Confronting an ISIS Emir: ICSVE’s Breaking
the ISIS Brand Counter-Narratives Project
Dr. Anne Speckhard, Georgetown
University, and Ardian Shajkoci,
International Center for the Study
of Violent Extremism
ing campaigns against ISIS are the ones that use the voices of insiders—both ISIS
victims and ISIS cadres who have rsthand knowledge of the group’s brutality,
corruption, religious manipulation, and deception. With this in mind, we at the
International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) have spent the
last two years in Western Europe, Turkey, Iraq, Central Asia, and the Balkans
interviewing ISIS defectors, ISIS prisoners, and ISIS cadre returnees from the
conicts in Syria and Iraq.1 eir stories are captured on video and edited down
to short clips, interspersed with actual ISIS video footage and pictures, and then
turned back against imprisoned ISIS cadres as an intervention measure.
Using “formers” to talk back to terrorism is a well-established practice. Mubin
Shaikh is a good example of someone who nearly joined al Qaeda and imbibed
deeply of the jihadist ideology before turning away and inltrating a Canadian
terrorist cell to help law enforcement take it down.2 Usama Hasan, a former
radical Sala extremist and mujahedeen in the Afghan jihad against the coun-
try’s communist government in the early s, is another example of someone
who has turned against Sala-jihadi ideology and is dedicated to ghting violent
extremism in the United Kingdom.3
Using formers to help deradicalize their peers is rife with problems, however.
ose who have returned from ISIS were oen psychologically unhealthy even
before they joined, and are deeply traumatized upon their return. Some do not
want to speak about their experiences, while others fear retribution from ISIS
if they speak out against the group. Some of them fear further prosecution and
social stigma. Others are unstable, reverse their positions frequently, or are not
useful role models. Oen, former ghters are ashamed of their past and want to
hide it. ey are not easily accessible and may be psychologically unable to carry
out a supporting role in countering violent extremism.
In April , some colleagues and I spoke to Abu Islam, an ISIS “emir” (high in
the military command) in a prison in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan region of
Iraq. During this interview, we used two videos from ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS
Brand Counter-Narratives Project in a psychological intervention with him. e
following is an account of that conversation.
Interview with Abu Islam
Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and wearing a black mask over his face, Abu Islam is
brought into the faux wood–paneled room of the Special Forces Security compound
in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq. His hands are cued, and his feet are shackled together.
ere are ve of us in the room: me (Anne Speckhard); Ardian Shajkovci; Alice,
an American who is working with us; a Kurdish handler; and our Peshmerga
interpreter, Alaz.4 I am seated at the front corner of the desk with my laptop
“I saw that the
Islamic State was
living by shari’a law.
ey were throwing
om high buildings.
If you steal, they cut
your hand. ey are
really living it.”
Vol. 8, No . 1
unfolded. Ardian is seated to my side. Alice and our handler sit behind the desk.
Alaz takes the hooded Abu Islam from the prison guards and guides him gently
to the center chair in front of the desk next to me, where he carefully lis the
mask from Abu Islam’s face before taking his own seat. Abu Islam’s dark, wavy
hair, medium-length curly beard, and intense brown eyes are revealed. His dark
eyes focus briey on me, burning momentarily into mine, and then dart back
again to Alaz. ey know each other. Alaz has repeatedly interrogated him.
Only in his mid-s, Abu Islam has been hunted for two years by the Peshmerga
forces who charge him with running a network of cells of suicide bombers,
sending some as young as to explode themselves in bombing missions. He is
credited with either directly or indirectly organizing attacks that killed over
victims, although some of the high-ranking Peshmerga counterterrorism ocials
we spoke to believe that number to be closer to . “He’s a guy we chased for
more than two years,” stated the head of Kurdistan’s Zanyari intelligence service
in a recent interview with journalist Robin Wright. “To pick him up and realize
that we nally got him, it was a big catch for us,” he explained.5
Born as Mazan Nazhan Ahmed al-Obeidi, Abu Islam is the second oldest of
nine siblings in his family and the oldest male. His father served in former Iraqi
president Saddam Hussein’s army. He describes his childhood as both “safe”
and “nice.” Growing up in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk, Iraq, Abu Islam
nished high school and then pursued university studies in shari’a
(Islamic law) at the local university. With only one year le to go
before graduation, Abu Islam abruptly le his studies to join
the so-called Islamic State in .
“I wasn’t Sala growing up,” Abu Islam explains.
e legs of his orange jumpsuit are rolled up to
mid-calf—Sala style—to match the dress
worn by the Companions of the Prophet
Muhammed. “I got that mentality in
university when I read the book
Tawhid by Wahhab. It convinced
me,” he adds.
Abu Islam is referring to Kitab at-Tawhid
[The Book of the Unity of God] by
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an eighteenth-
century Saudi religious reformer who worked to
purify Islam by turning back to following the original
practices of the Prophet and his Companions. e violent
followers of Wahhab, including al Qaeda and ISIS, interpret
his teachings to justify killing those who do not follow their
strict interpretation of Islam. ISIS, and groups like ISIS, practice
takr—an extreme extension of Wahhabi-Sala doctrine that sanc-
tions violence against both Muslims and non-Muslims who are deemed
as indels (non-believers). is is the type of Islam and the ideology that
Abu Islam had already embraced in his university studies; thus he was ready
for ISIS when they came to Iraq and established themselves as the Islamic State of
“I wasn’t Sala growing
up,” Abu Islam explains.
“I got that mentality in
university when I read the
book Tawhid by Wahhab.”
“I got into the brotherhood at the mosque,” Abu Islam
explains. “ey were against the Islamic State, but for me,
I saw that the Islamic State was living by shari’a law. ey
were throwing homosexual people from high buildings. If
you steal, they cut your hand. ey are really living it.”
When asked where he saw this, Abu Islam answers, “It was
on social media, YouTube. It made sense for me. I watched
a lot of their videos.” As we listen to him speak, we were
reminded of ISIS’s powerful online presence and the online
propaganda machine that recruits youth via the Internet.
Even in Iraq, ISIS propaganda videos reached this univer-
sity student, persuading him of their righteousness: “I was
convinced and made up my mind.”
“ey were on the streets also. ey had a territory twice
the size of Great Britain. At the time I joined, I was or
. A lot of my relatives were in the area [ISIS] took over,
and some of my cousins and family members were already
in [ISIS]. It was easy to join. I got a recommendation,” Abu
Islam explains, referring to ISIS’s practice of trusting po-
tential recruits based on the recommendation of another
member of ISIS. “ey knew I don’t drink or smoke and
that I’m a shari’a student. at made my CV look really
good,” he explains, smiling enthusiastically.
“I didn’t take shari’a training,” Abu Islam answers proudly
when asked about ISIS’s known practice of putting new
recruits through two weeks of shari’a training to learn the
basics of Islam as they preach it and to take on their “hear
and obey” philosophy.6 “I gave lessons in shari’a.” is is
how Abu Islam initially describes his role in the Islamic
State. “I became the teacher because of my background,”
he continues. He also bypassed military training because
they needed shari’a teachers to train the others: “ey
didn’t teach me weapons. In the beginning, they asked me
if I knew how to use an [AK- assault rie], and of course,
I did.” e knowledge of assault ries is common among
Iraqis, notes our Peshmerga interpreter.
It appears there are not large camps for the Cubs of the
Caliphate in Iraq, compared to the camps in Syria where
hundreds of youth are gathered, trained, and taught to
ght—with some being trained and prepared to become
suicide bombers—aer they graduate.7 In Iraq, it seems
the Cubs are gathered into smaller groups. Individuals
like Abu Islam appear to serve as their itinerant preachers,
traveling from one group to another.
“Sometimes there were four to ve or six to seven [indi-
viduals]. It depended. I’d go to the villages and teach them.
I moved from place to place to give shari’a lessons,” Abu
A Cub of the Caliphate
ISIS defectors described
their shari’a trainers as
“shining charismatics” and
were heartened by learning
“true Islam” from them.
Vol. 8, No . 1
Islam explains. “It was mostly qh [the principles and understanding of Islamic
practices]: how to pray properly, how to fast, how to help other Muslims, how to
pay zakat [obligatory charity], and about the Islamic State.”
In Syria, ISIS defectors interviewed in our ISIS Defectors Interview Project
described their shari’a trainers as “shining charismatics” and were heartened by
learning “true Islam” from them.8 I ask Abu Islam whether the Iraqi recruits
already knew their religion or were also gladdened by these teachings. He
answers, “ey didn’t know the right way. We taught them the right ways. We
talked about what [the Islamic State] could be. Hopefully, we’ll expand our terri-
tory. According to our beliefs, we can’t say we are denitely doing it. Instead, we
say, inshallah [by God’s will] we will expand our territory. Open the walls. Take
Abu Islam tells us that there were “young ghters from foreign places” in his
classes, but “they didn’t understand much Arabic,” which reminds us of an
Albanian I interviewed in Kosovo who also recalled taking ISIS shari’a training in
Arabic—it all went over his head.
We came to Iraq on this trip to speak at the Iraqi prime minister’s conference,
Education in Iraq Post Daesh-ISIL Territory. e conference brought together
local and international experts to address the issue of the estimated , to
, youth who lived and served under ISIS in the Nineveh and the Mosul
regions of Iraq between and . Universities were closed under ISIS.
Libraries were burned to the ground. Textbooks, even for the very young, were
replaced by texts that taught them how to behead enemies and indoctrinated
them in the Islamic State’s barbarity and its refusal to recognize anyone else’s
views as legitimate. At the conference, we viewed the exhibit of some of these
ISIS propaganda video
According to Abu Islam’s
denition, a young boy
who begins having wet
dreams is already a man
ready for battle.
ISIS leaders ll the children’s
minds with bright visions
of Paradise and promise
that they will feel no pain
when they push the button
to explode themselves.
captured ISIS texts. Picking them up and handling them gave each of us a chill
down the spine—touching the same books ISIS cadres had handed out to
children under their control.
e schools in the area continued to run even aer ISIS took over, Abu Islam
explains, adding, “ey used to study English. It was good for us—knowing
English—but we denied books that we didn’t like. Aer a while, we denied all
the existing books. We changed all the books over to our mentality.”
“How did you talk to the kids who were going on suicide missions?” I ask, going
back to his role as a shari’a trainer. “What did you teach them to persuade them
to go on suicide missions?” I ask this, already knowing from our interviews with
Syrian ISIS defectors that ISIS leaders ll the children’s minds with bright visions
of Paradise and promise that they will feel no pain when they push the button to
explode themselves—that they go instantly to Paradise. e faint-hearted ones
are even oered a sedative, and in many cases, the youngest do not even realize
they are about to die.9
“We used to tell them ...” Abu Islam begins, but then quickly detours into denial.
“It was not my job exactly.” He hesitates and then continues, “Study and learn
your future. We want to expand our territories and put shari’a over the whole
earth. Most of the time they came as volunteers, self-motivated.” Asserting that
the kids chose themselves as “martyrs,” he gains condence again, “ey have
read the Book. We make the way for them. We never told anyone they have to
go. It’s voluntary. It’s never forced. I didn’t see anyone forced, ever.”
“So, when you prepared young children to take ‘martyrdom’ missions—driving
explosive-laden cars or wearing vests into enemy lines or checkpoints—what did
you teach them? How did you prepare them?” I ask, having already learned from
Peshmerga counterterrorism ocials that Abu Islam sent children as young as
years old on suicide missions.
Abu Islam exudes disagreement with how the question was asked and explains
that ISIS never takes children into its ranks: “In Iraq, you have to be to sign up
for the Army. We [ISIS] don’t have any age limit. Instead we believe that when a
man’s semen develops, then he’s considered a grown-up man. We only take them
when they get to that point. ey were never children. ey were men.”
Cynical about how he answered the question, I further probe: “How old were
these men, according to your criteria?”
“A fully-grown man has to have his semen,” Abu Islam reiterates. “is is
according to shari’a.” e translator interjects by explaining that, according to
Abu Islam’s denition, a young boy who begins having wet dreams is already a
man ready for battle and mature enough to sign his life over for a “martyrdom”
While Abu Islam denies there was any pressure in ISIS for children to become
“martyrs,” we know from ISIS defector interviews that in the Syrian training
camps, youth are heavily pressured into driving explosive-laden cars into enemy
lines and lied to about the painfulness of their deaths—and sometimes fail to
even understand that their mission involves death. “ere is an oce. If anyone
volunteers—‘I want to give my bayat [pledge]’—then he signs up for a martyrdom
Vol. 8, No . 1
mission at the same time. It’s like a regular recruiting
process,” Abu Islam explains.
He is further asked about the training camps and how they
are provided with a steady stream of explosive-rigged cars
to put the children in and send them to their deaths at
checkpoints and the frontlines.
“There is a training camp they take them to and teach
them how to set up and use these cars,” he explains. “‘It’s a
regular camp,’ they tell them.” He hesitates again. “e car
manufacturing is in a dierent place,” he detours.
“But what do they tell these children?” I push.
“ey instruct them. ey know what will happen. ey’re
happy. It’s like a kid at Christmas. You know how happy
they are? Calmly happy, knowing something good is going
to happen,” Abu Islam explains, as we witness how he truly
embraces this sickness.
“Is there any ritual to go with this?” I
ask further, wondering exactly how they
send a kid o to his horric death.
“[e ISIS senders] have a list of se-
rial numbers and names. If I’m set to
go next, then I’m next. If something
changes the order and they aren’t sent,
they start crying. If they aren’t the next one, they actually
cry and get angry, and even complain, ‘My name is set to
go!’ I’ve seen this with my own eyes,” Abu Islam explains,
as his eyes appear to shine in admiration for their zeal.
“What happens right before you go?” I ask again.
“ere is nothing special they do.”
“Pray? Wash? Celebrate? Make a video?” I press, since
in the past I have sat with relatives of bombers who have
seen the videos of their children wrapped up in explosive
vests or jammed into explosive-laden vehicles, with some
children crying and others seemingly jubilant about going
“There is nothing special. They wash up to be clean.
Everyone prays. Everyone says goodbye. ere are tears of
joy. We make a video,” he admits, but again adds a denial,
which is possibly self-protective, given he is a prisoner and
does not want to incriminate himself. “I didn’t make the
videos. I sent them to Kirkuk,” he explains.
“Do they receive a sedative?”
“No sedative, ever.”
“What’s the usual way to go? Car or belt?”
“Both,” he answers. “ey wear the belt in the car just in
case one goes down,” he adds.
“What are their instructions?” I further ask. “Kill as many
“ Ye s .”
“Any special conditions? What if there are women and
children at a checkpoint?” I probe.
“In the front line, everyone is an enemy. Everyone is a
target,” Abu Islam intones but quickly adds, “In cities, we
tell them to try to avoid targeting the markets and civilians,
and they have specic targets—military and government
“And you?” I ask about his recent arrest
in which he was wearing, but did not
detonate, his suicide vest. “I didn’t sign up
to be one. I did ght.” He goes on to say
that he has fought in all three ISIS tactical
military formations, including in the very
front line where the ghters go in wearing
vests and “martyr” themselves if overtaken,
killing everyone around them to avoid capture. He was
never one of those front line cadres, yet he states, “I always
had my suicide belt on. We jump into the [Peshmerga]
helicopters and explode ourselves. ere is no surrender.
No surrender. Just push the button.”
“But you did surrender,” I state. “You wore the belt. Did
you have it in your mind, when captured?”
“You didn’t have time to detonate or didn’t want to do it?”
inquires Alaz, our Peshmerga translator, explaining to us
that he never had the chance to ask him this question and
would like to know the answer as well.
“I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live, so I didn’t do it,”
Abu Islam states matter-of-factly, despite the fact that he
has sent plenty of others to do just that. “I wanted to nish
the project, spreading shari’a,” he adds.
“Were you scared?” I ask.
“Yes,” he admits. “I was scared. Every human being is
I have sat with relatives of
bombers who have seen
the videos of their children
wrapped up in explosive
vests or jammed into
I ask Abu Islam about ISIS’s policy toward captured women, a question that instantly grabs his attention. He is in his
element spouting out shari’a law on the rights of ISIS cadres with regards to captured women. “It becomes a right,” he says,
while looking around the room in which three out of ve present in the room are women, waving his arm to bring us all
into his sweeping gesture. “If I dominate everything in this room, then it becomes mine. I do as I want. It all becomes the
property of the Islamic State,” he adds.
While we are usually capable of listening to anything without having much of a reaction during the interview, we feel
suddenly sickened imagining how close to Mosul we have been in the past days—barely an hour’s drive—and how this
mindset has been a harsh reality for so many captured women, whether they be Yazidis, Christians, Shia, or Sunni.
Abu Islam denies that he had a sabaya [sex slave]. He also explains that very few Iraqis had them. He can think of only one
man in their area of ISIS, Dr. Mahavia, who had one. is is likely similar to the Syrian experience where married Iraqis
who served from home are not seen by ISIS leadership as needing to be supplied with a woman. Yet, we will also hear from
an unmarried Iraqi who took full sexual advantage of the enslaved women held in this region of Iraq.
As we continue interviewing Abu Islam, though I am calm, I feel increasingly irritated at how he is able to justify the brutal
and inhumane practices of ISIS and to oer arguments in support of their activities. Before my next question, I decide to
show him one of our ICSVE-produced videos denouncing ISIS. I open my computer and ask if he would be willing to watch
the video of another ISIS cadre (a defector) speaking on this subject. I inform him that it is a short video—only four min-
utes—and with his agreement, I begin to play it. Abu Islam watches intently as a former ISIS cadre from Syria, Ibn Ahmed,
explains his horror and post-traumatic stress aer being the guard for Yazidi, Shia, and Sunni sex slaves, including his
role in organizing mass institutionalized rape.
Abu Islam’s eyes dart along the pictures in the video taken from ISIS, taking in faces and places he may recognize, just as
the Free Syrian Army (FSA) ghter Huthaifa Azzam did when we showed him the same video.10 “He is an Iraqi,” Abu Islam
comments. I tell him no, this is a Syrian, but he has a similar accent because he is from Deir ez-Zor. e video plays as Ibn
Ahmed paints a grim picture of rape and horror for young captured women separated from their men and children. As
more horrifying images of Yazidi and other women abused by ISIS appear on the video, Abu Islam’s gaze falls to the oor.
Suddenly, he is silent and stunned to see his gloried version of ISIS described in this graphic manner.
“[The boy] is calling you the
kar. How do you feel about
that?” I ask after we view the
clip. “Do these children have
their semen? Are they men?”
Vol. 8, No . 1
“How do you feel watching this video?” I gently ask.
“I was against that idea,” he says. His voice sounds attened by what he has just
viewed. “It doesn’t matter. When I see this video … this is the outcome of this
practice—this video. It’s not the proper way to turn you to Islam. It’s not a good
way to spread our beliefs.” Referring back to the rapes, he adds, “Not everyone
listens [to objections]. ey just go with it. ere are more that like it [raping
captured women] than are against it.”
“How about the beheadings?” I ask.
“It was a law,” he answers. We cannot help but see discomfort in his face as he
patiently awaits his next question.
“Is it not the same thing? Does it not also spread a negative view of Islam?” I ask.
“I got convinced,” Abu Islam answers defensively.
“How do you feel now?”
“It’s not right,” he says, gazing down at his hands, and adds, “We were wrong.”
“Is there a way to get there without all this violence?” I ask, knowing he harbors
the dream of spreading shari’a and making a utopian world where Islam reigns
above all else.
“Yes, of course,” he answers.
“Why did you sign up to violence?” I ask, although I know that the United
States and the US-led coalition’s security blunder in Iraq, which led to the
ousting of Saddam Hussein’s senior military and intelligence ocials, coupled
with more than a decade of sectarian killings, gave birth to ISIS.
“I believed back in that time,” Abu Islam explains. “I got convinced,” he adds. He
explains about how ISIS seemed to be a righteous and Islamic answer to sectarian
power struggles and security issues: “I didn’t know it was going to be that way.”
We ask Abu Islam if he is willing to watch another ICSVE-produced video. When
he agrees, we show him our four-minute video clip of a -year-old Syrian boy de-
scribing his time in the Cubs of the Caliphate and how the leaders sent children
as young as six years old in explosive-laden vehicles to their deaths—many having
no idea they were about to die. ere are pictures of children younger than eight
in the lm. Abu Islam watches this clip intently as well, again studying every-
thing in it. At the end, the boy denounces ISIS, calling them kars [unbelievers]
“[e boy] is calling you the kar. How do you feel about that?” I ask aer we
view the clip. “ese are little kids. Do these children have their semen? Are they
men?” I challenge, feeling angry with his denials.
Abu Islam is stunned into silence and again stares at the oor.
Screen captures from ICSVE video
Once confronted with
the truth told by other
former ISIS cadres, Abu
Islam is unable to keep
up his false bravado and
unquestioned beliefs in ISIS’s
interpretation of shari’a law.
Vol. 8, No . 1
e International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism
(ICSVE) is a nonprot organization that focuses on the causes
and prevention of violent extremism and terrorism. It runs the
Breaking the ISIS Brand Counter-Narratives Project in which 71
ISIS defectors, returnees, and captured cadres from around the
globe have been interviewed in depth for the purposes of creating
short video clips of insiders denouncing the group.
Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh, Undercover Jihadi: Inside
the Toronto 18—Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism
in the West (McLean, Va.: Advances Press, 2014); Morten Storm,
Paul Cruickshank, and Tim Lister, Agent Storm: My Life inside
al Qaeda and the CIA (New York: Grove Press, 2015).
See “Usama Hasan,” uilliam, n.d.: https://www.
e names of participants other than the authors and Abu Islam
have been changed to protect them.
Robin Wright, “Face to Face with the Ghost of ISIS,” New Yorker,
24 March 2017: http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/
Anne Speckhard and Ahmet S. Yayla, ISIS Defectors: Inside
Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate (McLean, Va.: Advances Press,
2016), pg 234
Ibid., 39–71, 183–200. “Cubs of the Caliphate” is what ISIS calls
its youth Cubs of the Caliphate is what ISIS calls its youth groups,
where children are trained in military tactics and shari’a law, and
prepared to be “martyrs.”
Interview with Huthaifa Azzam by Anne Speckhard, Amman,
Jordan, 2016. .
We end our interview. e guards come into the room, and Abu Islam’s black mask is once again placed back over his face
as he lets them guide him blindly out of the room.
Abu Islam is by no means rehabilitated aer watching two counter-narrative videos. at being said, capture, interroga-
tion, and imprisonment have all begun to work on him. Aer being challenged with the harsh realities of ISIS and other
ISIS cadres denouncing the group, he admits to not knowing whether ISIS was right. Aer all, joining ISIS has not worked
out that well for him. Once confronted with the truth told by other former ISIS cadres, he is unable to keep up his false
bravado and unquestioned beliefs in ISIS’s interpretation of shari’a law. His arguments fall at. He is backed into submis-
sion, as evidenced by his responses aer watching the videos.
We have focus-tested the Breaking the ISIS Brand videos in the Balkans, Central Asia, Western Europe, and the Middle
East, and they have overwhelmingly hit their mark. No one we spoke to questioned their authenticity or viewed the mes-
sage as being wrong. Many are sobered by them, including the ISIS emir we interviewed for this article. v
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr. Anne Speckhard is an adjunct associate professor
of psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of
Medicine and director of the International Center for the
Study of Violent Extremism.
Ardian Shajkovci is the director of research and a senior
research fellow at the International Center for the Study of
Copyright , Anne Speckhard. e US federal government is granted for itself and others acting on its behalf in perpetuity a paid-up, nonexclu-
sive, irrevocable worldwide license in this work to reproduce, distribute copies to the public, and display publicly, by or on behalf of the US federal
government. All other rights are reser ved by the copyright owner(s). Foreign copyrights may apply.
“How do you make this right between you and Allah?” I ask soly, wondering if
he will open up more.
“Allah will accept everything—if you admit it,” he answers back, continuing to
stare at the oor in shame.
“Did you make a mistake?” I ask.
“Yes. We were mistaken,” are his last words.