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ISIL defectors speak out to counter recruiting drive

Montreal Gazette interview of ICSVE Director, Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

By Catherine Solyom

July 6, 2016

In one video, a 15-year-old relates his experience with the Cubs of the Caliphate — ISIL’s child soldiers — and why he had to leave, even after he graduated from training with the compulsory beheading of a prisoner, at the risk of losing his own life.

Another shows a young Syrian man turned prison guard for ISIL, also known as ISIS. The man escaped to Turkey with his family after seeing the women captives huddling in the corner turned into sex slaves for foreign fighters.  

They are chilling narratives, to say the least, and just the first of 45 videos based on interviews with defectors from ISIL that researchers hope can counter the powerful draw of the extremist group where they are strongest — online. 

“ISIS products are so emotionally compelling,” says Anne Speckhard, the director of the Washington-based International Centre for the Study of Violent Extremism, who conducted the interviews with co-author Ahmet Yayla, the former head of the anti-terrorism division at the Turkish National Police. “If you start liking and tweeting their products they start contacting you — and you’ll have multiple personal contacts …

“We’re trying to break the ISIS brand and their online recruiting and let ISIS speak for themselves. These are the people who walked away. Actually they ran away. They have a lot to say and we need to raise their voices.” 

To defeat ISIL we need fewer bombs, and more social media, she suggested.

Released Wednesday by the ICSVE, the ISIS Defectors Project — which also includes a book subtitled “Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate” — is an unprecedented look inside the so-called Islamic State.

Speckhard and Yayla first went through a smuggler to contact defectors in Turkey, and against all odds, were able to speak to 32 defectors from Syria, six from the Balkans, two European returnees, and European parents of those who went to fight jihad in Syria. One of their children, originally from Belgium, is still a commander with ISIL. 

“My project was to try and get former terrorists on video to talk about terrorism, to say it didn’t work out for me and also how they got in,” said Speckhard. “But I didn’t think I’d get ISIS people. Being an American, a woman and a Christian, I thought they’d kill me. But we got access to Syrians.”

What struck her the most about the recruits was how they were initially so captivated by the dream — the dream of justice, freedom and wealth in an oil-rich Caliphate, with ISIL promising whatever was desired: a house, a wife, a salary, adventure or to fix whatever was wrong with one’s life.

“For me this is about breaking that,” Speckhard said. “I feel bad about breaking a dream, but this dream is a nightmare.” 

The Defectors Project was launched on the same day as a report by the New York-based Centre on National Security on the 101 prosecutions of ISIL sympathizers in the U.S. since 2014 — highlighting trends in their motivations and intents — and as U.S. Senate hearings got underway on efforts to counter online radicalization. 

ISIL has thousands of Twitter accounts, and publishes countless graphic videos, the online Dabiq magazine and violent memes across numerous social media platforms. 

For the videos, Speckhard and her team downloaded sleek materials from ISIL accounts as well as off Telegram, a messaging app, where the pictures and video footage are raw.

For Marie Lamensch, a researcher with the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, the messenger is as important as the message when it comes to countering online propaganda.

“We’ve seen the U.S. and France trying to have their own websites and put out messages on Twitter,” Lamensch said. “It can’t work. All those young people leaving to join groups like ISIS are usually against their own state or their own government. Using former extremists and jihadists is difficult and may be controversial, but they are people potential recruits will listen to … I’m not saying it’s going to work but the message is a lot more credible (when it comes) from people who have gone through the radicalization process.”

Speckhard believes the videos can be a powerful tool for use by organizations like the Montreal Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization leading to Violence. 

“Anyone can take this to a high school and say “you want to hear a real ISIS person talking?” Speckhard said, adding they are free to use by anyone and have also been posted on YouTube.  

“Working with people in cults you try and get someone who’s been in one to talk to you. Sometimes that isn’t possible, but here you can use the video.”

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