“A Ticket to Syria” — An interview with author Shirish Thorat

Interview conducted by Rutvi Ajmera — Youth Fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

With the recent recapturing of the Islamic State’s territory, it seems that IS’ reign of terror may be over. Former fighters are being either being repatriated, facing justice punished or have been killed in action. Recently Huthaifa al-Badri, Abu-Bakr al Baghdadi’s son, was killed fighting Syrian troops. However, Shirish Thorat is not convinced that IS will disappear any time soon. An independent risk-analyst and author of “A Ticket to Syria: A Story About the ISIS in Maldives, Thorat is an expert on terrorism in the Middle East and terrorist networks around the globe.

I began reading “A Ticket to Syria” on a June afternoon and found myself enthralled with the plot, which is based on a true story. A young girl finds herself taken to Syria by her family under the guise of family vacation. She becomes the only unwilling participant in the family’s sudden flight to IS territory from the Maldives. Her survival and the network of individuals who try to facilitate and hinder her escape make up the plot.

A “Ticket to Syria” is not simply an action novel. Rather, it offers a deeper understanding into IS’ ideology and modus operandi. Full of shadowy characters, the book offers a glimpse into everyday life under the Islamic States, as well as the obstacles that intelligence agencies face when dealing with IS and its members. Here is my interview with Shirish Thorat (unabridged version)

Q: In your book, you describe the Islamic State (IS) as an actual state, not as a terrorist entity. Can you elaborate how ISIS is different from other groups, such as Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or even Hezbollah?

Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Lashkar-e-Toiba are each very different. But I will try to draw a parallel between ISIS and these three. Basically, outfits like Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hezbollah are regional outfits. By regional I mean, for example, Lashkar-e-Toiba was partly state sponsored in the beginning, then it grew exponentially, and the entire objective was Kashmir. Kashmir first and anti-India secondly. Similarly, what happened with Hezbollah, the entire objective was anti-Semitic.

Al-Qaeda has a global ideology. The ultimate goal of ISIS and Al-Qaeda is the same. That is, to overthrow the apostate regimes in the Middle East and thereafter, globally. At the end of the tunnel, as far as these outfits are concerned, the goal appears to be the same. But, the way that they choose to accomplish their objectives is very different. Now, Al-Qaeda’s strategy is to concentrate on what I call the “distant enemy” first. Al-Qaeda basically sees the United States as its primary enemy and the root cause of all of the Middle East’s problems. Now, I am not saying that Al-Qaeda is not sectarian. Yes, Al-Qaeda is sectarian. However, it currently sees no harm in allowing certain other Islamic sects, or beliefs, which differ from their very strict set of beliefs to exist. The logic is that when the time comes, they will take of these sects. Right now, it considers the United States as its main enemy. Al-Qaeda believes that it will eventually wear down the U.S. and cause it to withdraw from the Middle East, through a combination of socioeconomic factors which will make the Middle East less viable to the U.S.

On the other hand, the Islamic State (IS) does not see the United States as its primary enemy. Most people think that IS sees the U.S. is its number one enemy. However, this is untrue. For IS, it’s the Iraqi Shiites who are the enemy, as well as other ‘apostates’ such as the Yazidis, Hezbollah and the Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabbat-al-Nusra. America has basically engaged itself in the war, due to its presence and military support in the Iraq-Syria theatre. IS does not really think that America was the prime enemy. America was the eventual enemy. As opposed to Al-Qaeda’s distant enemy strategy, IS prefers a ‘near enemy’ strategy, that is, first finish off those nearest to you. So basically, Al-Qaeda’s approach started from the outside and came inwards, while IS does the opposite. This is the basic difference between these two groups.

Another difference is that Al-Qaeda’s ideology is based on Wahhabi thoughts and traditions, whereas IS lends more credence to Salafism and strict code of Salafi Wahhabism. Further, Al-Qaeda was basically born out of the Taliban. People tend to forget this. The Taliban ideology is based on the Pashtunwali, that is, the Pashtun Code of Conduct. Al-Qaeda was thus born out of an anti-Soviet jihad. IS was inspired by the decline and fall of the Turkish Ottoman caliphate.

Q: From what I understand, Al-Qaeda has more politically oriented goals, while IS sees itself as the continuation of the Ottoman caliphate.

A: Yes. Exactly. Al-Qaeda doesn’t mind making political affiliations. IS operates more on the lines of a military campaign.

Q: The Maldives is a focus in A Ticket to Syria, for good reason. In the book it is reiterated that many people leave the Maldives to go to Syria. But why, in your opinion, has there not been a focus on the Maldives as an extremist hotbed?

To be very blunt and without offending the people of the Maldives, the Maldives is insignificant in the entire scheme of things. There are 350 000 people in the Maldives, most of whom are on the poverty line or just above the poverty line. They are isolated on an island and the education level is not very high. In the general scheme of global security, the Maldives doesn’t really matter. Now, statistically the Maldives came to the forefront. When people started looking at the ratio of individuals leaving their motherlands to fight with or against the IS, suddenly the Maldives popped into the limelight. It is the nation that has the highest percentage of people leaving the country to fight for or against IS.

The elephant in the room is that the percentage seems massive, because people tend to think of the Maldives like any other country. It is a country, make no mistake. But is a country with a very small population. If you take the young population, who are more prone to radicalization from the ages of 20–30, you are looking at 30 000 to 40 000 people at the most. Nowadays, the Maldives has become a pawn in power games, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region because China is implementing an aggressive policy of making bases and using them to encircle India. China is seeking to do this as it sees India as an economic and military rival. In this way, the Maldives is a small pawn, which may or may not remain in importance tomorrow.

Q: It seems that in the Maldives, citizens are going to Syria for economic gain, versus Europeans or Westerners who are joining IS because they believe in the group’s ideology

A: I don’t agree with that. Number one, from the people who leave the Maldives to join the so-called caliphate war, some join IS while some join Jabhat-al-Nusra. So, there are people joining Al-Qaeda, as well as IS. Most of the people whom I have studied have gone with their families. So, if it was a matter of economic gain, then only the man would go and work and send money back to his wife and children. The fact that they go with their families mean that they are shifting their entire lives.

IS does pay its citizens, or its soldiers and pay them according to their qualifications. Also, IS has been successful in recruiting Maldives nationals to travel to Syria. But now IS is looking at shifting to Afghanistan because it is too dangerous in in Syria. All the routes to Syria, through Turkey and through the Iraqi and Syrian borders, which were previously very porous, are no longer usable or safe. So now Maldives nationals are being sent to Afghanistan and many of them are going towards Myanmar. IS has taken the Rohingya crisis and will use that as a catalyst.

Q: From a security perspective, is there a reliable way to predict whether someone will radicalize or whether a place will become a hotbed of radicalization?

A: There can be certain definite signs of a place becoming a hotbed of radicalization and there is no one better than the local law enforcement, who are in touch the pulse of the local population, to detect these things. But for an individual getting radicalized, it requires an experienced person to spot the changes. Some of the changes could be a sudden departure from their regular behavior. They may grow a beard, they may start being extra religious, they may suddenly refrain from alcohol, music, films and all the other things that are considered haram. It is a sudden departure from their usual lifestyle. Radicalization prone individuals are mainly indecisive by nature. They are people who seek leadership they are not leaders by themselves.

More often, in my experience and even statistically, it is the drug-addicts and people who have had long bouts of dissatisfaction, for example in their careers or career criminals who are prone to radicalization. Individually it is very difficult to detect early signs of radicalization or even advanced signs, but for a particular area which may be becoming radicalized there are specific signs that law enforcement can look for. For example, the advent of preachers from Pakistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. The increased presence of clerics and an increased public demonstration of faith by way of prayer meetings, by way of women suddenly changing their dressing are signs that can be seen in communities where radicalization has taken hold.

Q: A part of your book addresses terror cells outside of ISIS territory. How are these cells formed? How active are these cells? What kind of threats do they pose?

For the most part these so-called cells are just online chat-rooms of like-minded individuals. Now, this is where IS plays a percentage game. If you have about 100 chat rooms, chances are, about three or four of them might materialize into a committed group of individuals. And all that IS wants is one or two successes. Even the others who may not because part of a group, they still serve spread the IS ideology on social media and in the news. So, everyone has their uses.

These small cells, they can be small groups where the recruiter, who is online and usually operating from a distance, sees a geographic proximity between the members. They will then take small steps to form the group, such as suggesting one member call the other to speak to them. They also use strategic judgement, for example, they might see some young men who are embittered and decide to bring them together. Then, they step back and wait for organic developments. They observe whether the group has ‘clicked’, whether the group has elected a leader or if there is chemistry between the members. If there are weak or doubtful individuals among the members, then the group is sidelined, and the recruiter moves on to the next possible group. It is not unusual for one recruiter to be monitoring anywhere between twenty to thirty chatrooms and guiding the entire narrative and finding who is more enthusiastic, committed or is a good prospect.

Right now, these cells may be dormant but there is always the possibility that someone in a particular place is in a position to do something very small for IS. For example, if somebody requires a SIM card in a part of America and the recruiter knows a person in the area who is in the chatroom, they will reach out and ask, “would you do something for the caliphate?”. The individual will say yes, and the recruiter will ask them to buy a SIM card and post it to an address. The actions taken by people are not always large-scale plots or terrorist attacks. It can something very small, such as hosting a guest for a few days or lending a car to someone. Even donations can be solicited.

Q: How does IS mobilize people online?

A: IS does that fantastically well and we have all seen that. Each recruiter monitors chatrooms. A chatroom has anywhere between 10–15 people and there are approximately 20 chatrooms under each recruiter. So basically, they are in touch with around 400 people who are in the position to spread the ideology through their Facebook accounts, through their Twitter accounts or through Whatsapp or Telegram. You can give these people small snippets of information to share. You can share audio clips, you can share video clips of executions and life in the caliphate. They also had this entire Twitter army working for them and they would carry out military attacks in Iraq and Syria over Twitter. Somebody would go into a building, Tweet the GPS location from there and move out. That would serve as a target for a drone attack. Plus, there are Tweets were called muja-Tweets, which are inspirational songs and videos that are circulated. With these they built a global army of cyber warriors and each one feels empowered when they Tweet something out. They feel empowered that they are doing something for the caliphate, for Islam or whatever deluded goal they have in their mind. It gives them a sense of importance.

The reason why IS gained so much online, as opposed to other outfits, is because IS actually took action. And nothing works like action. What IS did was basically form a country. People want to run away from this fact but IS was a country for two years. This country was larger than Great Britain. Not only did they form this country, they administrated this country. There were courts, magistrates and police. IS had a working system, a salary system and an economy. It had imports and exports. Now, IS has formed a narrative of “our country was taken away from us”. This is such a powerful motivator. A patriotic message that works better than the distant dream of a caliphate. IS actually achieved the dream and now they can claim that they have been wronged. They can claim that their land was taken from them. This is their greatest victory. IS never even dreamt that they would be able to hold on to their territory. Al-Baghdadi knew would not be able to hold on to any territory claimed by IS, but his entire intention was to create a territory, which he did. So actually, IS hasn’t been defeated, it had a spectacular success.

A: What you are saying, then, is that by taking away IS territory and liberating cities, IS has not been defeated. In fact, we have helped them reach their end goal.

Q: Yes.

A: What is it about ISIS that allowed them to take over territory and hold on to it? Why were other groups unsuccessful in building a caliphate?

There is a combination of factors in this. There is a social factor involved because in Syria and Iraq, there was a huge youth bulge. Unemployed, frustrated youth. There was no employment, poverty and education suffered. 35%-40% was young. That was one factor. The second factor is that over the last decade and a half, climate was against the people. Crop production suffered. Further, the local politics of the area and the so-called U.S. and NATO interventions in different places created a lot of malcontented military commanders and clergy. These factors created the perfect storm. It made the time ripe for a revolution.

Then, the U.S. created prison camps in Iraq during the invasion of Iraq. In these camps they housed suspected terrorists, clerics, military commanders, soldiers and what have you. These camps served as a medium to brings together two types of people who were normally distanced from each other; the cleric and the soldier. Ideology met action. There was a meeting of minds. Generally, clerics would preach in mosques and would be performing a monologue. in the camps, a dialogue was created.

Both sides acknowledged each other’s points and saw areas where work was needed. Leaders were appointed, opinions were respected, and a loose hierarchy was formed. In 2014, all this knowledge, both ideological and contact-based, came together like a smooth machine. Within two months IS captured half of Syria and half of Iraq. The seeds of IS were sown almost a decade before.

Q: From your purview, are there any other extremist groups that could potentially become the next IS?

A: As of now, Al-Qaeda is as dangerous as ever. It also has a more enduring legacy and more potential for survival. But, what I think is that Al-Qaeda will be taken over by Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza bin Laden and he will join hands with IS.

Q: But Osama bin Laden himself did not join hands with IS. What makes you say that Hamza bin Laden would join with IS, especially given Al-Qaeda’s distant enemy ideology?

A: See, bin Laden was very clear that his differences with IS and its leadership, was about the timing of the caliphate. That was his only reservation. In fact, it was this debate between him and Ayman Al-Zawahiri that led to the creation of Jabhat-al-Nusrat. Why I say that Hamza bin Laden is more likely to join hands with IS is because he is a younger man and he has examined and seen in detail what has happened with Al-Qaeda’s approach to creating a caliphate. He sees al-Qaeda as strong as before but having made little headway. In 50 years, since the Soviet times, Al-Qaeda is pretty much in the same position. Compare that with a group that began in 2004 and which, within a decade, has formed a country. So, Hamza bin Laden will recognize the value in IS’ approach and strategy, to some extent.

I am not saying that there will be a complete takeover by IS or a power shift. But I think that there will be some sort of compromise or power sharing agreement that will occur. This will happen because nothing sells like success. And let’s face it, without an audience, terrorism is useless. And now, the audience is social media. You can take over anything by social media. You can have a presidency brought down or you can have a party demolished just by controlling social media. So, I am sure Hamza bin Laden realizes the importance of what IS has achieved.

Q: Going back to your background as someone with ties to the intelligence community, there are a lot of reports of the identities of IS members being revealed. But how much information does international intelligence actually have on members of IS, who are not necessarily high-ranking members but simply followers?

A: Very little. Most of the information nowadays is what we call electronic intelligence, which is gathered by tapping phones and hacking into websites and emails. On ground, human intelligence is very rare. However, it is there. Why it doesn’t come to the forefront is because one does not want to compromise their sources, if they have any. Most of the intelligence is electronic; there are people sitting on banks of computers looking at all sorts of cyber trash in the hopes of picking some conversation, keyword, account or phone number which has information in it.

Q: There are terabytes upon terabytes of information out there, especially with people becoming more intelligent with using social media and technology. How can one pick out “good” information?

A: Well, there are softwares for that. Don’t even think that there are humans doing this. There are softwares that hunt out key words, that hunt out particular sounds or particular source codes. There are also voice recognition softwares. Once these softwares glean out particular information, then there are humans sift out what has been gleaned out.

Q: One problem that I foresee, and I’m sure has already been thought of, is humans are more intelligent than machines. We develop codes, lingo and language to ensure that information cannot be picked up or identified by softwares. How does the intelligence community deal with that?

A: It doesn’t. Ultimately, the best way to maintain confidentiality is to keep your mouth shut. If you want to talk to somebody about it, go to that person physically and whisper it into their ear. This is what happens, and you can’t beat that. Even today, when there is information pertaining to a certain event or area, it is based on percentages as to its accuracy. Actual intelligence, like “I heard it” or “I saw it with my own eyes” is very rare.

Q: I wanted to return to your book. A large theme in your book was escaping IS and the territory. In the book, you describe a harrowing escape involving many parties and high levels of secrecy. But what happens to a person who voluntarily chooses to leave ISIS?

A: As you know, Ticket to Syria is a true story. In this case, the girl involved cannot go back to her country. She cannot meet with her relatives or friends ever. She had to relocate to a new country under a different name. It also requires the cooperation from a variety of agencies. At the end of the day, it requires that the person follows the rules strictly.

Q: Does IS monitor people who left voluntarily? Do they look for them?

A: No, the group has far better things to do. They do not go on a hunt and kill mission. First of all, they do not have the resources to do that. Secondly, going after these people only highlights the fact that people can leave IS. It’s simply not worth it.

Q: So, what is purpose of relocation, secrecy and isolation, if not to protect the individual from IS?

A: See, you are basically ostracized from your community back home. Even if you go back home, say the girl returns to the Maldives, she will not be accepted there. There is also the chance that the government may prosecute her. A local IS representative in the Maldives will target her or an intelligence agency may want to interrogate her. All in all, it makes for an unappetizing scenario and location. The best thing to do is to start with a clean slate. The biggest thing is, if someone does talk to her, she will have to talk have to talk about the people who helped her escape. That is a threat to be taken into account.

There are people who have returned to the Maldives after ‘fighting’ with IS but currently the political climate is such that nothing much is done about them. They are getting respect more that revulsion. However, the girl, did not want to go to IS in the first place, she was deceived and taken there by deception. As far as my experience goes, very few people who join IS ever want to come back. The act of joining is a huge commitment and involves a lot of emotional and mental strength.

Q: My final question is a predictive question. We talked about it a little, but I wanted to know, now that IS’ territory is being taken away, what do you think will happen to the everyday people who had decided to join IS?

A: This is where I think that Al-Qaeda and IS will join hands. All the people who are spread around the world are going to be spreading IS’ ideology in a much more aggressive and firmer manner than Al-Qaeda did. IS is now going to concentrate on their social media outreach on the younger generation.

It was the wrong approach to attack IS in the way that it was attacked. Rather than attacking and taking away its territory, it would have been better to show IS for the failure it would have been. Attacking the territory has only spread its members across the globe and allowed the ideology to germinate. IS would have imploded in the end anyways. No country can exist if no other country engages in trade and commerce with them. There would have been no economy, no resources, starvation, etcetera. By attacking it, we have glorified and epitomized it and given the uninitiated the vision of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

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