You are viewing:


Information released online from January 20, 2009 to January 20, 2017.
Note: Content in this archive site is not updated, and links may not function. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views contained therein.

printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The ISIS Defectors Interview Project

Dr. Anne Speckhard, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown University School of Medicine
New York, NY
February 29, 2016

Date: 02/29/2016 Location: New York, NY Description: Foreign Press Center briefing with Dr. Anne Speckhard, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown University School of Medicine on ''The ISIS Defectors Interview Project.'' - State Dept Image

1:30 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: All right, good afternoon, everyone. We’re very pleased to have Dr. Anne Speckhard here today. She’s the director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism and an adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University. We welcome all of you here as well. We also have media joining us today via digital video conference in Washington D.C., so welcome to them.

Dr. Speckhard will discuss her most recent research on ISIL based on interviews she’s conducted with 27 ISIL defectors. At the conclusion of her remarks, please raise your hand if you have a question. Wait for the microphone and state your name and your media affiliation. We’ll ask the folks in D.C. as well to step to the podium and we’ll recognize you in turn. Today’s briefing is on the record. Thanks very much, and welcome, Dr. Speckhard.

MS SPECKHARD: Hello. It’s good to see you all, and thank you for coming. There’s a few that I’ve talked to over the phone; it’s going to be nice to put a face with the name. But anyway, I’ve been interviewing terrorists for the past few decades, and at this point I’ve talked to almost 500 terrorists, extremists, and in the case of dead suicide terrorists, their family members, their close associates, and even their hostages. And my interviews have taken place in Europe, North America, Turkey, Russia, and the Middle East. My research questions have always been the same: to learn what put them on the terrorist trajectory, what might have prevented it, and what could have – could be done to take them back off of it.

In that vein, I’ve consulted with UK Government when they were putting together their Prevent program, and I also designed for the U.S. Department of Defense the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of what came to be known as the Detainee Rehabilitation Program. That was applied to 20,000 detainees, 800 juveniles, that the U.S. forces held in Iraq.

And we all know today that the Islamic State is the most powerful, ruthless, horrific, and well-funded terrorist group in history. Not only has ISIS managed to take and control a significant swath of territory, it’s became a de facto state. Since their 2014 claim of establishing a so-called caliphate, ISIS has also unleashed an unprecedented and prolific social media recruiting drive. It’s made up of slick materials combined with one-on-one grooming of vulnerable individuals, and that has enabled them to attract up to 30,000 foreign fighters that come from more than 130 countries. And a steady stream of fighters continues to come into Syria and Iraq, most of them coming through Turkey. They come on a daily basis, with some estimates placing their number at over 1,000 new recruits per month. In addition, ISIS has created a brand that’s been exported to over 20 hotspots around the globe.

As ISIS has risen seemingly out of nowhere to become a powerful foe, the West has struggled to comprehend and understand how to effectively counter it. A political solution in the war-torn area of Syria and Iraq is not something that’s going to happen quickly, but it is a necessary precondition to the total defeat of ISIS. But discrediting the group’s ideology is also essential. Defectors from ISIS who, alongside the refugees, pour out of ISIS-controlled territory, are the most powerful firsthand voices to speak out against the group. Indeed, a disillusioned cadre who can speak from experience and tell their authentic stories about life inside ISIS may be the most influential tool for preventing and dissuading others from joining ISIS.

The fight against Islamic State can take place on many fronts. It can include finding political solutions, aerial bombardments, working through the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, but we have to acknowledge that Islamic State is winning on many fronts, particularly on the internet. And it’s a powerful foe in bringing Westerners to join ISIS and also to organize homegrown terrorist attacks. At present, the internet serves as the nerve center to connect ISIS activists and propagandists who have proved themselves especially savvy, active, and successful on social media in recruiting Westerners to their cause.

We can win back that front, but we can do so by discrediting them with the words of their very own cadres. While it’s difficult to reach ISIS defectors and also to persuade them to speak out against the group, it is possible. Turkey is a country through which thousands of Westerners have funneled themselves to join ISIS. Currently, many have also left ISIS through Turkey, and there are Syrians hiding out in Turkey that are willing to talk, and we’ve reached some of them.

Since September, I’ve turned my sights on interviewing ISIS defectors, this time asking them if they would appear on video, usually with their identities hidden, to give a actual first-person insider account of life inside ISIS, recruitment patterns, motivations for joining, and motivations for quitting; their military and ideological training, the ISIS treatment of women, foreign fighter involvement, Islamic State slave trade, their financing; stories about the brutality, killing, and corruption; the reasons for and processes of defecting; the mental health consequences of ISIS involvement. We ask them for pictures and video that they give us freely from their phones – video that they took themselves of life inside ISIS, and pictures. And we ask them at the end of each and every interview, “Will you give a statement? Will you speak to others that are thinking about joining ISIS? Will you tell them your advice?” And they say things like, “Don’t come here. Don’t join ISIS.” And I’ll tell you more about that in a minute.

These interviews are now taking place in secret locations. They’re recorded on TV-grade interview, and the research project is taking place under the auspices of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. Our sample currently consists of 25 Syrian defectors, all who ran away from ISIS, some as recently as a month or two ago, and they are all hiding from ISIS in Turkey. Twenty-three are male, two are female. Of the males, three were children at the time they were in ISIS, and they served at the Cubs of the Caliphate. The rest were ISIS fighters, some of them low level, some of them commanders and emirs. My research partner for the Syrian ISIS defectors is Turkish professor Ahmet S. Yayla, and he is also currently serving as the deputy director of our center.

The second part of the project involves interviews in Europe of ISIS defectors. And we currently have two European returnees from ISIS, one a male and one a female; and four parents of kids that went to Syria – three that were killed there, one that is still serving as a commander but who wants to leave and doesn’t know how to get out, is afraid for their life.

The point of this research is two-fold. One is to learn from the insiders about how ISIS operates, thinks, recruits and motivates its cadres. Secondly, and much more importantly, is to fight with ISIS in the social media space with insider accounts that totally discredit the organization. These recorded interviews, once edited and packaged – which we’re working on right now – can be placed back on the internet in short video clips to fight directly with ISIS using insider voices. And our plan is to launch an anti-ISIS campaign. Of course, I’m wondering how soon my computer will blow up, but we’ll see.

We hope that the words of Ibn Omar (ph), a child, will make potential recruits think again when he told us, in a child’s voice, they wanted to make me a button. That’s a child they talk into, drug, and place into a bomb-rigged vehicle with instructions to drive at high speeds into enemy lines and then push the button. Ibn Omar (ph) told us he was told, “You push the button, you won’t feel a thing, and then you’ll be straight in paradise.” He was 14 years old at the time and in a camp of so-called Cubs of the Caliphate, some as young as eight years old.

Or we hope the words of Ibn Ahmed (ph) might anger some when he told us what he witnessed after a conquering of Sinjar Mountain: After a week, I saw these Yezidi women in the jail – sordid. The women were crying so badly I couldn’t bear to hear it, so I went to my sheikh al-Jazrawi (ph) and asked to be transferred to somewhere else. Recalling what he saw before he was transferred he told us: There were 475 beds for these female slaves. They were Yezidi women and women, wives and daughters, captured from the Iraqi army men. They were Syrians having to do with the regime, some from al-Shadadi, from the province under their control. I was in charge. They were all women and they were all crying hysterically. They said, “We have nursing children who are one and two years old taken from us. Is that the Islam you’re talking about?” Indeed, according to Ibn Ahmed’s (ph) testimony to us, Islamic State violates its own fatwa that justifies enslaving captured women as sex slaves based on that they are unbelievers. But Ibn Ahmed (ph) told us that he saw Sunni women enslaved and given as sexual play thing to be raped and abused.

Abu Massoud (ph) told us of a woman who was wearing a hijab when she left her house to come bring tea to her husband working outside on a car he was fixing and how the Hisbah accused her of being uncovered and beat her and her husband mercilessly, flogging him 50 times and flogging her so hard that she miscarried her child right then and there.

Or what about Layla (ph), the European woman who came back from ISIS? She went with her husband and became pregnant there. When her husband was killed in a coalition airstrike, she tried to leave before being choicelessly married off to someone else as we’re told most of the ISIS brides are when their husbands are killed. They are married and remarried repeatedly. She fled. ISIS cadres sent her texts threatening her life. And finally, when they realized she was serious but not yet out of Syria, they told her, “You can leave, but you need to return first. Bear your child, nurse it, and leave your child with us because the child’s ours.”

Our informants told us that when they went through Sharia training, they were happy. They were inspired. Their trainers, brought in from Saudi, Jordan, and the Emirates were knowledgeable and charismatic, so much so that even the hardened fighters that had come from al-Nusrah and from other groups, they told us after three days of listening to the sheikh, I thought I, too, could go and martyr myself. But once inside ISIS, these same people became disgusted with corruption, cover-ups, double standards, and brutality, and they all decided that ISIS is not Islamic, and the so-called caliphate is a sham. We asked them to make a statement to others that are thinking of joining, and every one of them in their own words says something like, “In the name of Allah, most magnificent and glorious, don’t come here. I’m Syrian. You won’t help us here by joining ISIS. The Islamic State is not Islamic. And you can join, but you won’t ever be able to leave. They will behead you if you try to leave. They are rapists, murderers, and thieves. Study. Stay at home with your family. Do something else, but don’t join Islamic State.” Thank you.

MODERATOR: So if you have a question, please state your name and your media affiliation.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Dr. Speckhard. My name is Ahmed Fathi from ATN News. I’m always intrigued about why would a person, at any mental stage or psychological stage, decide to go that extreme and be radicalized in a way that we have seen first with al-Qaida, now with ISIL. And taking that the medium they used for recruitment is primarily social media, how come a person in normal circumstances be swayed to turn radically like that through social media? Thank you.

MS SPECKHARD: That’s a great question, Ahmed, and I’ll be happy to send you a paper that I just put out that goes through 50 different individual vulnerabilities. But basically, the short answer is there’s always a group – unless you’re Ted Kaczynski and you make your own manifesto and you figure out how to make bombs yourself – there’s a group, there’s an ideology that wrongly claims that you can use terrorism to try to change politics. There’s some level of social support. Nowadays you find it on the internet; you don’t have the find the group itself.

And then there’s individual vulnerabilities, depending on if you’re in a conflict zone or outside of it. In a conflict zone, it’s trauma and revenge driven. So if I rape your sister, kill you, take your – kill your brother, not you – take your land, occupy your territory, trauma and revenge are going to be big motivators. In non-conflict zones, we also find trauma operating, but we see a lot of secondary trauma, that they bring the conflict zone to you in the carefully curated videos and pictures and tell you things that al-Qaida and ISIS have been telling for years now – that Islam is under attack, Islamic lands, Islamic peoples – and you need to come and fight with us. And then they offer you things to motivate you, like you’ll be a hero.

Nowadays – it used to be the virgins in paradise. Now it’s sex now. You’ll get a partner now; you’ll get a sex slave now. For a young man, that’s a powerful motivator. You’ll get a job. So if you’re in Molenbeek, Brussels and you’re facing 30 percent unemployment and a lot of marginalization and discrimination, come here, you’ll be very respected as a Muslim, you’ll have a high social status, you’ll be given a job, and you’ll be able to marry, and you’ll be sexually gratified and otherwise gratified. Of course, you’ll be in danger and you’ll have to fight – romance.

There’s 50 vulnerabilities, and I’ve got them all listed in a paper which I’ll be happy to send you.

Other questions?

QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks so much for the briefing. James Reinl with Al Jazeera. It’s a kind of technical question rather than a thematic one, but what can you provide to journalists to help us tell the story about the project that you’re working on in terms of images of these people, transcripts of the interviews, videos?

And a secondary question about identification of the people: Do you use their names? I noticed that Ib Nomi (ph), Iba Ahmed (ph), Abu Massoud (ph) – they could be kind of like student and fake names, I’m guessing. So where do you stand on identifying people that have run away from the caliphate?

MS SPECKHARD: We don’t ask their identities. We don’t know want to know their identities, both for our own protection and for theirs, and so that they have trust that it’s anonymous. We’re very happy to share pieces of our video. We have transcripts of every interview that we’ve taken so far, happy to share those. And we’d like our project to be well publicized because the whole point of it is to discredit ISIS. So any way we can help you – same with pictures and the video – and right now we’re working on subtitling them all. At Al Jazeera that probably wouldn’t be an issue, but – and then when we’re subtitling them, we’re verifying our translation, because it was simultaneous, and when a translator is working that fast sometimes things don’t get absolutely perfect.

So we hope maybe in the next month to have all 25 that we have so far subtitled, and then we’ll be cutting them up and putting them up on the internet. I think we’ll put them in their entirety on the internet as well, just for anybody to use, because it’s amazing material and there’s no reason to sit on it.

QUESTION: What do you think, like, April, I’m guessing?



MS SPECKHARD: Yeah. Depends how fast I can get my subtitler to work. Wish I was fluent in Arabic.


QUESTION: Thank you. Paolo Mastrolilli for the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa. Thank you. I was curious, what is the nationality of the two European that you are interviewing? Is it possible to know it?

MS SPECKHARD: One of them is Belgian and the other one asked me not to disclose her nationality. She’s a little worried about being killed, and actually they’re all a bit worried about that, so – but not Italian.

I think you had a question before, yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. Hajime Matsuura from Japan. I’m writing for Sankei. Two questions, please. There’s 30,000 foreign fighters, and I assume if they’re a foreigner, mostly from the non-conflict zone. How could be that gullible? And like, if there’s – if you could describe vulnerability that they have in common, I’m very interested.

MS SPECKHARD: Sure, sure.

QUESTION: But 30K is a big number.


QUESTION: And second question is – it’s – it really sounds like Amazon or Netflix capturing the long tail of – as, like, a terrorist – kind of terrorist. And what did he – did he play any kind of sort of similar like data science or big data maneuver to fight against those kind of strategy, or do you find any kind of – that kind of Amazon-like strategies behind the scene on the other side?

MS SPECKHARD: Those are a lot of questions. How could someone be so gullible? For all of history, we’ve seen people buy ideas. And I’m a therapist; when you want to heal somebody, you try to sell them an idea. And the current idea that’s being sold is the caliphate and alternative-world governance. So if you’re not happy with your life, if you’re off track in your life in any way, and you start logging on and getting into the ISIS world, they’re offering you an alternative reality and a different conception of your place in this reality. If you’re Muslim, you’ll be honored, you’ll have an important place, you’ll have significance, purpose, honor, adventure, romance, sex, money.

One young girl that I heard about in the UK – she was being groomed; she was only 13. And also it’s not just that they encounter internet materials. When they start liking them, then the ISIS cadre swarm in and start talking to them. So they talk to them on WhatsApp and in Skype and even send them gifts. So this particular 13-year-old was being sent a lot of pictures of beautiful Syrian homes with swimming pools in the backyard. And she said, “I thought I was going off to Islamic Disneyland.” I mean, she honestly believed that. But then think of the perspective of a 13-year-old. They are pretty gullible.

We have the case on the West Coast of the U.S., the young girl who was a Sunday school teacher. And she tweeted out, “Why would ISIS behead a journalist?” I think after James Foley was killed. And The New York Times made an interview of her and reported about it, and said that she got answered. The ISIS people answered her and they said, “Well, it’s a war, it’s a rebellion, a revolution, and you too killed people in the American Revolution, and this is why, and this is what we’re aiming for. And, oh, by the way, I see you’re a Sunday school teacher; that’s wonderful. Did you know that Islam is the completion of Christianity? Can we tell you about Islam?” So it’s starts nice and they start sending her books about Islam, get her so interested that she agrees to convert. They tell her, “Keep it a secret. Don’t go to your mosque, because they’re not going to tell you the true Islam. Stay with us. Can we send you some headscarves, can we send you chocolates?” And it eventually gets to, “Would you like to come on a plane and join us? And by the way, bring your brother with you.”

And this is a kid that’s living with her grandparents in a rural area, isolated. She’s said to have some fetal alcohol syndrome, impulse control. But the fetal alcohol syndrome tells me mom’s an alcoholic probably, and that’s very sad. I mean, she’s dealing with some real pain in her life, and they’re offering to fix it. Sometimes I call it the psychological first aid, martyrdom is, of a short-lived variety. Because if you’ve got trauma going on in your life, and somebody delivers you the possibility of becoming a martyr, you can actually get into a euphoric state. And you’re drugged; your own brain is drugging you. It won’t last for a long time.

But I interviewed someone in Israeli prison that had been waiting six weeks to get her bomb and she got caught; she was in prison. And as she told me about it, she re-entered that euphoric state. And I said, “Did you do drugs or have sex before?” And the interpreter wouldn’t even ask the question. I said, “Please ask. It’s really important and it’s not meant disrespectfully.” She got big eyes, “No, no.” And I said, “Well, do you see how you’re kind of high right now telling me about this and almost like you’re drunk?” And she said, “Yeah. That’s exactly how I felt for six weeks. It was the best time in my life.”

And many would-be bombers say this. We even did a thought experiment in Belgium with normal students and asked them to imagine being a suicide bomber. And more than half entered the euphoric state just imagining it and told us about that they were floating above their bodies, they were all-powerful. And so if you can give somebody something like this that’s got psychological problems going on in their lives, they may latch onto it because it feels good. It’s just like any other drug. It is a drug.

Other questions?

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Christina from the German news agency, DPA. I was wondering how you got into doing this research. And also, I mean, you’re going to put it all on the internet. How scared are you, yourself, of something happening to you?

MS SPECKHARD: Thanks, Christina. (Laughter.) I’m not that scared. I guess I’m getting old and I’ve lived a good life. And take me; it’s okay. (Laughter.) And I’ve gone a lot of really nasty places and talked to terrorists face-to-face, and they are just people. So I’m a little worried that they might try to hack my computer, and I hope that doesn’t happen, but it might. And I don’t know, if you’re dead, you’re dead. Hope I go straight to paradise and hope there’s some good-looking guys up there. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And how did you start – how did you get into this – how did you get into this research in the first place?

MS SPECKHARD: Oh, okay. Well, my husband’s a diplomat, and he dragged me overseas, and I reinvent myself over and over again. So when we were posted at NATO after 9/11, I helped with the diplomats, because a lot of people were having bad reactions to what happened there. And al-Qaida had announced that NATO was their next target. They said October 10th, so a month later. And you said you were from Italy, right?

QUESTION: I’m from Germany.

MS SPECKHARD: Oh, Germany, okay. You’re from Italy. Well, there was even in the news stories about little kids in Rome saying, “Mommy, will our building be attacked by airplanes?” and being afraid of airplanes. So the effects of 9/11 went all over the world psychologically, and they went in Brussels too. And we had fake anthrax arrive at the embassy. I think we had 13 embassies that got anthrax. Ours turned out to be fake, but they had to put up big plastic sheets and people had to take prophylactic antibiotics, and they were getting really stressed. So I worked with them.

And then Nord-Ost happened – I was Russian speaking because we had served in Belarus – and I contacted the trauma expert there that I was good friends with and said, “Nadia (ph), what are you going to do for your hostages?” They were still in the theater at the time. And she said, “This is Russia. Nothing.” And so I told her the kinds of things that we did after 9/11 and said, “Do you mind a naive American’s suggestion?” And she said, “Come on over.”

So about six weeks after that tragedy, I was there in Moscow with her. We were meeting with hostages. And the first one we interviewed told us about sitting like you’re sitting right now – close to each other – and how she told you, with a bomb belt strapped on why, she was there and why she was willing to do it. And I turned to Nadia (ph) and I said, “Oh, we have two studies. Oh, we can study the hostages, but we need to study their secondary interviews of activated suicide terrorists, because nobody has ever interviewed an activated suicide terrorist.” The Israelis tell them to take off their bombs – take it off or we’re going to kablow’d (ph) you. But they don’t usually get into any kind psychosocial interview, where the hostages did, because they were there with them for three days. And a lot of them were professional people. They were dentists and doctors and lawyers and quite astute.

And then I had a student that showed up in my class and told me, “I think I have this PTSD thing.” And I said, “Oh, really, Ken (ph)? What’s that about?” And he said, “Well, I went as an exchange student to Israel because I wanted to see it with my own eyes,” and either the first or the second day he was there he went to Hebrew U, went to lunch, had a little argument/discussion with an Israeli soldier where they agreed to disagree. Ken (ph) walked out of the building it blew up. And he wanted to go back and interview Palestinians and talked me into it, so together with him and another student we went through West Bank, Gaza. I got hooked. I went in Casablanca and Morocco. I went everywhere. And that’s why I’ve talked to about 500 of them. And I guess I was a bit of an addict, but they are fascinating and they are people just like you and me, but they get poison in their minds.

MODERATOR: So we have a question in Washington, D.C. Let’s go to Washington and then come back to New York.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you very much. This is Iftikhar Hussain. I work for Voice of America Pakistan-Afghanistan Border Region Service – one of the critical regions in terms of the U.S. outreach and also in terms of your topic, it’s the new ground for ISIS, the region, especially trying to set foot in Afghanistan. Thanks. Your discussion is very amazing. I was very attentive to it when you were speaking on the project. I’m not aware that whether you have made any recommendations in this project, but before that, if you could share with us through FPC or any other way the findings of your project, it would be very helpful for us to get more information especially for doing long stories.

And I have questions now. Did you try to talk to their parents while you did interview them first those who quit ISIS? And did it bring into question the conversation that they need to change how to educate them about ISIS? Because the story also begins from the parents’ control in educating them and the online content control.

And I have another question. What was the major motivation for those people to join ISIS and for that reason the major reason, motivation to quit it?

And I have also another question if you can – that anything online propaganda which is effective for ISIS, why it makes it so effective? There is so much content, other Islamic content for that reason, online --

MS SPECKHARD: I’ll try to answer that.

QUESTION: -- that does not attract a lot of people as the online propaganda by ISIS.

MS SPECKHARD: Okay, let me try to answer those questions. That’s quite a few questions. As far as the online content, it’s very slick. A lot of it’s very boyish and adventurous and it promises this alternative reality, it promises social identity that you can be proud of, it promises purpose, meaning, significance. It promises a place in society. It promises a utopian state.

And not only that, once you start engaging with it, you start engaging with real people. So for instance, we have a French journalist that posed as someone that was interested in – she posed, I think, as a 17-year-old girl. And she was in France and she said that she – she actually uploaded on her Facebook or put the link that she liked a French jihadi’s video. He contacted her the same day that she posted it, and he said, “Oh, I see you’ve seen my video, and a lot of people think that we’re sexy, a lot of the girls like us.” They call them jihad hotties now.

And anyway, he flirted with her and she decided to pretend. So he asked her, “Will you get on Skype with me?” So she took it for a whole month, got on Skype with him, said he was texting her all the time. And the other people that have pretended similarly report a similar story. He promised her that she would be rich, and she was pretending that she was a teenager in Marseilles, France and that she was not so wealthy, and probably she didn’t have a really good future perspective. She probably lived in an apartment. And he said you’ll have a car and you’ll have a house here, we’re rich, you can have anything you want. He made sure that she saw him, and he thought he was really handsome, so hey baby.

And he was a little bit like what you see with domestic abuse – trying to control her. Where were you? Why didn’t you answer? But some people like having a lot of attention even if it’s controlling attention. And eventually he – well, he asked her very early on, “Would you like to come and join us and be my wife?” And then he asked her to bring another teenage girl with her. So it’s not just the internet materials. It’s that they interact with you and seduce you in person once you start saying you like them.

So that’s something when we fight back with them on social media we also need to start putting together hotlines and rapid intervention teams so that – a lot of times family members – and you brought up family members. We don’t interview family members. We’re lucky that we even get one person in the room. And we try to keep it very low profile so people don’t know. We keep changing locations. We don’t want anybody to be endangered for taking part in our research.

But family members often have a sense that something is wrong, particularly if they’re in the West and the guy suddenly grows a beard or the woman gets super conservative and starts spouting off kind of hateful language, but they don’t know who to turn to because a lot of times the only people they can call are the police. I wrote a book about Shannon Conley – she’s a Denver teen. The FBI talked to her 13 times. They talked to her folks, too. And when her father realized that she had the one-way ticket to hell, he called the FBI and said, “I guess you have to arrest my daughter.” And they did. They arrested her trying to enter the plane, and she’s now serving time in prison.

But how sad that family members don’t have hotlines that they can call and imams and psychologists that will come and visit with their child and say, “Would you like to meet somebody that’s walked away from this, or would you like to see a video” – like our videos – “of some people that have been inside and they can tell you another side of the story? Maybe you want to think about this just a little bit before you go too much further.” And Shannon Conley told the FBI, “Well, I’m convinced that I need to carry out jihad” and that she had downloaded guerrilla training manuals and that she had been considering that she would do a VIP attack inside the U.S. And since she didn’t have an actual plan and say that she had committed a crime, they couldn’t arrest her. And the FBI are not psychologists. We can’t expect that of them, but we should do better for the people that are vulnerable.

I think you asked me another question, but you asked me too many. I’m sorry, I didn’t answer them all.

QUESTION: Yeah. Should I repeat that? The question was that --

MODERATOR: Let’s just limit it to one question.

QUESTION: Yeah, this is the one question that she left out to answer it. Why – what was the motivation, the major motivation to leave ISIS and why they would join it? The major motivation.

MS SPECKHARD: Okay. Okay. Well, in Europe and in the West, the major motivation – in Europe for sure it’s a combination of facing discrimination, marginalization, high unemployment for their ethnic group, and that coupled with someone presenting to them an alternative world governance, world order, where they’ll suddenly have all the things that they don’t have in their life currently. So that is very attractive to them.

And inside Syria, the recruitment – a lot of it is coerced. ISIS takes over their area, they don’t have a whole lot of choices. They control everything. They control the food, they control the fuel, they control the housing, and they control all the jobs, so it’s basically how long can you hold out. And if you are somebody that wants to have a good life – I mean, we had a woman that was in the Hisbah – that’s the police – say she and her husband decided to join because they saw that it would be good for them. They saw financially the rewards of it.

And why do they quit? Because they become deeply convinced that this is not Islamic. Everybody that goes through sharia training – and I didn’t say this earlier, and it’s really scary. Everybody that goes through sharia training, at the point where they are judged, “You are ready to graduate,” they bring them a prisoner and they behead the prisoner. So that means that the kids that are coming back to us in the West, they’ve got blood on their hands unless they somehow managed to evade this. And I don’t think you can evade it. We had one informant tell us he had the knife in his hand, he had the prisoner, and he was ready to do it, and then he said, “No, this is another human being, I can’t do it,” threw the knife and ran. Well, they ran after him, arrested him, and then he was recycled. He was put through sharia training the second time, and he was punished for it in the sense that he wasn’t ever given a weapon and he saw himself in the eyes of the others as somebody that wasn’t trustworthy. And he knew he could be accused at any moment – if somebody else did something bad and wanted to cover it up, they could accuse him and then he’d be killed. So there’s this peer thing that – a lot of pressure to go with the group once you’re in it, once you go into the sharia training. And once you make your bay’at, you don’t leave.

But they do get themselves out at risk to their own lives, and a lot them get killed trying to leave. We’d heard a lot of stories of others that were killed trying to leave, and they’re immediately beheaded. But they leave because of the corruption, the brutality, the double standard, the criminality, and the things that they know are not right and are not Islamic and they don’t want any part in it.

QUESTION: Thank you. Majeed Gly, Kurdish Rudaw Media Network. You said that this research is an addiction to you. I think it’s a very good addiction. I want to go now and ask about Ibn Ahmed’s (ph) story. It was very interesting. You mentioned this 470 beds. Can you tell us what was – it was a special center for those women, Yezidi women, and also, as you mentioned, Sunni women? What did Ibn Ahmed (ph) say the leader replied to his question after he heard the women crying?

And also, the second part – you mentioned about the foreign fighters. Have you interviewed the local fighters who joined ISIS? Other than the psychological factor, what was the ideological sharia arguments – anything they told them in order to persuade them to join ISIS? Thank you very much.

MS SPECKHARD: Okay. Those are great questions, thank you. The 475 beds were in a place called Conoco, and I assume that Conoco, the company, used to be there. It was in the oil fields in the Deir al-Zor area, and they had barracks that they had turned into prisons. So they had places for the foreign fighters to live and then they had places where they kept these women, and that was the beds for them. And I’m sure there’s other places, because this was actually inside Syria.

And as far as the foreign fighters, what the Syrians tell us – a lot of them say, “We couldn’t really talk with them. We could talk with the Tunisians, but the others” – a lot of these people were illiterate so they say, “We didn’t have any basis to talk with them, but they did have translators to talk to the emirs and to coordinate.” But each language group is put into its own training and its own group, and they tell us over and over the foreign fighters are very happy in ISIS. The Syrians are no longer happy, but the foreign fighters are the true believers. They’re happy, they love it, they come ideologically trained.

And I would say that’s true. The ones that I talked to – and it’s only been a couple at this point and their parents – they were all ideologically convinced before they went. They have a referral, and they communicate by WhatsApp or internet of some sort and say, “I’m coming.” And if they just show up – like, the guy I interviewed was a bit impulsive and just showed up, and then he was held under suspicion. And our Syrians tell us the same thing: They’re held in a special area. They investigate them a bit because they don’t want a foreign spy among them. And if they don’t have a referral and they don’t look like they’re trustworthy, they send them immediately to the front and have them fight. And if they get killed, well, then they got killed; if they show themselves trustworthy, that’s great too.

And the foreign fighters have more privileges. The female Hisbah – almost all the foreign women join the Hisbah. They carry a Kalashnikov. I don’t think they’re well trained on it, but they act with impunity. They don’t answer to anyone. The Syrian Hisbah answer to the foreign Hisbah females. And all the foreign fighters – the men – have access to a sex slave. They’re given one automatically, where the Syrian – they call themselves Ansar – are not given one, and sometimes they sounded a bit jealous about that, sadly, and – or sickeningly. The foreign fighters are housed in nice places. They’re given good quarters. They are really treated with a lot of respect because they gave up everything to come, and some come with whole families. They get married. They often marry within their own language group, but not always.

That’s all I can think off the top of my head to tell you about the foreign fighters, but --

QUESTION: And the local fighters – I asked – you interviewed local fighters, right?

MS SPECKHARD: All the interviews in Turkey are local. They’re all Syrians.

QUESTION: They are all Syrians? And the motive?

MS SPECKHARD: Yeah, so we have --

QUESTION: The ideological motive? You hear anything --

MS SPECKHARD: I would say – we’ve counted them up, and my Turkish colleague and I agreed to go through these right now because we’re not sure we agree on this, but it’s looking like maybe three to five were very ideologically driven to join. So the – ISIS comes into an area and they immediately install a sheikh in the mosque. The sheikh starts reaching out, especially to the youth, and telling them, “We came to make the real Islam, we want to teach you how to pray, we want to teach you all the things about your religion that you don’t know that Assad kept from you. Notice that your country has oil but that you’re poor. We’re now going to share the wealth. You’re going to rise up from how you lived under Assad.”

And the young ones gravitate to that. So that’s both ideological and financial, and they are also given a job. So we found at least four or five that answered to the ideological call, but the others are starved into it. Women marry into the ISIS fighters because their families are literally starving and they think, well, if I marry an ISIS fighter then the family gets a food card because the food – you get a card that you can go and buy food or fuel. And so she saves her family this way. And the fighters that are captured, they’re given a choice – join us or we’ll behead you. So you join.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Matthew Hall. Oh, thank you.

QUESTION: Celine Li from ATN News. Among all the 25 defectors you talked to in Turkey and also 500 writ large, do you sense a sense of guilt from them? I know a lot of them escaped because their personal situations no longer seem appealing to them financially or freedom-wise, but do they have a bigger sense of the world, how their actions might have caused harm to the rest of the world?

MS SPECKHARD: I’ve heard in the news that some ISIS fighters haven’t been getting paid, but we didn’t hear that from anybody. So nobody left – left ISIS because of finances. In fact, all of them told us that financially they were greatly enhanced by joining ISIS. But they left because of ideological things – corruption, extreme brutality that they just couldn’t swallow anymore – and they left risking their lives. I always ask, “How are you doing now?” And we ask how have they settled in Turkey because they’re living as guests in Turkey. And we ask, “Are you having nightmares?” They don’t really want to open up about that. They don’t want to really open up about any of it. They’re highly traumatized. And you can tell that. With somebody that wants to tell you everything and exaggerate everything, they might be a fake person. But with the ones that – most soldiers are this way too. They don’t want to tell you their combat stories because they don’t want to relive them. It causes them a lot of pain. And yes, they have terrible nightmares and terrible self-doubt about what they were involved in, because at one point they were true believers and they went through their Sharia training, they did behead. Some of them make the point of telling us, “I never killed civilians. I only killed in battles.” And they make that point because they do feel guilty.

So yes, they do feel guilty. But on the other hand, in all my years of interviewing terrorists, I would say they are a lot like soldiers, and they have their own just war theory. So they have the just terrorism theory, and terrorists have oftentimes thrown at me, “Well, what about your country? You kill civilians all the time.” And I always say back to them, “Well,” – and they’ll say, “A drone kills,” something like that. And I’ll said, “That’s true. When you kill a terrorist leader that’s living embedded among civilians, you may also kill his family or this and that. But our aim never is to aim at civilians and to cause terror by killing civilians, where a terrorist aim is to kill civilians and to cause terror by doing so. And that’s a huge difference.”

But most dyed-in-the-wool terrorists while they’re in it – and I’ve interviewed lots of them while they’re in it, not after they defected – they don’t feel guilty. They are convinced that their cause is just and that they have the right to engage in terrorism for their cause.

QUESTION: Matthew Hall from the Sydney Morning Herald. I just wanted to get an idea about the uniqueness of your research, your academic research that you’re doing, and is it any more or different to what maybe government agencies are doing, and do you work with government agencies in any way, share your information? And also, I think you mentioned you were going to launch a counter-recruitment campaign. Is that right?

MS SPECKHARD: Well, all of these films we want to edit and make into little clips and make them as creative as possible and put them back on the internet in the hopes that people that go searching for ISIS content will also find our content, and that maybe it will cause them to not join, not leave their homes, not ruin their lives and the lives of others.

Sure, I talk to governments. I talked to your government and I enjoyed it very much. I was in Sydney, in Melbourne, and Canberra, although I didn’t see a kangaroo and I regretted that so I need to come back. And yeah, anytime the governments want me to talk to them, I’m very happy to talk to them. And in fact, I’m a psychologist and we had a big fight in the APA recently about the ethics of psychologists advising for interrogation, national security interrogation. I completely disagree with the American Psychological Association that doesn’t want us to have a thing to do with it. I think we should be there, we should be at the table, because I for one have good ethics and I don’t engage in things that are smacking of torture and that kind of thing, literally smacking of torture. And we should be guiding our governments and I’m very proud and happy to do that if they invite me to the table.

QUESTION: So do the governments use your research as intelligence, or what’s the relationship?

MS SPECKHARD: Oh, no, no, no. I’ve had intel agencies ask me for certain things, and no, uh-uh. And they’re much better at that. And I remember one time interviewing – I think it was Zakaria Zubeidi and I had my phone turned on, and I was with a few students. This was in West Bank. And I told everybody, “Turn your phones off.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “If the Mossad wants this interview, they can come and get it themselves. I didn’t want them getting it through my phone.” And it’s very easy to track somebody, and although at the same time I hoped that they knew exactly where I was when it turned it off and exactly where he was, because a few minutes later his phone rang and he answered it and said, “Hello, hello, hello,” which made me wonder is he now going to get the missile, because he was one of the people that they wanted to kill. So the risks of this research. Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Alexey Osipov from Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia. With all your experience --

MS SPECKHARD: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Yeah. And with all your collected data, what do you think about Ku Klux Klan? Just before last week I was sure that this movement has disappeared from American map, but Anaheim, California and Duke’s support of Donald Trump remind us that they are exist. What do you think?

MS SPECKHARD: I think we have to take that very seriously. And we had this guy that went into a church and killed I don’t know how many people, and I don’t think it was labeled terrorism. But if you’re politically acting out against another racial group and killing them, it seems to me to have a political motive. And the FBI put out a report that as far as domestic terrorism inside the U.S., that groups like that – they didn’t name KKK, but groups that wanted to kill homosexuals or wanted to kill black people were in numbers as great and attacks that had been carried out by them were in numbers as great as groups like al-Qaida and ISIS. But when you look at lethality, partly because of the Twin Towers and the attacks at the Pentagon, the al-Qaida and ISIS outrank them. But in terms of actual numbers of attacks – so that’s something we have to take really seriously and be on top of. And that’s why groups like Southern Poverty Law are great groups.

QUESTION: And Dr. Speckhard, just a quick follow-up. First, how do you identify your subjects of your research? Who – do they come to you? Do they – are referred by somebody to you?

And the second question. There were several reports in the Middle East over the past period that ISIS actually control its fighters whether foreign or domestic through chemical medicines, like they mention one called Captagon, something like that. What’s the truth to this hypothesis? Thank you.

MS SPECKHARD: The Captagon is true, and we had a high-level commander give us a really good interview. I think it was about four hours long. And he talked about at one point – he admitted, “I was in a battle and I was scared.” And I thought that was really cool, this manly man saying, “I was scared.” And he said the guy next to him said, “You scared?” “Yes.” “Here, take this,” and handed him a pill. And the pill he described exactly fits the description of Captagon, although he didn’t call it Captagon. He said he was so high that – and it’s an amphetamine – that he ran to the front and his cadres on either side were saying, “No, no, come back, come back. You’re going to be killed.” “I want to be killed. I want to be killed.” And he was ready to go. And we’re hearing lots of reports of Captagon being used in that area.

We also were told by the kids that there’s an envelope of powder. It’s probably some kind of sedative, but not something to put them to sleep necessarily because they’ve got to drive this bomb-filled vehicle to the lines, but that they say take this to probably calm their nerves. So I doubt that’s Captagon. I would think it would be something else. I don’t know. But it’s an envelope with powder in it.

And I know, when I was interviewing in Iraq back in 2006, people were telling me about taking a lot of drugs. And a lot of people – just normal people were telling me about taking drugs because of war and that they’d lived through really tough stuff and they were now available on the market and they were using. And when people get traumatized, they’ll turn to substances because the substances make the flashbacks go away, at least temporarily.

And you asked me one other question before the Captagon.

QUESTION: Identifying your subjects for --

MS SPECKHARD: Oh, yeah. Oh, okay. I’ll talk to a lot of people before I’ll get to a subject. And I was very lucky in this case – Dr. Yayla had been talking to a lot of people, going to the refugee camps, and trying to get his foot in the door with ISIS. And he did. And I met him just at the opportune time and said I was trying to do the same thing. And he said, “Do you want to join forces?”

So he had already had won some trust, and our first interviews were not so good because they were still feeling us out – “Can we trust you?” And now we’ve got one guy that helps us. He’s a former ISIS cadre and he reaches out to people that he knows from ISIS and – that are now out, and brings them for us to interview. And we don’t know their identities and we don’t ask. We don’t want to know. And it’s worked really well.

I was just in Belgium, and when I lived there – let’s see, we left in 2010 – I was doing most of my research in Belgium in 2007. I would say I literally had to do 100 interviews before I would get to an extremist. But I would ask people, “How is life here? How’s life as a Muslim second-generation Moroccan immigrant? What kind of discrimination do you face?” This kind of thing. “If you face it, does it ever make you gravitate to extremism? And if it does, can we talk about that? And if it doesn’t, do you have any friends that it does?” And they say, “No, I don’t have any extremist friends.” “Really? Think about it.” And then, “Oh, you know, I do.”

And it would finally lead me to the person that was in the mosque where they sent the guy to kill General Massoud. And this guy tells me, “Yeah, I was going to be a martyr too,” and tells me his whole story. And then I ask him, “Can you introduce me to the people from that mosque?” “Well, they all hate me now because I left it. And besides that, you’re white, American, Christian, and you aren’t dressed in a abaya and a headscarf – no.”

But then when he gets up to leave, he suddenly says, “You’re a psychologist, aren’t you? Can I ask you a question, because I have this issue with my wife.” I said, “Of course, sit down.” So we spend the next two hours talking about his wife, and when he gets up the second time, he says, “Who do you want to talk to?” That’s how I do it.

MODERATOR: So we have time for maybe one or two more questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. There are a lot of concerns right now within America, which is domestic, homegrown terrorism. And we have – we’ve seen Boston Marathon bombers, we’ve seen a shooting in California. From your experience talking to the defectors in Europe, Syria, and the Middle East, what do you think are the factors? I mean, because in this country, American people are also facing their own issues. They might not be as illiterate as some of the people you interview, but unemployment, also a sense of self-pride or honor. Do you think anything that you have gathered from your research outside this country can be also applied and solve the problem that people are facing domestically? Thank you.

MS SPECKHARD: Absolutely. And I think the best comparison models are Europe because our societies are similar. And that’s where we can be really proud of being Americans, and I hope we still have our melting pot. And I hope that the voices like Donald Trump’s are far and few between, because we have to be an all-inclusive society, and if we create a them-versus-us and if we try to stigmatize particularly our Muslim community, then we’re endangering ourselves.

And one of the stories that I just love, and I was asking today about it, is that one of the UN ambassadors here is al-Khalilzad, came from Afghanistan and in the first generation in the U.S. became the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Do we live in a good country or what? That doesn’t happen everywhere, that you can immigrate and in your own lifetime – not your children, not your grandchildren – become the ambassador to the UN for that country. And I’m very proud of that – and he’s Muslim too by the way, I think. And that’s what’s good about here, and that’s what needs to continue to be good. And people like Donald Trump need to stop saying the things they’re saying because they’re very incendiary.

MODERATOR: Well, I think we’re out of time. Thank you so much for your time today, for coming. Today’s briefing was on the record and the transcript will be on our website at And we encourage everyone to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr. Thank you so much.

# # #