Interview on radicalization and recruitment at Loopcast

Today, I had the opportunity to do an interview on extremist radicalization and recruitment with @cldaymon at the Loopcast.  The interview was fun and I talked way too long.  I also discussed a mix of different things I’ve researched with regards to radicalization and recruitment as well as social media.  So in follow up, if anyone is interested in where my mumblings come from, here are links to the different publications.

Lastly, I discussed the differences in incentives for recruits to join al Qaeda based on their role in the organization or based on their geographical location. I noted that I thought Westerners tended to join for more ideological reasons than recruits from Africa for example.  Here are two posts I wrote here at this blog related to that theoretical framework and below each post link I’ll paste the two graphs of how I thought the incentives might vary (theoretically) depending on the individual recruit.

Countering Violent Extremism of Terror Cell Recruits (And graph below)

LEcon Job opening


Countering Violent Extremism Around The Globe (And Graph Below)



Successful Recruitment Processes for Ideological Causes

This past week, I finished Lawrence Wright’s latest book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.  It is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time; a truly amazing story of modern America that is exceptionally researched.  The book provides a contemporary accounting of how a religion is formed and in these descriptions I found many parallels to what is described in the recruitment processes of other ideological groups like al Qaeda and how they recruit new members.  (Note: I do not think Scientology is a terror group nor do I have anything against Scientologists with the exception of those described in the book that senselessly beat subordinate members and imprison them in dark basements. (Read the book, you’ll be amazed!) I don’t care what anyone believes as long as you don’t use it to justify killing other people or restricting others’ freedoms.)

In the book, Wright describes how writer/director Paul Haggis was recruited into Scientology.  On page 4, of Going Clear, I’ve done a short paraphrasing of Wright’s description of the Scientology playbook:

“Although he didn’t realize it, Haggis was being drawn into the church through a classic four-step “dissemination drill” that recruiters are carefully trained to follow.  The first step is to make contact…The second step is to disarm any antagonism the individual may have toward Scientology. Once that’s done, the task it to “find the ruin” — that is, the problem most on the mind of the potential recruit…The fourth step is to convince the Subject that Scientology has the answer.”

This description sounded so familiar to what I’ve seen and studied with regards to groups like al Qaeda.  But in reality, this approach can be seen in most all religions.  Wright does a great comparison of Scientology with other religions in the final chapter of the book, one that is both fair and instructive of Scientology’s parallels with more ancient religious traditions.

As I discussed in a recent post on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s recruitment to extremism, the ability for one to be susceptible to a recruitment strategy is an emotional trigger; or as described in Going Clear as “finding the ruin”. If one is primed by one or more emotional triggers, for example, the loss of a family member (family), a struggle for employment (financial), a mental condition (psychological) or the failure to achieve a goal (professional), the “ruin” can send one seeking an answer and an ideology can easily be a solution to solve all problems.  It’s not a coincidence that those sentenced to prisons (a “ruin”) often quickly find either God, a gang or both.

While Scientology is thankfully not a violent organization, at least not externally anyways, the process by which they “find the ruin” mirrors many extreme groups.  Wright’s description reminds me of on of my favorite articles on radicalization and recruitment – an article by TJ Leydon, a former white supremacist, who wrote a response to the Wade Michael Page massacre last year entitled “What I Might Have Told Wade Michael Page“. Leydon explains how he targeted people for recruitment.

“Treat someone normal like a winner and he’ll fight for you, but treat a loser like a winner and he’ll kill for you” became a phrase that I took to heart in recruiting others. As the years passed, I started to care more about the power of being high in the hierarchy of the white supremacy movement, so I started to go along with the ideology, even ideals I didn’t believe in or care about, such as Holocaust denial.”

Leydon’s conclusion also provides another contrasting perspective as to why people join different ideologies; extreme or otherwise.  The ideology provides the answer to all problems and a way to pursue both group and individual goals whether they be enlightenment, enrichment or power.  It’s striking how this thinking (the ideology is the solution to everything if its applied in such a way that it suits my needs) still provides comfort to those like Omar Hammami who routinely speak in the same narratives of  ideological panacea as the solution to solve their ruin and all problems.

Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?

Tonight I was invited to participate in 16 x 9’s live blog for their upcoming news program “Why North Americans Are Joining Terrorist Organizations?”  I believe the documentary will be online Sunday night.  While the live blog was fun, it was difficult to summarize my thoughts on al Qaeda recruitment processes, which I believe vary considerably between Western countries and the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.  So for those interested in some discussion on foreign fighter recruitment processes, here’s some analysis I did in 2008 entitled “Foreign Fighters: How are they being recruited?”  You can get the entire pdf at this link and here’s a brief summary from the conclusion:

Certainly, official AQ members at times directly initiate recruitment in North African and Middle Eastern countries. Occasionally, individuals self-radicalize and independently seek out the greater jihad, possibly using the Internet for ideological indoctrination and communication with facilitators. However, both of these scenarios represent only a portion of foreign fighter recruitment. Most North African and Middle Eastern foreign fighters are instead recruited through social, family and religious networks empowered by former foreign fighters who catalyze the radicalization process. These local networks are efficient, built for the community and adaptable to local conditions. Such networks are difficult to create in either a hierarchical AQ Central (top-down) or a self-selecting (bottom-up) system.

An alternative foreign fighter recruitment model might reflect all three patterns described above. My hypothesis for future research estimates that global foreign fighter flow consists of roughly the following:

–Self-selecting (bottom-up) recruitment accounts for 10 -15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. These self-recruits consist largely of second and third generation Muslims and converts to Jihadi doctrine based in Western countries, the majority of which reside in the EU. Their increased Internet access and propensity for militancy help radicalize them locally before moving through select intermediaries to more formal networks. These individuals are inexperienced, untrained and often a liability to the larger AQ movement as their conduct may stray from AQ’s global message, and their operational and security mishaps endanger the group. However, their access to Western targets and their propaganda value remain a coveted prize for AQ and a worthwhile risk.

–AQ hierarchical (top-down) recruitment accounts for an additional 10 – 15 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. AQ, under intense pressure from Western military and intelligence, expends effort to specifically recruit individuals that maintain valuable skills in weaponry, media, operational planning, finance and logistics. These recruits pose the greatest threat globally as their knowledge, skills, and experience create hallmark AQ attacks and maintain organizational coherence. While self-recruits are dangerous due to their access, these direct recruits are dangerous due to their ability.

–Former foreign fighters embedded in family, religious and social networks in flashpoint North African and Middle Eastern cities produce between 60 and 80 percent of global foreign fighter recruitment. Jihadi veterans and their networks are the center of gravity not only for al-Qa’ida but also for decades of Jihadi militancy. These communities are motivated not only by militant ideology but by their perceived oppression from the West economically and politically, frustration over Palestinean-Israeli conflict, and the influence of Western values on their culture. High foreign fighter producing communities sustained the Afghan jihad during the 1980’s, provide for current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and will be the thread for future militant efforts at the close of current conflicts.


Insightful new al Qaeda document (Talked about) in Germany

I meant to post on this last week, but for those that might have missed it @abususu has some details on a new al Qaeda document that has been declassified talked about in Germany (Sorry, a modification as of 1200 EST. @abususu says its not publicly available but people have seen it).  The U.S. provided the document to the Germans in support of their prosecution of Abdeladim el-K. Yassin Musharbash always provides excellent analysis of al Qaeda and his post here is one of the most informative things I’ve read in a while.  Great reporting by Yassin – he has been out in front on the story of German prosecutions for several months.

Here are some of the pertinent details Yassin describes (but please check out the original post as it is worth the read):

-The document is a letter by Junis al-Mauretani to Osama Bin Laden, dated March 2010. It is 17 pages in the original Arabic.

-The reason the US shared this particular document with the Germans is that in it, al-Mauretani refers to a Moroccan recruit whose date of birth he gives – and which is the same as the date of birth of one of the defendants in said trial.

-In essence, the letter is a sketch or rather a vision of a comprehensive plot against the West, including maritime, economical and other sensitive targets. There is a certain emphasis on critical infrastructure, as al-Mauretani singles out water dams, underwater gaspipelines, bridges between cities and tunnels connecting countries, as well as internet cables as potential targets.

– He also claims that there is a process in place by which followers would be asked to enter into sensitive jobs, e.g. in the transport business for oil and gas. By this, he suggests, it could become easier to attack targets like airports, love parades (sic!) and highly frequented tunnels.

This document sheds light on the cause for concern in 2010 when there were numerous news reports about a potential attack.  From Yassin’s notes, it would seem that al Qaeda was also a bit afraid to create many civilian casualties.

Here are some of the more fascinating bits Yassin mentions in his analysis:

-There is also an interesting passage in which he claims that AQIM has enough funds to help finance his ideas and that the cadres there trust him personally.

So in 2010, the word on the street was that AQIM, of all affiliates, had the money to finance operations.  Sure, the kidnapping ransoms were significant, but maybe we should be asking where else they were getting their money from in 2010? and now?

 2.- AQ during that time actively recruited Westerners – even from among other Jihadist groups like the IMU. I think this means that they wanted this to be large and comprehensive effort – probably sending all of them back around the same time but not striking immediately but rather asking them to recruit even more people and then lie down until told to act. Al-Mauretani in several cases made sure there would be secure means of communications.

One of the notions I’ve heard repeated in analysis on al Qaeda is the group’s supposed conduct of wide-scale direct recruitment.  I disagree with this notion (as I discussed in 2007).  While al Qaeda does direct recruit specific individuals at times, more routinely they use feeder affiliates and other terror groups to parse out many of their most promising recruits.  This system of minor league terrorist farm teams allows mauretanial Qaeda to keep their distance from new recruits that appear too eager or potentially risky and provides a method for assessing the recruit’s abilities before assigning them a role.  Likewise, it provides al Qaeda a larger set of recruitment options from which to choose better talent. This system flourishes when the group situates securely behind an insurgent safe haven allowing them to pluck key people ideally suited for certain roles from pseudo-terror/definite-insurgent groups like IMU, Shabaaab, Ansar al-Sharia, etc.

Essentially, insurgencies allow for the development of terrorist farm teams where recruits then arrive in al Qaeda’s camp with some training, experience and vetting minimizing al Qaeda’s costs and exposure while maximizing their options.  Two things sustain al Qaeda’s position in this hierarchy as the major league team: ideology & money.  While the West is ill-equipped to erode the ideology of zealots, in the future, the West could work to stifle AQ’s resource allocation – something that proved decisive (but lightly discussed) during al Qaeda’s more recent setbacks in Waziristan.

Lastly, this document points to why the U.S. will always need to maintain an aggressive CT posture despite the recent successes against al Qaeda.  Either al Qaeda, or some group like them, will continue to plot terrorist attacks against the U.S.  The U.S. will be attacked, and we will be attacked less if we maintain a persistent eye on the plethora of threats that might emerge from more than a dozen recruitment portals around the world.

Overall, a great post from Yassin and I hope everyone takes a read.

Why do Jihadi Ideologues get so extreme?

Yesterday, a friend emailed me a really cool new piece of research that has come out at Harvard University School of Government. Rich Nielson of the Harvard School of Government has recently posted his research entitled Jihadi Radicalization of Muslim Clerics.

This paper explains why some Muslim clerics adopt the ideology of militant Jihad while others do not. I argue that clerics strategically adopt or reject Jihadi ideology because of career incentives generated by the structure of cleric educational networks. Well-connected clerics enjoy substantial success at pursuing comfortable careers within state-run religious institutions and they reject Jihadi ideology in exchange for continued material support from the state. Clerics with poor educational networks cannot rely on connections to advance through the state-run institutions, so many pursue careers outside of the system by appealing directly to lay audiences for support. These clerics are more likely to adopt Jihadi ideology because it helps them demonstrate to potential supporters that they have not been theologically coopted by political elites. I provide evidence of these dynamics by collecting and analyzing 29,430 fatwas, articles, and books written by 91 contemporary clerics. Using statistical natural language processing, I measure the extent to which each cleric adopts Jihadi ideology in their writing. I combine this with biographical and network information about each cleric to trace the process by which poorly-connected clerics become more likely to adopt Jihadi ideology.

I’m very excited about this article as I start to read it as it seems to reinforce my suspicions and theories put forth in a still unpublished working paper on labor economics application to terror group recruitment (Something I’ve posted portions of here, here, and here).  I’ve only read about half of the article so far but look forward to finishing it tonight and I imagine Nielson is onto an important new line of research.  Whether you are pastor in Florida or a cleric in North Africa, quite often, it pays to be extreme!

Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) released a report I wrote last December entitled “Radicalization in the U.S. Beyond al Qaeda: Treating the Disease of the Disconnection“.  A big thanks from me to FPRI for sticking with the publication review and release process and for getting the article out. While the article was written last winter, I hope those analyzing current events in the domestic radicalization scene will find interest in the article’s conclusion.

Here’s a quick summary of today’s release:

Recent weeks have seen an unfortunate number of violent shootings perpetrated by armed men. The shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Oak Creek, Wisconsin shine light on ideologies and other factors inspiring violence in the U.S. In response, the Foreign Policy Research Institute is now releasing a report Radicalization in the U.S. beyond al Qaeda: Treating the Disease of the Disconnection, by FPRI Senior Fellow Clint Watts. Completed in December 2011, the report explores the efficacy and future threat of al Qaeda’s ideology in radicalizing Americans but concludes with a broader call for examining the variety of domestic ideologies inspiring violence in the United States. Watts discusses potential trends in future U.S. radicalization and outlines several recommendations for preparing the U.S. to detect and interdict violence from a host of extremist ideologies, of which al Qaeda represents only one.

For those that read this blog, you will be familiar with parts of this article as I wrote parallel blog posts (#1, #2, #3, #4) in December 2011 as I was doing background research on the alleged spike in ‘Homegrown Extremism’.  I took some criticism when I wrote that militant Islam wasn’t the greatest ideological threat internal to the U.S. military and I believe the past 6 months’ events demonstrate the variety of extremist threats that might emerge from former military members.

In this article, I discuss several facets of al Qaeda radicalization, which I continue to explore (here and here), but I hope those interested in current events on the domestic scene will maybe take up the research challenge I tried to articulate at the end the piece.  Here is a clip from my concluding remarks.  I apologize in advance for the formatting as I took it from the pdf.

“Future Radicalization: What Can We Do?
Ten years of counterterrorism lessons learned provide the basis for reshaping a broader U.S. approach to countering violent extremism. The approach should remove some of the least productive elements of the past decade’s efforts and build resources and processes more effective and efficient for identifying and interdicting homegrown extremism.
• Cease large scale training for law enforcement officers on militant Islam
U.S. efforts to counter violent extremism since 9/11/2001 have included teaching the principles of militant Islam to law enforcement officers. In retrospect, this training appears expensive, often incorrect in its content, highly inconsistent in its delivery and quite possibly counterproductive for countering violent extremism.28 The complete lack of a standardized curriculum and certified instructors results in wildly variable militant Islam instruction enabling counterproductive stereotypes that undermine law enforcement community engagement programs and alienate vulnerable communities. Teaching of militant Islamic extremism should end and in its place should be a broader set of training on radicalization and extremism encompassing those indicators potentially precipitating violence for any and all ideologies.

Increase information sharing from federal to local levels regarding electronic surveillance
The emergence of lone wolf extremism provides few indicators. Electronic communications and social media posts often provide some of the only clues permitting law enforcement to begin preempting homegrown extremism. U.S. federal agencies hosting advanced electronic surveillance resources able to detect these signals of radical emergence must perfect the authorized exchange of information across all law enforcement agencies.
• Continue the expansion of community engagement with and beyond Muslim communities

Community engagement programs provide additional detection capability and more importantly increased interdiction capability with homegrown radicals. U.S. law enforcement has dramatically increased its community-oriented policing strategies with the Muslim community leading to increased detection and preemption of extremism. However, as noted by Kurzman and Jenkins, the past decade’s incidents of Muslim-American extremism provide no particular profile and provide no basis to conclude that extremists will reside in Muslim communities. In addition, if an extremist does reside in a Muslim community, there is no reason to assume that the Muslim community will be aware of potential extremists in their midst. Emerging radicalization threatening the U.S. may very well emerge from vulnerable, non-Muslim communities. Law enforcement should now begin placing more emphasis on expanding their community engagement in all communities where extremist ideology may emerge.

• Sustain the use of informants and intelligence-led law enforcement approaches
Successfully countering violent extremism and its resulting attacks requires a preemptive approach. No single preemption technique works better than the expanded use of informants – a proven practice honed by law enforcement for many decades. Some recent articles argue against law enforcement’s expanded use of informants citing 1) entrapment of innocent suspects or 2) alienation of vulnerable communities.30 Both of these arguments are misguided. For the former, Brooks’ article appropriately noted that U.S. prosecutor declination rates of terrorism-related offenses has increased substantially in recent years suggesting the necessary checks to prevent the unlawful pursuit of innocent subjects are in place.31 For the latter, community engagement with vulnerable communities alone will not provide the necessary safe guards to preempt terrorist radicalization. As witnessed by the more than twenty Somali-Americans recruited to al Shabaab from Minneapolis, communities and parents know some but not all of what their young men are doing. Law enforcement’s use of informants should not be a single-point solution but complimentary to the community engagement approaches being implemented by law enforcement. Additionally, community engagement and informant operations should be planned and designed within the larger context of intelligence-led policing operations – a data driven approach focused on preventing rather than reacting to crime and terrorism.

• Detect extremists electronically and engage with them physically
The Internet provides the method for both accessing extremist content and detecting those being radicalized by extremist content. Despite this early warning mechanism, the expansion of e-investigation by both law enforcement and counterterrorism analysts has led to excessive focus on the part of many to detect, de-radicalize or disrupt terrorists through a flurry of mouse clicks in the comfort of one’s home or
office. This rearward investigative approach is costly, time-consuming, and prone to error. While Google’s calls for positive engagement may be noble, their Internet enabled countering violent extremism concepts misunderstand the process of radicalization and provide a costly indirect and less effective radicalization interdiction method to physical engagement.32 Google and others advocating Internet extremist interdiction might better use their resources and interrupt radicalization by proactively removing the vast quantities of extremist content residing on their servers and violating their own terms of service.33 (YouTube, owned by Google, being one such platform – see the endnote for additional discussion on this point.)
Electronic detection followed by physical engagement provides a more effective method for disrupting homegrown extremism. A more appropriate blend of effort and resources for countering homegrown extremism might follow a spectrum of key tasks:

1- Identify and remove extremist content from U.S. and partner nation servers through established legal processes and cooperation with the private sector.
2- Detect online extremist radicalization through electronic surveillance and rapidly share this information with law enforcement and homeland security officials to initiate physical engagement with advocates of extremism.
3- Expand community engagement across all communities for additional detection capability and further means of extremist interdiction.
4- Directly and physically engage those being radicalized. Law enforcement and their local community partners should physically preempt those
demonstrating extremist sympathies. This engagement could use a combination of intermediaries to include family, community leaders, law
enforcement, social workers, and reformed extremists who are particularly effective in deescalating extremists moving down the path of radicalization.
5- Monitor and interdict those committed to extremism through informants, surveillance and preemptive law enforcement. For some radicalized in the U.S., there is no de-escalating their intent to commit violence. Law enforcement at all levels should continue their proactive policing when direct intervention with extremists is infeasible or insufficient to deter.
• Develop countering violent extremism resources and expertise at the national level as on-call resources for state and local jurisdictions.

The U.S. is the most diverse society in the world providing freedoms that permit the pursuit of an unlimited number of ideologies and causes; the vast majority of which are peaceful. However, a certain percentage of the U.S. population at any given time will pursue an international or domestic extremist agenda against the U.S. government and its citizens. Training more than 700,000 state and local law enforcement to know, understand and detect each and every form of extremist ideology that might emerge in a local jurisdiction is impractical, expensive and ineffective. A more sensible approach may be for the federal government to provide a national package of resources and support for state and local officials to detect homegrown radicalization.

These resources might include:
a. In person and online training providing general principles for detecting radicalization processes (regardless of the ideology) with a specific focus on spotting the criminal acts and violent rhetoric correlating with extremism.
b. A resource database accessible by state and local law officials outlining the propaganda, websites, principles, and case studies of all extremist ideologies present in the U.S.
c. A national outreach capability for state and local law enforcement officers to contact experts in any given extremist ideology to obtain assistance in detecting, engaging or disrupting extremists in local communities.
d. An on-call/as needed contact team of experts and experienced practitioners capable of deploying to local jurisdictions and assisting communities facing an unfamiliar homegrown extremist threat. “

Countering Violent Extremism: Where do we focus?

Yesterday, @will_mccants provided a needed perspective as to where the focus should be for countering violent extremism (CVE) in the domestic U.S. setting.  Will’s post, “Countering Violent Extremism, Part 2 – Scope” outlines a spectrum of people either vulnerable to, supporting of, or actively participating in violent extremism. As I’ve noted on this forum in the past, there is little evidence to warrant the overarching, highly bureaucratic response outlined in the White House Strategy for Countering Violent Extremism.  As Will reiterates here and I have pointed to in past posts, there are insufficient numbers of violent extremists to warrant large-scale national programs to win Muslim “Hearts and Minds”. Here’s Will’s opinion on where to focus:

Based on the incredibly low numbers of AQ supporters in the United States (see Charlie Kurzman’s recent study), the United States should treat the problem of AQ support like it treats supporters of white hate groups. It should focus on turning around law-abiding and incarcerated supporters rather than reaching out to the broader communities of which they are a part. This approach may not suit law enforcement (which prefers to build cases), the administration (which wants to increase the resilience of US Muslims against al-Qaeda propaganda), civil libertarians (who worry about infringing on personal freedoms), or large swathes of the public (who are terrified of fifth columns). But it is commensurate with the threat; its success can be measured; it carries less risk of alienating communities from which terrorists arise; it undermines the narrative that these communities are potential threats; and it is far less threatening to civil liberties than the current approach.

Will’s focus is on target, and that of the White House Strategy is not.  I’ve yet to see them explain where these lost communities requiring extremist de-programming reside.  Of course, they’ll quickly jump to the Minneapolis Somali recruits to al Shabaab which represents one case of mass recruitment of young vulnerable boys.  But, the reasons these young boys joined al Shabaab may have more to do with identity than ideology.  Likewise, the community didn’t seem to be very informed on what their young boys were doing.  So in the context of Minneapolis-Shabaab recruitment, what would have been accomplished or prevented in the White House CVE approach to engage vulnerable communities?

Of equal importance are the questions of “why now?” and “why this approach?”.  The administration seems convinced a “Spike in Homegrown Extremism” exists – or maybe three years ago there might have been.  Thus, the federal government committed years ago to execute a plan.  This plan emerges many years later looking like something that may have been worthwhile doing in 2002 more than 2012.  It’s taken so long to put this CVE plan together that the threat has evolved into something entirely different.  The current plan appears likely to exasperate current tensions playing out with regards to the NYPD’s surveillance of ‘vulnerable communities’.

Lastly, if I’ve learned anything, broad, top-down federal strategies to deal with local issues routinely fail.  The individuals, ideologies and threats of extremism arising from local communities vary wildly from place to place.  I doubt this strategy, its approach and its associated costs will have any significant impact on extremism – the ends will never justify the means.

My take: if the federal government needs to expend such energy and resources to protect Americans, they should apply their efforts on real, large scale problems which threaten the security of everyday citizens.  Disrupting the violence emanating from Mexican drug cartels immediately comes to mind.

Inside al Shabaab’s Recruitment Process in Somalia

Th Kenyan newspaper The Daily Nation published an excellent, first-hand report of al Shabaab’s recruitment process entitled, “How al Shabaab Captures Hearts Of Somali Youth.” The article traces the path of a Somali refugee, Ahmed, who now resides in Kenya’s Eastleigh slum.

Two weeks ago, I discussed the combination of benefits offered by al Qaeda and affiliated groups (like al Shabaab) to entice new recruits.  I noted that:

Each recruit makes a decision to work based on a perceived wage generated from both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits from employment as a terrorist.  Pecuniary benefits represent tangible items received in return for employment: pay, vacation, insurance, etc…and… Non-pecuniary benefits represent intangible items received in return for employment: religious achievement, adventure seeking, group camaraderie, etc. The combination of these benefits presents the wage needed to recruit someone into a terror cell.

Additionally, I discussed how the combination of pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits needed for recruitment vary based on geographical location:

A terror recruit in Africa may be far more enticed by the tangible, pecuniary benefits offered by al Qaeda while a middle to upper class student recruit from Saudi Arabia might be more interested in the ideological, non-pecuniary benefits of group membership.

The Daily Nation article describing Ahmed’s recruitment exemplifies this recruiting phenomenon where it was a cell phone more than an ideology that initially enticed young recruits in Somalia.

Ahmed was barely 12 years old when he first joined Al-Shabaab. He was a schoolboy in Mogadishu, and when the three-month long holidays approached in 2007, he was nudged by friends to join the insurgents.

“When you join, they give you a mobile phone and every month you are given $30,” he said. “This is what pushes a lot of young people to join.”

Why does this matter? Analysts predominately focus on expensive DC-centric programs to counter al Qaeda’s/al Shabaab’s ideology, eliminate Internet videos and answer evil tweets.  While this may be appropriate for a small handful of Somali Diaspora recruits in the West, the majority of al Shabaab recruits are child soldiers more likely to be pulled from Shabaab’s grasp through the TFG handing out cell phones with $40 of credit every month ($10 more than al Shabaab).

Al Shabaab follows an indoctrination program typical of most all fighting forces (al Qaeda, Taliban, the U.S. military!) that recruit young men: entice them with monetary inducements and social pressure and then solidify their long-run commitment through ideological indoctrination.  Ahmed notes the religious training and attempts to “counter the narrative”:

Preachers delivered sermons for hours about destiny and “the sweetness of the holy war.” They distributed leaflets on Islam and tried “to make the children understand and appreciate suicide bombing.”

In one of these sessions, Ahmed, as a trusted foot soldier now, asked one of the scholars: “Give us a solid proof from the teachings of the Prophet (Muhammad) or the activities of his companions that actually allow suicide bombings.”

The answer, he says, was not forthcoming. Later, he was called aside and was told “that Islam’s biggest scholars had approved of suicide bombings, and that as an ignorant young man, I should keep quiet about it and not defile the mind of the youngsters.

This process of moving young recruits from pecuniary reasons for joining to ideological reasons for staying in the group mirrors the method used by al Qaeda in Southern Somalia between 1992-1994.  As discussed in the report al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa and the Harmony documents that informed them, AQ operatives noted:

“the youth started their action in kees mayo city (Kismayo) in southern Somalia by getting engaged in its battle and the tribes men escaped before Aideed. There was 800 brothers in their camps and the escapees asked the youth to protect the city from Aideed provided that they would give up the airport, the harbor and the public utilities in the city for the youth. The youth agreed despite the fact that they smelled the deception…. Nevertheless, their youth learned at last that their elders thoughts is far from theirs. We conclude the following: – The Sheikhs of the group were not Jihadi . the youth were influenced by hearing about the Afghani Jihad. The youth of the young men along with insufficiency of their experience and rashness toward the matters without deliberation hindered their effectiveness.” AFGP-2002-800621

Several other primary source notes from AQ’s recruitment in Somalia can be found at this post.

Some will use Ahmed’s anecdote above to support their preferential focus on countering al Shabaab’s narrative (from DC) as the key element for undermining  al Shabaab’s recruitment.  But one must immediately wonder how developing a feel good CVE website and firing out inspiring tweets will ever influence young boys in Shabaab’s training camps – how would they ever even hear these counter-narratives.

The more important intangible (non-pecuniary) benefit offered by al Shabaab to new recruits comes not from its ideology but its offer of opportunity for those young men amongst Somalia’s less fortunate clans.   The article notes:

Secondly, as incongruous as it may seem, Al-Shabaab is credited for eliminating the boundaries created by the clan systems in Somalia.

Hundreds of young men belonging to the Somali Bantu and minority clans have freely joined the militant group.

In the end, the largest reason recruits defect from al Shabaab comes from al Shabaab’s harsh tactics.  As noted by Ahmed in this article and a year ago by another defector, Mohamed Ibrahim Suley, al Shabaab’s extreme violence turns off both their own operatives and their local popular support.  If a counter-narratives campaign against al Shabaab is deemed necessary, the focus should be on exposing Shabaab’s violent ways more than undermining its religious ideology.

Overall, I believe the greatest counter to al Shabaab’s growth will come from eliminating their base of resources (money and equipment) – resources they use to secure the initial recruitment of vulnerable young men.

Countering Local Violent Extremism Around the Globe

Last week, I discussed a past working paper on labor economics application as it relates to countering violent extremism of terror cell members and tried to relate it to the travels of Hanif – a fickled Pakstani fighter whose been a part-time fighter for al Qaeda and now the Haqqani Network.

This week, I’m throwing up my second labor economics graph related to countering violent extremism with respect to geographic and socio-economic positions.  (For a quick re-cap on my take as it relates to labor economics and terror recruits see this post.)  Here’s where I left off last week:

Knowing the combination of benefits bringing about terrorist recruitment is essential in crafting an effective program for countering violent extremism.  Much like real employment markets, the price of recruitment varies depending on the skills needed by the terror group (job opening) and the location of the terror group (geography).  A terror cell’s operational leader requires more incentives than a new wannabe.  A terror cell operating in Africa likely requires less resources for recruitment than a group in Europe.

Knowing the role of the recruit in the terror group is important for understanding how one might design a CVE strategy to disrupt the recruitment of specific individuals.  However, organizational role alone is not the only factor.  The local conditions from which a recruit arises also matters.  A terror recruit in Africa may be far more enticed by the tangible, pecuniary benefits offered by al Qaeda while a middle to upper class student recruit from Saudi Arabia might be more interested in the ideological, non-pecuniary benefits of group membership.

Following the same method as the price to recruit for terror group roles, I created a hypothetical distribution of recruitment prices based on locations in which al Qaeda operates.  The vertical (y) axis represents increasing pecuniary benefits and the horizontal (x) axis represents increasing non-pecuniary benefits.  Each dot represents the total combination of pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits an average recruit from that geographic location might require to be recruited to al Qaeda.  Note, this is a conceptual diagram and I don’t have actual data behind these dots.  It’s just an estimate for discussion. Another note, I’ve placed markers on here for countries and regions.  However, I think the price for recruitment should be done down to the local (neighborhood) level as the drivers for recruitment can be quite dynamic and highly dependent on local conditions.


So what, who cares?

Like understanding the price for recruitment by terror cell position, the local conditions bringing about recruitment can also help counterterrorism efforts shape appropriate CVE packages and chip away at group members.  One of the U.S. key witnesses during the U.S.A. vs Osama Bin Laden trial was a man named Jamal al-Fadl.  One of al-Fadl’s main reasons for defecting from al Qaeda and turning on Bin Laden – a pay discrepancy and the fact he was embezzling money from al Qaeda.  As seen in the Harmony documents and other reports, al Qaeda routinely paid African recruits to al Qaeda lower wages than Gulf recruits resulting in a friction between group members over pay.

Recognizing the differences in recruiting price geographically can help the U.S. select CVE programs with the greatest reach and impact.  In places like sub-Saharan Africa, where recruitment is largely about pecuniary benefits, programs focusing on alternative opportunities will likely have more of an impact.  In places like the Arabian Peninsula, where recruits join for ideology more than sustenance, programs in counter narratives or community engagement might be more effective.   Overall, the U.S. must know what type of recruits, by organizational function and geographic location, should be the focus of a CVE campaign and then build programs specifically to reduce the benefits (pecuniary and non-pecuniary) enticing that particular type of recruit.  If this step is not done first, then CVE will achieve little aside from making its advocates feel good for trying.

Countering Violent Extremism of Terror Cell Recruits

Back in 2005 and 2006, I spent a large chunk of time applying labor economics theory for modeling the recruitment of terror cell members into al Qaeda.  I piled the research into a working paper entitled, “Jihadist Seeking Challenging Martyrdom Opportunity; Will Travel.”  I circulated the working paper around at presentations. But, as anyone that has ever read a labor economics paper can tell you, the topic is dry reading.  The most useful parts of the paper were used by Jacob Shapiro and I when we wrote Chapter 2 of al Qaeda’s (Mis) Adventures in the Horn of Africa entitled “Theoretical Framework: The Challenges of Weak and Failed States”.

Recent pushes to Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) in the U.S. brought me to revisit this paper.  I focused on three general concepts to examine the terrorist labor market and will discuss one these in the following paragraph.  Rather than treating extremists as religious zealots motivated solely by ideology, I instead treated each terrorist as a rational actor (from their perspective) that chooses to work as a terrorist rather than seek other employment opportunities.  In this context, each recruit makes a decision to work based on a perceived wage generated from both pecuniary and non-pecuniary benefits from employment as a terrorist.  Pecuniary benefits represent tangible items received in return for employment: pay, vacation, insurance, etc. – those things most commonly discussed in Western employment models.  For a good example of al Qaeda’s pecuniary benefits, see al Qaeda’s employment contract found in the report Harmony and Disharmony.  Non-pecuniary benefits represent intangible items received in return for employment: religious achievement, adventure seeking, group camaraderie, etc. The combination of these benefits presents the wage needed to recruit someone into a terror cell.  For those math nerds out there, I write as such:

Price of Recruitment = SUM(Pecuniary Benefits) + SUM(Non-Pecuniary Benefits)

Knowing the combination of benefits bringing about terrorist recruitment is essential in crafting an effective program for countering violent extremism.  Much like real employment markets, the price of recruitment varies depending on the skills needed by the terror group (job opening) and the location of the terror group (geography).  A terror cell’s operational leader requires more incentives than a new wannabe.  A terror cell operating in Africa likely requires less resources for recruitment than a group in Europe.

In this first post, I’ll focus on the price of recruitment for job openings in terror groups.  Terror cells usually consist of some combination of personnel including the following roles:

  • Ideologue – Inspirational figure preaching extremist ideology
  • Operations Leader – Skilled terrorist that can plan, execute and lead terrorist attacks
  • Seekers – Young foot soldiers to the terror group
  • Dr. Jekyl – A ‘Revert’ or new adherent to an extremist ideology that moves rapidly into a group in order to commit violence
  • Elite Members – Usually financiers that may or may not be direct/apparent members of the terror group but provide some package of finance and guidance to the cell

The above provides only a brief outline of terror cell member typologies.  I delve further into them in the paper but recognize that FFI’s Petter Nesser does a much better job describing these constructs in his paper “Jihadist Cell Structures in UK and Europe“.  For each of these roles, I tried to plot a conceptual chart showing the total price to recruit for each job opening and the combination of benefits required to achieve this price.  Note, this is conceptual and only a guess on my part.  I don’t have actual data to go behind this chart.


In the graph, I tried to show that the cost to recruit young seekers is likely to be lower in total and more about tangible benefits.  Meanwhile, a highly ideological or more senior recruit is joining for different reasons related more to group membership and ideological fulfillment.  In all cases though, joining requires a combination of tangible and intangible benefits; not simply one or the other.

So why is this important?  Who cares?  Many CVE approaches seek silver bullet programs to defeat terror group recruitment.  Some focus narrowly on community engagement, others focus solely on jihadi Internet portals.  The bottom line is that it will take a combination of CVE options to dismantle terror cells because each extremist joins a group for a different combination of incentives.  Before choosing a CVE approach, a community/government/nation must first determine which type of extremist they want to counter.  If this assessment isn’t done, one will find a CVE approach, for example, where a government seeks to counter the the extremist narrative in an attempt to deter young people from joining al Qaeda, only later to find out that recruits weren’t particularly knowledgeable of AQ’s ideology, joined for the adventure, and enjoy group membership more than radical sermons.

More to follow on ‘Location’ in the next post.