By John Irvin

On the face of it, insider espionage and terrorism would seem to have little in common.  The insider spy and his or her handler (traditionally, but not necessarily, a foreign intelligence service) strive to keep their activities as hidden as possible, while the definitive purpose of all terrorism is to advance an openly-stated agenda through bloody, violent acts designed to be as public and shocking as possible; that is, to terrorize.  Furthermore, terrorists tend to quite willingly take a direct role in the death and destruction they cause, while the insider spy may simply play an invisible role in aiding and abetting the violence committed by others, giving the insider spy the psychological luxury of denying or rationalizing his or her malfeasance.

Nevertheless, there is an elemental commonality between the two that goes beyond the basic fact that both behaviors are ultimately criminal.  Layers of political or religious ideology, history, culture, group identity, and a myriad of other issues combine to obscure the one universally-shared feature of both the individual insider spy and terrorist.  At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, the reality is that both are human beings acting on decisions that arose from their own unique, subjective psyche.  Their acts are the result of a personal decision based on each individual’s worldview, including their view of themselves.  They made a choice.

This commonality also provides a common vulnerability, one that can be exploited in combating both behaviors.  That vulnerability is the disillusionment and regret that can follow when one realizes a decision he or she has made has ended up being the wrong one.  That realization comes when reality overcomes illusion and the person sees that the choice to engage in a particular behavior is not one that will fulfill the material or psychological goals he or she had originally believed it would.[1]

Once that realization begins to seep in, whether an individual can be persuaded to cease the behavior or not depends to a large degree on his or her external circumstances.  Can the insider spy break free from the foreign intelligence service’s control?  Can the disillusioned terrorist walk away from the terrorist organization?  What are the benefits of success and the costs of failure?  What has to happen in that individual’s world to help make walking away from espionage or terrorism seem a viable option?  What can governments, organizations, and individuals do to help them make the decision to walk away?

In order to allay any suggestion of false equivalency between the two malicious behaviors, while it is certainly true that insider spies are not generally known to personally engage in the sort of barbaric violence common to terrorist organizations such as Islamic State, insider espionage has resulted in the actual deaths of many and the potential deaths of countless more.  In 1987, analyst-turned-Cuban-spy Ana Montes told her handlers about a secret US Army Special Forces camp in El Salvador she had visited.[2]  That camp was soon attacked by Cuban-backed rebels, resulting in the death of Staff Sgt. Gregory A. Fronius.[3]  Insider spies such as former FBI agent Robert Hanssen and former CIA officer Aldrich Ames must have realized that by providing the Soviet Union with the names of Soviet citizens working for Western intelligence they were condemning those men to certain death.

As for the magnitude of the damage an insider spy can do, former US Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker provided the Soviet Union with information on US Navy nuclear capabilities that might have convinced the Soviets that a nuclear war with the US could be winnable.[4]  The potential loss of life had there been a nuclear war between the two Cold War adversaries is unimaginable.  So, while an individual IS terrorist may kill tens or even hundreds by his own hand, Walker’s espionage could have killed countless millions.  Evil comes in an astonishing variety of forms.

While acknowledging that both insider espionage and terrorism are reprehensible behaviors and all reasonable measures should be taken to eliminate those behaviors, it must also be acknowledged that there are certainly individuals who may not be receptive to any effort to change their worldview and behavior.  Sociopaths like Walker or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are unlikely to feel any significant disillusionment or regret for their actions.  The fact that such men exist is not, however, justification for abandoning the effort to reach others.  The perfect solution should not be the enemy of the good solution, whether in counter-espionage or counter-terrorism.  Fortunately for everyone, such high levels of sociopathy are still relatively uncommon.

In Part One: True Psychology of the Insider Spy of his two-part publication NOIR: A White Paper,[5] Dr. David L. Charney, MD, uses the psychological reality that all human beings experience disillusionment and regret[6] to provide one solution to the problem of insider espionage.  In Part One, Dr. Charney describes the Ten Life Stages of the Insider Spy.  In Stage Five[7]the remorse/morning-after stage – the insider spy is already actively engaged in espionage, but finally has time to reflect on the consequences of his or her decision.  The illusion that espionage would be the answer to his or her needs or desires is challenged by the reality of the situation.

A window of opportunity opens at this point to use this psychological vulnerability in order to persuade the insider spy to abandon espionage and, in fact, assist the same people he or she had previously been spying against.  Dr. Charney envisions a National Office for Intelligence Reconciliation (NOIR) within the US government that would offer the insider spy incentives for essentially turning him- or herself in and working against the foreign intelligence service that had earlier held the insider spy in a snare of deceit and criminal activity.  It isn’t a “get out of jail free” card, since it requires complete cooperation with US authorities and prevents the former insider spy from benefiting in any way from the illegal activity, but it is a better outcome than the ignominy of being an exposed spy and the isolation of years in federal prison.

ICSR-report-coverThe potential value of utilizing this same psychological vulnerability in the battle against terrorism is addressed in a recently published report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) at King’s College, London.  Entitled Victims, Perpetrators, Assets: The Narratives of Islamic State Defectors,[8] the report offers the stories of men and women who had joined the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS), but later left as a result of disillusionment and regret.  The rationale for leaving is specific to each individual, but similar in that they all reflect the realization that the actual circumstances they found themselves in after joining IS were much different from what they had expected.

Much as Dr. Charney’s proposal for a NOIR that would use disillusioned and regretful insider spies against the very individuals who recruited them into a life of espionage, the ICSR report highlights the value of using defector stories to undermine the narrative that attracts many psychologically vulnerable individuals to IS.  In a recent Washington Post article[9], the head of ICSR, Peter Neumann, is quoted as saying,

“We don’t think all defectors are saints, or supporters of liberal democracy, or model citizens…(B)ut their narratives and arguments are still valuable because they are speaking from a position of authority and experience and credibility that no one else has.”

Neumann also points out that there are likely many disillusioned terrorists who would be willing to offer their stories but fear reprisal, either from the organization they left or from the very laws of the countries they returned to.  It is also likely there are many disillusioned terrorists who remain in the terrorist organization long after they cease believing in it simply because they feel they have no alternative.  To leave risks reprisal if they are caught, and even if they do escape they face the law enforcement establishment of whatever country they escape to.  There is little incentive to risk leaving if going home only means a lengthy prison sentence.

This is the same dilemma facing the insider spy, who is trapped between foreign intelligence handlers who will not simply let him quit and his own country’s law enforcement establishment who are unlikely to treat him gently even if he does voluntarily turn himself in.  As Dr. Charney puts it,

With second thoughts about having crossed the line, fantasies crowd his mind about having a conversation with his handler to explain that it was all a terrible mistake.  After further thought, he rules out that option.  It would be like trying to get out of an arrangement with the Mafia.  It would be very foolish, perhaps dangerous even to try.  What about doing the right thing and turning himself in?  He could explain that he got overwhelmed and then did something very stupid, and could he please turn the clock back? On further thought, he realizes that option is impossible too.  Bad as things are, better to leave things alone, keep spying, and hope for the best.

Dr. Charney’s solution to this dilemma is a NOIR that is designed and operated specifically to provide the regretful insider spy with a means of extricating himself, not entirely unscathed and certainly with specific legal consequences, but without experiencing the worst possible outcome for his country, his organization, his family, and himself.  ICSR head Neumann reflects this same viewpoint in regard to terrorism when stating that lawmakers should offer defectors more protection if they want to undercut recruitment.  Just as Dr. Charney’s work suggests disillusionment and regret offer a window of opportunity in combating insider espionage, the ICSR report suggests that same window of opportunity in combating terrorist recruitment efforts.

The ICSR report’s recommendations are likely to face one particular criticism that is frequently directed toward the NOIR concept; it appears to offer very bad people an “easy way out” or a sort of amnesty despite the magnitude of their crimes.  The argument is that, rather than deterring the crime, whether espionage or terrorism, offering the disillusioned insider spy or terrorist a way out, even a limited one, actually encourages the behavior.  In fact, this view reflects a simplistic, black and white view of human motivation, and research does not support the view that severe punishment actually reduces the likelihood of crime.[10]

Moreover, not all spies or terrorists are the same.  Like most things human, they represent moral shades of grey.  For every insider spy like John Anthony Walker, who never expressed any genuine remorse for the damage he caused his family and his country, there are still more like Jeffery Delisle, who was consumed by regret and desperately wished for a way out.[11]  For every bloodstained, sociopathic terrorist like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, there are probably more like “Hamza,” who fled IS after being invited to participate in the rape of captured Yazidi women and ordered to execute people he knew.[12]  In short, there are insider spies and terrorists for whom disillusionment and regret do present a window of opportunity for those seeking to undermine foreign espionage and violent terrorism.

The challenge is in creating a means of reaching them when that widow does present itself, to provide a reasonably safe means for them to walk away from either behavior, and to establish an official framework to protect them, both legally and (if necessary) physically, from unreasonable or merely vindictive retribution.  There are certainly exceptions, those whose crimes are so horrendous that they should never be offered the opportunity to avoid the full weight of the legal system, but there are still more in whom we can recognize the universal human failure to make well-reasoned choices.

Reaching out to these people is not simply a naïve, idealistic effort.  It is an effective means of combatting terrorism and reducing insider espionage by not only drawing individuals away from the practice, but of then using them against the same terrorist organizations or foreign intelligence services who recruited them in the first place.  It employs the same psychological vulnerabilities that drew the individual to the crime to draw them away from it, and then turns them into a weapon to fight it.  It uses the best aspects of our shared humanity to fight the worst.


[1] After volunteering to the Russian military intelligence service (GRU), former Canadian Navy Sub-Lieutenant Jeffery Delisle soon found his new handlers making veiled threats against his children (  After joining Islamic State, Areeb Majeed reportedly found himself performing menial jobs such as cleaning toilets (



[4] Rafalco, Counterintelligence Reader, 3:234.


[6] Even the aforementioned sociopaths may experience regret, although their regret is more likely to be in getting caught rather than remorse for the suffering they cause.




[10] Pinker, S. (2011) The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking