The world is waking up to the fact that some kind of brainwashing is involved in the ISIS campaign to recruit and deploy fighters in Iraq and Syria. This even extends to importing thousands of brainwashed ‘family’ recruits to populate its declared Caliphate.
As an expert on this subject, I was interviewed by Dutch writer and journalist Judit Neurink as part of her new book ‘The war of ISIS: On the road to the Caliphate’.
Judit has lived and worked in Iraqi Kurdistan for nearly a decade. This is important because she has been able to get into the hearts and minds of the people she shares this life with and they have rewarded her with a unique and intimate understanding of this region. This book is a reflection of that.
The book sets out to answer the questions which we all have about ISIS. “Who they are, how did they get their ideals, how do they operate and are they really as dangerous as they would like the world to believe?”
Avoiding any sensationalism, Judit intersperses hard facts, information and analysis with individual accounts and sharp descriptions. She allows other people to speak about their knowledge and experience and by doing so brings the ISIS phenomenon to life in a way no external observer can hope to do.
My contribution has been to talk about the cultic nature of ISIS and the specific methodology it uses to deceive and brainwash its victims into becoming killers and suicide bombers. In this respect it is very similar to the Mojahedin Khalq.
The external behaviour of such groups can sometimes lead people to the false conclusion that one is worse or better than the other. The truth is that because of their internal cult dynamic all terrorist groups are not only dangerous to their intended targets but are also destructive of their own members. Like ISIS, the MEK has killed and tortured thousands of its own members over the years.
ISIS is much more than just an Islamic group that has established its own state. It is a sect which brainwashes and indoctrinates its members. All new members must first follow lessons in sharia, the Islamic Legislation. “Not in the principles of Islam, but those from the Islamic state”, a young man who left ISIS tells the BBC.
“They teach you the Islam that they want”
Whoever enters ISIS start with forty days in a religious training camp, led by a charismatic trainer. The young man said that his had come from Saudi Arabia, and was so “nice and convincing” that he was “prepared to become a suicide bomber if he has asked”. The training “aims at your heart and not your head, so that your heart becomes filled with passion for their words”.
According to Massoud Khodabandeh, who for years was in the leadership of the Iranian political sect Mujahedeen Khalq (MKO), charismatic trainers play a far more prominent role than the ideology. That is secondary to the goal of the sect, which usually revolves around the well-being and the ambitions of the leader of the group and those around him. Concretely, with ISIS it’s about Baghdadi and the group around him, and their ambition to become powerful.
“With ISIS it is not about Islam”, khodabandeh said resolutely. “No one becomes a member of a sect because of their message”. The recruits from ISIS know nothing about Islam. Because it they did, they would not allow themselves to be lured in”.
Khodabandeh broke with the MKO and now leads an organisation from Great Britain to help people follow his example. Internationally he is well known as an expert on the subject of political sects.
According to him only people who were easily influenced beforehand will fall in to the net of the recruiters. “They have problems; they are running away from something. One from his father. The other one from debt collectors. They have failed in love or at university. They are already a victim before they fall in to the net”.
For the training of its recruits ISIS had at the end of November in 2014 twenty five camps, fourteen in Syria and eleven in Iraq. One of those was exclusively for fighters from Kazakhstan. After the indoctrination a military training follows, fighters receive physical training and learn how to handle weapons.
Those camps, often far from the inhabited world, are important in the process. That is where the recruit changes in to a suicide bomber, Khodabandeh concludes. The technique used to brainwash someone only works if you have a place where you are able to isolate people from the family and acquaintances, where there are no credit cards, and no place to go back to”.
For the indoctrination of a fighter the recruitment focuses on separating them from everything they had, up to the point that they no longer want to live. For a suicide bomber live itself is a burden. If you are leading a life that you do not want, then you can convince yourself of the beckoning paradise. You only give up a life if you do not have one anyway”.
To show the extent of this, Khodabandeh uses the example of an eighteen year old fighter who was taken prisoner by the Iraqi army before he could carry out his suicide mission. With the approval of the Iraqis, he spent 48 hours with the young man in an effort to pry him loose from the grip of ISIS. “I thought that I should be able to convince him to think differently about things. But after two days and nights he said that I had committed the greatest sin. I had kept him from reaching paradise for forty eight hours. It went that deep. His life was a burden. He begged to end it”.
A sect exists from a nucleus with layers surrounding it. Like and onion, Khodabandeh says. The nucleus is the suicide bomber, for ISIS also the fighters who go in to battle to die. “You only need a certain number of these. But in order to recruit and indoctrinate them there are many more people needed”.
Not everyone becomes a suicide bomber. And that prospect alone will not lure any recruits, neither does the idea of going to kill people, or decapitate leads, khodabandeh believes. They come from money, for charity, for a role in the new state or the army. “In Syria they realize; I have to kill someone while I only came here to bring medicine. The pressure to do that is immense. Because their entire world is now ISIS. If it says that you have to chop off heads, then you do that. Otherwise you will become a victim yourself”.
From that fear, ISIS members convince themselves if they have doubts that they are wrong, and the others, in ISIS, are right. Because everyone outside of ISIS is considered to be the enemy, this would relate to them too should they turn their backs on the group. “they believe they do not have any choice; if they do not cut off that head then they will lose their own”.