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Sunday, September 25, 2016

To catch an extremist: documentary’s online sting exposes Daesh recruiters

It was an elaborate plan: conjure up two perfect undercover “recruits” to lure Daesh’s ravenous online recruiters. The plan worked, but the filmmaker never thought they’d actually talk.

Filmmaker Martin Himel has spent 30 years tracking and filming some of the world’s most dangerous terrorist groups. But none alarmed him as much as Daesh.

“The revolutionary thing about Daesh is their global reach,” he said. “They can set off a terrorist blast anywhere in the world and put it up on their 24-hour channel with no censorship, as a recruitment tool. It’s a social media world and all the rules have changed.”

So, in late 2014, Himel set up an ingenious sting to entrap the trappers: creating Internet “avatars” who would get close enough online to recruiters for Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to learn their tricks of the trade, without risking kidnapping and death.

His experiment would turn into a 17-month film odyssey that ended with a startling denouement he could never have predicted. The result, titled Undercover in ISIS, will be aired on CBC’s Documentary Channel tonight at 8 and repeated Monday.

“I had the idea that if Daesh spent so much time on social media, we could set up fake people and they’d talk,” the New York and Canadian-based filmmaker said in Toronto on Thursday. “I got in touch with some ex-security people I knew, from different countries, and they thought it was a cool idea. None of us thought it would go anywhere.”

To bait the trap, Himel’s consultants selected two academics who volunteered to join the project, and code-named them Sara and Theo.

“Both were very unassuming, ordinary sorts of people,” Himel said. “They weren’t glamorous and they had nothing in common with 007.”

But they had an important distinction: both were western nationals, “Theo” a Swede and “Sara” an Australian. One of the film’s advisers, a forensic psychologist, created profiles for them based on actual Daesh recruits. Their online characters were emotionally isolated converts to Islam who were looking for something “more extreme than mainstream.”

In less than a month of trawling through responses from armchair Daesh wannabes, Theo had the first results.

Pretending to be attracted by the romance of joining the jihad, he was contacted by a French man who called himself Rashid. After a number of Internet exchanges, he suggested that Theo go to Brussels to meet contacts who would help him go to Syria, six months before terrorist attacks rocked the Belgian capital.

Instead, Theo asked for a Skype meeting in the hope of catching Rashid on film. But he failed to respond, and the trail went cold.

Sara, meanwhile, spent two months without viable contacts, and Himel was ready to wind up the experiment. Then, she struck gold. A woman in Daesh’s self-described capital, Raqqa, started an online conversation.

What followed was a months-long cat-and-mouse game between the would-be recruiter and Sara, the bogus Daesh bride.

The recruiter, a soft-spoken Swede who called herself “Umm Hamza,” was clever, wily and experienced. She sounded out Sara gradually, asked why she converted to Islam, why she wanted to come to Syria, and what nationality husband she was seeking.

Sara opted for a European, and the stakes escalated suddenly when Umm Hamza offered her own son-in-law, Michael Skramo, a blond, blue-eyed Swede, as a prospective mate.

Skramo is one of two most-wanted terrorist suspects in Sweden. A convert to Islam who studied as a chef and was once a vocal opponent of Islamophobia, he had become a dedicated jihadist who sent out bloodthirsty recruitment videos calling for the killing of non-believers, and fought on the front lines in Syria.

He had five children with his wife, Amanda, but, Umm Hamza told Sara, “she was OK” with the second marriage.

As negotiations deepened, Himel and his team had to keep one step ahead of Daesh’s cybersecurity, using dummy phones connected with Sweden and Australia, and obeying instructions to use encrypted sites and Wi-Fi linked mobiles without traceable SIM cards.

A departure date was set, and Sara was put in touch with Skramo, who used the nom-de-guerre Abdul Samad al Swedi.

He told her how to evade detection after arriving in Turkey, and she received a map showing a “simple route” to Raqqa from the border. Meanwhile, Umm Hamza offered motherly advice and encouragement to the prospective bride, assuring her life in the “caliphate” would be wonderful.

“Sara went into this to con Umm Hamza,” Himel said. “But she was emotionally affected by her. She wasn’t a professional spy and even though she knew the woman was a terrorist, and luring young women to marry jihadists, she was upset. That’s how recruiters work, through the emotions.”

The film might have ended there. But when the Documentary Channel extended financing, Himel went to Sweden for more background on Skramo and his family. Through contacts with terrorism experts and police, he received startling information. Umm Hamza — in reality Ulrike Pape — had returned to Gothenburg.

“It wasn’t difficult to trace where she was,” Himel said. “But I wasn’t expecting her to talk to me. I just wanted to get her voice, then the film would be locked.”

To his amazement, she let him in, along with his contact, who told her he was a journalist. Veiled, but seemingly relaxed, she admitted escaping from the caliphate with her two preteen children after allied bombing intensified. Her eldest, Amanda, remained in Raqqa.

“I was filming with a hidden camera,” Himel said. “I couldn’t see what I was shooting, but I couldn’t miss the opportunity. She had parrots everywhere in the apartment, in cages, as she did in Raqqa. It was like living confirmation of my story — like a movie someone was playing for me.”

The film is finished, but the plot is still in play.

In Sweden, Pape is free, but under surveillance, and Skramo — who can’t return for fear of arrest — is in increasing danger from bombing, along with his family. Daesh’s once-touted caliphate is under attack and shrinking in both Syria and Iraq.

But says Himel, what he learned from the film convinced him that the threat of terrorist recruitment is real and may be growing.

“What I’m worried about is not just Daesh. It’s the ability of extremists to do two things: one is to recruit people all over the world through unrestricted social media. The other is their ability to get their hands on unconventional weapons. When you put them together, it adds up to a potent mix.”

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