The Making of a Terrorist: Recruitment, Training and Root Causes, ed. James J.F. Forest (Praeger Security International, 2005)


The chapters of this volume contribute to our knowledge of terrorist recruitment in a variety of dimensions. Some authors were asked to describe the types of recruitment activities that take place in prisons, criminal networks, and online. Others were asked to analyze the social, psychological and ideological aspects of terrorist recruitment. As a collection, the chapters advance our understanding of terrorist recruitment, as well as raise important questions and issues for further research.

Part I: Places and Means of Terrorist Recruitment

The first section of the volume begins with a chapter by Madeleine Gruen, an intelligence analyst at the New York City Police Department’s Counter Terrorism Division, in which she describes the ways in which extremist groups use American popular culture to introduce radical agendas to receptive youthful audiences. Her analysis illustrates how young Muslims are lured into association with radicalizing agents through traps set on the Internet and through seemingly sympathetic peer groups. By presenting their agendas to an American audience using vernacular and images recognizable to them, radical groups are winning acceptance of concepts with which their audience was not previously familiar. Already, groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (a political organization with a worldwide presence that seeks to overthrow Western governments through non-violent means in order to install Islamic fundamentalist leadership) and Hizballah have used music and computer games to introduce their ideology and to engender anger and hatred against old enemies among a new generation. Young people who had never contemplated overthrowing their government are now listening to and singing songs about the establishment of an Islamic state. The examples given in Gruen’s chapter demonstrate that Islamist radicalizing entities are intentionally crafting campaigns that do not violate U.S. laws, much less draw notice from authorities. The ultimate penalty for ignoring this burgeoning phenomenon will be an indigenous population sympathetic to the terrorist agenda that can be called upon to support operations, or worse, attack the U.S. from within.

            In the next chapter in this section, Professor Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics examines the relationship between prisons and terrorist recruitment in the United States. His analysis of white supremacist movements, religious extremists, and foreign-sponsored penetration of the U.S. prison system illustrates how these institutions have long been breeding grounds for terrorists of many ideologies. This chapter also demonstrates that prison recruitment is an age-old phenomenon in the U.S. and abroad, and that extremist organizations have the demonstrated capability to spot, recruit, indoctrinate, and materially support inmates as foot-soldiers in the terrorists’ army. In his conclusion, Waller warns that recruitment of prisoners could become an institutionalized, self-perpetuating process that, in the eyes of the terrorists and their allies, would ensure a steady supply of combatants in their war against civilization.

            In the next chapter, Professor Brigitte Nacos of Columbia University notes how communication is a key factor in the recruitment of terrorists. Print and electronic media in general are important means to spread the terrorist “propaganda by deed” and inform, indoctrinate and prepare some individuals for recruitment. Further, terrorism has often been compared to theater because terrorist attacks are planned like stage productions. In both cases, the people in charge channel all efforts into one overriding objective: to manipulate the emotions of their audiences. While the theater metaphor remains instructive, it has given way to terrorism as television events that are watched by record audiences, transcending the boundaries of typical theatrical productions. And unlike even the most successful producers of theater, motion picture, and television entertainment, the perpetrators of the lethal 9/11 attacks on America affected all of their audiences in unprecedented ways. Among the spectators that the architects of 9/11 wanted to influence were undoubtedly the American public and public officials on all levels of the U.S. government. But equally important targets of their “propaganda by deed” were Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe, on whose behalf Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda claimed to act all along. The purpose of these communications, she argues, was multi-faceted—including the desire to attract new recruits.

            On a similar note, Professor Gabriel Weimann of the University of Haifa explores how terrorist organizations use the Internet to communicate with various audiences, including potential new recruits. Websites are only one of the Internet’s services used by modern terrorism: there are other facilities on the Net—e-mail, chat rooms, e-groups, forums, virtual message boards—that are increasingly used by terrorists. Drawing on the findings of a recent study he and his colleagues conducted for the United States Institute of Peace, Weimann notes how the Internet can be used to recruit and mobilize supporters to play a more active role in support of terrorist activities or causes. In addition to seeking converts by using the full range of website technologies (audio, digital video, etc.) to enhance the presentation of their message, terrorist organizations capture information about the users who browse their websites. He concludes that the Internet has become a more popular apparatus for early stages of recruitment and mobilization, challenging governments, security agencies and counterterrorism services all over the world. Moreover, it also challenges the future of the Internet, since any attempt to limit or minimize the Net’s use by terrorists implies imposing restrictions on the Internet’s free flow of information, free speech and privacy.

          In the next chapter, Professor Zachary Abuza of Simmons College explores the role of education-related dimensions of recruitment by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist group in Indonesia affiliated with Al Qaeda. In the Muslim world of Southeast Asia, network-based recruitment is focused on four central factors: kinship, mosque, madrasa and friendship. Education is the commonality between those, and thus plays an important role in Islamist extremist recruitment throughout Southeast Asia. Abuza’s chapter examines how JI has used Islamic educational networks and madrasas—called pesantrens in Indonesia or pondoks in Thailand and Cambodia—as centers of recruitment and the transmission of Wahhabi and Salafi principles. JI established these madrasas to be used as centers of recruitment and indoctrination, and the graduates of this school are a who’s who of today’s Southeast Asian terrorists. In his concluding remarks, Abuza reflects on the implications of U.S. foreign policy and the global war on terror, suggesting that new approaches are warranted, but unlikely.

          Dr. Joe Felter, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, provides the final chapter of this section on places and means of terrorist recruitment with a case study of an insurgent movement in the Philippines. His analysis first explores some general theories about why some states and citizens are vulnerable to insurgency movements. He then examines data collected from former members of the Communist Terrorist Movement—an insurgency movement that has plagued the Philippines for over 20 years—and develops a profile of the typical recruit of this movement, covering issues of age, education, former occupation, propaganda, coercion, and grievances generated by abuses of the military, police or local government. His chapter concludes by drawing lessons from this analysis for national security and counterterrorism policies—not just for the Philippines, but for countries around the world.

Part II: Social and Psychological Dimensions

In the first chapter of this section, Dr. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution addresses how terrorists recruit children. There are some 300,000 children under the age of 18 (both boys and girls) presently serving as combatants, fighting in almost 75% of the world’s conflicts, and 80% of the conflicts where children are present include fighters under the age of 15. [1] Thus, he notes, it should be no surprise that children are also increasingly present in terrorist groups. Many of these groups have long had “youth wings” to provide broader support in the populace, but now youths are increasingly being used in actual operations to strike at targets behind the battle lines. This occurs for the same fundamental reasons that children are now on the battlefields: children offer terrorist group leaders cheap and easy recruits, who provide new options to strike at their foes. He concludes that there are multiple reasons for children to become involved in terrorist groups, usually the result of the combination of a harsh environment that leaves children with no good choices and a deliberate mobilization strategy by the group itself to pull children into terrorism. Sometimes this process is enabled by the parents’ approval. This may be the saddest aspect of children’s involvement in such groups. When a parent wishes that their child grow up to be a suicide bomber instead of becoming a doctor or teacher and live to an old age, something is indeed wrong.

            The next chapter of this section, by Dr. Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute, addresses the social aspects of terrorist recruitment in Hamas—a group that is known not only for perpetrating suicide attacks in Israel, but for providing extensive and much-needed social services to Palestinians. Because of the notion that Hamas has independent “wings,” its political and charitable fronts are allowed to operate openly in many European and Middle Eastern capitals. In these cities, Islamic social welfare groups tied to Hamas are given free passes for their support of terror simply because they also provide critical humanitarian support. Hamas logistical and financial support activity is often tolerated when conducted under the rubric of charitable or humanitarian assistance. However, he argues, Hamas grant making is largely determined by a cold cost-benefit analysis that links the amount of aid awarded to the extent of support that aid will buy. Individuals tied to Hamas receive more assistance than those unaffiliated with the organization, while members linked to terrorist activity receive even more. An Israeli government report notes that Hamas charitable organizations accord preference to those close to the movement and assure that they receive increased financial assistance. The results for Hamas recruitment are striking—according to an April 2001 survey conducted by the Islamic University in Gaza, while 49% of children aged nine to sixteen claimed to have participated in the intifada, 73% claimed they hoped to become martyrs. [2] Levitt argues that cracking down on terrorism is key both to meeting the social welfare needs of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and for returning to negotiations over a viable political settlement. To do this, donor countries must not be distracted from debunking the myth that Hamas conducts legitimate charity work parallel but unrelated to its terrorist attacks. Further, cutting off the flow of funds to these groups, and replacing their largesse with an organized and regulated international aid effort to address the real and immediate needs of the Palestinian people, is now more urgent than ever.

            A similar focus on the social welfare aspects of terrorist recruitment is offered in the next chapter, by independent researcher Keith Stanski, with a unique case study of women who join the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). Stanski draws from a combination of media accounts, human rights reports, and interviews with recently demobilized female FARC members to examine the role women play in the movement. Several key lessons emerge from his analysis. For potential recruits, the movement’s political objectives may be secondary to the perceived opportunities of joining a terrorist movement. Further, even for young adolescents, joining a violent movement can be a calculated decision. While inflated expectations and recruitment rhetoric influence these decisions, some women may view terrorist movements as offering opportunities that are otherwise unattainable. In some cases, the difficulties and risks women face in civilian society may exceed those inherent in joining a terrorist movement. For others, terrorist organizations might be perceived as a relief from seemingly inescapable boredom. Additionally, the sense of purpose instilled by enlisting in a terrorist group may be heightened for women. As a distinct departure from civilian society, the training women receive—even when comparable to that of men—could elicit a special sense of importance for them. The physical and political training that terrorist movements provide may not only be the most sustained formal training women receive, but it also has immediate application for a cause greater than themselves; upon completing the training, women enter a political and social structure in which they have new, specific responsibilities and functions. In a way, a terrorist group validates the potential of a woman in a manner that civilian societies may not recognize. Overall, Stanski’s analysis brings an important dimension to our understanding of terrorist recruitment.

            The next chapter, co-authored by Ami Pedahzur and Arie Perliger of the University of Haifa, synthesizes information gained from different organizations to illustrate how suicide terrorists are recruited, prepared, and trained for their suicide missions. They argue that this phenomenon is a result of encouraging environmental and personal motivations, both of which are being used by terrorist organizations implementing suicide attacks. The conclusions they draw from their analysis highlight the differences in the recruitment and training process that exist between organizations operating internationally (Al-Qaeda) and organizations operating in a single territory (e.g., the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka or the Irish Republican Army in the UK). Moreover, the operational resources of a particular organization and their level of control over the population also influences their recruitment and training methods. Further, in contrast to preparations for other terrorist attacks, when recruiting a candidate for a suicide mission the recruitment process continues throughout the training stage and until the suicide mission is perpetrated. When recruiting a candidate for a suicide mission, it is necessary to reinforce his/her willingness and acceptance to participate in a suicide attack, and to continue this process up to the final minutes. Finally, while some have argued that the phenomenon of suicide terrorism is linked to one culture or religion, the opposite is true. This can be seen clearly when analyzing the enlistment, training and employment of the terrorists, and particularly their emphasis on psychological preparation. As with other chapters of this volume, their analysis offers important implications for our understanding of terrorism and counterterrorism policies.

            The final chapter of this section on social and psychological dimensions is authored by Raymond Hamden, a clinical and forensic psychologist based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He describes how individuals who reportedly have no emotional or social pathology in their psychological development, and no familial or social conditioning to any political or religious ideology, nonetheless turn to terrorism as a tactic towards extracting retribution or vengeance against their enemies. In essence, he argues, some individuals’ motivation for violent acts can be understood as the result of a major traumatic incident. As a member of a well-organized and capable organization, the retributional terrorist is a daunting enemy. However, a “lone wolf” retributional terrorist—like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, for example [3] —may be even more dangerous than some groups.

Part III: Ideological Dimensions

The third and final section of this volume provides a diverse collection of perspectives on ideologies that underscore terrorist recruitment, beginning with University of Nevada Professor Leonard Weinberg’s historical review of various “call to arms” used by political and revolutionary movements over time. His analysis reveals that throughout history, both left- and right-wing ideologies have furnished small terrorist bands and their members with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, which led them to commit dramatic acts of violence in order to make their objectives known to wide audiences. Further, these ideologies have offered these groups a perceived pathway to power, through which terrorism was meant to raise the level of awareness and trigger a violent uprising, from proletarian insurrection to racial holy war, by a vast pool of supporters previously too victimized and too lacking the required audacity on their own. However, despite the pretensions and the damage—both physical and psychological—caused by the ideologically driven terrorist groups over the decades, none of the groups discussed in his chapter managed to bring their social revolutionary or counter-revolutionary campaigns to a successful conclusion. But, he notes, these failures have hardly been for want of trying.

            In the second chapter of this section, Dr. JP Larsson (a researcher who works with the British government) explores the role of ideology in the recruitment of individuals by particularly violent religious groups. His analysis begins by explaining how many young people are “seekers” who are trying to find their own answers of how to make sense of the world around them. Religious ideologies, he argues, are often able to explain the state of the world, and in particular why believers are continuously persecuted, oppressed or discriminated; further, they can also explain how and why violence may be condoned and necessary. Several dimensions of these ideologies are important to consider when examining terrorist recruitment: first, these ideologies are often theologically supremacist [4] —meaning that all believers assume superiority over non-believers, who are not privy to the truth of the religion. Second, most are exclusivist—believers are a chosen people, or their territory is a holy land. Third, many are absolutist—it is not possible to be a half-hearted believer, and you are either totally within the system, or totally without it. Further, only the true believers are guaranteed salvation and victory, whereas the enemies and the unbelievers—as well as those who have taken no stance whatsoever—are condemned to some sort of eternal punishment or damnation, as well as death. Overall, religious ideologies help foster polarizing values in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark—values which can be co-opted by terrorist organizations to convert a “seeker” into a lethal killer.

            Professor James Aho of Idaho State University highlights these polarizing values in the next chapter by examining the religious ideological components of the Christian Fundamentalist movement in the United States, with particular focus on individuals who are recruited into violent groups and militias within this movement. These religiously-oriented extremists engage in violent activities, from cross-burning to bank robberies and targeted assassinations, while believing that they are “God’s battle axe and weapons of war.” Aho offers a multi-step theory of recruitment to explain the process by which individuals become affiliated with Christian Fundamentalist militia groups. While ideology plays the most critical role in recruitment, he also notes that an individual’s cognitive commitment to the group increases the more that they consider themselves to have voluntarily sacrificed to the group in terms of money, time, labor, personal freedom, and in rare cases, their physical well-being. His analysis sheds light on an important—yet insufficiently studied—dimension of terrorism in the U.S.

            In another chapter on religious ideology, Dr. Maha Azzam (of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in the UK) examines the rise of militant political Islam, with particular focus on the relationship between violence and Wahhabism—an interpretation of Islam which places its doctrinal emphasis on the absolute unity of God and a return to the pure and orthodox teachings of Islam according to the Koran. Islamist extremists breed on the politics and policies that are perceived by them as detrimental to Muslim interests, and which have remained unaltered for generations. A growing number among them believe they can influence this situation through a strategy of terror. Adherents of Wahhabism, with its anti-Jewish and anti-Christian overtones, have pressured their government leaders (for example, in Saudi Arabia) to maintain a puritanical and strict attitude towards any form of liberalization in either the social or political arenas, and they have been responsible for numerous acts of terrorism in pursuit of their ideological goals. Further, Wahhabism has played an essential role in the recruitment and training of members of Al Qaeda because it frames the beliefs and values of the organization’s leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayyman al-Zawahri.

            Professor Jarret Brachman, of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, continues this analysis of political Islam with a detailed look at the origins and differing interpretations of the term “jihad.” For some, it has come to refer to the struggle to defend religious ideals against destructive forces. For others, jihad refers to a command by God to all Muslims to fight against the aggressors who seek to corrupt Islam—embodied and globally perpetuated by the West. Jihad has served as a rallying cry for those who see themselves suffering under the draconian policies of governments; for those in a struggle with corrupt imperial overlords for the right to establish a national homeland; and for those who see themselves fighting to stave off advanced stages of cultural corruption. Muslims both volunteered and were recruited from around the world to aid Osama bin Laden and the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and were united under the call of jihad against foreign (Soviet) aggressors. [5] Clearly, while jihad remains a contested term, it does hold deep and powerful religious significance within Islam. Therefore, Brachman argues, whoever is able to wield the reigns of its meaning will have great power in drawing new recruits into that ideological abyss.

            The final chapter of this volume, by nationally syndicated columnist Allan Brownfeld of the American Council for Judaism, offers insights into the origins and implications of an extremist ideology known as Zionism. Adherents of this ideology, nurtured within Israel’s far-right religious institutions, have been responsible for several prominent acts of violence—including the assassination of Israel’s Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995 by Yigal Amir, an ultra-Orthodox religious zealot. Brownfeld notes that religious Zionists have adopted the notion that God demands not so much devotion to the Torah as to the land that Israel’s army has conquered, and this emphasis on land—particularly the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—has underscored an extremist view toward any attempt at negotiating peace agreements with the Palestinians. He concludes by arguing that Zionist terrorism—as with terrorism by other groups, both religious and secular—is a form of traditional asymmetric warfare, an effort by a militant minority to impose itself upon an unwilling majority. Yet, because the majority has been hesitant to identify and isolate such extremists, their influence has been far out of proportion to their numbers. Operating under the cover of religion has been useful in expanding their following and muting criticism. If Israel and its neighbors are to move in the direction of a lasting peace, he argues, the majority of Israelis—particularly Israel’s mainstream religious institutions—must act to neutralize those voices that have distorted Judaism’s moral mandate and replaced it with worship of physical territory.


After digesting the offerings provided by these authors, readers will surely have a greater appreciation for the broad scope and diversity of factors behind terrorist recruitment. However, there are obviously other avenues to explore beyond what is covered in this volume. Thus, this collection will hopefully also stimulate the reader to pursue further research on their own, in order to expand our collective understanding of recruitment in the terrorist world. Only through broadening and deepening the intellectual energy devoted to such activity will we identify the means by which we can, over the long term, stem the flow of future terrorist recruitment.


The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.


[1] For more on this global problem, please see Peter W. Singer, Children At War (New York: Pantheon, 2005).

[2] Jamie Tarabay. “Islamic militants gain influence through philanthropic work.”

[3] Waco, Oklahoma City Mark Anniversary of Tragedies.” CNN, 19 April 1998. Online at:

[4] Please see the chapter by JP Larsson in this volume.

[5] Please see the chapter by Rohan Gunaratna and Arabinda Acharya in Volume Two of this publication.


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