The Effects of Assad’s Atrocities and the Call to Foreign Fighters to Come to Syria on the Rise and Fall of the ISIS Caliphate
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Behavioral…
Anne Speckhard, Mona Thakker and Molly Ellenberg
As published in Homeland Security Today:
In the past weeks, foreign ISIS women held in custody in the northeast Syrian region controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who were for the most part wives of ISIS fighters, have been transferred from detention elsewhere in northeast Syria to al Roj camp. The women have been moved into an area inside Camp Roj that is separated from the existing camp by a fence. This portion of the camp was built over the last year with transfers from the overcrowded and abysmal Camp al Hol in mind, as authorities of the Autonomous Adminstration of NorthEast Syria (AANES) carried out a thorough registration of foreign women in Camp al Hol this spring, including taking their biometrics. It appears they now decided to move a cohort of these foreign women into a more controlled setting to prevent further escapes, which have been occurring on a weekly basis from Camp al Hol.
The escapes from al Hol have been organized and arranged via surreptitious use of illicit telephones over which the women fundraise, particularly in Europe, to have funds transferred via PayPal and the informal hawala money transfer system, which then enables the women to pay smugglers sums of cash of anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000 to be spirited out of the camp and transported to Idlib or Turkish-controlled areas. Some of these women ultimately disappear, presumably to rejoin ISIS or other like-minded groups. Others resurface in Turkey where they turn themselves into their consulates or otherwise make their way to their home countries.
Some of the ISIS groups on Telegram, which are being monitored by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism’s (ICSVE) Mona Thakker, claim that the ISIS women might be transferred from al Hol to this new section of Camp Roj as a result of the SDF having learned that nearly all of the escape-related funding channels active on Telegram have been run by foreign women in and outside the camp disseminating information and pleas for monetary assistance in Russian, French, German, and English in order to provide sustenance to live in the camps and to escape from them.
This transfer of foreign women into the more tightly controlled Camp al Roj is not without controversy among the ISIS women. According to complaints these women are posting on social media, they are outraged that in Camp Roj they can no longer wear their black burkas or fully cover their faces as ISIS dictates and, more importantly, they claim that they have been transferred without their children, although this is factually disputed by humanitarian workers who have witnessed the transferred women with their children. The women also claim that they are under heavy scrutiny, are being watched from the newly built observation towers, and that their contraband cell phones are being confiscated in recurring raids.
In evaluating their claims, one should bear in mind that the claims of ISIS women in Camp al Hol have long appeared to be exaggerated. Even when based in fact, their claims are certainly one-sided accounts of events that occurred, are not placed within the wider context of the security concerns faced by the AANES authorities and are often laced with hateful accusations toward the SDF which they often label as PKK (which, unlike the SDF, has been labeled a terrorist group by the United States). The comments of these women now lamenting about their experiences in Camp Roj therefore should be taken with a grain of salt. The most common posts on Facebook have been about ISIS women accusing the guards of locking them in cramped communal toilets, conducting sporadic midnight crackdowns where their phones are confiscated, and stomping upon the Quran.
Claims were also made that the SDF murdered a woman: ISIS women reported that the camp authorities vehemently denied an ailing old woman the urgent treatment she needed, thus giving her a slow death. In reality, there are no medical facilities inside the camp so delays would be inevitable even if an ambulance or medical personnel were called. Yet one post, written in Russian (translated here), stated, “They were sitting and watching while she was dying in her tent, unaffected by the call of a woman in the throes of death. Her neighbors washed her and shrouded her, and after that, a little boy led her funeral prayer before she handed over the corpse of that chaste person to the infidels for burial.”
Some of the claims made by these ISIS women on social media are not consistent with more legitimate reports from humanitarian groups working in both Camps al Hol and al Roj. Sonia Kush, Syria Country Director of Save the Children, for instance, states that there are currently 270 women and children who were transferred into this new extension in Camp al Roj from al Hasaka prison. That the women were in the prison, as opposed to Camp al Hol prior to their transfer to the more controlled camp setting, may indicate that they had initially been transferred to the prison dues to suspicion or evidence of their being ISIS belligerents or enforcers or that they had violated security rules. ISIS women who have texted to the first author have said that their children have accompanied them even when taken to prison after the women being caught with contraband phones or for other security infractions. So, this social media claim that their children were taken from them appears to be exaggerated, if not outright fabricated.
ISIS women in both camps who have access to phones and social media are so angered by their claimed grievances over women being transferred to the new section of al Roj camp that they are lighting up ISIS Facebook groups as well as fueling rage through their own private accounts. Their complaints allege brutal behavior of their guards and new restrictions on practicing their religious freedom in al Roj in terms of the new burka ban instituted there, and they also continue to post about the lack of water, food sanitation, and medical facilities in al Hol. Complaints about both camps serve as major inciters for the anti-SDF wave on which the many staunch ISIS women supporters continue to ride by peddling out propaganda sympathetic to ISIS as these Facebook auto-translated posts shown below demonstrate.
In previous weeks, the women in al Hol also complained that the water from their single water tanker appears pale yellow and unfit for consumption. Indeed, water supplies for the SDF-controlled region in which al Hol Camp is located have been deeply concerning, not only for the camp but for local residents throughout the area, with Turkish-backed rebels intermittently disrupting the flow of water from the Alouk water station into the area over the past year. According to the ISIS women, these same water tanker drivers, who previously smuggled the women out hidden inside their trucks as they exited the camp, now take their money but abscond with thousands of dollars without assisting the women. The video below shows some al Hol residents being caught by the AANES Asayish security services.
Administrators of ISIS Telegram channels post details about these deceitful smugglers of the scorned women whose money had disappeared and ask their supporters to kill them on sight. The groups often reveal personal sensitive information about the renegade smugglers in their calls on their supporters to assassinate them. In the case shown here in Arabic, a man is accused of fleeing after siphoning off $4,000 from the women.
It appears from these ISIS Telegram postings that one has already been killed, which should not come as a surprise. The remnants of thousands of ISIS fighters who are still free and active in Syria and Iraq continue to mount assassinations of political and religious figures and others who stand in their way. It seems that those who cheat the ISIS women face a similar punishment.
On social media, the women also continue to share that the smuggling rate from al Hol is currently approximately $16,000 and they complain that it might skyrocket even more as the SDF has caught on to the water tanker scheme and fewer locals are willing to risk spiriting them out of the camp. Likewise, as the women complain about the fake smugglers fleeing with their money, they warn each other to be more suspicious about locals’ intent to help them escape from the camp.
Interestingly, the first author has now spoken to two Nordic citizens, one from Finland and one from Sweden, both connected to ISIS women in Camp al Hol, who have read the ISIS women’s social media pleas to send money for their sustenance and to pay smugglers. Both Nordic citizens state that in their countries, as far as they know, it would be perfectly legal to send money for family members or friends in Camp al Hol, about whom they are concerned, as long as they didn’t openly say it was to assist their escape. Both also stated that the only thing stopping them from responding positively to these pleas is a lack of funds to send.
From the posts monitored by ICSVE research fellow Mona Thakker, it appears that women continue to beg for financial assistance from their Muslim “brothers” in their home countries, while at the same time hoping for freedom to be delivered via their ISIS “brothers” still fighting in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, as ISIS escalates its hit-and-run attacks in Deir Ezzor, southern Raqqa, Badia, and the Homs countryside, as well as in Iraq, their militant actions give glimmers of hope of regaining their lost Caliphate to the remaining ISIS fighters still on the battleground. At the same time, these attacks restore ISIS’s credibility to the imprisoned ISIS women who continue to hope that their fighters will find a way to “break down the walls” of their camps as ISIS and al Qaeda in Iraq have been known to do in the past.
From their postings it appears that the ISIS women are emotionally exhausted and do not know how to carry on. The first author also hears the same from ISIS women in the camps who send texts bemoaning their emotional states, worry over their children’s health and their sense of trapped hopelessness. It seems from their postings that even some of those who are not deeply entrenched in the ideology look to whomever seems the most likely to grant them freedom from the chaotic, dirty and disease-ridden conditions of the camps, something that their home countries have refused to offer in terms of repatriations and subsequent prosecutions – a worrisome sign in terms of fueling continued commitment to ISIS among these women and indoctrination of their children as they grow older with each passing year in captivity.
On private Telegram channels run by French and British women from al Hol Camp, women smuggled out of the camp, as well as those still living there, have started a campaign called “My Life in al Hol Camp,” made up of anecdotes that lucidly sketch the details of their exacerbating struggles amidst the crowded, dirty and desperate circumstances in the camp. There is talk on some accounts about launching a slew of new propaganda videos of the women who have escaped from the camps, with one video posted of a woman named Maryam Abdullah who was smuggled out of the camp and now claims to be in Idlib which can be viewed below.
One interesting trend is that the some of the private Telegram channels run exclusively for soliciting funds for the release of prisoners have also widely circulated ISIS’s Al Hayat Media center’s propaganda videos in the English language. Other jihadist militant groups less sympathetic to ISIS are also promoting assistance appeals of individual family members of those detained in the camps. So in this regard various militant jihadist groups who have fought each other in the past are now united on the issue of the fate of ISIS women.
Yet, despite these women’s desperate and aggressive media campaigns for funding, they have not resulted in many fruitful results. Many of the groups’ administrators grumble about the dried-up funds and apologize to their “sisters” for their failure in providing them funding for buying even basic necessities for themselves and their children’s sustenance in the camps – items like milk, food supplies and medical treatments.
In this regard, one of the Telegram group administrators posted, “Such silence has never been observed with us SubhanAllah !!!” The [Eid] holidays are over and donations ended with them, did Allah and his messenger (Sallallahu Alayhi wa salam) urge you to do sadaqah [giving charity] only in Ramadan, on id al Fitr and id al Adha ?!”
This administrator continues with the complaint, “There are so many people who need to contact us in the bot and we are ashamed to answer them that we cannot take them to the list yet, maybe we will be a little more active, the amount is ridiculous enough for hundreds of women.”
The administrator exhorts the group’s followers, “Each if 100-500 rubles from those present here throws off, this is already something so be it. Let us not sit silently and read how you are called to do good, but let us begin to act!”
Furthermore, some criminal networks portraying themselves as legitimate non-governmental organizations are also soliciting funds on social media for the ISIS women’s escapes, asking for payments to be made through secured payment gateways like Kiwi, Bitcoin, and PayPal. In one case, funds that are being raised for building a mosque appear to be diverted to the cause of releasing the ISIS female prisoners. Those who fundraise on behalf of freeing the ISIS women also utilize the writings of Ibn Tamiyaah to legitimize this practice as Islamic, citing duties of Muslims as prescribed in the Hadith to fulfil the obligation of freeing their fellow Muslims from prison (Al-Fatawa 28/635).
Other ISIS leaders on Facebook are engaged in discussions about security, promoting the sophisticated use of virtual private networks (VPN) and instructing followers to learn about their countries’ privacy laws to enable them to anonymously flood social media with ISIS propaganda videos. Likewise, they advocate for media strategies to prepare their followers and distribute instructions to evade monitoring and investigations by the FBI and other security services. The apps Likee and Hoop Messenger are being recurrently used in these Internet strategies.
To avoid detection of suspicious words by search engines that might flag their pleas, these ISIS fundraisers, as was also found earlier in ICSVE research of ISIS supporters’ Facebook accounts, use numeric characters and symbols in spellings referring to ISIS as I$/@m!c [email protected]è. Previously, ICSVE found ISIS-supporting accounts in which jihad was spelled j1had. In this round of research, ICSVE’s Mona Thakker reported 50 to 100 of these accounts to Facebook but has not yet seen any of them removed from the platform. This is likely due to delays in social media companies’ security protocols which are balanced against protections for free speech, protections that groups like ISIS happily exploit.
ISIS’s hatred toward the SDF and the Kurdish Workers’ Party [PKK] is nothing new given their battles in Kobane and Sinjar, and later the U.S.-led coalition and the SDF’s ultimate territorial defeat of ISIS in Raqqa and their chase down the Euphrates to Baghouz where ISIS saw its final territorial demise. Thus, it is no surprise that the recently launched attrition attack, which killed SDF soldiers in western Deir Ezzor, is being portrayed by ISIS on some Facebook accounts as revenge taken on the behalf “of our brothers against the murtad SDF PKK infidel.”
As ISIS women on social media complain about the conditions under which they are held in custody, hatred toward the SDF is fueled among the ISIS fighters who remain on the battleground in Syria, which might be ignited even further in response to false reports that mothers transferred from Camp al Hol to Camp Roj are separated from their children or on behalf of those who lose their children to what they claim is the lack of sympathy of the authorities or a consolidated barrier of access to adequate healthcare.
While many ISIS women express in their posts that their children give them the emotional ability to carry on in the face of dire circumstances, in nearly all of the 21 ISIS female interviews that the first author has made in the camps, the women worried over the health of their children, the diseases running through the camps, the lack of good nutrition, the ISIS enforcer attacks, sexual predators, the lack of medical care and trust in vaccines, if they were even available, and fears over potential separations with their children.
The SDF, whose male and female soldiers valiantly defeated ISIS on the battleground, is now spread thin in the face of these continued attrition attacks as the SDF also now faces the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic spreading in the region—with one reported case in al Hol Camp thus far, dire water shortages spurred by the halt in the pumping of water from Alouk water station, the threat of withdrawal of support from the dominant tribal leaders of eastern Syria’s Dei-Ezzor Province and the prospect of the drawdown of U.S. forces in the region and potential for another Turkish incursion into the region. The covert collaboration between the Syrian regime and ISIS, which saw ISIS bribing the Assad regime forces to facilitate night smuggling across the Euphrates and coordination by Turkish intelligence agents to assist a Moldovan woman’s escape from Camp al Hol, are other grave security challenges for the SDF administration. In the wake of these security vulnerabilities and the lack of critical hygiene and health infrastructure to combat COVID, administering a camp housing 65,000 people remains a tall task for the SDF. Thus, the security of the whole region might be compromised if financial and human resources are detracted from guarding the camps for battling the aforementioned grave challenges.
The month of August witnessed a huge surge in ISIS attacks with Syrian Badia, Raqqa, Western Deir-Ezzor, West Mayaden and Suknah continuing as prime targets of the group. With nearly 10,000 fighters spread across Iraq and Syria, ISIS has not only regained the strategic depth across the Iraqi-Syrian border, but also launched sophisticated attacks, with one of the latest being the killing of a senior Iraqi commander in Salahuddin province of Iraq. Most of the ISIS Telegram channels monitored by ICSVE have jubilantly celebrated the news of this recent upsurge in attacks, with one ISIS-linked channel on Telegram crossing a mark of 7,500 subscribers.
The ISIS fighters have even uploaded and circulated the videos about their deadly attacks in Iraq and Syria on Facebook to gain traffic. Timely updates about ISIS attacks are provided by these profiles which receive 200 likes and around 50 to 60 comments in a span of one hour. Some accounts have also reverted to showing Vice news documentaries of 2014 and posting the latest Brookings reports to pontificate about how ISIS remains a credible threat to the western world.
In that regard, countries that previously had few ISIS foreign fighters, such as India, are now represented in ISIS postings on Facebook with Indian names like Manjit Kaur and Diljit Kumar. Postings on Facebook also cited attacks on the Iraqi security forces.
As we have seen in this short exposé of ISIS’s presence of late on social media and in messaging apps, ISIS’s oxygen is its supporters, who are currently being galvanized by the plight of ISIS women telling their stories from inside Camps al Hol and al Roj and by the ISIS men who fight on their behalf. Moreover, through its sophisticated use of the social media ecosystem, both while it had its territorial Caliphate, and still now that it has been defeated territorially, ISIS has been hugely successful in connecting and mobilizing the emotions of its supporters and then mobilizing them into action from taking supportive actions, to carrying out attacks at home or traveling to Syria and Iraq.
Research such as this, studying the group’s propaganda setting strategies, continuing to follow its pervasive militant jihadist ideological orientations expressed in various ways over time and tracking the group’s presence on multiple social media platforms and messaging apps, makes it evident that there exists a die-hard army of digital warriors sympathizing with and promoting ISIS’s continued glorifying of their former Caliphate and yearning for its resurgence.
The Internet-based propaganda strategy supporting ISIS which is operating in the current setting is also fueled in part by an opposing surge in Islamophobia and right-wing extremism in many countries, each of which further polarizes and cements the two sides of the extremist coin.
The presence of terrorist organizations on social media and in messaging apps can be viewed through the dual lenses of morality and knowledge seeking as a double-edged sword. While we may strongly denounce terrorist supporters’ and actual terrorists’ exhibition of extremist and violence promoting tendencies on social media platforms and messaging services, their posts also serve as an uncompromising outlet for rich information gathering that is pivotal for researchers, journalists and policymakers in revamping their strategies for breaking the synergy among the groups involved in insurgency and terrorism and who continue to make use of cyber domination, something which serves as a safe haven for ISIS in the absence of actual territorial rule. The real challenge is perhaps not to silence them on social media and messaging apps, which has succeeded to some extent with widespread takedown policies, but which also fails to completely mute them, but to understand the root causes that make anyone resonate to their virulent posts and mobilize into violent action as a result.
Reference for this article: Speckhard, Anne, Thakker, Mona, and Ellenberg, Molly (September 7, 2020). Social Media Tracking of ISIS Women and Real-Life Actions of ISIS Men on Their Behalf. Homeland Security Today
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 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 five years years, she has interviewed 245 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 200 short counter narrative videos of terrorists denouncing their groups as un-Islamic, corrupt and brutal which have been used in over 150 Facebook and Instagram campaigns globally. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals, both locally and internationally, on the psychology of terrorism, the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has given consultations and police trainings to U.S., German, UK, Dutch, Austrian, Swiss, Belgian, Danish, Iraqi, Jordanian and Thai national police and security officials, among others, as well as trainings to elite hostage negotiation teams. She also consults to foreign governments on issues of terrorist prevention and interventions and 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, CBC 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
Mona Thakkar is a Junior Research Fellow at ICSVE exploring the dominant narratives and propaganda setting strategies of jihadist groups of ISIS, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and others through social media, as well as analyzing the impact of the ISIS resurgence and ideological clashes of militant jihadist groups on the geopolitics of the Idlib theatre, and other security-related developments in Iraq and Syria. Mona holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Media with specialization in Journalism. Currently, she is pursuing her Master’s in International Relations from Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India. She has previously worked as a West Asian foreign policy research intern at the Centre for Public Policy Research, India, and as a fixer/translator for German publications like Swiss Radio, Fernsehen and Tages Zeitung. Mona is fluent in English, German, Hindi and Arabic.
Molly Ellenberg, M.A. is a research fellow at ICSVE. Molly is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland. She holds an M.A. in Forensic Psychology from The George Washington University and a B.S. in Psychology with a Specialization in Clinical Psychology from UC San Diego. At ICSVE, she is working on coding and analyzing the data from ICSVE’s qualitative research interviews of ISIS and al Shabaab terrorists, running Facebook campaigns to disrupt ISIS’s and al Shabaab’s online and face-to-face recruitment, and developing and giving trainings for use with the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project videos. Molly has presented original research at the International Summit on Violence, Abuse, and Trauma and UC San Diego Research Conferences. Her research has also been published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, the Journal of Strategic Security, the Journal of Human Security, and the International Studies Journal. Her previous research experiences include positions at Stanford University, UC San Diego, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.