War of Ideas: Inside the fight to prevent an ISIS resurgence

As ISIS goes underground, attention has turned to shattering its insurgent blueprint and, as Stefan Labbé reports, Jordan finds itself on the frontlines of de-radicalization.

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September 4, 2018
Officers of the Gendarmerie of Jordan patrol the streets of Amman during a protest against the US embassy's move to Jerusalem, April 13, 2018. Stefan Labbé / OpenCanada.org

When al-Qaeda crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, Abu Bandar considered himself little more than a cheese distributor. He had occasionally worked as a smuggler and once did a stint — unrelated to jihad, he says — with senior jihadis in the Jordanian desert prison of al-Jafr. But it wasn’t until after the US invasion of Iraq, as he travelled the countryside with a group of Muslim missionaries, that he started to see the world differently.

“I was lost, [at] first not sure what to do,” he told me earlier this year in the air-conditioned room of his real estate agency, 20 kilometres from the Syrian border. “But the conversation among the missionaries always came back to, ‘Why aren’t we standing with our brothers in Iraq?’”

Jordan has long been a source country for trans-national jihadis. Abu Bandar is from a generation of mujahideen who first spilt blood bombing Shia civilians and ambushing US troops in Iraq. It was a time when his former prison-mate, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had taken up the mantle of al-Qaeda propaganda, replacing Osama Bin Laden’s low-tech video lectures with gruesome beheadings directly uploaded to radical Islamist websites.

By 2005, Iraq was descending into sectarian war and Western intelligence agencies scrambled to figure out what drove people like Abu Bandar towards violent extremism. The Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service had pioneered the idea that extremism was driven by a “purely religious ideological component of radical-political Islam.” That notion would soon dominate the way Western governments targeted extremism. A handful of cultural engineering programs rolled out in spurts across the globe, from the Pentagon’s US$500 million contract with a British PR firm to create fake news and false flag propaganda, to the US State Department-backed Pakistani version of Sesame Street.

While Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, his brutal legacy mushroomed with the backing of disbanded elements of the Iraqi army. Despite the warning signs, in 2014, the organization rebranded as ISIS swept through eastern Syria and into western Iraq, catching the whole world off guard. Within a year, ISIS had captured Raqqa in Syria, Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq. At its height, the newly declared “caliphate” controlled a swath of territory the size of South Korea, stretching from the outskirts of Aleppo to the banks of the Euphrates near Baghdad. But it wasn’t just its success on the battlefield that set ISIS apart. Where al-Qaeda exerted tight control over its propaganda campaign, ISIS’s big innovation was to crowdsource its messaging — and bloodshed — through a global network of “keyboard warriors.” As a result, US officials say ISIS has recruited roughly 40,000 foreign fighters from at least 120 countries.

When the war in Syria broke out in 2011, Abu Bandar was one of the first of his countrymen to swell the ranks of Islamist militant groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Commanding a dozen villages in Eastern Daraa, he led raids on neighbouring Syrian army camps at dawn, often capturing prisoners, tanks and supplies. Between an estimated 3,000 and 4,000 Jordanians followed in Abu Bandar’s footsteps, easily making the country the number one per capita contributor of foreign fighters to the Syrian civil war.

Without the deterrence of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) — known as the mukhabarat — that number would have been in the tens of thousands, say experts. Today, after years of sustained military campaigns, ISIS retains between 20,000 and 30,000 members, mostly in Syria and Iraq, according to recent reports from the United Nations and the US Defense Department’s Inspector General. As the militant group transforms from a “proto-state” back into an underground terrorist insurgency, it has returned to old tactics, ambushing, assassinating and bombing its way through civilian and military targets. In Jordan, a steady drumbeat of attacks has cast doubt on the security services’ ability to root out sleeper cells and ISIS-inspired copycats. The underlying drivers of terrorism, says the UN report, “are all present and perhaps more acute than ever before.”

Abu Bandar
Abu Bandar shows a photograph of himself during the Arab Spring protests in Zarqa, April 15, 2018. Stefan Labbé / OpenCanada.org

Part of the government’s strategy has been to arrest thousands of ISIS sympathizers under ever-expanding definitions of terrorism and hate speech. And while some have praised the mukhabarat’s efficiency, critics say it is only inflaming resentment.

“More and more research is coming out that one of the most prevalent drivers [of radicalization] is state violence — whether you were the victim of state violence, you witnessed it, or your family member experienced it,” former US State Department counterterrorism official Eric Rosand told me.

In the early days of Western counter-propaganda, governments framed their message in grand ideological terms — a battle between liberal democracies and a poisonous offshoot of Islam. Since then, the umbrella of non-violent interventions has expanded in both size and scope. Under the banner of countering violent extremism (CVE), hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into roughly 1,000 civil society-led programs across the globe. “We are at the height of the movement,” said Rosand. And yet, for those working to prevent the next ISIS, conflicting evidence has revealed an intractable rift over how best to dismantle the jihadi blueprint.

One side has upped the digital arms race against groups like ISIS, focusing on snuffing out ideology through aggressive counter-messaging; the other has taken a grassroots development approach, targeting the very social ills that make communities vulnerable in the first place.

At the centre of a geopolitical tinderbox, Jordan echoes a wider debate on how to prevent the next ISIS. But does anyone know what actually works?

Jordan’s war

On Christmas Eve, 2014, Jordanian air force pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh crashed his F-16 near Raqqa. After six weeks of negotiations with his ISIS captors, a video was posted on one of the organization’s Twitter accounts. In the highly produced, 22-minute-long video, Kasasbeh is led to a black cage among rubble supposedly the result of coalition airstrikes. Clad in an orange jumpsuit, he is doused in gasoline and burnt alive.

The Jordanian response was swift, and violent. The Royal Jordanian Air Force ramped up its bombing campaign against ISIS. Recent amendments to the country’s anti-terrorism law had expanded the definition of terrorism to include anyone who dared “sow discord” or “disturb public order.” Backed by a groundswell of public outrage, the GID unleashed a wave of arrests.

A series of terrorist attacks over the last few years has only emboldened the state’s stern response: a suicide bomber on the Syrian border, a bloody standoff with an ISIS sleeper cell holed up in a Crusader-era castle, and a lone wolf attacker spraying gunfire into a police training centre, to name a few.

More recently, on Aug. 11, Jordanian militants subscribing to ISIS ideology detonated a homemade explosive under a police car at a concert northwest of Amman, killing one police officer. After a shootout that left five security personnel and three militants dead, a spokesperson for the government revealed police had found large caches of explosives meant to be used in larger attacks on civilian targets and security installations. The explosives “were ready, on timer, and could be detonated immediately,” said government spokesperson Jumana Ghuneimat, according to the Associated Press

While these attacks make clear the extent to which ISIS’s ideology has influenced Jordanians, it’s also hard to ignore the country’s own legacy of extremist thought. Part of the government’s answer has been to adopt a “unified sermon” policy designed to tame the influence of radical imams. Every week before Friday prayers, government-trained and registered imams receive officially approved talking points beamed to their mobile phones. Politics is off limits. Any imam denouncing the government’s policy on Palestine or its security alliance with the US risks getting sent to prison.

“Part of the strategy of the government is to say, ‘Well, this is not Islam, this is Islam,’” Musa Shteiwi, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, said in an interview. “But any effort by the state, religiously speaking, is discredited by these groups because [the regime] is not an Islamic state.”

As the government moves to control sermons, critics say it has turned a blind eye to the Muslim Brotherhood, who regularly turn Friday prayers into protest and have long controlled the development of the country’s public-school curriculum. As recently as 2015, school textbooks still warned of “God’s torture” if students didn’t embrace Islam, and that “holy war” is a religious obligation if Islamic lands are attacked. “This is just completely out of whack with the monarchy’s vision for Jordan,” said Amman-based security analyst Kirk Sowell. “But they’ve only just belatedly started to take action on it.”

Authorities have also clamped down on the press. Many journalists have been forced to censor themselves, according to interviews for this story with local reporters and surveys by the regional press freedom group, the Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists. Others have lost their jobs after crossing one of the government’s many “red lines,” including anything having to do with national security, the royal family, religious authorities or corruption.

“The government tells firms, tells businesses to pull their advertising, and the magazine, the newspaper shuts [down],” said Jumana Mustafa, who used to cover parliament for Aramram Web TV and was a founding journalist with the country’s first independent daily. “Nobody can do this kind of hard-hitting journalism anymore. We are all under censorship.”

Critics charge that by regularly issuing gag orders on terrorism-related trials and expanding the definition of hate speech through a new cybercrimes law the government has increasingly moved to stifle necessary debate on controversial issues. And while few disagree that ISIS had to be physically crushed, that agreement breaks down on the domestic front, where critics fear sweeping arrests risk making “true believers” out of the thousands of citizens who have flirted with the idea of an Islamic state.

Amman
The population of Jordan has more than doubled over the last decade, with most settling around the capital, Amman, April 13, 2018. Stefan Labbé / OpenCanada.org

Jordanian authorities do not release official counts of detained, charged and imprisoned returned fighters. But lawyers and journalists familiar with cases charged under the country’s anti-terrorism law estimate there are about 1,000 Jordanians either before the State Security Court or awaiting trial.

Leen al-Khayyat is one of the few independent lawyers who has defended clients facing terrorism-related charges. First gaining notoriety for defending protestors during the Arab Spring, she has gone on to defend 16 Jordanians charged with supporting Islamist groups in Syria.

Khayyat doesn’t defend battle-scarred jihadis like Abu Bandar. Like many who support alternative paths to de-radicalization, her clients fall into a grey area of extremism, lost young men who have posted the words of a radical cleric on social media, or who crossed into Syria for a month before realizing they had made a big mistake. The way she sees it, her clients are a direct result of the stifled frustrations borne of failed government reforms.

“They looked for another way, one with more force and power,” Khayyat told me. “Islamism gives them an excuse [and] Syria was the platform where they could act on it.”

Since she first started representing returned fighters, the rules have gotten tighter, and the punishments harsher. Khayyat says she has to wait a month before seeing her clients, and in that time, the mukhabarat puts them into isolation, beats them if they don’t talk, and then releases them into the wider prison population.  

“They learn from other prisoners’ experiences,” said Khayyat, “people who have done real killing.”

Scared straight

For many Western governments, the continued belief in the poisonous power of ideology has come at a time when Silicon Valley is scrambling to repent for its role as a mouthpiece for violent ideas. Technology giants like Google and Facebook have agreed to execute large-scale, extra-judicial censorship on the one hand, and promote government-funded counter-narratives on the other. If ISIS’s virulent message was super-charged by social media, goes the thinking, the only way to destroy its brand is through a digital arms race combining the most innovative minds in counter-messaging with the most powerful emerging technology.

Take the work of Anne Speckhard, a clinical psychologist and director of International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). Over the last two decades she has interviewed more than 600 terrorists. When the ISIS propaganda machine began to slow down in 2016, she came up with a plan to weaponize her research.

“I thought, ‘how could we take an insider’s voice and turn it back on them?’” Speckhard told attendees at a recent conference on fighting terrorism with soft power in Washington, D.C.

Speckhard has conducted probing interviews with 78 former ISIS recruits imprisoned across Iraq, the Balkans, Belgium and Turkey. (Authorities in Jordan have repeatedly refused her requests to speak with former-ISIS inmates). The interviews are then cut with ISIS propaganda, b-roll that’s repackaged to express a message of disgust, disillusionment and despair in three to five minute stories. Each video is subtitled in the range of languages ISIS recruits in, from English to Uzbek, French to Malay.

"I thought, 'how could we take an insider’s voice and turn it back on them.'"

The group then labels the videos in the same way ISIS would, using titles like “A Sex Slave as a Gift for you from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi” to try and maximize the number of shares among ISIS supporters. Using jihadi hashtags and disguised Facebook profiles (the social media giant is one of its sponsors), ICSVE has targeted dozens of ISIS influencers pumping out propaganda.

“We started using Facebook ads, blanketing Iraq in December,” said Speckhard. “Then we tell NGOs, schools, police, teachers all over the world. We train them. Here’s free tools for you.”

One of the first videos Speckhard and her team pushed across Facebook and Twitter is titled “The Glorious Cubs of the Caliphate.” It opens with a seated 15-year-old ISIS defector, his head swathed in a checkered-grey shemagh, his eyes obscured by sunglasses. Over images of children holding automatic weapons, we hear grim stories of a child soldier slicing a prisoner’s throat; others are locked in a cage and repeatedly lowered into water to simulate drowning. Moments later, the young defector details how commanders would send children on suicide missions, in the end warning, “[They] tell you you’re going to paradise — but none of it is true.”

In 2017, Speckhard brought “The Glorious Cubs of the Caliphate” to the city of Zarqa, part of a 1.2 million-person finger of urban sprawl snaking to the northeast of Amman. Since the 1980s, waves of foreign fighters have emerged from this jumble of oatmeal-grey stone buildings, abandoned industrial lots and dust. During the Arab Spring, Abu Bandar was arrested here with 90 other Salafists for allegedly attacking security forces with knives. And as recently as January, state security forces arrested 17 members of a Zarqa-based ISIS cell caught after buying bomb parts, planning a series of bank heists, and staking out several high-profile civilian and military targets in Amman.

After Speckhard showed the video to a group of about 40 teenagers and young adults, she says they immediately opened up, telling her how imams, teachers and parents are afraid to talk about ISIS because they will get a visit from the mukhabarat.

“You have to understand, we are Muslims. We want a caliphate. We just don’t know if the ISIS caliphate is the right one,” they reportedly told her. “So when we have questions about what ISIS recruiters tell us, we go back to the internet looking for answers.”

At best, Speckhard says her videos have the power to whirl jihadi world-views into a tailspin; at the very least, she says, they can work as a diagnostic tool to figure out what is going on in communities vulnerable to recruitment. “If you’re an NGO, what you do with that is get them open, get them talking and then try to redirect them,” she told me.

But Speckhard’s success stories are largely anecdotal, and others are more critical of her work, not least because ICSVE trains and consults branches of the US government like the US Department of Defense and US Special Operations Command.

“She’s part of an industry that goes all the way to the social media companies where there’s this perception that ideology is the key driver, that online is the space where the radicalization mainly occurs,” said Rosand. “There’s just no research to support that.”

Telling another kind of story

On the third floor of the Zara Centre near downtown Amman, an abandoned cinema has been converted into a TV studio. Once a week, Osaid al-Asad makes his way up the switchback of escalators on his way to shoot The Al-Basheer Show. He passes tailors selling US$6,000 Brioni suits; Mr. Sandman drifts over the mall speakers on a loop. Outside the theatre, over 150 Iraqis (a full house) laugh, smoke and heave towards the door in anticipation.

“If Basheer stepped on Iraqi soil he’d be dead,” one young Iraqi fan told me as we slip through the crowd. “But here the show goes on.”

Today, 65 percent of Iraqis regularly tune into the wildly popular political talk show whose host, Ahmed al-Basheer, is billed as the Jon Stewart of Iraq. On screen, the satire scathingly parodies the Sunni-Shia divide, and has insulted politicians, militia leaders and ISIS alike. Behind the cameras, the crew is a microcosm of Jordanian society, a young mix of Christians and Muslims, East Bank and West Bank Jordanians, Iraqi and Syrian refugees.

You’ll find Asad behind Camera B, moonlighting once a week as a videographer. After work, he’ll go home to an apartment on the edge of Amman where he supports his sister and her seven children. Like many of Jordan’s 1.2 million Syrian refugees, the Asad family is scattered or dead: two younger brothers died fighting with the Free Syrian Army, the oldest two remain in Aleppo with the “White Helmets.” Through it all, the 32-year-old is an eternal optimist, shrugging off the financial insecurity of a newly minted refugee filmmaker.

“Engineers don’t even have jobs here in Jordan,” he told me with a grin as we navigated the shambolic streets of Zarqa in an old sedan. “I never saw myself as a filmmaker [but] I thought I must do something — I can’t go back and fight.”

The Al-Basheer Show
Osaid al-Assad films an episode of The Al-Basheer Show at the Zara Center in Amman, April 12, 2018. Stefan Labbé

Asad spends his free time teaching filmmaking and photography to teenage Palestinian refugees in Zarqa, and eight- and nine-year-old Syrian orphans at the nearby Azraq refugee camp.

“When we’re not shooting, they sit with me, ask about my faith, my family, how to deal with this war,” Asad told me. “We both lost our families, but I show the kids the positive side. I teach them not to turn to violence.”

It’s a mentorship that has had little long-term planning, no concerted effort to figure out what works and how to scale it up. But that’s all about to change. Asad is one of a handful of young filmmakers brought together through an alliance of six civil society groups in Zarqa. With $1.1 million from the Canadian government’s Counter-Terrorism Capacity Building ProgramMeshkat (“Pushing darkness”) is building a stable of mentor-artists, from up-and-coming documentarian Anwar Shawabkeh to Ahmed Shehadeh (known as “The Kerosene of the Nation”), a rapper and self-taught filmmaker who once sued Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for stealing his music for campaign propaganda.

Instead of confronting extremist ideology head on using horror stories or satire, the group of filmmakers focuses on preventing violent extremism by amplifying the community’s own positive narratives. It’s all based on the notion that the rise of violent extremism has grown out of a society falling to pieces.

In a country where one in three residents counts themselves a refugee, an entrenched system of tribal patronage, grinding poverty and a youth unemployment rate of around 36 percent continue to feed a feeling of hopeless for many Jordanians. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to service its US$37 billion debt, the government raised the general sales tax and ended bread subsidies in February. By June, public resentment had grown so fierce thousands of Jordanians took to the street in crowds not seen since the Arab Spring. “We’ve begun to see the seeds of dissent,” said Shteiwi.

And while poverty does not look to be the primary indicator of radicalization — about half the Jordanian nationals that fought in Syria came from middle-class backgrounds — an overall sense of marginalization has contributed to an identity crisis among many young Jordanians. Ideology doesn’t drive jihad, one advisor to the government told me — people’s grievances have been Islamized.

With access to the country’s political life largely extinguished, filmmaking has become a way for young Jordanians to make sense of their lives. “People have no tools to participate,” said project manager Ahmed Zghoul. “That’s why we train people on how to write scripts, how to use a camera, how to do a report and how to publish something.”

Call it nuance, spin or even propaganda, but the approach is not without precedent. Murder porn has become a hallmark of the ISIS brand. But brutal execution videos are only a small part of how the militant group has targeted recruits from across the Arab world. By narrowcasting its message to Jordanian recruits, ISIS propaganda has largely focused on its military victories, fighting injustice and showing potential recruits the good life that awaits them in the caliphate. “Baqiya wa tatamaddad” goes the ISIS slogan, “Remaining and expanding.” But where ISIS preyed on Jordanians’ grievances, Meshkat isolates them to start a healing process.

Through a series of workshops, Zghoul and his team work with imams, teachers, and regular people to crowdsource symptoms of extremism in the community. Domestic abuse, religious intolerance and even petty street violence — they all get fed back to the creative team to fuel video shorts, music and community theatre.

So far, Meshkat has produced several short documentaries, and, between the six organizations, reaches 100,000 people across Zarqa. Over a six-month messaging campaign, Zghoul says that number will jump to a half million as the stories make their way into school announcement systems, public screenings and mosques. After Zarqa, Meshkat plans to scale up in cities across Jordan, eventually expanding to Hebron in Palestine, Baalbek in Lebanon, Benghazi in Libya, and Sousse in Tunisia.

We’re taking a development approach to securitization,” Renee Black, director of PeaceGeeks, the Vancouver-based NGO coordinating the campaign, said in an interview. “Some people might say just talking about social cohesion is lumping it all together, but the word ‘extremism’ has become so toxic you’ll have a hard time getting into the communities if you go throwing it in their faces.”

The long game

The last time Abu Bandar crossed the border between Syria and Jordan the mukhabarat were waiting; he was arrested, accused of recruiting Jordanians to fight in Syria. “Did you?” I asked. He wrinkled up his nose, crossed his eyes and let out a wild laugh. “I’m just a real estate agent,” he said. “I’m out of the game.”

Intelligence officers will occasionally drop by and try to milk him for information about al-Nusra or ISIS, he says; for years, the village he calls home split its support between the two militant groups. “They think he’s a snitch,” someone close to him tells me.

At times the mukhabarat’s approach seems to have softened dedicated jihadis like Bandar — coopting enemies is a regular part of the regime’s survival politics. But when I asked him about the future, he is sober and direct. ISIS has a year left, he tells me; they were too quick to declare a caliphate. Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, is waiting, playing the long game. “We have a good amount of weapons,” he said. “Jordan will always be the spiritual heart of jihad.”

Whether Jordanian intelligence has fully neutralized committed ideologues like Abu Bandar remains to be seen. But when it comes to preventing the next generation of recruits, there is a growing realization that authorities have been branded corrupt messengers among a suspicious and angry population.

While civil-society groups like ICSVE and Meshkat have moved to bridge the gap, a lack of conclusive evidence has thrown into question what actually works. From aggressive counter-messaging to grassroots development, part of the dilemma turns on how to measure success when success means the absence of a violent future. “You’re trying to prove a negative,” said Rosand. “‘But for this, there would have been an attack. But for this, there would have been a radicalized individual.’ It's very hard to show that, if not impossible.”

To prove the lasting effectiveness of an intervention, you would have to monitor participants over their lifetimes. Yet programs rarely have funding beyond a couple of years. With one of the highest daily rates of Facebook users in the Arab world, you never know if it was a script writing class which made a difference or a counter-messaging video on YouTube. That’s why government coordination at all levels matters so much. Without it, any intervention will amount to little more than short-lived experiments, a band-aid in a country plagued by systemic extremism.

In May 2017, after two years of private consultation with the United Nations Development Program, the Jordanian government produced one of the region’s first national strategies to counter violent extremism. But the contents of the strategy remain a secret, and according to sources inside the UNDP, there is no indication the government will adopt it. “We did it, it was presented, and we don’t know what happened to it,” said a senior UNDP researcher who worked on the strategy.

The Hashemite kingdom is not the only regime reluctant to loosen control of its counterterrorism agenda. The Trump administration has largely given up US leadership on countering violent extremism; political priority and talk at the highest levels has shifted to border security and intelligence, says Rosand. With over 100 countries grappling with returned ISIS fighters, governments feel increasingly under siege.

At the UN, an alliance of authoritarian governments has come out opposing anything that falls short of the kill and capture approach, including such countries as China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Venezuela. Part of their opposition is rooted in a deep distrust of civil society. But it’s also based on the premise that terrorists are all cut from the same cloth, and as un-reformable ideologues, they deserve death or prison forever. “If authoritarian regimes are no longer being highlighted or fingered for their malfeasance, but actually are being put on a pedestal as sort of champions of protecting their people, CVE is not sustainable,” said Rosand.

Even as governments around the world reaffirm their control over counterterrorism, they have rarely accepted responsibility for their failures. Aggressive foreign policy continues to open up power vacuums and push many frustrated youth towards extremism. Consider the war in Syria, or the stalled political process in Iraq where Sunnis have been largely excluded from politics since the defeat of Saddam Hussein. In Jordan, part of the country’s sustaining myth is based on its role as caretaker of the al-Aqsa mosque and broker for Palestinian statehood. The unlikely alliance between the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE has already threatened to isolate Jordan and force its hand on Jerusalem.

“This framework is under attack in Jordan. If we collectively are not able to solve problems in the region, then we will be in a similar state for a long time,” said Shteiwi. “This is what feeds these people, this is what makes them able to sustain and generate support.” 

We’re caught in the middle. That’s not an opinion. That’s a fact.”