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Al-Qaeda: Patterns of recruitment
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February 03, 2012
Understanding terrorists’ recruitment process is vital to counter terrorism. Without members, a terrorist organization cannot exist because these associates keep the organization operational and facilitate in perpetuating its ideology. It is significant to take into account how and why an individual is radicalized and recruited into a terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda. It is also important to know that what process leads an individual towards radicalization and makes him to adhere.

An in-depth analysis of radicalization process reveals methods and techniques used by Al-Qaeda in identifying its targets and then making them a prey of its faulty ideology by formally recruiting them for the execution of terrorist activities. Radicalisation phenomenon is composed of four distinct phases which are successfully exploited by extremists. At the very first stage, individuals start developing extremist thinking as their own ideology before they become radicalized. In the second phase, individuals influenced by both internal and external factors, begin to explore things, gradually deviate from their old identity and begin to associate themselves with like-minded individuals and adopt this ideology as their own. At the third stage, the individuals progressively intensify their beliefs and their radical views are further encouraged and reinforced by extremist leaders. At the last stage, the members of extremist groups accept their individual duty to participate in Jihad and self-design themselves as holy warriors or Mujahideen.

After examining radicalizing elements that drive an individual to embrace terrorism, it is apparent that there is no single factor that leads an individual to join terrorist career, but a series of elements combine to make an individual more susceptible to recruitment. The individual who is recruited by a terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda is more susceptible to organised violence based on the individual’s internalisation of external social strains; be it historical grievance, social acceptance, religious factor, economic plight or any combination of psycho-social factors. Such an individual takes it upon himself to make right the society’s wrongs and the terrorist organization provides him with the outlet he needs to take action. For the individual who is recruited, the terrorist organizations function as an ideological and psychological safety net. The recruit is thus conditioned by the organization, which taps into his anger and allows that frustration to manifest itself through obedience and action. The organization gives the recruit a purpose in life through its actions and teachings.

The study of a recently recovered Al-Qaeda recruitment form indicates that Al-Qaeda recruiters carry out an in-depth analysis of the personalities of their potential recruits and chalk out their psychological/social profiling based on their vulnerabilities. Apart from the applicant’s religious and Jihadi inclination, the said recruitment form also seeks information regarding his profession, expertise in chemistry or communications, possession of fake passports, countries visited, previous military training, previous criminal record, and wish to execute a suicide mission etc. The form seems to be seeking the services of religious minded people who are somewhat already known with the concept of Jihad and are the followers of some Sheikh affiliated with a particular school-of-thought. Thus, highly religious minded individuals having the sole aim of elevating Muslim nation are preferred as it is more convenient to exploit their religious associations. The psychological profiling of recruits through the analysis of their religious and Jihadi inclination helps recruiters in correctly employing them for terrorist acts. As part of the rigorous radicalization campaign/process, Islamic teachings based on Quranic verses and Hadith are misinterpreted to affirm ‘Jihad’ as supreme Islamic obligation. Sermons and Fatwas of religious scholars are also used to persuade the spotted individuals. Their anti-Western sentiments are also provoked to intense their aversion against non-Muslims. Individuals having lesser prior religious knowledge, limited understanding of the religious teachings and resentment against divergent schools of thought or sects require little effort by recruiters who widen the already existing rifts amongst them. On the other hand, educated individuals who have intense anti-US sentiments due to US and Western policies towards Muslim countries also become an easy prey to terrorists’ indoctrination. These individuals mostly voluntarily present themselves for Jihadi activities by considering it their utmost religious obligation.


Contrary to Al-Qaeda’s widely propagated ideology, the recruitment form indicates that Al-Qaeda does not yearn for a pious lot as its recruits rather it is more desirous of accommodating the socially alienated individuals. Criminals themselves are also much prone to join terrorist groups which provide them with security, protection and also help them to keep aligned with their criminal pursuits. Highly aggressive individuals having previous criminal record are more likely to be selected by Al-Qaeda since they are already addicted to unlawful activities and can be easily motivated to join a new criminal career. Al-Qaeda leaders are also caught looking for the individuals who have got some sort of expertise in their field especially in science and technology like chemistry or communications. It indicates that the recruitment process is aimed at hiring most professional individuals typically for the operational purposes and to plan / carry out most sophisticated terrorist attacks. Apart from that, in pursuit of Al-Qaeda’s mission of toppling governments, it seems to be employing its efforts for creating rifts among government circles. Al-Qaeda recruiters seem to prefer the recruits who enjoy some sort of clout in the government circles for the fulfillment of their nefarious designs. Questions in the form also show that Al-Qaeda requires the new recruits with a passion for martyrdom as they may be used for suicide missions.

The recruitment process is further followed by a motivational training that is a prime mover in converting a young man into a terrorist. This is the stage where the seeds of hatred against other individuals, societies and fellow Muslim brethren are sowed firmly in the fertile minds of the youth to prepare them for the most heinous acts of terrorism against humanity. Religious motivational songs cassettes, video recordings of suicide bombers, CDs and booklets containing hate material like atrocities of US soldiers on innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan etc are used to indoctrinate the newly recruited individuals. Resultantly, individuals become terrorists and prefer to give up their lives as the saviors of religion against a self perceived threat. Apart from the field training at distant and isolated places, online training methods for making homemade explosives, suicide jackets and vehicle born bombs made it easy for terrorists to train their newly inducted recruits without facing the risk of being caught or monitored by security agencies.

Though terrorists are paying much focused attention on the process of radicalization of their recruits for developing them into hardcore terrorists but a very little consideration is being given to the de-radicalization or disengagement process of vulnerable groups by the state. The disengagement processes can also have a very positive impact on global counter terrorism efforts by promoting the internal disintegration of violent radical groups. De-radicalization means the critical cognitive and social changes in terms of leaving behind the shared social norms, values, attitudes, relationship and social networks forged by terrorist groups and organizations. The aim of any de-radicalization, rehabilitation and disengagement programme must be to prevent further acts of terrorism and bring terrorists to mainstream of society.

Carefully designed and conducted programmes can also help enlist repentant terrorists to dissuade others from taking a similar course. Government should also take adequate measures to curb poverty and unemployment in the rural areas to foil the recruitment tactics of terrorists. Renowned religious scholars should be involved to launch anti-extremism campaigns to preach accurate teachings of Islam to shun radical ideology of terrorists. Online anti-extremism campaigns should be financed by international community to prevent youth from accepting militants’ beliefs. In addition, access to the extremists’ propaganda should be denied and countered with appropriate themes to prevent youth from becoming prey to any kind of manipulation by Al-Qaeda. Awareness campaigns aimed at creating vigilance amongst general masses against terrorists’ modus operandi for recruitment should be launched. Furthermore, successfully rehabilitated individuals can provide counter-terrorism officials with valuable insight into the working of terrorist organizations and can thus be seen as adding further to the overall counter-terrorism strategy.


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