06 August 2009

Disappointment Afflicts Al-Qaeda Recruits

Statements given by the French National, Walid Othmani, pursuant to his arrest with several Belgian citizens for participation in a terrorist group, offer some useful insights into an often overlooked aspect of terrorism – disengagement.

My colleague John Horgan at Penn State recently completed his second book on the topic. The first, co-edited with Tore Bjørgo, is Leaving Terrorism Behind. The latest is titled: Walking Away from Terrorism: Accounts of Disengagement from Radical and Extremist Movements. In his fieldwork for this project, Horgan conducted a series of 52 semi-structured interviews (29 former terrorists and 23 of their supporters, family members and friends) over an 18-month period from late-2006 to early-2008, producing some deeply personal, detailed and complex portrayals of former terrorists in Belfast, Beirut, Oslo, London, Paris, Tripoli, Jakarta and elsewhere. His focus is on how and why individuals leave terrorism. He gives an account of what is currently known from the scholarly literature (sparse as it may be) about de-radicalization and disengagement. He distinguishes these two concepts; de-radicalization referring to a change in one’s fundamental radical beliefs, and disengagement referring to a change in one’s behavior with regard to terrorist actions. The latter, he believes, is a more promising and realistic goal for rehabilitation.

Understanding how and why terrorists leave their group or movement, though, also has implications for prevention and “counter-radicalization.” What Horgan found in his interviews, and what others have anecdotally reported, is that perhaps the single most significant factor prompting disengagement is when people come to realize that the reality of being a terrorist is not what they thought it would be. It is the discrepancy between one’s expectations and one’s actual experience that most often leads them to walk away.

Othmani fulfilled his quest to train for jihad in Pakistan, but he didn’t find the large Al-Qaeda training camps with monkey bars and men diving through hoops of fire like in the pre-9/11 videos. Those camps were decimated long ago. The current vigilance of U.S. unmanned aeriel vehicles (UAVs) in the Pakistani tribal areas have also made it impossible to for the organization build new ones. Instead, trainees are spread around in groups of about ten, where they live and learn in nondescript little shacks, hoping not to be spotted by the UAVs that are constantly on the prowl. According to Othmani, the drones have found quite a few – so many that AQ leaders ordered them to stay inside as much as possible.

According to a CNN report:

Two members of the Belgian-French group now in custody describe feeling increasingly cut off, bored, and fed up with the primitive living conditions in their mountain shacks… , they often did not seem to know what their next orders would be or where their handlers would take them. They also described being deeply frustrated at being repeatedly given false promises that they would be able to fight in Afghanistan.

Adding insult to injury, Othmani says, AQ even had the nerve to tell them they would each have to cough up 1300 euros of their own money to cover the cost of their weapons - a request that many recruits found distasteful. The arrestees didn’t seem terribly impressed or inspired by the AQ trainers and mid-level managers either. Their dream of jihad was shattered by the reality of isolation, boredom, ratty diggs, - not to mention fear of death from above – while training to be a part of a terrorist group with shoddy leadership and without enough money even to buy weapons. Talk about discrepancies between what you expect and what you get. These guys should be the new poster children for AQ recruitment in 2009.