The Bombers Who Weren’t


While it is increasingly recognised that success in the fight against Al-Qaeda inspired militancy requires we gain a thorough understanding of the processes by which self-selecting individuals become radicalised, there is less appreciation of the lessons that might be learned from an understanding of the processes by which potential terrorists have in the past de-selected themselves, and become de-radicalised.

In an article entitled The Bombers Who Weren’t, Michael Jacobson – a former staff member of the 9/11 commission, and a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – argues that such processes of de-radicalisation represent ‘fault lines that counterterrorism officials should exploit.’

It’s become a truism of counterterrorism that we must understand how and why individuals become jihadists in the first place. But almost nobody is studying the flip side of radicalization — understanding those who leave terrorist organizations. We’d do well to start. 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.

Jacobson illustrates his argument with reference to a number of Al-Qaeda operatives who did de-select themselves – including Sajid Badat, who was supposed to conduct an identical mission to that of ‘shoe-bomber’ Richard Reid, but who pulled-out at the last minute, leaving his dismantled bomb at his parents’ house.

Jacobson identifies a number of factors which in the past have caused individuals to break with Al-Qaeda, some of which are ‘strikingly prosaic’. Common reasons include:

  • Disillusionment with the group’s tactics and strategy.
  • Lack of respect for the group’s leadership, particularly their lack of battlefield military experience.
  • Money, particularly when inadequate compensation is perceived as unfair treatment towards an individual.
  • Petty slights and personal animosities between operatives and leadership figures.
  • Family ties and personal connections, particularly as experienced by an operative following his re-insertion into society following a period of detachment in a training camp or other retreat.

Unfortunately Jacobson has no suggestions on how this might be translated into practical counterterrorism policy, acknowledging that ‘there’s no obvious silver bullet here’. Nevertheless, such ‘fault lines’ seem an avenue worth exploring, and understanding and then exploiting processes of de-radicalisation should be incorporated as a goal within broader counter-radicalisation strategies.

Read the full article here.


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