Jurors at Ramic trial hear from ISIS expert

Published 2:19 pm Monday, June 10, 2024

By Justin Story, Bowling Green Daily News

BOWLING GREEN — The second week of Mirsad Ramic’s trial on charges related to his alleged ISIS membership began Monday with jurors hearing from an expert on the designated foreign terrorist organization.

Ramic, 34, is on trial in U.S. District Court on charges of providing material support and resource to ISIS, conspiring to provide material support to ISIS and receiving military-type training from a designated terrorist organization.

Ramic is accused of traveling from the U.S. to Syria on June 3, 2014, for the purpose of joining and fighting for ISIS, and remaining there for 15 months.

Monday morning was given over to testimony from Lorenzo Vidino, a researcher and director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, which studies all aspects of terrorism with a particular focus on ISIS and other jihadist and Islamist networks.

Answering questions from attorney Kevin Nunnally of the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Security Division, Vidino spoke about ISIS’s formation, spinning off from Al Qaida in Iraq and settling on the name Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, two years after the U.S. government declared Al Qaida in Iraq a foreign terrorist organization.

Vidino said that ISIS recruited new followers through a propaganda operation that involved professionally produced videos and social media posts, testifying that the United Nations estimated that between 50,000 and 60,000 people traveled from Western nations to Syria to join ISIS between 2011-17.

The propaganda made the argument to viewers that it was their duty as Muslims to come to Syria to help build the Islamic State, and while some ISIS-produced media showed happy families thriving in the state, much propaganda was devoted to the violence that underpinned the group’s efforts to control territory.

“There was an obsessive glorification of violence, but it went hand in hand with the idea that they were using excessive violence to build a perfect society,” Vidino said.

On June 29, 2014, ISIS proclaimed itself a caliphate that purported to establish the group as the political and religious authority among all Muslims, a declaration that most Muslims rejected.

By that point, ISIS controlled significant portions of Syria and Iraq and adopted a style of political authority that Vidino said was based on “the most extremist, conservative, literal interpretation of sharia law.”

“That interpretation called for ISIS to carry out military conquests of other countries and justified extreme violence,” Vidino said. “ISIS’ main goal was that of expanding its territory. Its openly stated goal was that of destroying all countries in the Muslim world, for all those nations to be destroyed and conquered by the caliphate … anyone who doesn’t declare allegiance to the caliphate is an infidel and is subject to death.”

After the caliphate was declared in 2014, Vidino said that ISIS’ propaganda aimed at foreigners shifted from encouragement to come to Syria to build the Islamic State to exhortations to carry out attacks in the West in the name of ISIS.

Syria by that point was three years into a civil war, and ISIS saw an opportunity to expand its territory.

Vidino spoke briefly about an ISIS battalion under the command of Ramo Pazaro, a Bosnian man who a prior witness testified led the unit in which Ramic fought.

Vidino said Pazaro’s unit fought some of the most pitched battles, including the battle for the Syrian city of Kobani, which resulted in thousands of people being killed or displaced before U.S.-led coalition forces drove back ISIS fighters.

Most of the forces opposing ISIS in Kobani were Kurdish militants in the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, which received air and ground support from the coalition forces, though other sectarian groups participated.

Cross-examination from Ramic’s attorney, federal public defender Scott Wendelsdorf, concentrated partly on how people came to be radicalized to travel to Syria and their motives in traveling there, drawing on congressional testimony Vidino gave in 2016 and to a report that Program on Extremism researchers published in 2018.

Vidino acknowledged that some former ISIS members reported differing reasons for going to Syria, such as protecting Muslims from the Syrian government or desiring to build an Islamic culture based on sharia law.

In the early 2010s, people traveling to Syria to join ISIS had to make contact with the group or otherwise be recommended by someone else the group knew and if you just showed up, you had to make a case for yourself for membership based on your knowledge of ideology and commitment to the group.

The 2018 report included an interview from a man identified as “Mo,” who testified at this trial under the pseudonym of Mohammed Dass.

Mo, a U.S. citizen convicted of crimes stemming from his participation in ISIS, reported that he left for Syria in 2014 with no serious ideological affinity and that he was more interested in living in a sharia environment and starting a business, but he became disillusioned at the violence espoused by ISIS and eventually escaped from Syria.

“It’s true, is it not, that if you show up and find out that their sharia ain’t your sharia, things get dicey pretty quick?” Wendelsdorf asked Vidino.

“I don’t know what interpretation (of sharia) the defendant had, so that’s a pretty difficult question for me to answer,” Vidino said.

Wendelsdorf pointed out that both Mo and Ramic left for Syria before ISIS declared its caliphate, and asked Vidino if ISIS would have killed Ramic if he attempted to escape or otherwise disobeyed a military order.

“I don’t know the facts of the case, but if he was escaping, yes,” Vidino said.

Vidino said that even before the declaration of the caliphate, ISIS circulated propaganda that glorified violence, and the themes of defending your fellow Muslims, building the state and fighting the infidels were intertwined.

“When it comes to operations in the Middle East, there was a lot of evidence of what ISIS was doing, but it was less publicized in the West,” Vidino said.

The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday.