Dr Anne Speckhard has interviewed hundreds of activists from the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram. A professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington DC, she specialises in the psychological analysis of terrorists and extremists in jail in the United States and Europe. Her interaction has resulted in more than a dozen books on how these people joined terror groups and what motivated them to kill unarmed civilians, often women and children. Her next project is to interview 85 members of ISIS who have been arrested in the United States by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over the last three years — but access does not come easily.
"I have applied to the relevant authorities for interviews of these individuals. It is not as if you turn up at the gates of the jail and interview them … there is a lengthy process involved in getting permission," Dr Speckhard tells the Herald. However, because she enjoys support from different departments of the United States engaged in counterterrorism, she is likely to hit no snags in her quest.
Also read: Islamic Republic versus Islamic State
The average age of these 85 individuals arrested in the United States over ISIS-related charges is below 26. The director of the Bureau of Counterterrorism tells a group of journalists from 15 countries that the administration is developing a programme allowing civil society organisations to intervene in individual cases related to violent extremism at the pre-criminal stage. For this programme to succeed, officials say they are focusing on how and why young people from financially sound backgrounds outside the United States join terror outfits such as ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram.
Interestingly, Pakistan and Afghanistan are no longer the favoured destinations of these extremists
The United States administration is thus helping the civil society build institutions through financing, training and collaboration to assist families and parents with young teenagers turning towards violent extremism.
"The key to this process is research. It is like understanding the whole life cycle of an extremist to identify the point of intervention well before they try to commit an act of violence," says Irfan Saeed, the counterterrorism chief at the United States Department of State.
Saeed, who has served as a government prosecutor in terrorism-related cases, says his journey from putting hardened terrorists behind bars to countering violent extremism began when he saw teenage boys starting to get accused of violent crimes in the United States. He cites one case in which an 18-year-old boy, accused of throwing powdered anthrax (it was controlled before it could cause loss of life) started weeping during his trial.
The fact that most of the 85 individuals arrested over ISIS-related charges are between the ages of 15 and 26 has forced the United States administration to device “soft tools” in dealing with the rising problem of the youth joining extremist causes. Quoting data provided by the FBI, Mokhtar Awad – a research fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University – says 38 per cent of those charged with ISIS-related crimes are those who recently converted to Islam, which means Islam is not practiced in their families. Additionally, most of these individuals are citizens or permanent residents of the United States.
Interestingly, Pakistan and Afghanistan are no longer the favoured destinations of these extremists. Out of the 85 in jail, 45 per cent are those who were arrested while trying to travel to Syria and Somalia. Some are also looking towards Nigeria, but Pakistan seems to have been crossed out of that list.
"There is this recognition that this is a problem that law enforcement agencies cannot solve alone. We cannot wait for these people to commit a crime for us to intervene. There is no overarching strategy. We are experimenting with different methods," explains Mokhtar. "The way this intervention takes place is a controversial issue: will law enforcement do it? The individual has to be profiled, but whether by law enforcement agencies or the civil society … these questions are still not settled," he adds.
Also read: Who's afraid of the Islamic State?
Distinguishing between the space given to civil society organisations to intervene and the legal jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies to interject, arrest or put the person under surveillance are questions still under deliberation. Saeed says various cities in the United States (including Los Angeles and Boston) are running their own pilot programmes in counterterrorism. Mokhtar admits that many laws are difficult to enact in Washington DC, but they have “developed a grand strategy to run programmes to counter violent extremism all over the country," with approval from the White House.
Saeed tells the Herald that the United States Department of State is partnering with government institutions in Pakistan such as the Ministry of Interior and the National Counter Terrorism Authority to run a similar programme, where communities and influential members of the society are allowed to intervene in cases of individuals inclined towards extremism. "It could be anyone — a soccer coach, the imam of a mosque, a mentor or family member who can tell that particular individual that what he is doing is not right," says Saeed.
It is not, however, easy to assess the effectiveness of such a programme. There is no measureable system to prove that an intervention has succeeded. "For instance, you to talk to a bunch of violent extremists and none of them end up going to Syria. How are we going to state that? Because some may still harbour extremist ideas, yet not take the step of crossing over," says Mokhtar.
Yet, even with all the practical difficulties and complexities shrouding the exercise, officials say that the prevailing conditions in the United States make it imperative to continue with the programme. Saeed narrates the story of a Egyptian man from Virginia whose son turned into a radical. "His son suddenly became more religious. He started telling his mother and sisters that what they were doing was haram and he would switch off the television saying it was un-Islamic," recalls Saeed. "One day, his son disappeared and bought a ticket to Turkey to go and join the ISIS in Syria. The father then calls the FBI. The FBI’s methods are clear: they arrest and prosecute. So when the boy comes back home, the FBI arrests him. The father then realises he had the FBI arrest his own son."
While arrests have been made, many think there has to be a civil society answer to the problem. "Civil society can intervene in individual cases to stop radicalised youth from either ending up in jail or killing someone," says Saeed.
"Last year, President Obama organised a world summit on countering violent extremism and in the same year the White House also approved a national strategy for it. We are ready to partner with countries such as Pakistan," he adds. And some of the groundwork has already been laid out. As a model example, officials point towards the campaign being carried out by a small county called Montgomery, which is an hour-long drive away from Washington DC. Montgomery has undergone a change in its demographics in the last 10 years, with immigrants from Muslim countries now a constituting the majority of the population.
The World Organization for Research Development and Education – a non-governmental organisation – is running a programme in Montgomery where they have established an international cultural centre to bring together different communities for the purpose of social cohesion, says Mehreen Farooq, a Pakistani American working as a senior fellow with the organisation. "The latest data from the FBI indicates that around 150 to 200 people from America have gone to Syria to join the ISIS," she tells the Herald.
Farooq mentions that the University of Maryland recently carried out a study on violent extremism and concluded that those who are in a state of cultural limbo are most likely to turn towards extremism. “They are neither here nor there,” she says.
The Montgomery model is often referred to as the most successful model for combating violent extremism by the United States Department of State. "We have brought together 200 faith organisations and around 100 community service providers," Farooq adds.
"Three years ago, we had a meeting with the county police chief where he recognised that violent extremism is an issue which needs to be addressed. And then, within a week, the Boston Marathon bombing took place," Farooq said in a media briefing."We [have to] deal with cases at the pre-criminal stage. If there is information about an individual involved in an activity that could cause harm to the national interest, we have a duty to inform law enforcement agencies.”
To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.