibn Adam was first drafted into driving a minibus for newcomers coming through the Turkish/Syrian border. Next he was taken for military training in Iraq. Ibn Adam was not aware that being sent to the Iraqi battleground was essentially a death sentence but he soon understood when he was about to be deployed to Fallujah. Wising up, Ibn Adam refused to go, and was sent to Haditha instead from where he made his way back into Syria, to Raqqa. “In Raqqa the emir tells me I have to go back to Iraq,” Ibn Adam recalls, but he managed to evade it by finding Somali friends who came and took him into their ranks.
Reflecting back on the vision he held that had fueled his travel from Europe to Syria to join ISIS, Ibn Adam recalls, “When I thought about this place I thought everyone is angels, everyone is perfect. They will they will give me a car and a house, everything I need. I thought it would be like the days of the Companions. I thought everything was perfect. It was not.”
Ibn Adam admits, “I didn’t watch their videos, but as an Islamic State, I thought everyone will be acting according to Islam one hundred percent.” He recalls, “I was not disappointed in the beginning, but it was not exactly what I thought. He recalls the way his trainers in Iraq lied about the training schedule always claiming things would begin the next day, “In Islam it’s not allowed to lie, but when I see these guys say tomorrow, tomorrow…” Ironically, many of the European ISIS members were exasperated by this trait among the Arab ISIS leaders of failing to state things directly. And German ISIS joiners were even more infuriated by their Arab leaders’ total lack of punctuality.
Back in Syria, Ibn Adam realized he needed to join some fighting group. “I saw some guy asking people to go and fight, so I went with him. They didn’t give me weapon or grenade and battle vest. They were saying, ‘You’ll get it later. Jump on the truck. When you reach that place…’ I was scared, thinking why did I come? I was not in the front. I was in ribat [at the borders]. It was the first time I hear airstrikes and bullets and stuff like that. We went in. One guy was showing us the way. They try to hide from the drones, walking and hiding. Then, he was sitting and when he got up he got shot by a sniper.”
“No one else knew the way. We don’t know how to go back. We don’t know where to go. Then some other guys from Dawlah [ISIS] came. They took us to their place. We stayed for a day or two, then the room I was sleeping in they made a flash bang. I felt like I was in a tunnel. Everything is white after a flash bang. We retreated a bit. After a day or two, I wanted to go back. I couldn’t understand the structure. I can’t speak Arabic. They said you have to speak to the emir, he’s a French guy.”
Ibn Adam went to the emir saying “‘I want to go back.’ That’s the last thing I remember. Airstrike. I woke up in hospital. I was not one hundred percent. The guys took out cartilage in my knee, [put a] metal plate in my forehead. One guy said, ‘When you get shot, the bullet will go back.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ It was the metal plate he was talking about. My finger was broken also.”
Ibn Adam recalls staying in hospital for two months and getting his regular pay alongside a payment for being injured, although his money was all stolen while he drifted in and out of consciousness. Upon his release from hospital, Ibn Adam was signed up to one of the brigades of foreign fighters. Its name was the Anwar al Awlaki katiba after the man who had incited him to join ISIS in the first place.
Ibn Adam was too injured to join the fighting again. But he was well enough to have ISIS help him to arrange to marry a Somali also coming from Europe. They had three children together although only one survived childbirth.
When he recovered, Ibn Adam changed to another katiba and drove a truck mounted with a heavy weapon. “I stayed through the siege in Raqqa,” Ibn Adam recalls. “[I got] mortared, small injury, shrapnel in my body. [There were] bombs close by. One time my house got bombed.” Ibn Adam recalls being so numb at that point that he wasn’t very scared. “There were a lot of people afraid. [There were] phantom drones. You know something is coming. If I see those in the area I go to another area. It comes to see everything, and I know mortar is coming. The other drones I didn’t think they will hit me. I was not in a high position.”
Like so many of the ISIS cadres I’ve interviewed who lived in Raqqa, Ibn Adam liked it at first, finding Raqqa a hospitable place that he and his family could enjoy. “Before the siege I liked it. It was pretty nice.” When asked about the punishments going on and the ISIS brutality Ibn Adam shrugs it off saying, “You hear sometimes people doing wrong, but you can live with it. I heard about if people leave they punish them. If someone wants to leave, why keep him here? He’s extra luggage. He will start to hate you even more, become a spy. If they want to leave, let him leave.”
When asked about the oppressive ISIS hisbah, or morality police, or their intelligence arm, the emni, Ibn Adam recalls having no dealings with them. “Nobody would come and speak to my wife.” Although he does admit, “Some people were very harsh. For example I saw one guy tell a woman to cover her eyes. She didn’t. I saw him stomp on the ground and scare her. ‘Cover your eyes!’ I got scared. If she doesn’t want to, leave her.”
Ibn Adam recalls happening upon the corpses of an ISIS execution carried out in Naim Square in Raqqa. “I felt sorry for them, depending on what these guys did. There was a lot of harshness in the State,” he adds, explaining that in the beginning he believed it was the fault of individuals, but not systematic brutality within ISIS governance itself. Ibn Adam was still naïve in the beginning recalling, “I came for a true Islamic State like in the days of the Companions. I thought everyone will be perfect.”
Ibn Adam and his small family escaped from the siege of Raqqa during a truce with the SDF. “There were busses and trailers,” he recalls. “They took us to Deir ez Zor area, to an area near Hajin.”
Recalling leaving Raqqa, Ibn Adam explains, “I didn’t quit at that time. When we came out from Raqqa, there was no paperwork. It was chaos, especially for those coming from Raqqa. The traffic police were stopping people, telling them they have to go sign up. After a month or two I joined [a katiba] again. You had to join to get pay, help, even to go to the hospital. If you don’t have their ID card, if you do things on your own, it’s difficult, apartment on your own, treatment in hospital.”
Ibn Adam and his wife settled in a small village with very welcoming Syrian neighbors, but it “didn’t last for long. Bashar coming across the river. I went to Bookimal for two, three weeks, then retreat after retreat.”
At this point Ibn Adam realized, “It is not what I thought. I thought I’d like to be in a real Islamic State. I wasn’t thinking I have to get out, but things were bothering me, especially the emni intelligence of the State, stories about them. It makes rage—the injustice. You hear about people going in prison, how they treat people, the very bad treatment, but you cannot speak about injustice openly. I was in Friday prayers and one guy lectured on injustice. I saw him later and he said, ‘I’m not allowed to preach anymore.’ He was in prison. Then the prison was bombed.”
“In Kishma it was like war, everyone was retreating. I borrowed some money and I bought 25 kg of rice. [When] it got finished, food got very expensive. I remember buying food for $1000—a half kilo of rice, 10 kilos of flour, ten packs of tuna, powdered milk and five 6-packs of lentils. That was cheap compared to Baghouz.”
“[I got injured] in Shafaa. [I was at that time] sleeping in the mosque. My wife was in a small school. I went to her and she asked me to buy food. Something exploded in the school. I got shrapnel in my leg. I went to hospital. They put a bandage and told me to go. They gave me a stick go to Sousa.” In Sousa, Ibn Adam found an abandoned pair of crutches in the mosque. He is, however, bitter to this day that ISIS didn’t help him when he was crippled by his injury, “Afterward I heard there were lot of crutches, but they didn’t give them out.”
At that point in the retreat, many foreign fighters were feeling that ISIS didn’t care about them and many feared being accused of being spies and executed. Others were angry that the Iraqis appeared to have everything needed—food, Kia trucks, money to rent nice housing, etc. while many foreign fighters dug trenches in the ground and lived under plastic sheeting overhead. “I heard that Iraqis had it very good. I see them selling stuff, so I know they had food. But where did it come from? They were selling it very expensive, which leads to another thing. If they are selling it, it means they have more, or what would they eat?” Ibn Adam asks.
At that point in retreating from ISIS’s crumbling statehood many were also deeply disappointed in the failure of the ISIS leaders to take charge to inspire the ranks. “There were a lot of people disappointed that Baghdadi did not make a speech,” Ibn Adam recalls.
Rumors were also flying about, many of them purposely started by ISIS to discourage fighters from abandoning the State. Ibn Adam recalls rumors about, “People will go out and stay [detained] for two months and then go to camps. They will send the women out, but it doesn’t make sense to me. How are you going to send your wife and kids to people you are fighting? We have been fighting them for years. They are going to suddenly take you and only take you for two months?”
Like many foreign fighters who couldn’t find housing in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls, “I lived in a trench. I found one that was ready. I tried to dig one, one time but I didn’t have energy. I was very tired. For two or three days we were in the trench.” Unlike most who recalled the trenches as pure hell, Ibn Adam recalls the trench being much better than the overcrowded home he had just abandoned. “It had a carpet. They made it very nice. It had a small wall in it. In the house we lived in first there were maybe 70 people, women and children in one side and men on the other side. There was no privacy. There was arguing with his wife to go get water. In the tent [trench] we had privacy.”
All the same, Ibn Adam had to crawl out of his trench to go get water and food. “I saw death.” Although he recalls witnessing the worst in that regard in Raqqa, “The most [death I saw was] in the siege of Raqqa, bodies.” In Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls seeing a man shot dead in front of him, “He was walking with his wife. He got shot in the heart. He fell down from a sniper from the Syrian army.”
In Baghouz there was no longer food and many of the foreign fighters started eating the grain husks used for animal feed. Others boiled grass to feed their families. “[We used the husks of] grains for the animals. We made bread from it, dark bread, from the parts you usually throw away. It was harsh on the stomach.” While ISIS had previously fed its members, in Baghouz they fought only the fighters, ignoring even the injured ones. “If you were not fighting they gave one sardine for two guys, or one teacup of lentils.”
Remembering that Ibn Adam’s former friend and recruiter had told him he should only trust an ISIS insider, someone who had been there, to know whether to join or not, I ask him now from his experiences with ISIS if he has advice for others about joining the group. “With all this experience I would tell them live your life,” Ibn Adam answers without hesitation. “Think before you act. Problem is, I learn after I act. Smart ones learn from other people’s mistakes. That’s good. Good you learn. But to learn from others’ mistakes is better.”
Before Baghdadi was killed, his last video rallied ISIS supporters to revenge against Western powers for destroying the ISIS territorial Caliphate and for Baghouz. I ask Ibn Adam what he thinks about Baghdadi’s plea for revenge attacks at home in Europe. “That is not something I personally would do. Jack, or John, or Ahmed did this act and got caught and went to prison. What is the benefit? What did he get out of it? If you are injured laying on floor, or killed, he didn’t get benefit from it and it doesn’t bring back the dead to life. Why do it? What is the benefit?”
Since I was waiting for my taxi to the airport on the day in March 2016 that ISIS blew up the Brussels airport, I often ask ISIS members how they feel about that attack, curious to know what they’ll say. Some endorse it, making me angry inside, others strongly decry it. Ibn Adam is neutral on the subject. “I didn’t feel good, nor did I feel bad. I didn’t really feel anything. Something happened somewhere else, it didn’t affect you too much.” Similar to how he was earlier in his life, he recalls, “I didn’t follow the news too much.”
“I should care for others, but it’s not happening in front me of me, so I don’t feel too much,” he explains. But then he goes on to qualify his statement, “I don’t know anything in Islam that tells you can attack civilians. If I am a Muslim, I should talk to them in a good way, try to make people convert. Our Prophet said you have a package. It’s the way you deliver. You can knock on the door or throw it at him, or make it beautiful and say, ‘This is for you.’ Either way you delivered the message. I don’t know anything in Islam that says you are allowed to attack civilians, and that you should. Our Prophet said, ‘Don’t kill an old man who is not fighting, nor a woman who is not fighting. Don’t break the branches of trees, or burn them. Don’t fight those who are not doing anything.” Indeed, Ibn Adam paraphrases the scriptures of Islam, but he forgets how Awlaki and ISIS twisted other scriptures to convince people like him to come support their heinous acts against innocents.
While still debating his future in Baghouz, Ibn Adam recalls his father-in-law advising him to surrender after sending his wife out to the camps. Ibn Adam replied, “If I go out, only bad news will happen. You won’t hear about me. We heard the women reached the camps, but men no.” Yet when Ibn Adam finally surrendered himself to the SDF he recalls how good they were to him. “They gave me chicken and potatoes. I ate like a mad man. It was up on the mountain. They did a body search, then brought bread, eggs, chicken and potatoes. I loved the food. I didn’t have bread for a long time.” Most of the ISIS prisoners I’ve interviewed in SDF territory tell a similar story of relatively good treatment given the constraints of the overcrowded prisons and limited funds for staffing and food.
Ibn Adam will likely remain imprisoned in SDF territory for a long time given his country does not have any plans for repatriating citizens and weak laws for prosecuting returnees. Yet he seems like a good candidate for repatriation, to be brought to justice at home. He appears battle fatigued and claims he wouldn’t be interested to rejoin ISIS if it made a comeback. “After all I went through, go again? No! After all of this oppression and injustice?”
Interestingly, Ibn Adam states that of the men housed in his prison at least “90 percent are disappointed” in ISIS and feel the same way—that they would never go back. Whether or not he is telling the truth is impossible to say, but given his experiences of being repeatedly disappointed by ISIS, it seems likely.
“I want to go home,” Ibn Adam says. “I miss Europe. I miss even Somalia. I used to think it was harsh there, but after here I think I can go through anything.”
About the author:
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 700 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 three years, she has interviewed 239 ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners as well as 16 al Shabaab cadres and their family members (n=25) as well as ideologues (n=2), studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS (and al Shabaab), as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews which includes over 175 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 125 Facebook campaigns globally. 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 foreign governments on issues of repatriation and rehabilitation of ISIS foreign fighters, wives and children. 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, the EU Commission and EU Parliament, European and other foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA, and FBI and appeared on 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 writes a column for Homeland Security Today and 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
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne (April 28, 2020). Recruiting from Beyond the Grave: A European Follows Anwar al-Awlaki Into ISIS. Homeland Security Today