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.


  1. If the current makeup of the readership of the top tier forums is any indication, there will likely be no shortage of either fighters or martyrs in the next couple of years:

    Just because there are two career tracks, does that mean there are two distinct processes by which people get to the place where they make their choice?

    Facilitators/recruiters will necessarily not be martyrs, and will likely be from a previous generation of fighters, regardless of the career path the recruit chooses.

    In other words, whether they chose ‘fighter’ or ‘martyr’ it was a fighter who got them there.

    Time spent consuming jihadi media – a culture of violence if ever there was one – may steer the martyrs towards their choice.

    Regarding the last point, I recommend:

    Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might
    Tom Pyszczynski, Abdolhossein Abdollahi, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Florette Cohen and David Weise
    Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2006; 32; 525

    “Study 1 investigated the effect of mortality salience on support for martyrdom attacks among Iranian college students. Participants were randomly assigned to answer questions about either their own death or an aversive topic unrelated to death and then evaluated materials from fellow students who either supported or opposed martyrdom attacks against the United States. Whereas control participants preferred the student who opposed martyr- dom, participants reminded of death preferred the student who supported martyrdom and indicated they were more likely to consider such activities themselves.”

    • Aaron,

      As always, thanks for your contribution and original research.

      there will likely be no shortage of either fighters or martyrs in the next couple of years:

      I noticed in both tables, there are a high number of Moroccans. Do you know why that is? Why they watch those sites so much more comparatively than the others. Palestine seems obvious, but Morocco?

      Just because there are two career tracks, does that mean there are two distinct processes by which people get to the place where they make their choice?

      I don’t think there are two different processes by which individuals are recruited. Looking at the records, within the same towns there are ‘Martyr’ and ‘Fighter’ recruits. I think it has more to do with motivation and the message. My hypothesis is that Algeria produces more ‘Fighter’ recruits because they are motivated more from local history of fighting government oppression and jihad; the message being more about politics than ideology. Whereas I wonder if Saudi recruits might be more motivated by ideology and repeated messaging related to martyrdom and thus choose to be ‘Martyr’ recruits.

      I remember an Army recruiter once telling me, “I wasn’t a recruiter in Texas, where you can just tell them they get to shoot guns and jump out of airplanes, I actually had to work in Chicago, I had to provide them incentives, they wanted job skills, college money and higher pay when they got out. I had it hard.” This reminded me how recruiting for an all-volunteer force, like AQ, requires different motivations that can be very local in nature.

      Many of our counter-radicalization campaigns have been focused on winning the hearts and minds of the entire Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia. But recruitment is very local, and motivations vary depending on the town. I think the ‘Martyr’/’Fighter’ data demonstrates how we must be more precise geographically and more appropriate locally to successfully counter AQ recruitment; which is the key to disrupting foreign fighter cycles.

      Either way, I assume there is considerable error in their selections. I’m looking into group biases and two other factors to see how this data point holds up. I’ll be posting more specific, micro analysis of key locations in the coming posts. I also wonder if recruits from certain locales were immediately deemed ‘Martyr’ material. AQ has often shown preference to recruits from certain countries over others.

      Thanks for the reference:

      Mortality Salience, Martyrdom, and Military Might
      Tom Pyszczynski, Abdolhossein Abdollahi, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Florette Cohen and David Weise
      Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2006; 32; 525

      That seems applicable, if you sit and watch martyrdom videos all day, you are likely far more inclined to desire martyrdom. Television advertising has been using repetition for years so I imagine it works the same for AQ recruitment.

  2. Moroccans have been a big part of the online jihadi scene from the beginning, and they go where the action is – they don’t appear to be as discriminating as some others (note how there are twice as many Jordanians on al-Shmukh, while Yemenis are absent, while over at at-Tahadi there are a whole lot of Yemenis (or at least jihadis physically located Yemen – can’t speak to their ethnicity).

    Another reason to target these high-performing fighters is that they have the potential to serve as leaders for emerging groups of local/self-organizing guys. It seems that ‘bunches of guys’ who are trying to transition from being a social network of terrorist-supporters to being an operational unit of terrorists in their own right, need leadership. That leadership can emerge from within the group, but there are issues that may prevent the would-be leader from being accepted as such by his peers. A guy from the outside, who is a little older and has experiences the others don’t have, can occupy the leadership position because he has always been somewhat apart from the peer group. The following includes some interesting observations regarding the matter

    For example:

    “Several one-time leader figures have now left the Netherlands, either voluntarily or through deportation. Partly as a result of this, at the present time there are no individuals in or around the local autonomous local networks in this country who are willing or able to take on a mobilising or leadership role. Even those members who once seemed to have the potential to assume that part have so far failed to come forward, and some have even withdrawn from the networks. It is possible that they now have different ambitions, jihadist or otherwise, or simply that they are not prepared to take a lead for their own safety. Another factor is that such groups are often unwilling to accept one of their peers as leader. There have been cases in the past of members trying to take on a leadership role but failing because they lacked the necessary expertise or charisma. In such situations, the use of group pressure, intimidation and even direct threats aimed at other members has been observed during attempts to wrest control.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>