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Moroccan Arrests and the Security of Militant Recruiters

Written by Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

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May 21, 2008
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewartstratfortir.jpg

Moroccan security services recently dismantled an 11-member militant jihadist network that operated in the cities of Fez and Nador, the official Moroccan government news agency Maghreb Arabe Press (MAP) reported May 19.

According to the report, the network was involved in recruiting young men to fight in Iraq and had also allegedly sent recruits to train in camps run by al Qaeda’s franchise, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in neighboring Algeria.

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The recent crackdown follows a string of similar arrests in Morocco in the wake of the Casablanca suicide attacks in 2003. These countermeasures, including an arrest in February of 35 alleged militants with ties to AQIM, have thrown jihadist militants in Morocco off balance. The arrests also underscore the difficulty jihadists face when recruiting in a country where infiltration efforts by the local security service are aggressive.

But authorities are not the only ones with resources. The latest edition of an Islamist online magazine called Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad), published by the Global Islamic Media Front, provides readers with 10-pages of instructions outlining security measures jihadist recruiters can implement when operating in a place with an aggressive — and hostile — intelligence service, such as Morocco.

The fact that this type of detailed instructional material is provided to a worldwide audience over the Internet is truly disturbing. But the material itself is enlightening in many respects, especially in how it points to a number of shortcomings in the jihadist recruitment efforts while underscoring the vulnerabilities the jihadists perceive among authorities.

A Cautious Approach
Morocco is not the only country where jihadist recruiters face arrest. Over the past year, hundreds in Saudi Arabia have been apprehended and charged with recruiting militants and facilitating their travel to places such as Iraq to fight. In truth, we can say with some certainty that not all of those arrested were guilty, given the way the Saudi government works. However, the security measures do underscore the prevalence (and therefore problem) of jihadist recruiters in the kingdom.

Recruitment is also not isolated to the Middle East or South Asia. In fact, it is a global phenomenon that operates even where local intelligence forces are hostile to jihadists — such as Europe and North America, where arrests of terror facilitators and financiers have occurred. However, recruiters in locations such as South Waziristan obviously do not face the same pressures and can recruit far more quickly and aggressively than they can in such cities as Casablanca or London.

Enter the author of the 10-page jihadist article from the Global Islamic Media Front. Essentially, the piece provides “practical advice” on how to recruit in a hostile environment. The article was ostensibly written by the Abu Zubaydah Center, an organization apparently named after a senior al Qaeda official who was captured in March 2002 and is currently being held in U.S. detention at Guantanamo Bay. Abu Zubaydah, whose actual name is Zayn al-Abidin Mohammed Husayn, is a Saudi by birth and believed to have been al Qaeda’s senior recruiter.

In addition to warning against physical threats posed by security agencies, the article notes another risk for recruiters — one of an ideological nature. Do not push too hard, it warns, or the jihadist ideology may be rejected. Therefore, the author recommends a gradual approach among recruiters for identifying, indoctrinating and eventually training and deploying recruits. In many ways, these tactics are similar to those undertaken by cults or even pedophiles who subtly “groom” young children in order to exploit them.

Indeed, the author suggests that recruiters target young men — luring them during impressionable adolescence when they are more likely to identify a recruiter as a father figure. Occasions such as funerals were proffered as perfect opportunities to initiate a relationship with a vulnerable target. Orphanages were suggested as particularly good places for recruitment. Orphans do not have family ties that could interfere with a recruiter’s intention, the article noted. Avoid mosques, the article suggests, as they may be under surveillance by the government. Schools, universities, bookstores, gyms and social clubs were all suggested as better alternatives for recruiters to operate.

In many ways, the information in this article jibes closely with an excellent study on radicalization in the West that was produced by the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division in 2007. That paper, based on an examination of the lives of militant jihadists, covered five attacks or disrupted plots in Amsterdam, Madrid, London, Toronto and Sydney. It discussed in some detail the vulnerabilities that can result from a personal crisis that would therefore lead a person to identify with radical ideology. Much of what the NYPD study mentioned about recruiters (called spiritual sanctioners) and the places recruiters operate (called radicalization incubators) is supported by the jihadist how-to.

In the jihadist piece, the need for operational security during the recruitment process was emphasized, as was the need to minimize any concrete connections between the different elements of the jihadist support network — whether between recruiting cells or through propaganda, fundraising or operational cells.

The emphasis on watching your back while recruiting was also highlighted in the series of careful checks the author suggested a recruiter conduct at each stage of the process in order to identify potential intelligence service plants. These tests were also helpful to ensure that the potential recruits were not only ideologically on board and obedient but ultimately capable of fulfilling their future mission.

According to the article, the ideological indoctrination process begins only when the recruiter feels certain that the candidate is suitable, that he is not a plant and that his identity, family and character have been authenticated through a series of tests.

Stepping Stones
Timing is everything in the recruiting game. First, the recruiter must plant the idea of jihad into the target’s mind at an opportune moment. Tools employed during these opportunities may include a news report used to demonstrate Western aggression against Islam, the suffering of Muslims or the corruption and repression of the regimes in the Muslim world. Such reports open the window for a discussion about the general subject of jihad and provide a chance for the recruiter to gauge the recruit’s response to the subject.

If the recruit responds positively and further shows interest in the topic or in the discussion of battles outlined in the Koran or in hadith or other significant battles in Muslim history, the recruiter may carefully proceed to the next step. This could include exposing the recruit to general jihadist propaganda such as a video. At this stage, the propaganda selected should not be too specific or traceable to a specific person or group, the article warns. The idea is to simply test the waters and see how the recruit responds.

The article’s treatment of jihadist propaganda, specifically video, underscores the importance of this influential medium to the recruitment effort — and of the Internet as an anonymous tool for dissemination. Video is a powerful emotional medium and recruiters should focus on moving images of jihad and jihadists in action rather than staid theological lectures about the subject of jihad, the article warns.

Each recruit should view the videos in isolation from other recruits, the article suggests. This is suggested not only for security reasons, but also so the recruiter can gauge the reaction of the recruit after a particularly emotional scene. The presence of others could temper or alter a recruit’s reaction. The author also recommends showing the video in the dark to enhance the emotional impact while providing the viewer a sense of freedom to express his emotions. This use of video to gauge responses and mold behavior is again somewhat similar to the approach taken by predatory pedophiles, many of whom will show pornographic videos to children they hope to groom.

Next, recruiters are encouraged in their undertaking to use Islamic religious texts concerning the duty of jihad. Passages that contain the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed are especially emphasized given that he is such a universally revered figure. At this stage, the recruiter is advised to avoid the influence of moderate religious teachings — those that reject Salifist jihadism — by focusing on the least contentious areas of Islam and those upon which all scholars agree. For example, the author notes that all scholars agree that jihad to liberate occupied Muslim land is an absolute duty. The more contentious areas can be dealt with later, after the recruiter has a greater emotional bond with the recruit and a higher degree of ideological trust has been established.

Other material that is encouraged includes that which emphasizes the ideal of the Islamic state under Shariah, or Islamic law; a Muslim’s duty to obey the emir; and the necessity to submit to Allah in all things. The recruiter may also begin discussing how Arab states and nationalist ideologies counter doctrine outlined in the Koran and the ideal Islamic state under Shariah.

As recruits progress ideologically and pass additional tests ensuring their physical and emotional preparedness for the tasks ahead, they may then begin to acquire physical skills necessary to participate in the jihad. These range from physical fitness and military training to media expertise, computer skills and secure communication techniques. As in earlier stages, operational security is prominently featured and recruits are trained to be cautious. The article emphasizes the importance of instructing recruits about methods used by security services and ways to avoid detection or revealing too much information if captured and interrogated.

In the final stage, the recruit is prepared to fight on the jihad front whether in their home country or abroad in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Even in this final stage, the author notes that recruits must not be rushed and that recruiters ensure their protege is motivated to fight by true religious conviction and not merely emotion. Fighters driven by emotion cannot withstand the pressure of combat and other hardships of jihad with the same conviction as religiously driven men, the article notes. Recruits who are unprepared or ill equipped to fight in active combat should be assigned to other tasks such as fundraising, recruitment, propaganda, arms smuggling or document fraud.

Many recruits who set out to fight return to their home country claiming they were dissuaded from believing that militancy was the only way to defend their faith, the article says. Others were unfit for combat because they refused to follow the orders of their emir without hesitation or question. The abundant anti-jihadist material on the Internet is often used as justification by those who return, but the article’s author believes these incidences stem from improper ideological preparation on the part of the recruiter. To avoid these failures, the recruiter must make certain that a recruit is aware of the intense material, physical and mental difficulties they will inevitability encounter on the path of jihad. The need for recruits to take security measures before and after departure for the jihad was again stressed.

Vulnerabilities
The article’s emphasis on the need for jihadist recruiters to protect themselves from apprehension clearly demonstrates that they are feeling pressure from the global war on terror and increased efforts by law enforcement and intelligence services who have adopted a pre-emptive and disruptive approach to counterterrorism. Since 9/11, several countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have instituted laws allowing authorities to charge people conducting acts in preparation of terrorism. These laws allow authorities to act before an attack occurs.

Recruiters are also clearly concerned about the ability of governments working together to trace international networks that support jihadists. Therefore, the jihadists emphasize the need to operate in an isolated, cellular fashion while cutting all contacts or traceable threads binding the various cells together.

The article makes clear that recruiters are a critical component in the jihadists’ worldwide endeavors. Due to the effort and care required to successfully recruit and indoctrinate recruits in hostile environments, the arrest of a recruiter can significantly impact an organization’s ability. This is especially true if recruits are attracted to the cause because of a close personal relationship with the recruiter rather than the draw of the ideology, as the article asserts. Laws such as the United Kingdom’s Terrorism Act of 2006 that criminalizes inciting or encouraging others to commit acts of terrorism should allow authorities the ability to attack this critical and vulnerable component of the jihadist network.

Ultimately, the article provides clear evidence that jihadist recruiters perceive they are under ideological pressure. This is perhaps the most important element in examining the true vulnerability that exists for recruiters. According to the article, jihadism on its own merits is a tough sell. In spite of the relentless global propaganda efforts by individuals such as Osama bin Laden, jihadism must still be camouflaged in order to make it palatable to many Muslims — even those who are impressionable and emotionally needy. This is a sign that the ideology of jihadism is not spreading as rapidly as some had hoped and others had feared. It is also an indication that perhaps the ideological war against jihadism is gaining some traction.

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