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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 that will be published by Taylor & Francis in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression.

by Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg

Abstract

The present study is a targeted analysis of in-depth interviews of ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres about the motivational effects of the Assad regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people and how they bolstered the calls to foreign fighters to come to Syria. This research question is examined within a larger study of 245 in-depth research interviews of male and female ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres. Many of these ISIS members joined early in the Syrian uprising, responding to calls from ISIS, rebel groups and the Syrian people themselves to come to their aid. Motivated to travel and join in response to the world’s lack of meaningful remedies to Assad’s atrocities, many voiced their hatred of Assad as a primary factor in their willingness to join ISIS. Therefore, this study examines how ISIS cadres responded to Assad’s atrocities and ISIS’s self-portrayal as the defenders of Syrian Sunni Muslims.

Keywords: ISIS, Assad, Syria, Foreign fighters

Disclosure Statement: The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose, financial or otherwise.

Introduction

Estimates of the number of foreign fighters that streamed into Syria to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad, many of whom ultimately joined ISIS, or who traveled expressly to Syria join the ISIS Caliphate, range from forty to forty-five thousand traveling from over 80 countries around the world (Barrett, 2017). Between 2015 and 2020, the lead author in-depth interviewed 245 male and female ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres, many who joined early on and responded to calls from ISIS, rebel groups and the Syrian people themselves to come to their aid. The present study examines this sample in regard to the influences and motivations for joining ISIS as they relate to the Assad regime. Specifically, this study investigates the impact of amateur Syrian videos depicting suffering civilians on the decisions of foreign fighters to travel to Syria and to join ISIS and the prevalence and correlates of locals and foreign fighters citing anger at the Assad regime and humanitarianism as primary motivations for joining ISIS. Given that the humanitarian crisis and war crimes that resulted from the failed Syrian Arab Spring and the manner in which groups like ISIS used these tragedies to call foreign fighters to join their ranks, it is critical to examine the motivations of these ISIS members who joined the group initially out of a desire to fight the Assad regime, feeling that the Western world had abandoned the Syrian people. Doing so sheds light on how humanitarian crises and conflicts are used by terrorist groups to attract foreign fighters in particular. Moreover, understanding how such individuals were manipulated by their emotional responses to the Syrian crisis and ultimately willingly joined, or inadvertently fell into the ranks of ISIS, is useful for avoiding similar situations occurring in the future that terrorist groups like ISIS are eager to exploit. 

Before the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] declared its Caliphate in 2014, it had managed to paint itself as one of many rebel militant protectors of Syrian civilians against the atrocities of Bashar al Assad (Greene, 2015). Prior to the massive anti-government protests in March of 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, decades of drought, poverty, extreme repression and resentment toward the minority Shia Alawite Assad’s regime (both father and son) had already been brewing a violent storm. These protests then broke into civil war in July 2011 after civilians taking part in the Syrian Arab Spring were brutally gunned down. As Assad ordered a military crackdown on the initial protesters, further riots and violence rapidly broke out throughout the country. Meanwhile, militant jihadist actors from nearby Arab and other foreign countries quickly streamed onto the scene, raising their vision of a post-Assad regime, envisaged in the form of an Islamic State achieved via the already well popularized terrorist themes of engaging in militant jihad, making use of “martyrdom” missions and engaging in armed revolution (Jenkins, 2014).

The Assad regime, however, was not keen to cede power and worked diligently to quell the rebels. With Russian and Iranian support, Assad’s brutal forces barrel bombed large groups of civilians at schools and hospitals, used chemical attacks against their own people, and security officials engaged in mass arrests, kidnappings, and rapes and torture of detainees. Humanitarian aid was also blocked, and volunteers trying to diminish the suffering of ordinary Syrians were accused of supporting terrorists and subjected to the same brutal treatments (Kassab, 2018).

As dozens of disparate rebel groups assembled and gathered supporters into their ranks, the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and associated groups formed one pole, focusing on defense of Syrian civilians and adherence to Syrian nationalism, while the Al-Nusra Front, also called Jabhat al Nusra, affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq, alongside many other jihadists groups who cloaked their armed resistance and movement under the cover of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism which advocated jihad and “martyrdom” missions (suicide terrorism) as the means by which to create an Islamic State in Syria. Most of the rebel groups called out for and attracted foreign fighters as well as foreign support which, when it comes to the successful rise of ISIS, is the subject of this article (Polk, 2013). The polarized resistance was quickly globalized. While Russia and Iran supported the Syrian regime, the United States and Europe, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, and Turkey, among other global powers, supported the FSA and FSA-linked rebels (Council on Foreign Relations).

In neighboring Iraq, the Islamic State in Iraq [ISI] had already reconstituted itself, rising up from the ashes of the formerly subdued al Qaeda in Iraq [AQI], first led in 2003 by Abu Musab al Zarqawi and later by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. In 2012, al Baghdadi sent operatives to Syria with the goal of extending his reach into Syria to take advantage of the uprisings there, gather foreign fighters into AQI’s ranks from those flowing into Syria and with their help, eventually return to take power in Iraq. Baghdadi and his propagandists understood that positioning ISIS as the defender of Syrian Sunni Muslims under attack by Assad would play well into the existing al Qaeda jihadist narrative already spread throughout the world and be a winning move for the group, which indeed it was (Jasko et al., 2018).

As ISIS rose into power, great swaths of Baghdadi’s fighting forces were not native to Iraq and Syria. The earliest foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs] had been drawn to Syria first by the FSA, al Nusra and the dozens of other groups operating there, as well as by the calls of ordinary Syrian civilians to come and help them (Bakker, Paulussen, Entenmann, and International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2013). However, many of these foreign terrorist fighters later joined ISIS—just as Baghdadi had hoped—and over time foreign terrorist fighters and their families began streaming by the tens of thousands directly into the self-declared ISIS Caliphate (Benmelech and Klor, 2018).

Definitionally, there is a distinction between foreign fighters and foreign terrorist fighters. Foreigners who joined opposition groups and militias not engaged in terrorism, such as the Free Syrian Army, may be referred to as foreign fighters. Foreign fighters may then become foreign terrorist fighters after joining terrorist groups, particularly ISIS. The early-arriving foreign fighters had seen scores of videos posted online, many recorded on mobile phones, of Syrian women and children calling out for help amidst rubble, following chemical attacks or crimes of rape and torture. Covered in dirt and blood, they cried out to the Islamic ummah (global family of Muslims), “Muslims of the world, where are you?” In response to these heart-rending calls, Muslims all over the globe, mostly, but certainly not exclusively, young men, heeded the call, many having no initial intention to ever join a terrorist group. Balkan young men, for example, recalled the horrors of war as children, remembering the foreign fighters who came to their aid. They felt compelled to “pay it forward” (Speckhard and Shajkovci, 2018). Likewise, first-, second-, and third-generation Muslims of immigrant descent, as well as converts, in Europe, North America, and Australia were confused and angered that the world powers did little to nothing to prevent Assad’s atrocities against his own people (Schmid and Tinnes, 2015). When U.S. President Obama drew his red line in Syria, but then failed to act when it was crossed, these Muslim youth decided that if world powers would not stand up for the defenseless Syrian people, they would (Kudors and Pabriks, 2016; Torok, 2013). In many countries, particularly in the Gulf, the Balkans, and the North Caucasus, religious and even some political leaders were saying that it was imperative for young men to go to the aid of their Syrian “brothers and sisters” (Azinovic and Jusic, 2016; Orozobekova, 2016; Sagramoso and Yarlykapov, 2020; Carter, Maher, and Neumann, 2014). Many therefore felt that it was their Islamic duty to join the fight and that it was wrong for them to remain living in relative comfort while their Islamic brothers and sisters in Syria suffered. This thought process was not lost on ISIS propagandists who began to use it to their advantage in calling foreigners to travel to Syria and restore dignity to Syrian Sunni Muslims (Ali, 2019; Greene, 2015). All of the aforementioned reasons for men and women to travel to join ISIS in Syria are notably distinct from the core militant jihadist ideology of brutally enforcing shariah or declaring takfir and executing unbelievers. It was these motivations related to Assad’s atrocities that contributed in part to ISIS FTFs being “more diverse and less radicalized at the point of departure” than FTFs in conflicts past (Hegghammer and Nesser, 2015).

Before the end of 2014, when Baghdadi declared the ISIS Caliphate, approximately 15,000 FTFs from 80 countries had travelled to join the Syrian uprising, many joining FSA and al Nusra (The Washington Post, 2014). Over time, as ISIS became more powerful, many of the rebel groups grew concerned about ISIS spies in their ranks. Likewise, groups such as the FSA, who rejected the jihadist vision for Syria, began to hunt down, imprison, and even execute foreigner fighters, seeing them as enemies to their nationalist objectives (Said, 2014).

ISIS, however, welcomed foreign fighters with open arms, inviting them to their shared vision of building an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq while also providing safe haven for those who could no longer make their way back through territory held by hostile groups into Turkey to return home. As ISIS portrayed itself as protectors of Sunni Muslims and promoted their goal of establishing a Caliphate governed by the laws of Allah, many who fell into, or willfully joined, their ranks did so believing ISIS to be offering the best remedy to the oppression caused by Assad. As some foreigners moved from other Syrian groups into ISIS, others were recruited directly from their home countries. Notably, ISIS can be contrasted to other militant jihadist terrorist groups who focus on attacking the West – to which al Qaeda refers as “the far enemy” – in that they specifically framed fighting Western “crusaders” as an option for those who were unable to migrate to the Caliphate (Hegghammer and Nesser, 2015). In this way, ISIS made clear that the more important jihad was against “near enemies” like Assad and other Arab leaders whom they perceived as apostates and hypocrites (Gerges, 2014).

There is no question that ISIS became one of the richest, largest, most brutal, and most lethal terrorist organizations of all time, and people who joined in the later years were either extremely naïve, willfully ignorant of the group’s true purposes and heinous crimes, or knew exactly what they were joining when they left their home countries to fight with ISIS or live under the Caliphate (Levitt, 2014; Weiss and Hassan, 2016). Still, ISIS’s rise might not have been so meteoric had Muslims all around the world not felt, in the early years of the conflict, morally compelled to come to the aid of the Syrian people. Ironically, many of these aspiring humanitarians later ending up fighting for ISIS, which did little to help Syrians and instead created great harm for them.

In examining the motivational impact that the Assad regime had on FTFs who joined ISIS, it is important to put the crimes committed in Syria in perspective. By 2020, 91.4 percent of all civilian casualties in the Syrian uprising were caused not by ISIS, but by the Assad regime and other parties supportive of the regime, including Iranian and Russian groups. The militant group responsible for the second largest number of civilian casualties was ISIS, but their numbers dim in comparison to those committed by the Assad regime (2.2 percent) (Syrian Network for Human Rights, 2020).

Research Method and Ethical Considerations

The present study involves a targeted analysis of in-depth interviews of ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres about the effects of the Assad regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people in how it played into the calls to foreign fighters from ISIS and others to come to Syria, as well as the effects upon these cadres of ISIS’s dealings with the Assad regime in regard to the rise and fall of the ISIS Caliphate. As mentioned previously, this research question is examined within a larger study of 245 in-depth research interviews of male and female ISIS defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres carried out by the first author, a research psychologist (Speckhard and Ellenberg, 2020).

These interviews were carried out  in prisons, camps, interrogation rooms, homes, restaurants and coffee shops in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Belgium, Kyrgyzstan, Albania, Kenya, and Kosovo.[1] Interview locations varied based on convenience and comfort for the subjects, but the researchers took care to limit distractions and maximize privacy. The last few interviews were conducted over the Zoom video-chatting platform due to travel restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The interviews began with a strict human subjects protocol in which the researchers introduced themselves and the project, explained the goals of learning about ISIS, and explained that the interview would be video-recorded with the additional goal of using this video-recorded material of anyone willing to denounce the group to later create short counter narratives for the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project. This is a project that uses insider testimonies denouncing ISIS as unIslamic, corrupt, and overly brutal to disrupt ISIS’s online and face-to-face recruitment and to delegitimize the group and its ideology (Speckhard, Shajkovi, and Bodo, 2018). The subjects were warned not to incriminate themselves and to avoid speaking about crimes they had not already confessed to the authorities, but rather to speak instead about what they had witnessed inside ISIS and their feelings about it. Likewise, subjects were told they could refuse to answer any questions, end the interview at any point, and could have their faces blurred and names changed on the counter narrative video if they agreed to it. In some cases, prison guards or minders were present during the interviews. The interviewer, a trained psychologist, was careful to make sure that participants knew that they could refuse to answer any questions or to participate in the interview altogether. The interviewer also stopped the interviewees from going into detail about incriminating information in order to prevent the subjects from enduring any legal repercussions for participating in the interviews. Human subjects research with prisoners must follow a strict set of ethical guidelines, to which the interviewer was certain to adhere. Details of the interviewer’s considerations when working with this unique and vulnerable population are explored in Speckhard (2009).

All consent was given verbally, a practice that is not uncommon when conducting research with prisoners. Prisoners are often hesitant to sign consent forms and doing so can limit their responsiveness and willingness to be honest during the interview. Thus, obtaining verbal consent on video, or in front of witnesses if the subject refuses to be videoed, is considered acceptable (Roberts and Indermaur, 2003). After obtaining informed consent, the research interviews began with a brief history of the individual’s early childhood, family, educational background and social life before ISIS, then for those who traveled to Syria, moved toward how the individual learned about the conflicts in Syria, and about ISIS, and became interested in travelling and/or joining. During this portion of the interview, individuals were asked if they watched any videos online that influenced their decision, and if those videos were produced by amateurs, ISIS, or other groups like the FSA or al Nusra. The content of the videos was also probed. Subsequently, questions explored the various motivations and vulnerabilities for joining, including anger at the Assad regime and a desire to provide humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. Then, a detailed recruitment history was obtained: If and how the individual interacted with ISIS prior to travelling and joining, whether recruitment took place in-person or over the Internet, or both; and how travel was arranged and occurred and what happened subsequently in Syria and Iraq including for those who joined other groups first, how they ended up in ISIS. Additional interview questions covered the individuals’ shariah and weapons training in ISIS, roles and experiences in ISIS, sources of disillusionment, and changes over time in orientation to the group and its ideology, often from highly endorsing it to wanting to leave.

More than half the interviews occurred in a foreign language and required a translator, although the researchers themselves could speak Albanian, Arabic, Bosnian, French, Turkish, and Russian as well as English. All of the interviews touched on highly traumatic material and often required psychological expertise to support the individual to continue speaking about painful events that were difficult to discuss. The first author, the interviewer, is a research psychologist and has been conducting in-depth psychological interviews and field research for over 25 years, has interviewed over 700 terrorists and their family members, and is highly experienced working with translators and dealing with traumatic material and in quickly gaining rapport in an interview setting. Hence the interviews generally went smoothly, and interviewees opened up and shared a great deal of information. Local translators often offered helpful explanations of locations and local customs to which the interviewees referred, but sometimes their English was limited when translating quickly about highly emotional topics. Thus, all of the interviews that were audio or video recorded were retranslated by professionals after the fact (in a few cases recording was refused), with the professional translators correcting any mistakes made in the written records.

In general, the interviews took about an hour and a half and there was a sense of closure in having covered the most important topics, but in some cases prison and camp authorities rushed the interview, which made it difficult to go in-depth on all issues and in other cases some interviews took up to five hours.

Sampling

The sample for this study is by necessity a convenience sample, as it is extremely difficult to gain safe access to ISIS cadres to interview and to obtain their informed consent for an in-depth interview; thus random sampling is not possible. The interviewer did attempt to obtain a representative sample in terms of requesting access to women as well as men and attempting to talk to a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities, age groups and roles fulfilled within ISIS.

To gain access to defected, returned and imprisoned ISIS members, the main author contacted numerous national authorities, security services, police, journalists, and others requesting the possibility to interview. Given that the first author directs the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project, a project that creates video clips of ISIS insiders denouncing the group that are then used for prevention and intervention purposes globally, many national authorities strongly endorsed the project and granted access to their prisoner population to help the project expand. Police and journalists also at times had access to returnees and defectors and helped gain access.

Once access was granted, it was still a challenge to gain permission from the ISIS cadres themselves, who were often afraid to speak about their experiences for many and varied reasons. Imprisoned ISIS members were generally wary of being interviewed, many having had adverse experiences with journalists who were less interested in the actual person and experiences in the group, than looking to promote horrific headlines. When the interviewees understood that a careful and sensitive interview was sought, that they controlled whether or not it would appear in public, and that they could hide their identities, they were more willing to grant permission to be interviewed. Nevertheless, many asked that their identities be hidden in terms of having their names changed and faces blurred in the counter narrative video, or the video never used, and at least eight prisoners refused interviews altogether, as did some defectors. In some cases, women only wanted to be interviewed by a woman and refused to have males present. All requests regarding the interviewees’ privacy and interview preferences were respected.

Risks to the subjects included being harmed by ISIS members for denouncing the group, although for those who judged it a significant risk, the researchers agreed to change their names and blur their faces and leave out identifying details. Likewise, there were risks of becoming emotionally distraught during the interview, but this was mitigated by having the interview conducted by an experienced psychologist who slowed things down and offered support when discussing emotionally fraught subjects. The rewards of participating for the subjects were primarily to protect others from undergoing a similar negative experience with ISIS and having the opportunity to sort through many of their motivations, vulnerabilities and experiences in the group with a compassionate psychologist over the course of an hour or more. The majority of interviewees profusely thanked the researcher for the interview.

Risks for the researchers included the possibility of being attacked during the interview or tracked afterward and harmed. Likewise, as many prisoner and detainees are held in Syria and Iraq, there is the necessity to travel into dangerous areas for those located in conflict zones, meaning exposure to possible hostage-taking, bombs, missiles, mortars, and roadside IEDs, as well as attacks inside the prisons or camps themselves in which riots occur and ISIS enforcers are active. Defectors interviewed out in the field feared for their safety and wanted to be interviewed in highly private settings, which increased the dangers for the interviewers. ISIS defectors and those released from short stints in prison also posed a risk, as some defectors told about being re-contacted by ISIS and directed to work for them, or about their own wishes to return to ISIS, or reneging on their denunciations and still wanting to be part of ISIS (Speckhard and Yayla, 2016). It was never clear if defectors, and those released whom the researchers met in the field had totally disengaged from the terrorist group, or could still be acting on its behalf, until the interview was well underway. Thus, the researchers took all available precautions for their own safety, but budgets did not allow for armed guards, armored vehicles, and other security apparatuses. At times, these were provided by host governments, yet the risks of doing this research were considerable.[2]

This article examines only the foreign terrorist fighters [FTFs] in the sample – those who traveled to join ISIS from outside Syria or Iraq. This subsample includes 137 defectors, returnees, and imprisoned cadres. It should be noted that 27.9 percent of men (n=31) in the present sample joined another group before joining ISIS. Many foreign fighters who came early in the fight against Assad entered Syria not knowing about the many groups operating and fell into one or another of them in a somewhat random manner or through guidance by friends, family and acquaintances who led them in. Likewise, many of these groups merged and fought each other over time creating shifting alliances that forced foreign fighters to shift their alliances as well. Some foreign fighters who joined other groups upon entering Syria before ultimately joining ISIS told about joining ISIS after being hunted as foreigners by the FSA and of others being imprisoned and executed if caught. Some of these claimed they did not see any exit from these dangers except to move into ISIS territory and join the group. Everyone in this sample ultimately joined ISIS.

Results

Demographic Results

Males. The 111 men in this study were from 38 countries and represented 46 ethnicities.

Females. The 26 women in this study were from 14 countries and represented 17 ethnicities. A full demographic description of the sample is provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Demographic Results

Influence of Amateur Videos of Assad’s Atrocities

In the present sample, 41.4 percent of the men and 7.7 percent of the women reported watching amateur videos that moved them to take up arms or provide humanitarian aid. They described in detail their emotions evoked by watching mobile phone videos of subjects such as mothers crying over their dying children, calling out to the ummah for help. For many interviewees from the Balkans, these videos triggered visceral post-traumatic reactions that brought them back to their war-torn childhood homes. Erion, a 20-year-old from Kosovo, recounts that “Internet and TV brought lots of memories of the Kosovo war.” Erion was a child when his uncle was killed in the conflicts with Serbia, “taking part in the war as a fighter.” He remembers, “There was a Serbian offensive in Shator in 1997, September; OSCE intervened and saved the people of the village. One lady was involved and she saved the village, maybe an American lady.” That memory spurred his initial decision to go to Syria: “I remembered that a foreigner had come and saved and helped us.” As an adult, Erion was deeply depressed after the death of his mother but knew that suicide was forbidden in Islam. Asked if he wanted to be martyred in Syria, he responded, “I wanted to feel better knowing I helped someone, and if I died doing it, fine.”

Another Kosovar, 29-year-old Albert, felt a similar pain in watching amateur Syrian videos. He remembers, “I have seen quite similar torture when we were in the war with Serbia. We were also the victims of injustice. No one understood better than us what it’s like to be tortured by war.” Albert felt compelled to act: “During the war in Kosovo, I was a child, and I did not know exactly what was happening. When I was a child, there was no opportunity for me to be engaged in the war. But now I am getting older and I feel responsible to act. I could not just let it happen.”

Bosnian 33-year-old Elvin similarly recalled the aid he received from outsiders when his own life was ripped apart by war. Before he saw any videos, he explains, “there were a lot of calls in the mosques during the prayers, religious authority would invoke the need for Bosnians especially, to pay back and pay for the foreign fighters who came in ’91 and ’92.” On the Internet, Elvin recalls, “I watched videos of Assad’s troops killing people, flowers falling from branches, watching civilians die as they did. We had memories of Arabs coming to fight for our cause; I felt I owed this.”

Outside of the Balkans, others still resonated with the plight of the Syrian people they were witnessing on the Internet and in the mainstream media. For example, 30-year-old German Abu Munir explains that a shift in his level of religious observance led to both push and pull factors influencing his decision to go to Syria. He recounts, “In the Syrian war, we see it on television and in videos on YouTube. I am Kurdish; we are whole family against crime and injustices. I see the crimes and the women crying, you know these videos; I wanted to help people.” At the same time, he says, “I changed my life in Germany. I have a beard and I go to masjid, people in Germany, they don’t like me before because I have black hair and brown eyes. Now it’s more.” He explains succinctly, “Two reasons, German people don’t want me, and Syrian people want help.”

Motivations Related to Assad’s Atrocities

Of all the FTF men in the sample, regardless of whether or not they watched any videos, 19.8 percent stated that anger at the actions of Assad’s regime and the rest of the world’s inaction in response was a motivation for travelling to Syria and ultimately joining ISIS. Only one woman was motivated by anger. While men who watched amateur videos were not more likely than men who did not watch amateur videos to be motivated by anger at least in part, men who watched amateur videos did state that anger was a far more salient motivation in their decision to join ISIS than did men who did not watch amateur videos (p<0.05). Of the 22 men motivated by anger, 72.7 percent entered Syria in 2014 or prior to that. Three men motivated by anger at Assad’s crimes entered Syria in 2015, two entered Syria at in an unknown year, and one remained in Iraq throughout his time in ISIS. Eleven of the men who stated that anger was a motivation for traveling to Syria fought with other Syrian rebel groups prior to joining ISIS. These men stated that they joined ISIS for a variety of reasons: Three were attracted to the idea of living under a Caliphate. Three either followed friends or fellow fighters when their units joined ISIS, and one claims he mistakenly ended up in ISIS territory and had to join. Notably, three men stated that they joined ISIS because the group welcomed foreigners at a time when foreign fighters were being hunted by the FSA, who did not want jihadists in their ranks, and by other groups who suspected foreign fighters of being spies for ISIS.

Abu Omar Mauritania, aged 32, watched amateur videos online and was motivated by his anger at Assad to go to Syria. He reflects, “I wanted to fight the regime.” He also notes statements by world leaders that he felt justified his decision: “Even America was saying Bashar [al Assad] is attacking his own people; doing crimes against his own people.” Abu Omar Mauritania claims he felt trapped after he realized that ISIS was no longer fighting Assad but he saw no way back out of ISIS: “I came for a purpose and I see from 2011 to 2014, muhajireen [foreign fighters] were fighting Bashar, but then I couldn’t go back.”

Abu Musa al Brittani, a 22-year-old from the United Kingdom, went to Syria in 2015 but had already begun to consider the prospect of travelling there in 2012, when his mentor in showed him videos of the Syrian regime. He admits he was easily swayed by this father figure: “Majority of the time I accept what he says because he’s saying it; when Syria started to pop and he spoke to me about Syria and showed me videos.” Abu Musa al Brittani was deeply moved by what he saw: “I’d see [videos] of people being buried alive, women being taken by Syrian regime and everyone knows what’s going to happen to them, it touches my heart, seeing that oppression.” At the time, he was only 15, so he waited until he was 18 to travel. By that time, he had seen videos from ISIS promoting the Caliphate that also made him think, “Wow, this is the place to be right now. I am going to join.”

Similarly, 36-year-old Canadian Abu Ridwan al Canadia states his motivation clearly and succinctly: “I was following the news and you can’t basically sit by and not do anything.” Despite speaking little Arabic, Abu Ridwan al Canadia flew to Turkey and was smuggled into Syria. First, he joined a jihadist group called Jaysh al-Muhajirin wa al-Ansar. He recounts, “I was there to fight the Syrian regime, ISIS was not even on my mind until it actually came up itself. They had already expanded into Syria, but even then, it was not on my mind.” Yet, in November 2013, only three months after arriving in Syria, Abu Ridwan al Canadia followed his group in pledging allegiance to ISIS.

Abu Musurata, a 25-year-old from Libya, was another of the men motivated by anger to travel to Syria to fight Assad. He joined al Nusra prior to joining ISIS. He explains how he felt when he learned about the situation in Syria: “When I finished my high school, I saw what is going on in Syria and we also had a revolution,” he explains, recalling the Libyan revolution, during which he was too young to actively fight, but states he protected his town. He continues, “We saw what is going on in Syria, Bashar, what he did to them, the chemicals, too.” He left for Syria in 2013 by himself, feeling that he finally had the chance to fight in a revolution as his friends had fought against Qaddafi in Libya. Soon after arriving in Syria he joined al Nusra, however, war broke out not with the Syrian regime, but with the other rebel groups: “We were attacked by the FSA. They don’t make difference between us and Dawlah [ISIS]. As foreign fighters, they [ISIS] helped us, so we merged with them.”

Abu Mohammed al Khartaz, a 31-year-old Tunisian, also saw parallels between the uprising in Syria and that in Tunisia. He was angry not only at the Syrian regime, but at the rest of the world for not helping the Syrian people. He recalls, “We were seeing what was happening in Syria, the barrel bombs, killing of children […] They were saying if you don’t come and help and assist and defend them you are a liar Muslim, not a real Muslim, if you don’t help them.” Moreover, he recounts, “On Facebook, with our friends we were discussing how to help, why those big countries don’t help the populations. I think I have to go to Syria.”

Far more interviewees reported being motivated by sadness and an urge to provide humanitarian aid than by anger. Indeed, 58.6 percent of all the FTF men and 30.8 percent of all the FTF women stated that they travelled to Syria and joined ISIS with the goal of helping the Syrian people. These individuals, like those motivated by anger, were overcome with strong emotions upon seeing and hearing what Assad’s regime was doing to its own people in Syria. Notably, men who watched amateur videos of the atrocities were significantly more likely to be motivated by this helping purpose than men who did not watch amateur videos (x2=11.32, p<0.01). This difference was not significant in women. Moreover, when examining the importance of each individual motivation, men who watched amateur videos stated that the helping purpose was more important in their decision to join ISIS than those who did not watch amateur videos (p<0.01). Indeed, the helping or altruistic motivation for participation in a terrorist group has been well established in the literature (O’Gorman and Silke, 2015).

Zyad Abdul Hamid, a 35-year-old from Trinidad, expressed his feelings upon seeing Western leaders call for help for the Syrian people: “I saw John McCain saying Syrians needed help. I was a Muslim and thought it’s binding upon me to help.” Zyad entered Syria in 2014 and claims he did not join any group initially: “I helped people buy clothes, stuff like this. Then the groups started fighting each other and we stayed low. After a while, Dawlah [ISIS] took the outside, took the borders.” Zyad was intrigued by ISIS’s message, recalling, “They came around talking to us. I’m a Muslim. I wanted to know about Islamic law.”

Recruited initially by al Nusra on Facebook, 46-year-old Australian Abu Imran saw an opportunity to offer help that would also fill a hole in his own life. Abu Imran and his wife had not been able to have children and were following the Syrian uprising online. After the Caliphate was established, Abu Imran says his wife got “excited [telling me,] ‘We never had a shariah law state before. Let’s go two weeks or one month. Maybe we can get one Syrian orphan there.’” Now, Abu Imran deeply regrets ever going to ISIS and worries about his wife and the two biological children they were later able to conceive, all now held in Camp Hol.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, humanitarian concerns were a common purpose among Western women who joined ISIS. For instance, 23-year-old Belgian Cassandra was distressed by the actions of the Syrian regime, and her emotions were manipulated by her much older husband who was already deeply embedded in ISIS. She explains, “He told me about Syria and showed me videos of the torture of Bashar. I was in pain, so I have to do something. I was hesitating at first […]” Cassandra’s concern for the Syrians was also compounded by her fear of being abandoned by her third husband at only 18 years old. She recalls, “He started warning me that if I don’t come, he’s going to divorce me, take a second wife.” Fearing abandonment and hoping to help, Cassandra left Europe, only to have her passport destroyed by her husband when she arrived in Syria. She later adopted three Syrian Shia children, raising them under the protection of her husband who rose to become an emir in ISIS, in charge of making explosives for cars. True to her helping nature, she defended these Shia orphans, who many in ISIS felt should have been left to die.

Umm Bilal, a 29-year-old German woman was also called to ISIS by her German husband, who initially went to Syria as part of an aid convoy in 2013. She recalls that after her husband had been gone for three weeks, he called her and “said there are a lot of people here [who] need drugs, orphans, many need someone to take care of them.” She recalls him telling her that coming to Syria was “a good thing for Allah and gives a high degree for Allah.” Her husband was later killed while Umm Bilal was pregnant with their first child.

Similarly, 46-year-old Canadian Kimberly Pullman felt guilty seeing videos of “Syrian and Palestinian children. It was getting worse and worse.” Distressed by her own fraught history of trauma, Kimberly was lured to ISIS by a man she met and later married online who went ahead of her to join ISIS. At a time when she was seriously considering suicide following a series of violent sexual assaults, he told her that she was not needed at home in Canada but could help children in Syria. She recalls thinking, “If I was going to die at least I could die helping children […] I felt if I did something good it would overwrite the bad that had happened” (Speckhard, 2020).

Conclusion

ISIS attracted many of its 40,000 to 45,000 FTFs through slick propaganda videos portraying a utopian vision of their Caliphate, governed purely by Allah’s laws, but they also used Assad’s atrocities as a foil to draw foreign terrorist fighters into the battleground in Syria. FTFs who left their home countries primarily between 2014 and 2016 were largely convinced that ISIS was going to deliver on its many promises and vision of Islamic living, but many were disappointed by the corruption, brutality and un-Islamic nature of what they witnessed and experienced and they also became disillusioned by ISIS failures to focus on the battle with Assad, even cooperating with his government (Speckhard and Ellenberg, 2020). Those FTFs who came before the establishment of the Caliphate, however, were not necessarily initially drawn by dreams of living a truly Islamic life or building an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, but by a deep desire to help the Syrian people and to fight against Bashar al Assad, whom democratic leaders around the world also acknowledged was committing atrocious crimes against humanity. Many of those who went to help the Syrians hoping to offer humanitarian assistance and even many of those who went with full intentions to fight, did not intend to become terrorists. Yet the interviewees described above who responded to the calls of ordinary Syrians begging for their help, as well as the propaganda videos of rebel groups, and even those of ISIS, showing Assad’s atrocities, began with good intentions but they then got caught up in terrorism—joining one of the most heinous and lethal terrorist groups known to humanity. It is important to note, of course, that not all individuals in this sample were influenced by amateur videos, nor were they motivated by anger at Bashar al Assad or a desire to help the Syrian people. Indeed, ISIS’s propaganda apparatus was extremely adept at tailoring messages toward individual vulnerabilities and needs. Thus, some in the present sample were influenced by high-quality ISIS videos advertising an idealistic Islamic life, free of harassment or discrimination. Still others were reached out to by recruiters, friends, or family, promising them a sense of belonging and personal significance (Speckhard and Ellenberg, 2020).

Now, many of these ISIS fighters are imprisoned either by the SDF, in Iraq, or by their home countries, and deservedly so. While countries sort out how best to bring them to justice, it is expected that they will eventually be tried and punished for their crimes, and hopefully those who someday make their way back home who after serving their sentences are amenable to treatment will undergo deradicalization and disengagement programs that allow them to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society.

But what of Assad? The dictator remains in power. Meanwhile, the SDF undergoes assault by Turkey as it tries to maintain its grip on the territory it now peacefully and for the most part democratically rules as well as holding strong to the thousands of ISIS fighters and their family members it captured and now detains (Specia, 2019). Meanwhile, Idlib continues to be home to thousands of jihadist and rebel actors as Syria, Iran, Russia and Turkey vie for influence over the ungoverned area (Stolyarov, 2019).

While tens of thousands of individual soldiers defected from the Syrian army during the uprising, the security forces have for the most part remained loyal to Assad (Dagher, 2018). Even before the rise of al Nusra and ISIS, Assad painted all protesters as sectarian Islamist terrorists in order to win support from religious minorities and secular Syrian Sunnis and perhaps more importantly, the world—to eventually force a tough choice between ISIS rule or his own. According to The Atlantic’s Christopher Phillips, “Just as Assad targeted the non-violent opponents to ensure the rebellion turned violent, he focused on moderate armed rebels in the hope that only jihadists and his regime would be left for Syrians and the world to choose from.” Moreover, Russian and Iranian aid diminished the effects of Western sanctions, and Russia has continually protected Assad from Western resolutions and international tribunals through its UN Security Council veto. In discussing the Obama administration’s actions in supporting the rebels but resisting equipping or training them, Phillips comments, “Whether he was right or wrong, Obama prioritized the fight against jihadism over the fight against Assad.” He remarks that, for Assad and his allies, “the war was about survival, and in this sense they have won” (Phillips, 2018).

It is impossible to know what would have happened had Western powers acted differently during the uprising, but it is clear that Syrian civilians felt abandoned, and that Muslims around the world, young men in particular, felt obliged to go and help them, even if it meant eventually joining a terrorist group. Going forward, preventing such high numbers of FTFs, and disengaging and deradicalizing those who were in ISIS, must involve addressing the very real grievances, beyond any jihadist ideology or dreams of a Caliphate, that motivated these early joiners to take up arms.

In February 2018, German police arrested Syrian Colonel Anwar Raslan and charged him with war crimes and crimes against humanity as well as a junior Syrian officer charged with crimes against humanity. The two are accused of overseeing the torture of thousands of Syrian prisoners during the uprising, before Raslan defected from the regime at the end of 2012. The Commission for International Justice Accountability and the European Center for Constitutional Human Rights, among other organizations, are determined to hold other Syrian regime officials who sought refuge in Europe accountable for their actions, knowing that Russia and China have vetoed all attempts to try Syrian officials in any UN established international tribunal (Karadsheh, 2020). Perhaps trials such as these will give hope to people who have suffered and continue to suffer under Assad’s reign and will convince them that the international community will support them in a meaningful way to ultimately obtain justice, if not security when they most needed it. More importantly, actions such as these, although carried out far too late to save the victims, may also convince Muslims around the world, particularly young men, who might feel that the only way to enact justice against atrocities such as those carried out by Assad, it will not be necessary to themselves take up arms or join groups like ISIS. 

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[1] Special thanks to Dr. Ahmet Yayla for fixing and participating in the interviews of the first 32 interviews of Syrian ISIS defectors who had fled the group and were living in southern Turkey.  For in-depth analysis of these ISIS interviews which took place in Turkey see: Speckhard, Anne, and Ahmet S. Yayla. ISIS defectors: Inside stories of the terrorist caliphate. Advances Press, LLC, 2016.; Speckhard, Anne, and Ahmet S. Yayla. “Eyewitness accounts from recent defectors from Islamic State: Why they joined, what they saw, why they quit.” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, no. 6 (2015): 95-118.

[2] In prisons and camps, a guard usually remained in the room, or just outside it, and in some cases a minder was assigned to watch the interview. Dangers existed in the prisons, despite having a guard nearby, as the author was well aware, having been shown during her work in 2006 and 2007, a collection of metal shanks created by prisoners in Camps Cropper and Bucca. See: Speckhard, A. Psycho-social and Islamic Challenge Approaches to in-Prison Treatment of Militant Jihadis. Likewise, the female guards in the camps all told about having been attacked themselves inside the camps, and murders and riots among detainees had occurred in both the camps and prisons in Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] territory during the time period of these interviews. See: Speckhard, A., and Shajkovci, A. (2019). PERSPECTIVE: SDF Needs Our Help Now as Another Woman in Camp Hol Killed by ISIS Enforcers. Homeland Security Today. One ex-prisoner ended the interview by telling the interviewers that he hoped they would be beheaded in Syria, while another still endorsed ISIS and was later returned to prison for violent behaviors. See: Speckhard, A., and Yayla, A. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Advances Press, LLC.

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