At Large

Al Qaeda Recruits

It doesn't take much training to become a terrorist.

By 7.19.07

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That al Qaeda has been reconstituted is not contested. Ayman al-Zawahiri announced it and the National Intelligence Estimates have confirmed the fact. The terrorist organization is in a form different from the one before its defeat in Afghanistan, and has new leadership on some operational levels. According to Pakistani intelligence sources, however, aside from al Qaeda's now broader affiliations and "franchise" operational structure, its recruitment/training procedures remain essentially the same -- if somewhat more technically sophisticated.

It might be a surprise to most people to realize how little training it takes to be a terrorist. Of course, the suicide bomber need only have the commitment and blind courage to place himself/herself in relatively close proximity to the target. It's a bit more complicated to do the job and stay alive.

When recruiting individuals for al Qaeda-type terrorist jobs, the first requirement is to be able to pass the clearance tests. Recommendations from acceptable imams are the best way to get through the door. Similarly, known and trusted mujaheddin references are always useful. It is true, however, that the vetting process continues during the entire training period through to the final operational stage. There is an overarching need to avoid penetration by "crusader" security services and their apostate agents.

It is also an aim of the al Qaeda recruiters to separate out the various categories of volunteers by their education, intelligence, physical and technical ability. Knowledge of foreign languages and access to and familiarity with target countries and specific targets is also an important factor. In other words, the clearance and vetting process follows a natural logic.

Having successfully gone through the initial vetting period, the second stage could involve a trip from Pakistan to the border areas of the Baujur region and Waziristan for field training -- but not necessarily. The truth is that in practice local volunteers in target countries often never leave their home environment and merely receive limited training within their cell group.

Affiliate organizations such as al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM (made up primarily of Algeria's Salafist Group for Call and Combat, GSPC and Ansar al-Islam in the Moslem Desert), along with al Qaeda in Iraq may send certain vetted individuals to "The Base" (the accepted translation of al-Qaeda). Some, however, remain with their sponsoring organizations for training. The GSPC, for instance, is reported to have developed training facilities in the southern Saharan border areas for operations in the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula.

A technically competent recruit with special access or potential access to a high value target also might never go for field training. Such a candidate, perhaps already living or studying in a target country, might be introduced into an established cell. Special recruits such as these might even remain "singletons," as national intelligence agencies call agents who operate alone. In the case of al Qaeda, a recruit already ensconced in a key position of access -- such as a security or police official -- might be protected from compromise by remaining totally outside any cell structure.

Those recruits who do travel to the tribal areas of Pakistan are constantly reminded of commitment to the mission as a commitment to Allah. Inattention and failure at assigned tasks is an act against God. It is for this reason that each trainee must work to his utmost to succeed at all phases of his assignment. Such a motivator is extremely powerful.

During this Spartan training period the individual recruits are constantly under observation for signs of weaknesses and strengths, mentally and physically. In this manner the vetting process is ongoing. Again particular skill levels are noted in military and technical disciplines such as weapon accuracy, explosives handling, computer competence and other key elements of operational tradecraft. If any trainee displays an exceptional ability in these or other appropriate clandestine fields, the individual is tapped for more advanced training.

The initial process of this basic training can take no more than six weeks, sometimes less. The level of competence of the average trainee graduate need not be particularly high. Motivation and application to the task at hand are the principal factors sought after. Some recruits are relegated to basic insurgent operations; others are simply sent back to their sponsoring cells or affiliated groups. The top candidates enter into a special category for future al Qaeda leaders.

Al Qaeda's field training actually may not be very pertinent to a recruit's eventual assignment, but it is quite adequate to the spirit of the destructive mission envisaged. A failed operation is a pity, perhaps a problem, but not a tragedy. There will be more recruits to replace those captured or killed. Radicalized Islam has a great attraction for young Moslems worldwide, and al Qaeda counts on that.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.