Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg As published in Homeland Security Today Mohammed Khalifa, also known…
As published in Homeland Security Today
by Anne Speckhard & Ardian Shajkovci
Of all the love stories from inside the ISIS Caliphate that we have learned about firsthand in the course of interviewing 168 ISIS defectors, returnees and imprisoned ISIS cadres to date, none has been so surreal as that involving the German ex-rapper Denis Cuspert, aka Deso Dogg, and the American FBI translator, Daniela Greene. While the story was first reported following the release of court documents and follow-up research conducted by CNN in 2017, ICSVE researchers have now uncovered a new piece of the story from a May 2019 interview with Abu Faisal, a now-incarcerated ISIS cadre who was involved with Cuspert during the time Greene was working to lure Cuspert out of Syria and into Turkey in a classic “honey pot” trap, which she instead fell into.
Denis Cuspert was no stranger to law enforcement in Germany. He had a criminal record and arrest history in Germany. He admitted to having joined the M-36 gang in prison, but then converted to Islam in 2010 after a near-death experience in a car accident. Upon his conversion, Cuspert renounced his previous life of crime but then went on to befriend Islamic extremists and continued his music career making Islamic nasheeds. His lyrics praised jihadi prisoners, glorified Osama bin Laden and the Chechen jihadi struggle, among other militant topics. Cuspert fell under heavy German law enforcement scrutiny after a Frankfurt airport shooting in 2011 in which Arid Uka, a Kosovar immigrant, killed two U.S. airmen and wounded two others.  Arid Uka stated, in his court testimony, that he had been motivated by a propagandist video clip posted on Facebook by Cuspert, depicting the alleged rape of an Afghan woman by U.S. soldiers. In 2012, Cuspert fled Germany and traveled to North Africa. In 2013, he entered Syria, where later, in 2014, he joined the so-called Islamic State Caliphate.
Living in the Caliphate under the ISIS kunya of Abu Talha al-Almani, Cuspert ultimately traded rapping for making recruiting videos for the Islamic State. In one such video he stated that ISIS is “the state that no one can stop! The state we built or helped to build! We will continue to build it until it reaches Washington, oh Obama!” He then made a throat-cutting gesture with his finger. In another, he was filmed holding a freshly severed human head. Cuspert became a powerful ISIS recruiter, prompting both German and American authorities to take action to stop his glorification of terrorist violence and charismatic recruitment of Western youth to ISIS. 
In 2014, 38-year-old Daniela Greene was assigned to the Detroit Division of the FBI in an “investigative capacity.” Some of her duties involved “supporting an investigation against a German national, located in Syria.” According to an affidavit submitted to the court in support of the criminal complaint against Greene, the FBI hired Daniela as a contract German linguist with a top security clearance. Our discussions with FBI and German law enforcement officials indicate that the aim of the investigation was to use Greene to lure Cuspert out of Syria into Turkey to pick her up as his want-to-be bride with the real goal of arresting him once he was in Turkey. It was a traditional “honey pot” operation, with Daniela acting as the bait and Cuspert hopefully falling into the trap. In the turn of events, and unbeknownst to the FBI, Greene fell for Cuspert instead. She ended up marrying him. Greene went rogue, and secretly traveled to Syria where she, with Cuspert’s assistance, crossed the Turkish border into Syria and went into the ISIS Caliphate to marry Cuspert.
When ICSVE researchers discussed the case, both in February and May this year, with the FBI and German law enforcement, they expressed having been blindsided by her actions, thinking she was still stateside when she had already made her way into Syria. “We didn’t know she’d even flown to Turkey, let alone that she’d crossed over into Syria to marry him!” an FBI agent stated. Indeed, the affidavit submitted to the court stated that Greene had submitted an FD-772 (Report of Foreign Travel form) to her supervisors on June 21, 2014, indicating she would be traveling to Germany. She stated she would be visiting her parents in Germany. “Everyone was totally surprised” about her travel to Syria, one of the German law enforcement counterparts added.  John Kirby, a former State Department official, told CNN how “It was a stunning embarrassment for the FBI, no doubt about it,” adding that he suspected Greene’s entry into Syria required the approval of top ISIS leaders. Most outsiders trying to get into an ISIS region in Syria risk “getting their heads cut off,” Kirby explained. “So for her to be able to get in as an American, as a woman, as an FBI employee, and to be able to take up residence with a known ISIS leader, that all had to be coordinated.”
That was indeed the case, according to Abu Faisal, an imprisoned ISIS cadre we interviewed in May in Rojava, Syria, where he is currently being held by the SDF in their detention facilities.
Abu Faisal was born in Germany, though he only maintains a Turkish passport. Following his yearlong stint in German prison, Abu Faisal left Germany in 2014, traveling by car to join ISIS. He was able to tell a piece of the reverse “honey trap” story from his vantage point inside ISIS, as he was briefly involved with Cuspert in Manbij, Syria, during the time that Cuspert was luring Daniela Green into ISIS territory.
Abu Faisal recalls how he had decided to come to Syria in 2014, after his encounter with other extremists in German prison.
“I went to prison. I stayed in prison for a year. Back then, I had two good friends. Samit and Amin were their names. After I got out of prison, I found they were practicing Islam,” he said. “They had grown [long] beards and wore short pants. Like myself, they too came from the same criminal background. They spoke to me a lot after I came out of prison. I became interested in Islam. I started watching videos – videos about Syria. We discussed them and then decided to come [to Syria] together. [We watched these videos] mainly on YouTube. I got out of prison in the beginning of 2012. And in 2014 I came to Syria. Three of us, together with my two friends, we came by car. It was a weeklong trip. We drove slowly, moved from hotel to hotel, and we arrived in Syria. We had about 15,000 Euros with us. “
Abu Faisal was married at the time, and his decision to join the ISIS Caliphate was an impulsive one. His wife had not been keen on his decision. Abu Faisal states, “I told her, I’m going to Syria. You either come with me or that’s it. I wasn’t thinking to leave my wife behind, but she didn’t want to come, so I divorced.”
Several months later, Abu Faisal’s wife changed her mind and decided to come. As a result, Abu Faisal requested permission from ISIS leadership to go and pick her up at the Istanbul airport. The fact that Abu Faisal was granted permission to go and retrieve his wife likely indicates that Abu Faisal enjoyed considerable trust among ISIS leadership, as most ISIS members were not able to cross back out of Syria into Turkey, unless they had roles that required them to do so.  Cuspert’s involvement is likely the factor that created this trust.
“Abu Talha al-Almani, you know him, right? [Denis Cuspert]. The rapper. He was a famous rapper. I knew him as a good guy,” Abu Faisal recalls. “Approximately a week after we were posted at a checkpoint, he came, Denis Cuspert. He came and wanted to talk to me. He had heard from others that a German wanted to go and get his wife in Turkey. Around the same time, his wife had also wished to come from America. He asked me if I could help him. [Denis] told me he can’t go to Turkey. He would get arrested.”
Once allowed to leave the Caliphate to travel into Turkey, as a Turkish passport holder Abu Faisal could easily move about inside Turkey without falling under suspicion, as long as he crossed back into Turkey illegally, which he did. “I went to Turkey to get her,” Abu Faisal explains. “Denis Cuspert helped with asking permission from emirs [to cross into Turkey]. They [the emirs] trusted me. In Turkey, approximately two weeks later, my wife arrived. I picked her up at Istanbul Ataturk airport. According to Abu Faisal, Daniela and his wife exchanged information and communicated on how they would meet up over Skype.”
“We waited for his [Denis’s] wife for one or two weeks. She kept saying, ‘I’m going to come. This flight, that flight’ but she never came. We waited for two weeks with my wife. Then I told my wife, ‘I’m going back. I can’t wait any longer,’” Abu Faisal recalls. Worried that he was absent from his post for too long, Abu Faisal and his wife returned into ISIS territory in Syria and, aside from notifying him that he could not pick up Cuspert’s new bride, Abu Faisal claims not to have continued interacting with Cuspert.
This new information from Abu Faisal’s accounts could indicate various scenarios, including that Daniela Greene might have warned Cuspert that he was under FBI investigation. Or it may show that Greene was at that time still actively trying to lure Cuspert into Turkey, as she repeatedly demurred on her travel plans once she learned that Abu Faisal was planning to pick her up. If she was still trying to lure Cuspert into Turkey, it makes sense that she did not want Abu Faisal to pick her up.
Note that according to the affidavit submitted to the court, a round-trip ticket from Indianapolis to Gaziantep, Turkey, was purchased using a credit card issued in Greene’s name. The flight was scheduled for June 13, 2014, from Indianapolis through Chicago to arrive in Gaziantep, Turkey. The return trip was scheduled to depart Turkey approximately 26 hours after arrival. On June 13, 2014 – the day she was supposed to leave – a one-way ticket from Indianapolis to Istanbul, Turkey, was purchased using a debit card issued in Greene’s name. The trip was scheduled for June 23, 2014, which also included a stopover in Canada through Air Canada flight. The affidavit also states that on or about June 17, 2014, the same debit card issued in Greene’s name was used to make hotel reservations in Istanbul, Turkey. Air Canada records also confirmed that Greene was on board the Air Canada flight on June 23, 2014. Although Abu Faisal did not accurately specify the date he traveled to Istanbul to pick up his wife in 2014, the actual travel date might coincide with Greene’s initial intended travel date, namely when she purchased her June 13, 2014, ticket and was scheduled to fly from Indianapolis to Gaziantep and back.
It remains unclear if Greene had yet warned Denis of the FBI plot at this point and was already making alternative plans to fly to Turkey under the radar, to then cross into Syria to marry him, or if she was wavering on her travel plans because she did not want Abu Faisal and his wife to pick her up. If she was still adhering to the FBI plan, she had to tire them out and continue to try to lure Denis to Turkey instead. However, based on his words to Abu Faisal about realizing he’d be arrested in Turkey, Cuspert appears to have either known that because of his fame as an ISIS propagandist, or because Daniela had also warned him, that traveling to Turkey could subject him to arrest.
According to court documents, Greene had identified, as part of the FBI investigative team, several phone numbers and accounts utilized by Cuspert (referred to as “Individual A”). These included two Skype accounts identified by Greene as being utilized by Cuspert. Greene, however, maintained sole access to a third Skype account. No FBI employees or contractors had access to the third Skype account. Greene purportedly used the third Skype to communicate with Cuspert about her real feelings and plans.
Cuspert continued producing ISIS propaganda videos even after Greene’s arrival, though Greene appears to have regretted her decision soon after moving into the ISIS Caliphate. Such regret is a story we frequently hear from Western women who traveled to Syria to become ISIS wives and are then shocked by what they see in reality in comparison to what they were led to expect by ISIS recruiters or ISIS propaganda.
Greene described herself as weak in an e-mail dated in July 2014 and sent to an unidentified person in the U.S., stating, “I really made a mess of things this time.” She also wrote in another email the following day: “I am gone and I can’t come back. I wouldn’t even know how to make it through, if I tried to come back. I am in a very harsh environment and I don’t know how long I will last here, but it doesn’t matter, it’s all a little too late.” Then on July 22, 2014, she admitted her fears about returning to an unidentified e-mail recipient: “Not sure if they told you that I will probably go to prison for a long time if I come back, but that is life. I wish I could turn back time some days.” Greene stayed with Cuspert inside the Caliphate for two months. In August 2014, a warrant was issued for her arrest and, seven days later, after Cuspert is said to have helped her to illegally cross back over the Syrian border into Turkey, she turned herself into U.S. authorities at the U.S. consulate. She was repatriated back to the U.S., where she was arrested and promptly prosecuted for having made false statements to the FBI.
Apparently, the FBI was deeply embarrassed by the case, but also eager to receive firsthand information from inside ISIS. Justice Department prosecutors charged Greene with a relatively minor offense and offered her a reduced sentence in exchange for her full cooperation. The details of exactly what deal was struck is protected by a court order, but she received a two-year sentence, which she has already served. The incident also caught the attention of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which sought answers on how such a romantic relationship developed without the FBI’s knowledge as well as what concrete steps are being taken by the FBI to prevent similar incidents in the future.
Falling in love with slick ISIS recruiters is one among many reasons for traveling to and joining the group that we have learned from our in-depth interviews of ISIS defectors, returnees and imprisoned ISIS cadres. In the case of Daniela Greene, it reminds us that those assigned by the FBI and other Western security agencies to track and interact with ISIS cadres are susceptible to counter-recruiting activities by the very ISIS operatives they are trying to catch, many of whom are charismatic and capable of playing with the emotions and dreams of those they manage to charm into believing ISIS lies.
According to the U.S. embassy legal attaché in Berlin, Don Schultz, most, if not all, FBI field offices hire linguists like Daniela Greene to track ISIS operatives active on the Internet and interact with them while taking on a fake persona, in hopes that these leads will help them navigate through the terrorist web to make arrests and prevent future terrorist attacks. For instance, one FBI German linguist living in the U.S. was recently able to gain the trust of a former German ISIS hisbah (Islamic State police) member who had returned to Germany from the Islamic State, proclaiming her innocence. The linguist learned that she was telling another story to extremist friends on social media. Making Internet contact and ultimately meeting her in person, the FBI linguist, pretending to be like-minded, traveled with her in a wired car while managing to elicit gruesome details of how she and her husband had punished their young Yazidi slave child by chaining her outside in the heat, where the child got so dehydrated that she eventually died. The linguist’s brave role-playing has led to a prosecution and is an FBI success story in contrast to Greene’s reverse seduction by Cuspert.
Role-playing is dangerous work, particularly when it includes pretending to be in love or trying to become another person’s love object. We know that married actors and actresses that play love roles on stage with complete strangers also often frequently fall in love with their pretend lovers, leading to scandals and divorces. Undercover agents are no different. They also fall into dangerous actions, sometimes even take things too far, as in the case of one UK undercover police officer who was pretending to be a left-wing animal rights activist and fell for one of the women inside the group with which he was ingratiating himself. He slept with and fathered a child with her, despite being married and having a family of his own, later leaving the child unsupported.
Boredom, a desire for adventure, and other unmet emotional needs, as well as the charismatic quality of many terrorists, especially terrorist recruiters, can all factor into vulnerability for such undercover operators to be seduced over to wrong actions, and even to joining the group. This vulnerability points to the need to have frequent psychological checks as well as security procedures to oversee the activities of those who play roles to penetrate terrorist groups to protect them from being counter-recruited when they are working to help protect us from terrorist plots.
FBI officials state that they have implemented new security protocols following Daniela Greene’s escapade. Cuspert was ultimately killed by a coalition airstrike, after surviving numerous attempts on his life and erroneously being declared killed in battle. Greene was released from prison in 2017 and was located by CNN in the U.S. as now working in a hotel lounge.
About the authors:
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=101) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing the Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter Narrative Project materials from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard
Ardian Shajkovci, Ph.D., is the Director of Research and a Senior Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). He has been collecting interviews with ISIS defectors and studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism as well as training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally. He has also been studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and how to rehabilitate them. He has conducted fieldwork in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, mostly recently in Jordan and Iraq. He has presented at professional conferences and published on the topic of radicalization and terrorism. He holds a doctorate in Public Policy and Administration, with a focus on Homeland Security Policy, from Walden University. He obtained his M.A. degree in Public Policy and Administration from Northwestern University and a B.A. degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Dominican University. He is also an adjunct professor teaching counterterrorism and CVE courses at Nichols College.
Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne & Shaykovci, Ardian (June 10, 2019) The ISIS ‘Honey Trap’ to Catch Recruiter Deso Dogg and the Rogue FBI Translator, Homeland Security Today