Exclusive Interview with Phil Gurski on Female Extremism

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As a part of The Women in Extremism Program, Rise to Peace’s Simone Matassa had the privilege of interviewing Phil Gurski to talk all matters of female terrorism. Phil Gurski, who is the President/CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting, has over 30 years experience as a strategic intelligence analyst specializing in radicalization and homegrown Islamist extremism with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Public Safety Canada, and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP). The interview with Phil focused on the gender side of radicalization, female motivations for extremism, and women’s role in counter-terrorism initiatives.

What gender differences are present in radicalization processes and what do you think are the main differences between how women are radicalized compared to men?

Phil Gurski: I think the answer to this question is that there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypical myths that there are significant differences, and hence that women either have to be treated differently or [and this is more important and more dangerous] that somehow women’s roles are minor and not as serious. And, therefore, in instances where women have traveled to join terrorist groups that we tend to think it’s not nearly as serious and tends to treat them with kid gloves.

We certainly saw that especially with Islamic State, where a lot of women played that card and claimed they were coerced by their male companions and actually had no real part in terrorist activity – that they took more of a background-position. I think this myth has had an effect on how people look at female terrorists [female jihadis]. Agency is the key issue here as there has been this unfortunate assumption that women don’t have agency and have somehow been forced or duped.

People often assume that Muslim women don’t have choices, as it’s a male-dominated faith, and that the women actually never agreed to do anything and were actually just following their husbands. The cases I was involved with women were very much as devoted to the cause as their husbands, brothers, boyfriends, etc. so I think we have to be very suspicious when women try to deny they had any role to play and that they were somehow innocent victims of a terrorist movement. From that perspective, the penalties and approaches should be the same – I don’t see a gender distinction.

Do you think gender roles play a big part in how women are viewed in terrorism? Are women just as equally capable of carrying out terrorist attacks compared to men or do gender roles prohibit them? 

Phil Gurski: Historically, women played incredibly important roles in terrorist groups i.e. IRA, Baader–Meinhof in Germany, LTTE in Sri Lanka. So there is no question that women have and are capable of carrying out active roles in terrorist groups up to and including carrying out attacks and killing themselves in suicide attacks. When looking at Jihadis early on, there certainly was a gender division within most groups which saw women as the support role.

Leaders such as Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri would say this. They would say we welcome our female members, but this is very much a man’s job. Then Islamic State came along and really reversed the paradigm. They very much stated that isn’t actually true; women are capable of carrying out activities on our behalf and this is – I think – why you probably saw a larger percentage of women actively going to join Islamic State with or without partners.

We had a famous case in Canada in 2015 where three young women in high school sought to join the Islamic State and got as far as Cairo before they were turned back by authorities. But this was completely on their own accord. I do not think that there is inherently a different role or paradigm for women terrorists. There may be some physical differences in strength etc. but when we try to maintain this while saying women are the weaker sex, we do a disservice to women who are terrorists and I think we also underestimate the role they can play.

What are women’s motivations for joining a terrorist organization- do they differ from that of a man joining a terrorist group?

Phil Gurski: I do believe they are one and the same. Using the Islamic State as an example: the Islamic State was remarkably successful in doing a couple of things. First of all, establishing the Caliphate as the ideal Islamic homeland that had appeal for an awful lot of people.

I know from the investigations we carried out people would talk about this; that they finally have a real Islamic State where Islamic law will be practiced and everything would be great. Secondly, they appealed to people to help build this State. And thirdly, they were very successful in pointing out atrocities that true Muslims have to reverse, whether these were atrocities carried out by the West or carried out by dictatorships.

This appealed to any believing Muslim who wanted to make a difference, so I think the motivation would be the same for both men and women. There is also a sense of adventure and an intense hatred for the societies in which they live. We saw a lot of people turn their backs on Western society saying they can’t live in this apostate regime anymore and that they have to go to where Islam is being practiced. I definitely saw this as much with the women as I did the men, so I would say there is not a major distinction between the motivations as to why either gender would choose to join a terrorist group.

What part can women play in countering terrorism and preventing the processes of radicalization?

Phil Gurski: The fact that more women have joined terrorist groups means you have more women coming back, and women who have abandoned the cause and can talk about the experience in the sense that it wasn’t what they originally thought. A small percentage of those women want to go public, but the vast majority want to leave it behind them due to the repercussions.

I think there is room for women who do come back to say here is what I saw, here is what I believe to be the case, and here is how it proved to be a complete lie. I think they can play the same role as former men could, I don’t see any difference in that respect given the fact we are seeing more of them they could maybe appeal to a different audience then the men could. We are in a time now where we have greater numbers than we have had historically in terms of women who have gone to fight or gone to support Islamic State as members and have got out. But I do think women could have something to say especially to children – kind of like the scared straight programs in prisons where they basically use their own experience to show others that it’s not worth it.

Conclusion

What can be taken from this interview with Phil Gurski is that there is an undeniable relationship between gender and extremism that is largely unexplored. While current societal stereotypes halter women’s roles in terrorism, there is still a need to be vigilant while looking at the female side of extremism.

As Phil alluded, when people underestimate the power and role of women, it becomes dangerous and creates an environment where women can go unnoticed for their violent actions.

More research and demonstratable interest in female extremists is needed to pave the way to preventative measures in helping tackle the gender issues in terrorism and to shaping policy in how female extremists are prosecuted.

View the full interview below:


Simone Matassa, a counter-terrorism writer and Head of the Women in Extremism Program at Rise to Peace.

Prevention and Redemption Initiatives Are Key to Countering Terrorism in Russia

The mountains of Chechnya where “going to the forest” is a colloquial term for joining an extremist group. Photo Credit: eTurboNews.

A series of recent incidents validate the Russian Federation’s concerns over the rise of internationally-linked terrorist groups active within its territory. This security matter is heightened by the presence of battle-hardened fighters who returned from fighting in the Middle East and North Africa. The main query that emerges is whether Russian authorities will amend their counterterrorism tactics, or continue to engage in a framework simplified as a nexus of a military-bureaucratic-judicial instruments.

Russia has long contended with the dilemma of homegrown terrorism, especially in the North Caucasus region. Radicalization and the development of terror cells were intrinsically linked to the Chechen independence movement that expanded into neighboring Dagestan. Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al- Qaeda) once called the region ‘a shelter’ for fighters from across the globe. It is little wonder then that Daesh capitalized on homegrown ethnic grievances in Russia’s ‘inner abroad’ for recruitment.

Russian officials estimate that approximately 4000 citizens fought as militants in the armed conflicts in Syria. The state of affairs shifted domestically too. Militants that once operated under the banner of Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) transferred allegiances to Vilayat Kavkaz —  a branch of Daesh in the North Caucasus. Russia identifies the pan-Islamist political movement Hizb ut- Tahrir (Party of Liberation) as a terrorist organization, and deems it culpable in the recruitment of foreign fighters as well. It is undoubtedly a case where international groups seized upon already active movements to franchise ideologies.

As a consequence, recent terror-related events in Russia are linked to the international moniker of Daesh, although the actors are domestic agents. The Federal Security Service (FSB) conducts operations across Russia linked to Daesh through a perpetrator’s affiliation, but few links to the umbrella organization. For instance:

• April 13: two suspected members were killed in a raid in Tyumen; an oil rich town in Siberia.
• June 26: a declared member who created explosives and sought to carry out attacks in the name of Daesh was neutralized in Saratov; a city in the southwest.
• July 1: police in Khanty-Mansi (a region in western Siberia) sent out an alert of a woman suspected of membership in an international terrorist organization being in the area.
• July 12: Moscow District Court sentenced seven members of Daesh to 15-21 years of incarceration for planning to attack the Sapsan train in Saint Petersburg in 2017.

These cases exhibit a Russian reliance on strict legislation and applications of force as primary counterterror tactics. Numerous laws have been passed, including the revocation of citizenship for naturalized citizens, life sentences for some terror-related crimes, and guidelines aimed to counter proliferation of extremist ideology, especially the contentious Yarovaya package.

A preference for the military-bureaucratic-judicial nexus and intelligence collection means psychological rehabilitation and cultural efforts receive less attention. Up until 2013, Russia applied such methods until preparations for the Sochi Olympics required hardline policies. However, emphasis on these two spheres provide Russian authorities with a humanitarian method to prevent radicalization before it takes root, and to counterbalance extremist teachings post-indoctrination, to those willing to relent. This is a key recommendation that needs to be met at many levels.

Those at risk of radicalization must be exposed to civil society organizations that promote tenets of inter-ethnic and inter-religious dialogue. Exposure to educational and employment prospects, tolerant views amongst peers, and wider community solidarity provide numerous opportunities for exchange.

Preservation of cultural traditions that display a wider understanding of ethnicity and religion — that have not been manipulated to advocate extremist or political views — teach at-risk youth they are already part of an important community, rather than a terrorist cell or a linked international organization. Sports provide additional occasions of solidarity, especially those that prioritize strength of character. For example, combat sports widely practiced across the region place the historic mindset of a ‘Caucasian warrior’ in a positive context, at the same time young girls practicing tightrope walking in Dagestan are taught to be ‘fearless’.

Psychological supports and deradicalization initiatives are of vital importance in the current context. These programs are especially beneficial to returnees willing to shun extremist views as they are offered a path towards redemption, as well as chances to inform at-risk peers of the realities of membership in such groups. The Comprehensive Plan of Counteraction of Ideology of Terrorism 2019-2023 reveals provisions covering this matter. As well, a member of the Russian State Duma announced the development of a rehabilitation center focused on individuals influenced by Hizb ut- Tahrir in annexed-Crimea, though it is viewed as politically motivated.

The Russian Federation strongly relies on military-bureaucratic-judicial methods as violent extremism and terrorism are serious infractions under the criminal code, as they should be. It seems easier to manage the localized and decentralized nature of domestic extremism in that framework. However, such hardline measures should be employed concurrently with softer methods aimed at prevention and redemption. They offer broader social advantages in totality.

Réjeanne Lacroix is the Editor-in-Chief at Rise to Peace.

Special Report: Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information

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In the report Countering neo-Nazi Ideology in the United States: Waging a War of Information, Director of the Domestic Counter-Terrorism Program John Patrick Wilson and Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow Caitlyn Ryan offer in-depth analysis of the neo-Nazi movement. This broad endeavor covers many important topics required to understand neo-Nazism in the US and methods to offset it going forward. Please click the above link to view the publication in its entirety.

ISIL: Cathedral Attack in the Sulu Province

Source: Reuters 2019

Abu Sayyaf attacked the Catholic Church, Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, during mass on January 27th in the Sulu Province of the Southern Philippines. The Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) claims the two back-to-back bombings were the work of suicide bombers, which was later confirmed by Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano.

At least 20 people were killed in the attack and more than 100 individuals were injured. In response to this attack, the Filipino Government is on high alert and is conducting military operations to “destroy” Abu Sayyaf. President Duterte also declared martial law until the criminals are found.

Abu Sayyaf is a branch of the ISIL that has been active in the Philippines since 1991. The group is known for bombing a ferry in 2004, killing 116 people, as well as various kidnappings for ransom. The attack in Jolo is one of their largest to date, with 131 total casualties, as calculated by our Active Intelligence Database.

A week prior to the bombing, a referendum was conducted on the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which would allow for expanded autonomy of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. While experts don’t believe the two events are related, it’s possible that the attack was meant to further divide the Muslim and Christian communities in the province.

The Philippine government has taken proper steps to reassure the community through security personnel outside places of worship and patrols through large public areas. President Duterte responded with strong and ruthless commentary on the church bombing by declaring the military to take care of the threat posed by Abu Sayyaf by any means necessary.

The military adamantly agreed with Duterte and staged multiple manhunts to find Abu Sayyaf members behind the attack. The Army suffered a few fatalities in the altercations with Abu Sayyaf militants before making a major arrest.

On February 4th, five Abu Sayyaf members believed to have orchestrated the attack surrendered to the Philippine Army. This arrest, coupled with strong words from the President, undoubtedly relieved the fears of citizens in Jolo and throughout the Philippines.

At least 14 main suspects are still at large; however, the Philippine government needs to recognize that these main suspects are only one part of a larger terrorist organization. Abu Sayyaf has at least 400 members and the main suspects that the Army has in custody represent a small subset of the overall group.

The Philippine Government should gather the information they can from the members that surrendered in order to take down Abu Sayyaf. While the attack doesn’t seem related to the Bangsamoro Organic Law, the government needs to keep the referendum in mind as it symbolizes movement towards peace for many in the region.

Private Sector Domestic Intelligence

In relation to terrorism, domestic intelligence collection is relatively limited in scope due an absence of an agency or structure dedicated solely to domestic intelligence collection. While the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies participate in intelligence collection and analysis within the United States, it is largely case-based and limited to involved parties. To be clear, domestic intelligence collection does not include subjects discovered communicating with foreign nationals (in those cases, there is a structure to go through with FISA courts that will lead to further intelligence collection and analysis.)

A collaborative effort between non-government parties could address many of the issues found in using government entities to conduct domestic intelligence operations. Such an approach has a proven track record of success, as there is a long history of private companies being tasked with intelligence operations, even domestically, dating back to the very beginning of the United States.

There have been attempts to address flaws in intelligence collection and dissemination by the federal government. Notably, the establishment of Fusion Centers and Joint Terrorism Task Forces was intended to bridge the disconnect between federal law enforcement, the private sector, and state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies. These groups have had debatable success, and there are many reports that private sector involvement in these groups is limited.

The objectives of domestic counter-terrorism intelligence collection are broad and seek to acquire data on a variety of activities, including:

  • Recruiting to extremist ideologies and groups
  • Acquiring funds and logistics
  • Training for terror operations
  • Detecting surveillance and reconnaissance
  • Planning of terror operations

Limiting the collection process to government entities, which have limited resources and limited scope of capabilities in domestic intelligence, leaves substantial gaps in which crucial intelligence may be missed. Indeed, there are several private intelligence companies as well as private research entities, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, that provide a significant amount of data on terrorism and extremism in the United States.
Another key area in which collaboration should be made is the inclusion of subject matter experts involved in numerous areas of American critical infrastructure, of which the vast majority is controlled and operated daily by the private sector.

However, when these groups work individually and do not cooperate, they often fail to close many of the gaps which exist in domestic intelligence.
This large pool of individuals and groups, ranging from non-profits to academic institutions, have created arguably the largest store of knowledge on counter-terrorism and counter-extremism- and yet it is not being fully utilized.

Establishing collaborative groups that unite academics, private companies, non-profits, and researchers could address the ‘explorative’ component of domestic intelligence collection and analysis. This element of intelligence seeks to develop more broad understandings of the threat picture facing the homeland, as well as collect data on individuals and groups involved in extremist ideologies which may lead to operational violence. Utilizing non-government entities to conduct intelligence could bring the technical strengths of the private sector, including innovation strengths and technology, to the forefront of the fight against terror.

The collaborative effort mentioned throughout this writing would work most effectively in collection and analysis of the vast open source data available, which comprises nearly 80% of useful intelligence. While there are brief collaborative efforts on research, the collaboration often occurs on specific, case-sensitive research studies about a specific topic- not long-term collaborations.

How can non-governmental entities be brought together to produce a unified intelligence product? A plausible strategy would be to first hold a conference or a series of conferences to bring together representatives of respected organizations from the disciplines discussed above, conducting meetings about logistical options for such a collaboration. An academic institution may be the strongest location to physically host such a collaboration due to its facilities, space, and readily accessible traditional sources of data. Furthermore, a strong online network in which research can be shared and collaboratively worked on with a clear system of dissemination must be established. All of this would develop a relatively substantial cost, however, and perhaps partial government funding would produce sufficient impetus to begin work on such a project.

Rise to Peace