Monday, March 24, 2008

Terror-School Dropouts

Michael Jacobson writes an important column in the Washington Post about terrorist dropouts - guys who sign up for al Qaeda or other groups, train, and in some cases, receive operational orders and weapons - only to back out and abandon the plot and/or group. Even one of the 9/11 hijackers, Ziad Jarrah, had to be cajoled not to abandon the plot.

Think of this as the flip-side to recruiting. If you understand why potential terrorists leave terrorist groups, this can inform your efforts to prevent them from joining in the first place. It can also help counter-terrorism efforts to create rifts in terrorist groups. Jacobson argues:

Figuring out why individuals walk away from terrorist groups can help governments predict whether an individual -- or even a cell -- is likely to go through with a plot. Understanding the dropouts should also make it easier for governments to determine which terrorists might be induced to switch sides, help stop radicalization and craft messages that could peel away people already in terrorist organizations. The more we know about why terrorists bail, the better we can fight them.
Potential terrorists have a variety of reasons for dropping out, but some general trends are evident:
We rightly think of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups as formidable foes, but the stories of would-be killers who bail give us some intriguing clues about fault lines that counterterrorism officials should exploit. The reasons for a change of heart can be strikingly prosaic: family, money, petty grievances. But they can also revolve around shaken ideology or lost faith in a group's leadership.

Looking at al-Qaeda dropouts, some clear patterns emerge. Some left after becoming disillusioned with the group's tactics and strategy.

Another factor driving jihadists to drop out is a general lack of respect for the group's leadership. Essam al-Ridi testified during the embassy bombings trial that he resented having to take battlefield orders during the Afghan jihad from bin Laden and others who lacked military experience. For Ridi, the final straw was a battle in which many jihadists died -- in his view needlessly -- thanks to inept leadership, but that al-Qaeda nonetheless declared a victory. Jarrah, the 9/11 pilot, felt cut out by ringleader Mohamed Atta's leadership style.

Another reason bad guys bail out is money. Like the rest of us, some terrorists see inadequate compensation as a sign of unfair treatment.

Don't forget the role of petty slights, either. L'Houssaine Kherchtou [who trained to be bin Laden's personal pilot] grew bitter after a bin Laden aide turned down his request for $500 to cover the costs of his wife's Caesarean section -- and grew livid when al-Qaeda subsequently paid the expenses of a group of Egyptians sent to Yemen to renew their passports.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest factors in dropping out is maintaining a social connection to family and friends outside the terror group. That's why recruiters always try to draw recruits out of their social and familial circles, replacing the old ties of family and friends with new relationships.

This is something that local authorities can observe and influence. There may be a potential threat in groups of individuals that separate themselves from family, friends, and society. By making contacts with trusted members of the larger community, local authorities can be on the lookout for such small groups:
The final factor seems to be good old family ties. Terrorists who maintain contact with friends and family outside their cell or organization seem more likely to drop out. This may be why [Mohammed] Atta forbade the 9/11 hijackers to contact their families to say goodbye. The wobbliest of the hijackers, Jarrah, resisted al-Qaeda calls to cut his ties with his fiancee in Germany and his family in Lebanon, souring his relationship with Atta, according to the 9/11 commission.

Something similar happened to two would-be 9/11 plotters, Mushabib al-Hamlan and Saud al-Rashid. Both men bailed out when they left the fanatical, insular atmosphere of the Afghan training camps and returned home to Saudi Arabia. After getting a visa to enter the United States, Hamlan contacted his family, despite clear al-Qaeda instructions to the contrary. He found out that his mother was ill and decided not to return to Afghanistan, despite intense pressure from his handlers. Hamlan later moved back in with his parents and returned to college.
In my view, preparedness means different things for different types of events. For a natural disaster, the emphasis must be on response and recovery. But for a terrorist event, the emphasis ought to be on prevention.

In this light, Jacobson is right that prevention ought to include studying those who leave terrorist organizations - to understand what pries them away from these groups and to help prevent successful recruitment into the groups in the first place.

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