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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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