Terrorism is new counter-culture for youngsters - undercover jihadist
The image of Islamic State has become a beacon for the radicalized youth; even girls travel to join the terrorist group, willingly becoming sex slaves. What drives young minds towards an organization considered too violent even for Al-Qaeda? We ask the man who was once a radical jihadist, turned undercover agent and expert on terrorism. Mubin Shaikh is on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze:Mubin Shaikh, a former islamist radical turned undercover intelligence agent, welcome to the programme, it’s really great to have you with us. Now, the latest gruesome video from Islamic State shows the beheading of 8 men, led to their death by a group of kids. We know IS is recruiting children, but what’s pushing children to join ISIS? What’s your opinion on that?
Mubin Shaikh:Well, the children are not joining out of their own free will. They are being forced, they are being recruited as child soldiers, the message that ISIS is putting out is that “we’re preparing the next generation of fighters” - the idea is that if there’s a ground invasion or some kind of ground operation which I do anticipate at some point, the fighters who are there will find that there will be children, downrange, firing back at them. So, this is a deliberate policy by ISIS to recruit child soldiers.
SS: So you’re saying, basically, that they don’t really have any choice - these children who are being recruited by ISIS - they are doing this against their will?
MS: Absolutely. It’s being done against their will. When this group, you know, comes into a place, or in area, they take children from their families, they force children into these camps where they are indoctrinated, where they are abused, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and it’s to break them down and to make them tools of ISIS propaganda - and they’re doing it very well.
SS: Terror in general thrives in conditions of social injustice and poverty. You saw all of that when you were in Pakistan, where you became radicalized yourself - but homegrown terror in the West is something completely different: young, educated, well-off - why do these people join terror groups?
MS: There are many factors that can apply for an individual at any given time. Sometimes it could be poverty; sometimes it may not be poverty. Somebody, like myself, for example, I came from an upper-middle class family, I had all kinds of opportunities available to me, and a lot of individuals like, minorities who are living in the West, for a lot of us it’s identity issues. We don’t know who we are. We live in a majority white culture; we might perceive that that culture doesn’t like us, is hostile to Islam and Muslims. So in that case, I’m going to look somewhere else for belonging, and, really, that’s what it comes down to in the Western context.
SS: But just to be precise, though: in Western context, it’s not just people from the Middle East or with Arabic origins that are turning to extremism. I am talking about, Anglo-Saxons, or, like, French people, who actually had nothing to do with the Muslim religion in their life, and they are the ones who actually willingly join ISIS…
MS: Very good point...so, I separate converts in two different categories. If you had not grown up with some kind of religious indoctrination in your life, then you will not construct your identity on the basis of that. A convert, white or black person, who is growing up in the Western context - they usually get into extremism because of a broken home background - the vast majority of individuals who turn to extremism come from broken home backgrounds. The vast majority of converts who have become normal converts and good Muslims come from good homes. So, I think this is a common denominator: when you’re looking at converts who become extremists, usually they have abuse in their backgrounds, usually they have a pre-criminal experience, or at least, their peers are criminals or have had criminal experiences - and there is some identity involved in that. They become detached from society; they feel that the society doesn’t like them, doesn’t care about them and that society is against them. So a lot of times, they turn to an identity, which they see as the identity that the society is also against of. When they look, they see Islam and Muslims as that rebel identity, as a counter-culture.
SS: But also, are these just your observation, or that is something that you have researched working where you work, and I mean, Canadian Special Services?
MS: It’s a little of both. My wife is a convert, and my brother-in-law is a convert, my wife is Polish, my brother-in-law has Jamaican background - he used to be a Rastafarian, you know. My wife used to be ”Goth chick” she was atheist at some point, so - it depends on the peers that you have, the people that you’re growing up with and the people that are giving you this religion. Depending on how they frame it and what your experience is - that will determine which way you’ll end up.
SS: Here’s another crazy phenomenon - German intelligence told the press recently that 70 young women from Germany have travelled to join ISIS, presumably to become jihadi wives. I mean, all that means is they are going to be sexual slaves. Why would anyone want to be a sexual slave? What it so appealing for these women in it?
MS: A lot of these, the vast majority of these women, they live in a fantasy world. They live in La La land. They spend hours and hours, watching these propaganda videos, thinking that the fighters are like jihadi princes. For a lot of these girls, who are told - “listen, you can’t have a boyfriend, you can’t talk to guys” - the only way for them to have any kind of intimate companionship is through marriage. This is the only option that they give themselves, and they’ve brought themselves into almost, like, a cult-like community, where the only acceptable people are ISIS, the only acceptable scholars are the scholars of ISIS, the only acceptable Islam is the Islam of ISIS - so, of course, the only meaningful companionship that you’re going to have is with fellow ISIS members. So, really, they don’t know what’s on the other side, they are told “no-no, it’s all propaganda, don’t believe the lies of the non-Muslims, this is all false, just believe us, believe us” - just like a cult operates - and once they get over there, they realize the mistake they’ve made.
SS: But is there a way back for these girls if they want to come back?
MS: There’s no way back for these girls. I mean, it would be very-very rare, that one of them is able to get out and to leave their areas, but to vast majority, 99% of the time, there’s no going back.
SS: Let me talk about the techniques that ISIS uses to draw attention. Beheadings, carried out by ISIS seems to come from a different century - but their Western-focused social media campaign is entirely modern. Who is in charge of it? I mean, surely not an amateur jihadist in Syria or Iraq.
MS: We need to get this idea out of our heads that these jihadists are somehow… you know, in a way, they are backward barbarians, but they are products of the modern society and the modern systems. They didn’t fall from the sky. ISIS is the direct result of American invasion in Iraq, I mean, ISIS is really formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who joined forces with Iraqi ex-Saddam party, the Saddam Baathists. They came together and this is what ISIS is, it’s really the ex-Sunni government trying to get power back. They know propaganda very well, they know, the military intelligence that makes up the higher ranks of ISIS, they understand how propaganda works, they’ve practiced it for decades in Iraq. Number three, you have westerners who have come over to join them, who are bringing their expertise and their knowledge - these are people who are born and raised in the western system, so they know exactly how it works. Number four - I have personally talked a girl out of being lured over to ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria. The technique they use is “oh, I love you so much, I can’t stop thinking about you” - it’s exactly like a child sex predator lures young girls over, gives them presents - there has been a guy who was sending her gifts and books and chocolates and “I love you”, and she’s not 100% upstairs, so they use these vulnerabilities, they look for these vulnerabilities, they get you on skype, they talk to you, they see how vulnerable you are and then they make their move.
SS: Are you saying people in ISIS try to recruit those who actually have some mental defects?
MS: Absolutely, yes, or who are vulnerable - not necessarily have a mental defect, it could be a normal person, maybe with some, we call it “mental health dysfunction” - it’s not really illness per se - but very isolated people, who are living in cult-like mentality, who only believe what ISIS sources are telling them, and that’s the only perspective through which they look. These are vulnerable people. We know that teenage brains are not physically developed - they’ve just begun to start thinking for themselves; so at this stage they are very, very vulnerable and the recruiters know this and jump on that.
SS: Just really quickly before we take a short break - do these young people, these teenagers, they know what they are in for? I mean, I understand that they are being lured with all these nice messages and presents, but then, you know, whatever ISIS is doing is out there - all the beheadings and all the acts of horror that they are committing, it’s all over the media, it’s all over the Internet. Do these young teenagers not know anything about it at all? Do they really think they are going off to a La La land?
MS: I think, with the respect to the violence that ISIS depicts, this is… imagine the pro-ISIS crowd, that sees the whole world as the enemy. The Muslim world is the enemy, the non-Muslim world is the enemy. So, when their enemy is attacked and their enemy is hurt and injured - then it makes them feel good, it makes them feel that “my group, ISIS, is doing something!” - so they are not turned away from the beheadings and the violence, but these stories about what’s happening to the girls… you’ll notice, they really don’t talk much about it - ISIS itself doesn’t promote what they do to women. What they show about women is very positive - look at how the women are staying, look at how they are living. Then you have some women who are over there, who are even paid money to put out positive propaganda for ISIS, to say “no, don’t listen to what they’re saying, kuffar media, we’re living very nice, come and join us” - so these girls think: “see, these are girls just like me, who are over there saying “it’s fine, come over” - and so they fall into it.
SS: Now, the IS has another powerful tool - and you’ve mentioned it in the beginning of this show: a lot of its fighters hold western passports. So, if ISIS wants, it can actually take the fight to the enemy on its home turf tomorrow. Why hasn’t that happened yet, actually?
MS: They’ve been trying for a long time. I believe what they’re doing now is setting up or working the networks that are already in existence in mainly European countries. It’s very difficult to get to the North America, the North American continent, it’s much easier to get into Europe - I mean, you could drive from Syria to Germany. So, what they’re doing is that they’re working their networks and they are trying to get people there. It does take some time to conduct a significant operation. I personally believe that they are working to conduct multiple attacks in European cities. I don’t know if it is just something that I’m hearing, but definitely, the thing that’s keeping them back is that they’re being bombed in Iraq and Syria. It’s not completely blunting their advance, but it is severely restricting their ability to gather, to plan and to coordinate attacks outside Iraq and Syria.
SS: So you’re saying this bombing campaign led by the U.S. and its coalition forces, so to say, is actually working, it’s really setting ISIS back?
MS: I do believe it is working, of course. I mean, you won’t win a war with air power alone, everyone accepts this, this is why I believe at some point some kind of ground invasion may be coming - we can see what the Arab world is doing, this news of an Arab united military force: maybe, Yemen is practice for Syria. Who knows? But, the strikes are doing a lot damage to ISIS.
SS: Before we get to what we’re talking - do you feeling like this foot intervention should done by Western soldiers or by the hands of the countries of the Arab League? Because, obviously, when it’s done by the Western people it turns Al-Qaeda into ISIS…
MS: You’re right. It should not be by the western forces, it should be by Muslim Arab armies, or non-Arab - like Turkey, for example. They are the ones most affected by it and they are the ones who should do it. I agree with you, when the West does it, they just screw it up.
SS: I want to know a bit more about the operation that you were participating in. Now, you were embedded in a group that consisted mostly of teenagers. Here’s what I want to know: the leader of the group, how did he become radicalized? Who was he paid by?
MS: There were four youth and thirteen adults in the group; varying age ranges, of course, as young as 14, as old as, I think he was in his 50s, one individual who was very old. The main age group was really between 18 and 26. This fits the profile, if I can use that term: he was an Afghan, from Afghanistan, his family left during the Civil War in Afghanistan 1990-1995, he grew up in refugee camp in Pakistan for some years and then moved to Canada. The second leader of the group was Jordanian and his mother was Christian. The father was not very practicing, he was gone all the time, he worked for Oil Company in Saudi Arabia - so maybe this was an “absent father” situation. And, again, they met in high school, they grew up in high school, they’ve listened to rap music first, before they became Muslim - so they were looking for an identity, they were already prepared, primed through the ideas of rap music; resistance to authority, the idea that guns and gangs are cool - so this makes it easier for a person to go into jihadist groups; and this is exactly what happened to these two. They started a group in high school, they became more and more religious when bombings were taking place, 9/11 happened - all these things, they became increasingly radicalized and then decided: enough talk, time for action.
SS: But can I ask you something - have things changed at this point? I just wonder how the cells are getting funded. Are they getting any funds from abroad, are there foreign preachers involved?
MS: In this particular case that I dealt with, and in fact I was under cover for about a year and half in other cases as well, but because this case became a public prosecution, it’s very public, so I talk about it openly, any information is open… this group tried to conduct fraudulent operations, for example, going into the bank and saying “I’m starting a new business, give me a loan of $50,000” - they take the $50,000, “see you later, business”, and they go and buy weapons, try to buy a safe house, try to buy guns. That’s really the main way in which they’ve tried to get funds. Other groups have done similar things, the credit card scams online, trying to get money through identity theft, skimming money off of bank accounts - so if you know somebody who’s working in a bank account, you could get somebody’s bank information and you could take all their money out and when that person would go into the bank and say “Hey, where’s my money?” - the bank would start a fraud investigation, they would see that somebody fraudulently took the money, the insurance company would give that person the money back. So these are the kinds of things they were thinking of doing.
SS: Would you agree to become embedded with ISIS today, if you could?
MS: Probably not. I’m too well-known at this point, but it is suffice to say that there are embedded operatives inside ISIS right now. The reason for this is because ISIS opened the door to everyone. Al-Qaeda is very elite, Al-Qaeda is very careful. It’s been around for a long time, it’s fighting for 10 years in Afghanistan and Iraq for some time. ISIS opened the door for everyone, anyone to come: the crazies, the gangsters, the guys who were in jail, the drug deals, the failed rappers - they’ve opened the door to everyone to come in, and what has happened is that western and other intelligence services have embedded their operatives inside ISIS. They are a heavily infiltrated group at this time.
SS: But is it fair to say that those who are embedded right now have less chances of coming back home than with other terror groups and operations?
MS: As men, it’s easier for them to travel. For women it would not be as easy to travel. If a woman could travel it could only be with her husband. I know cases where husband and wife teams have left ISIS-held territory, they’ve either returned back to their place of citizenship or attempted to take up residency in other countries, maybe because they’ve destroyed their passports on camera - which they realized is not such a good idea. So only a husband and wife team would be an ideal operative couple, of course.
SS: Just really quickly, my last question - you’ve said that studying the religion deeply made you see that the extremist views are actually contrary to Islam. Why is there such a difference between the Islam you studied and the Islam taught by ISIS?
MS: In fact, you see, the vast majority of the world is against ISIS. I mean, even Al-Qaeda and Taliban are like, “look, we’re not with those guys, they are way too extreme” - in fact, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have actually moderated a little bit, if I can even say that. So, what ISIS represents is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims all over the world, and you can see it in their actions - they kill more Muslims than they do non-Muslims. So, I don’t even consider them Muslim, they are an apostate group, they are a traitorous group, they’re traitors to religion, and they are killing the religion - it really is what they are doing. So, the vast majority disagree with them and what they represent.
SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful insight. We’ve been talking to Mubin Shaikh, a former islamist radical turned undercover intelligence agent, author of “Undercover Jihadi”, discussing his experience working with extremists, why young people are so attracted to the jihadi ideals spread by the Islamic state, and how to stop their recruitment. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.