US prison camps in Iraq helped forge ISIS leaders’ network - ex-FBI veteran

The ascent of the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) from a mere band of radicals to a terrorist network of enormous proportion means that the threat of jihad has spilled over the borders of Syria, Iraq - or even the whole Middle East. Other terrorist groups pledge allegiance to the IS - even though some are thousands of kilometers away. How far can the black hand of the IS go? Why isn’t the flow of recruits abating, despite international efforts? What about those who refuse to join? We ask these questions to a former FBI agent, counter-terrorism expert Martin Reardon on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Martin Reardon, former FBI agent, counter-terrorism expert, vice-president of the Soufan intelligence group, welcome to our show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Islamic State originally have pledge to create a caliphate, take over Syria and Iraq - but now, that all these terror groups are joining ISIS in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, Nigeria - will we see all of them under the Islamic State flag, like one big terror organization?

Martin Reardon: I think this is the big debate right now. There are number of extremist groups, terrorist organizations, that have sworn allegiance to ISIL. There are other ones that have given their allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and, as we know ISIS and Al-Qaeda, same ideology but very different way & goals. I think what you have seen in the last several weeks or the last few months is the expansion of the ISIL brand, originally in Iraq and Syria, moved on over to Afghan-Pak region region, into the Philippines, into Libya, into Egypt, and most recently, declaration of emirate under Boko Haram in Nigeria.

SS: It’s funny that you used the word “brand” - has ISIS made itself into a “coolest” terror brand that young extremists want to be part of? Was that the idea?

MR: Why, I think a lot of the...what ISIL is trying to do is to recruit heavily from all over the world, and this brand, as macabre as it is, as brutal as it is, there is a niche within the extremist community worldwide that finds that very appealing, which explains why they do the videos of the executions and whatnot. Boko Haram has done the same thing, recently, where they’ve sort of adopted some of ISIL videography techniques and putting their videos online.

SS: But, the two groups, and I am talking about Nigeria’s Boko Haram and ISIS - they are far apart, geographically, at least. Boko Haram was focused on the destruction of the Nigerian state. Is it now trying to boost its image outside of the country with this ISIS allegiance? What for?

MR: I think what you see with the recent allegiance that Boko Haram has given to ISIL - it benefits both entities. For Boko Haram it gives them the prestige of no longer being looked at by the world as a small insurgency within north-east Nigeria, but as a part of a much larger organisation, and as they say, part of the caliphate. So it’s that prestige for Boko Haram. It’s also quick fix for them. This was done conveniently just weeks after the major offensive by Nigeria, by Niger, Chad, Cameroon - which has really in the last few weeks taken back probably a few dozen cities and villages that Boko Haram had firm control over for a number of months.

SS: So, do you think ISIS will help them out? I mean, send them weapons, money, soldiers?

MR: No, I mean, again, you’re talking about distance of 4 thousand kilometers, so it’s not going to be assistance by ISIL, it won’t even be direction, probably, by ISIL, but it’s that “brand”. Abubakar Shekau was very clear on this in his videotaped message where he was swearing allegiance to ISIL. Hr was calling for “my brothers” - other muslim extremists in Africa - “if you can’t get to Iraq and Syria, come here” - immigrate was the term he used - “in Nigeria, fight with us”. So, it’s a part of bringing in fighters from outside of Nigeria, the vast majority of Boko Haram fighters are from the tribes, kind of ethnic group there in north-east Nigeria. So, bring in fighters from outside, bring in weapons from outside.

SS: You’ve recently said that issue of radicalized extremism has risen to never before seen level of violence and geopolitical instability. Why had decades long international efforts against terror failed?

MR: There’s a number of reasons. First and foremost, when it comes to terrorism, regardless of whether it is religiously-driven or politically-driven, but whenever you have terrorist groups come up, it is local issues that bring their rise. I think all too often, governments have looked at this problem of terrorism as a nail, so to speak, and their only tool to fight it was a hammer - if your only tool is a hammer - military force - then every problem is a nail. In the last couple of years there has been more and more discussion on addressing the root causes of extremism, and that’s where it gets to be political. The reason somebody is driven to extremism in Nigeria is different from the reason that brought to extremism in, say, London or New York or Islamabad or in Syria.

SS: Butif extremism stems from local trouble, why is anti-Westernism the main recruitment narrative right now?

MR: That is what the Islamic extremists, and that is, when we look at the Middle East and Africa and, let’s go back to Boko Haram - there are two big things that they oppose: one, is the westernisation of Nigeria. Nigeria for more than a century was a colony of the UK and you know there’s fairly significant western influence, particularly in the south. So, there are anti-western sentiments there. The same in the Middle East. Much of the Middle East was controlled to one extent or another by different European powers. There are a lot of anti-western sentiments there. And when you’re talking about people who may be very poor, they feel as if they are disenfranchised, perhaps, uneducated...that’s not fair to say, there are number of educated extremists as well, but disenfranchised and poor - they look at something to blame. In Middle East, arbitrary lines were driven to create countries.

SS: But look at the Middle East - you’re talking about countries being poor. Middle EAst has always been poor, and there’s always been social problems there, but terrorism has flourished only in the past 50 years. Why?

MR: I think part of what you’re seeing has started in 1960s, when number of these countries in the Middle East actually achieved or obtained their independence from the European powers that were colonising them, there was less European security influence there - you had issues of corrupt governments in many countries, some that are still corrupt - that is something that will drive people towards extremist ideology. They look at the corrupt government as, perhaps, being a lapdog for other Western power. So in a lot of this, it is poor governance that is part of the issue.

SS: Look at Tunisia, for instance - the country where the Arab Spring originated, seemed like a model for what should have happened across the Middle East - people come together to overcome their troubles, but they still have terrorism, so where it is coming from?

MR: Tunisia is a poor country, and you know, again, Tunisia in the Middle East, what they have done since the Arab Spring is remarkable - a democratically-elected government, it’s remarkable. But they do have that segment of the population, it’s poor, it’s uneducated, it feels disenfranchised from the government. That’s why Tunisia, as a nation, there are more foreign fighters from Tunisia in Iraq and Syria with ISIL than any other country. Estimates put them at 3,000 - about 500 of those fighters, just in the last couple of months have returned to Tunisia, so they are hardened in Iraq and Syria, now they’re back in Tunisia.

SS: Let me ask you this - is Europe under threat here? ISIS has said it will attack European states. Can it? I mean, terrorists are already active in Libya, just across the sea from Italy - can they use that?

MR: Yes. Is Europe under threat of terrorist attack that ISIS-inspired? Yes. ISIS, right now, is like Boko Haram. They focus on maintaining control of the territory that they have. In the last several weeks they’ve seen a number of losses of territory in Iraq and in Syria. ISIS is not likely to set sails into Europe to fight, at least not in near-term, but they will rely, as we’ve seen in other attacks, they’ll rely on motivating other individuals who’re already in Europe to conduct those attacks. They said so much in September of last year, calling on extremists all over the world: “Come fight with us in Iraq and Syria. If you can’t travel to Iraq and Syria - then kill the Westerners in the cities and towns that you live in. If you have a bomb, use a bomb, if you have a gun, use a gun, if not - use a knife.” So this is world-wide call to kill foreigners in their own countries.

SS: For instance, in Libya, western forces tried to help solve local problems and now there’s terrorism growing every day there, while coalition plans to attack IS - bombs also pound cities with civilians in them. Destruction, civilian losses - isn’t that breed more terrorism?

MR: Well, it does. I think, what you saw with the Arab Spring - this has been a problem for decades in the Middle East. When you had certain governments, autocratic, corrupt, maintaining dictatorial regime in those countries - the people revolted. When those governments, though, were in control, they, for the most part, kept the extremists bottled down. Brutally, but they’ve kept them bottled down. I think, with the Arab Spring, what you saw and even going as far back as the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 - when you start orchestrating regime change, and taking out these strong, brutal leaders, it opens it up for...there’s vacuum there. Vacuum is going to be filled by someone who wants the power. In Libya, it’s just a huge amount of space that is ungoverned. Actually, in Libya, you have two governments, neither of which has complete legitimacy, occupying two different capitals - it’s a recipe for disaster there, you see the same thing in Yemen now. Ungoverned space is just a breeding ground for extremist organizations.

SS: But what I am asking is this - does the West make itself a primary target for terror by meddling in local affairs, in other countries’ local affairs?

MR: Yes. Of course they do, and that has been the motivation and the stated reason by a number of these organizations for attacking Western countries, because of their meddling in what they consider to be their own affairs.

SS: But how does terror become a local problem in the West? I mean, the quality of life is much higher in the U.S. or Europe, but educated young people become terrorists too. We see this every day.

MR: It’s a number of different things. In any country - you can talk of U.S., UK, all throughout Europe - you are going to have immigrant populations who feel that they are disenfranchised. The younger people, teenagers, young adults - those are more vulnerable, because they can take that disenfranchisement to a violent level, and now, with social media, the Internet, with smartphones, with Twitter, it’s so easy to radicalise people and use social media for that purpose and to recruit people. So, this is disenfranchised communities in these countries and it’s the use of social media.

SS: Now, with Internet and social media it has become easier for extremists to recruit - but shouldn’t it also be easier to track them as well? So, why are they winning the social media campaign?

MR: When it comes to social media, as far as when they are using it, I think there’s been many discussions over the years about the government getting involved with social media and using that as a counter-narrative. The problem with governments being involved in counter-narrative is people automatically put that as propaganda: “well, of course, the government is going to say that”. What is probably preferable for that counter-narrative is to use religious leaders, if this is a religious agenda you’re trying to address, academic leaders, non-governmental entities - for them to actually push out that counter-narrative.

SS: Exactly how easy is it to join ISIS? Do you just, like, board a plane to Turkey and cross the border into Syria - and then what? Do you email them first, or what? Like, what happens?

MR: The recruiting side is done in number of different ways. There are chat-rooms on the Internet that people will go on to, they will be married up with members of ISIS, or ISIS recruiters to talk about what it’s like, why you should come and what they’re fighting for - and they give them ideas how to do it. For instance, the common route into Iraq and Syria is through Turkey. A number of European countries now are tracking travel to Turkey, direct. So, they use secure route going through a number of different countries, crossing through many, going into Turkey. So, it’s not difficult to get to Iraq or Syria to fight with ISIS.

SS: When you were in FBI, you monitored international terror-watch list. Now, a lot of recent attacks were actually perpetrated by those watched by authorities - I mean, Tzarnaevs in Boston, the Charlie Hebdo attackers. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was actually detained in the U.S. prison. So, what’s the use of this terror watchlist?

MR: For the U.S., purpose for coming up with the watchlist initially was to either prevent or limit entry into the U.S. by aviation means - that was the whole purpose. It’s for somebody to say “this person a known suspected terrorist, therefore they cannot get on to the aircraft that’s coming to the U.S.”, or they may be supporting terrorists in some aspect or it hasn’t been determined that there’s connection, so they’re on a watch list, or secondary screening for whether allowed to come to the U.S., but then, subjected to questioning or perhaps their luggage is searched or where they’re going, that law enforcement jurisdiction is notified. So there's a real purpose for the watch list. But really, it pertains to people travelling into the U.S. Baghdadi was watch-listed, but that didn’t restrict his travel when he was in the Middle East.

SS: Also, a lot of ISIS leaders came from Camp Bucca was interned. I’m just wondering, did it end up helping them build a network instead of neutralizing them?

MR: It did a couple of things, and you see the same thing in the West, in Europe, in U.S. with prisons. In prisons, people of the like mind will come together, they’ll basically form bonds there, get hardened. You see that with gang members, they go to prison, they become more hardened, when they go out, they’re accepted into a gang and they go right back in. This is what happened with detainees in Iraq, and you’re right Baghdadi and most of his senior leadership, the Iraqi leadership, had that one thing in common - they were all in prison together, and that’s where they formed those bonds. So, yes, that did help to radicalize or further radicalize them - but they were already, fighting, when they were put in prison. There was already a degree of radicalization, which just hardened, and then they formed this bond while they were there.

SS: Now, these terror acts have a strong theatrical aspect to them - they’re a media event: executions of Coptic Christians on a beach, destroying priceless ancient artefacts - terrorism is always about the reaction that follow. Isn’t extensive media coverage giving them exactly what they want?

MR: Well, it is. That’s what they want. And that’s one of the reasons why Boko Haram gave bay'ah to ISIL, to get that additional attention. But, the alternative would be to ban media from putting any of this on. But this is news, this is what the public...not what they want to see, but they need to know, they need to know what the threat, of, say, ISIL, is - and then, actually, when you look at the coalition that was put together last summer and fall to fight ISIL, of the Arab countries and the Western countries that put that coalition together - this really started with the Foley execution video, when people saw the horror of this. You know, that’s really what brought all these countries to join the coalition - and that’s what ISIL wanted. They wanted to pull the West into the fight there, it just hasn’t been the ground fight like they were hoping.

SS: Destroying libraries and ancient statues, centuries of Islamic scholarship, Arabic writings - that’s not really lives of people. Who is that going to frighten? And also, ideology aside, people are always people - do some of those looted artefacts pop up on the black market, here and there?

MR: Will some of them show up on the black market? Certainly they will. But I think what ISIL is trying to do by destroying these artefacts, is take away everything that goes away from their version of Islam. So, anything that counters that - they are destroying. You saw the same thing in Afghanistan in 1999s, when Taliban took down anything, you know, the statues of Buddha that were there, anything that was contrary to their version of Islam, they destroyed. You’re seeing the same thing with ISIL - whether it’s people or cultural areas.

SS: Al-Qaeda and Islamic State - they have made sure everybody knows not to associate one with another. Where does this animosity between terrorists come from? Does ISIS get more money from sponsors, and now it is more popular - is that the biggest problem here?

MR: ISIL’s brand is a little bit too extreme, it’s way too extreme for Al-Qaeda - and as bad as Al-Qaeda is, it’s when they are saying that ISIL is too extreme for them; and again, just these large-scale massacres, kidnappings, the indiscriminate killing - this is what pushed ISIS and Al-Qaeda apart.

SS: And really quickly, could terrorists actually destroy each other, eventually?

MR: You have terrorist organisations that are fighting right now. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS are fighting. Every terrorist organisation has a life cycle. They are create for one reason or another, they come to their rise and then they start to go down and then they cease to exist. Somebody will fill that void when you have ungoverned space. If ISIS would be destroyed just in the next few weeks in Iraq and Syria, unless that space is governed, somebody is going to fill the void, whether that is Jabhat al-Nusra or another terrorist organisation - it doesn’t matter. Somebody’s going to fill that void until the space is governed.

SS: Thank you so much for this interesting insight, mr. Reardon. We were talking to FBI counter-terrorism veteran, Marin Reardon, discussing the growing clout of the IS and where it stems from, how to stop it. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.