Foreign Fighter Terrorism: Worry about ‘Fighters’ more than ‘Martyrs’

The Sinjar records served as human resources files for al Qaeda in Iraq.  Much like any job, al Qaeda recruits provided all sorts of biographical information and answered recruitment questions upon arrival in Sinjar. One data entry from the Sinjar records that I initially overlooked was the question: “Work”.  Over time, I realized this response may be the most significant data point in the Sinjar records.

In this question, incoming recruits were asked what role they wanted to play in al Qaeda in Iraq.  The responses mostly consisted of two distinct answers: ‘Fighter’ or ‘Martyr’.  Occasionally, an oddball (less than 1%), would respond with “media specialist” or some other random task.  An important note about this data point, the “Work” selection is quite likely influenced by group think and recording error.  For example, recruits that arrive together likely respond in a similar fashion to this question or are lumped together by the data recorder.  However, deviation in foreign fighter recruit responses remains quite significant despite this potential error.

Differences between the two main responses forecast strategic terrorism implications for the West.  For those that chose ‘Martyr’, the connotation is simple: “I want to be a suicide bomber.”  For those that choose ‘Fighter’, the message morphs to something more complicated: “I’ll fight the infidel, but if I survive, I’ll probably head home or to another safe haven and ultimately fight again somewhere else.” While ‘Martyr’ recruits are tactically devastating, ‘Fighter’ recruits have far greater strategic impact.  Only poor performing ‘Martyr’ recruits survive the battlefield but high performing ‘Fighter’ recruits are more likely to head back home (equipped with skills and combat experience) and become the thread for future jihadi campaigns at home or in the West.  See the below table.  Moroccan, Libyan and Saudi foreign fighter recruits were far more likely to choose ‘Martyr’.  Meanwhile, Algerian, Yemeni and Tunisian foreign fighter recruits were more likely to choose ‘Fighter’.

Recently, we have seen significant growth in two affiliated al Qaeda groups:  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  The 2007 Sinjar recruits told us what was to come.  In 2008, Algeria and Yemen were the top two locations for terrorist attacks outside of Iraq and Afghanistan (See Countering Terrorism from the Second Foreign Fighter Glut).  These same two countries had the largest percentage of ‘Fighter’ recruits to Sinjar in 2007.  It’s quite likely the return of ‘Fighter’ recruits to their hometowns in source countries that helped spearhead the expansion of these two al Qaeda affiliates.

Analysis of the “Work” responses by country suggests al Qaeda recruits likely come from two different recruiting environments and radicalization processes. ‘Fighter’ recruits, from towns in Algeria and Yemen, likely arise from neighborhoods with a long history of rebellion. Young men tend to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends; continuing long histories of fighting colonial and internal government repression.  The attraction is tradition, social acceptance, and honor.  Meanwhile, the ‘Martyr’ recruits, from towns in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, may be more influenced by messages of religious fulfillment or fame.  These recruits might be more repressed socially and seek their own purpose in the world.  Ironically, Moroccans and Saudis also showed greater propensity to access terrorist websites than other countries (See Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?) suggesting that attractive martyrdom messages distributed via the web might be more influential  in these locations. Ultimately, I haven’t done enough research into this Internet hypothesis to test its validity but I’d be interested to see what Internet Haganah thinks about this based on his cross-country data.

I believe there is a different recruitment process between these two groups: ‘Fighter’ and ‘Martyr’.  The implications of this difference suggest 1) future terrorism is likely to arise from ‘Fighter’ recruits and 2) countering recruitment in the Middle East and North Africa probably requires two different messaging strategies depending on the flashpoint city and its propensity to produce either ‘Fighters’ or ‘Martyrs’.

Countering terrorism from foreign fighters- Key Finding #2 from the Sinjar Records- Focus on ‘Fighter’ recruits more than ‘Martyr’ recruits.  Recognize different recruitment messaging for these recruits depending on their source country.

If I were an analyst in Afghanistan today, I would be examining all recent foreign fighters trying to identify the ‘Fighter’ recruits and where they came from.  They are likely to be the strategic vein of al Qaeda inspired terrorism for the next five years.  The Turkish and German recruits may be the most scary of this lot.  More to follow on this.