Sources

Understanding What Draws People To ISIS

German behavioral scientist Johannes Siebert is on a Pentagon team researching the motives of ISIS followers. Not all are driven by religion, and some even see themselves as humanitarians.

An ISIS fighter
An ISIS fighter
Anja-Maria Meister

BERLIN â€""Understanding your opponent’s agenda will help you in defeating him," says German scientist Johannes Siebert. He's the only German on a Pentagon-recruited team tasked with better understanding the objectives of ISIS. This expert in behavioral operations at the University of Bayreuth in Bavaria has come to a completely unexpected conclusion.

DIE WELT: How did you get the job at the Pentagon?

JOHANNES SIEBERT: I am specialized in decision theory, which allows me to investigate how executives and leaders make their decisions by identifying and structuring their goals. When ISIS started to spread, I was wondering if I could be of any use in fighting them. At CREATE (the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events at the University of Southern California), I had the possibility to do so.

Scientists from different disciplines contribute with their know-how in order to improve protection of civilians. And by chance, on my first day of work, CREATE was assigned by the commander of the U.S. military force in the Middle East the task of finding out why ISIS was so attractive for its followers, and what goals the organization was pursuing.

And what were your findings?

It's about the creation, and conservation, of a caliphate in Syria and Iraq. That's the military aim. And the religious goal says: spread Sunni Islam. Therefore we're not only talking about a sect misusing religion, but an organization making a territorial leadership claim. In order to get there, other goals need to be reached â€" generate money and followers, kill the so-called "non-believers."

But that's nothing new.

But it makes a huge difference. A solely religious organization has fewer chances of finding supporters. A state is much more attractive. It's easier to find support, and therefore money, to finance the terror. They are trying to establish a state-like structure. That makes it extremely important to freeze potential sources of financing.

What data have you used for your work?

I was interpreting anything relevant from official sources that I could get my hands on, such as the speeches of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Abu Mohamed al-Adnani, the two top ISIS figures. They are like managers, pursuing their goals rigorously. And soon I understood that it wasn't just religious fanatics and loonies following them.

But...?

Those Europeans following ISIS, are, above all, losers who feel excluded and have no perspective. Joining ISIS means exercising power, experiencing affiliation and strengthening one's self-esteem. There are religious goals: spiritual experiences, living and fighting for God. And there are, as we have missed to date, followers with humanitarian goals: end the war in Syria and the oppression by the Shias. These aren't just religiously fanatic bomb planters. You can find young doctors and lawyers among them. But they usually end up disillusioned and soon return home traumatized.

What does that mean for the war against ISIS?

We conducted 59 interviews with Muslim experts, but they didn't reveal much. That's because almost all of the experts were Shias. But for the development of countermeasures, the information is decisive. For example, a certain education about how ISIS really functions, and treats recruits, might avert people from becoming followers. More than that, we can try to involve disappointed homecomers to participate actively in informing the population.

Could the Paris attacks have been prevented with your findings?

I think that's always a very hard thing to say, with hindsight. A year later, you're always smarter. But in the long run, our findings help to point out possibilities for better protecting the population. If you understand the goals of ISIS, you can find ways to prevent them from getting what they want.

Can you make any conclusions for the German politicians?

For me, after what has happened in Paris, this means that now there are the resources for terror strikes in Europe, and that Germany must have become a target too. But I also see this as a point of reference for refugee policy.

Because terrorists are mixing with refugees?

No, I'm talking about decision theory. We first have to understand what goals we're pursuing as a society. And how do we get there? Under which circumstances? Are there alternatives? And then we should ask ourselves: What are the refugees' objectives with regard to their own lives in Germany? With these findings, we then are able to develop constructive measures to reach our targets. That's what we should be talking about, not about numbers. Because if we're not taking into account our society's goals concerning refugees, and what their own objectives are, current immigration policy might become an even bigger problem.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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