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Lydia Wilson: What I Discovered from Interviewing Imprisoned Islamic State Fighters

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Oxford researcher Lydia Wilson discusses interviewing members of ISIS held prisoner at a police station of Kirkuk, Iraq. “They are children of the occupation, many with missing fathers at crucial periods (through jail, death from execution, or fighting in the insurgency), filled with rage against America and their own government,” Wilson wrote in a recent piece for The Nation. “They are not fueled by the idea of an Islamic caliphate without borders; rather, ISIS is the first group since the crushed Al Qaeda to offer these humiliated and enraged young men a way to defend their dignity, family, and tribe.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest is Lydia Wilson, a research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University, also senior research fellow and field director at Artis International, a conflict resolution research consortium. Her latest piece for The Nation magazine is headlined “What I Discovered from Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters.” She’s joining us from London.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Lydia. Explain what you found, how you interviewed ISIS fighters in Iraq.

LYDIA WILSON: Yes, so, firstly, I’d like to point out that these were Iraqi local boys, Sunni-Arab Iraqis who were operating a sleeper cell in Kirkuk. One of them is from Kirkuk, the other two had moved there as children. And so, this was a very particular group of people. And what I found, very strongly, from interviewing them, which was subsequently backed up by other people’s witness reports, is that primarily why they were fighting is because ISIS, right now, at this time, is giving them their opportunity to fight for their Sunni identity, in terms of their land, their tribe, their family, which they have not been given this opportunity, as they see it, since al-Qaeda formed the insurgency during the occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: What drove the ISIS prisoners that you talked to? And describe the setting where you talked to them.

LYDIA WILSON: So, they were prisoners. They had been through due process. They had been found guilty of terrorism for various vehicle explosions and assassinations within Kirkuk. And so, I was given access by the police, and I was interviewing them before they were serving their sentence.

And so, they were quiet, to begin with. And when I gave them a chance to talk and to ask more open-ended questions, it became very clear that they were fueled by a lot of anger, anger primarily against the Americans, but also against their government, that they perceived as Shia, sectarian, and anti-Sunni. They perceived that everybody was against them, that they weren’t given a chance in their own country. And many of them were poor. They were very low education rates—one was illiterate entirely—and big families and often unemployed. So, ISIS was not only offering them a chance to fight for their Sunni identity, but they were offering them money. They were being paid to be foot soldiers. And, I mean, one of them was the eldest of 17 siblings, and his story was that he hurt his back and couldn’t earn any money as a laborer, which he had been doing.

Now, this money was greatly appreciated by them all, but that’s not to say it’s only economic need. There was this driving anger against Americans, against the occupation—but not in terms of this ideology that we see coming out of the ISIS official publications or through social media. It was anger—it was much more personal. It was much more about their own childhoods and adolescences, that they had been blocked from having a normal life because, as they saw it, of the American occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: Lydia Wilson, why did they—

LYDIA WILSON: One of them actually said to us—

AMY GOODMAN: Why did they talk to you?

LYDIA WILSON: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Why did they talk to you?

LYDIA WILSON: We were given access by the police general of Kirkuk. I’m not sure that they had an option in it, to be honest.

AMY GOODMAN: What you know about the so-called handbook of ISIS called The Management of Savagery?

LYDIA WILSON: Well, it was interesting that your previous guest actually referred to it, but very indirectly, because this is huge. It’s really a playbook for what is going on, which is why, to a certain extent, what is going—what has happened in Paris shouldn’t come as a surprise. Yes, it’s shocking and tragic, but actually it’s all there in this handbook that’s written—it’s a pseudonym, but it’s under the name of Abu Bakr Naji, published around 10 years ago, when this group of people was still al-Qaeda in Iraq. Later, a lot of these people formed the Islamic State. And they are fulfilling it. They are following the rules held in this guidebook. One is to attack the unbelievers wherever they are. One is to cause as much terror on the streets as you can, to attack tourist destinations so that security is strengthened in those places, and it costs the unbelieving nations more money. And one is to drag us into a war, to drag our forces into wars that we cannot win, and—as they see it—and also that we will spend an awful lot of our money and power fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the response right now, hours after the bombing in—hours after the attacks in Paris, fuels ISIS. This is what they want, you’re saying—Russia bombing Syria, U.S. bombing Syria, France bombing Syria?

LYDIA WILSON: I’m really sorry, I’m having very much trouble hearing.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m asking—

LYDIA WILSON: I’m so sorry. Did you ask about the response?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I’m saying, are you saying that the U.S., French and Russian bombing of Syria is exactly what ISIS wants?

LYDIA WILSON: Yes, I am. That is, that they’re seemingly delighted by what’s going on, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lydia Wilson, we want to thank you for being with us, research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University. We’ll link to your piece in The Nation magazine. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

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