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


The chapters assembled for this volume contribute to our knowledge of both ideological and operational learning in the world of terrorism. Several authors explore terrorist training camps and activities in certain parts of the world—including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Colombia, Indonesia, Ireland, the Philippines, and the United States—while others address some of the psychological and sociological forces that help develop the new recruit’s will and skill to kill.

Part I: Teaching Tools and Developmental Processes

The first four chapters of the volume bring us into the realm of psychological research, beginning with Jerrold Post’s discussion of interviews he and his colleagues conducted with Middle Eastern terrorists incarcerated in Israeli and Palestinian prisons. As a whole, these interviews illuminated how the lives of individuals were shaped by powerful social-psychological forces that led them onto the path of terrorism. As highlighted by the direct quotes presented in this chapter, an understanding of these forces reveals how “hatred is bred in the bone.” Professor Post, Director of the Political Psychology Program at the George Washington University and a former member of the Central Intelligence Agency, illustrates how the individual comes to subordinate his individuality to the group, which becomes the central pillar of his identity. The need of individuals to belong and to exercise control in their own lives is paramount for every individual, but is intensified in communities where segments of the population are ostracized or persecuted based on ethnic, religious or social background. By belonging to a radical group, otherwise powerless individuals become powerful. Group identity provides a foundation of relative stability upon which disenfranchised or isolated members of a society build a base of commonality and join together.

          In the next chapter, Stanford University Professor Albert Bandura explores the role of moral disengagement in the terrorist world. A social psychologist who has studied terrorism for many years, Bandura notes how humans typically have an internal collection of self-sanctions that play a central role in the regulation of our conduct. However, there are many psychological processes by which these moral self-sanctions can be disengaged from inhumane conduct. [1] Further, the removal of one’s inhibitions is accelerated if violent courses of action are presented as serving a moral imperative, and the targeted people are divested of human qualities. [2] In so doing, otherwise considerate individuals can commit atrocities of appalling proportions. Terrorism can thus be seen as the product of a complex network of influences that enable and motivate people to perpetrate terrorist acts rather than stemming mainly from a pernicious nature.

          This is followed with a chapter (co-authored by Professors Marc Galanter, of New York University, and James Forest, of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point) on the social systems found within charismatic groups, and how the characteristics of these systems compel their members to behave in certain ways. In essence, the charismatic group can be viewed as a close-knit community defined by the following primary characteristics: it has a strongly-held belief system and a high level of social cohesiveness; its members are deeply influenced by the group’s behavioral norms and impute a transcendent (or divine) role to their leader. These groups may differ among themselves in the particulars of their ideology and ritual behavior, but they do have several traits in common, including: 1) an attraction to joining the group; 2) the transformative experience of membership; and 3) the social system forces that surround the group’s members, giving meaning and structure. These traits of charismatic groups help explain the behavioral transformations described in many of the chapters of this volume. Through a mix of psychological and social dimensions observed in this discussion, the charismatic group and the individual form a symbiotic relationship, serving each other’s needs. When joining a charismatic group, an individual is transformed by powerful forces into a personal extension of the group’s identity, which compels them to carry out activities that were unthinkable prior to group membership. Even when a suicide terrorist attack is the goal, this act can be justified as serving the needs of the group, needs which take primacy over the individual’s basic desire for a longer life.

          The next chapter of this section, by noted psychologist and cult expert Arthur Deikman of the University of California, San Francisco, explores the psychological dimension of power held by charismatic leaders, and focuses on what this can tell us about the dynamics of terrorist groups. He notes that cult thinking is most prominently evident when members of a group devalue outsiders while ignoring the faults of the leader and fellow believers. Outsiders are declared to be inferior, bad or damned, while those in the cult group view themselves as superior, good or saved. We see this in its most extreme form in the mind of the terrorist. Cult leaders, tyrants, and terrorists invariably defend immoral and violent actions as serving God, truth, or country. This analysis thus suggests that it is often not deprivation or injustice that is the decisive motivation for terror, but the need to see oneself as good and heroic, esteemed by the community and blessed by God.

          The next two chapters of this section review a variety of print and online resources that provide the types of operational learning necessary for conducting terrorism. Professor James Forest of West Point begins with a description of training manuals that have been authored and made available by several organizations, from the Christian Identity movement to Al Qaeda. Advanced multimedia websites and online discussion forums facilitate the sort of teacher-learner interaction that takes place in terrorist training camps. Further, while the Internet plays an important role in developing the new terrorist recruit’s will and ability to kill others, it brings a whole new set of tools for terror, enabling the development of technology-oriented terrorism, or “cyberterrorism.” Overall, this chapter suggests that the globalization of information and technology are helping facilitate the spread of old and new forms of terrorism.

          Similarly, as Columbia University Professor Brigitte Nacos observes in her chapter on the media, terrorists learn much each other through daily news reports, video clips and websites. Further, the media serve a vital role in facilitating the spread of the terrorist’s propaganda, helping individuals and groups gain attention, recognition, legitimacy and respect. When terrorists uses the media effectively—for example, as seen in the cases of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—other terrorists learn from and follow their example. Recently, a proliferation of videotaped beheadings—which began in Iraq but spread to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world—is but one of many examples of this phenomenon of mediated terrorism.

Part II: Case Studies of Terrorist Learning

The next section of the volume begins with a chapter by RAND terrorism specialist Brian Jackson, in which he examines the terrorist training regimen of the Irish Republican Army. His discussion provides a unique account of how the IRA inducted new recruits to support its military activities; taught volunteers new skills to support and improve the group’s operational capability; and provided members with the intelligence and counterintelligence skills needed both to collect the information required for operations and to prevent security force penetration or disruption of group activities. Jackson’s assessment of the IRA’s efforts in these areas leads to several lessons that can be drawn relevant to training by terrorist groups, including: a sufficient amount of sanctuary provides better opportunities for realistic and more thorough training, especially for sophisticated weaponry and tactics; terrorist groups need specialists to provide the expertise needed for specific advanced operations and tasks; and connections with outside groups or experts can be useful to a terrorist organization—but only if those links are close enough to provide current and useful knowledge support and if the assistance provided to the group is relevant to its operational context.

          Next, Carnegie Endowment researcher Martha Brill Olcott partners with Bakhtiyar Babajanov, a senior research fellow at the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, in an analysis of personal study notebooks of young men who were recruited for jihad and attended terrorist training camps in Uzbekistan during the 1990s. [3] They describe how students learned cartography (map-making), the use of small firearms (mainly Soviet-era rifles and the occasional Egyptian rocket-propelled grenade launcher), tactics for targeting the enemy (both on the ground and in the air), explosive device construction (including antipersonnel mines), and how to make poison using corn, flour, beef, yak dung, alcohol and water. While the motivational/ideological knowledge represented in these students’ notebooks reflects a clear Islamic radicalist influence, it is equally interesting to note that, according to Olcott and Babajanov, “the teachers who used Russian terminology clearly had experience with the Red Army and Soviet system of military instruction, and those who used Arabic likely passed through terrorist camps in Afghanistan and maybe even those of the Middle East.” [4] Their exploration of these training materials provides a unique window into the world of teaching and learning in the terrorist world.

          In the following chapter, Professor Adam Dolnik, of the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies (IDSS) in Singapore, describes the process of becoming a suicide bomber, noting that this process differs considerably depending on the given cultural, regional, and ideological context. In the Middle East, Palestinian recruits for suicide bombing are put through a testing period and then asked to prepare a videotape of their last will. In Sri Lanka, most of the perpetrators of suicide bombing attacks are experienced members of the Tamil Tigers who have already established their credibility. Since members of this group are routinely issued potassium cyanide capsules (to be consumed when on the verge of capture), the preparedness to die at any given moment is a baseline attribute for all potential volunteers. He concludes that suicide bombings represent the ultimate terrorist tactic. Besides their tactical advantages, they also have the capability of satisfying many terrorist objectives in a single attack: demonstration of dedication and capability, attracting attention and media coverage, producing a high number of casualties, and instigating general feelings of vulnerability. Finding recruits for suicide missions is never difficult once a precedent has been established. Suicide attacks can be justified on any religious or ideological grounds in the appropriate historical and cultural context. It is therefore very likely that the use of this tactic will become increasingly frequent in areas where it has already been established, and will be introduced to many other struggles around the world.

            The next chapter, co-authored by Professor Rohan Gunaratna and fellow IDSS researcher Arabinda Acharya, explores the role of training—particularly the training camps established by Al Qaeda—in facilitating the spread of the global Islamic militant terrorist threat. The training camps set up by Al Qaeda and its associates became the life-blood for the groups, providing indoctrination and training for foot soldiers, go-betweens, planners, document forgers, communications specialists, scouts, technicians, bombers and even hijackers. According to some estimates, many militant Muslims from more than 50 countries have passed through the camps, spending from two weeks to more than six months learning the general and specific skills that modern terrorism requires. Many veterans of the camp remain unaccounted for. From their analysis, Gunaratna and Arabinda conclude that given the importance of these facilities to terrorist organizations, the necessity of locating and disrupting terrorist camps can hardly be overemphasized.

          In a similar vein, as international terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann observes in the following chapter, participation in the Bosnian conflict also allowed mujahideen to develop terrorist-related tactical skills as well as common bonds of loyalty and friendship between jihadists of various nationalities. Indeed, he notes, many of Al Qaeda’s most important military and leadership figures were catapulted forward on the world stage as a result of their early involvement with the mujahideen in Bosnia. He cites several reasons why the Bosnian experience provides a critical chapter in the story of contemporary militant Islam. First, the deployment of Arab fighters to Bosnia, who were generally loyal to the jihadi leadership in Afghanistan, exploded during the mid-1990s into numbers sometimes estimated even to exceed 5,000. Second, this massive and significant migration of Arab-Afghans to Bosnia occurred at an early stage of the Al Qaeda movement, meaning that the experience had long-lasting effects—both practically and ideologically—on the terrorist group. Third, Bosnia’s unique geographic position directly between Western Europe and the Middle East was the ideal jumping-off point for organizational expansion of the movement into Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It provided an environment where trained foreign Muslim fighters arriving from Afghanistan could mingle with (and help teach) unsophisticated but eager terrorist recruits from Western Europe, and could form new plans for the future of the jihad. No such contact had ever occurred before in the short history of Al Qaeda, and it provided the organization and its radical membership limitless possibilities for development and growth—as well as a geographic step in the ladder towards its enemies in Western Europe and North America.

            Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist group in Indonesia affiliated with Al Qaeda, is the focus of the next chapter. IDSS Professor Kumar Ramakrishna examines the processes by which JI indoctrinates new militants. In this respect, it can be argued that against the necessary wider historical, socio-cultural and political backdrop of indigenous militant strains of Islam in Indonesia, the key to JI indoctrination involves three intersecting factors: first, the deliberate exposure of recruits to the radical Islamist ideology of Qaedaism; second, intensive psychological programming aimed at engendering hatred for Westerners in particular; and third, the existence of an isolated “ingroup space” within which both ideological and psychological programming can be carried out with maximum efficiency. His analysis suggests a number of problems that are in need of closer analysis and engagement. First and foremost, one cannot ignore the wider communities of religious prejudice from which JI terrorists ultimately emerge. Second, ostensibly non-violent leaders like Bashir—who nonetheless preach polarized, absolutist ideologies that nudge impressionable individuals along the continuum toward hate obsession and potential terrorist recruitment—are clearly a cause for concern. Third, certain educational environments that deliberately limit contact with the outside world and appear to propagate alternate constructions of reality should be spotlighted and their managements urged to expose their student populations to wider informational and intellectual vistas. And of particular salience, the continuing inability of either liberal Muslims or Islamic modernists to devise and propagate modern interpretations of the faith that trump the simplistic, “us-versus-them” radical storylines in the estimation of the Muslim ground is a problem that urgently needs redressing.

            The religious-based “us-versus-them” mentality seen among JI members is also found among members of Christian militia groups in the United States, as described in the next chapter, co-authored by University of North Carolina-Charlotte Professor Cindy Combs and her research colleagues Elizabeth Combs and Lydia Marsh. Their analysis illuminates three important aspects of the relationship that continue to shape the training of the Christian militia today: the Biblically-based theology that seeks to rationalize the preparation for violence by members of militia groups; a fervent belief in the Bill of Rights, particularly the right to bear arms and the right to generate an “unorganized militia;” and a commitment to a loose, virtually leaderless membership structure, with members trained to act alone or in small groups to “take back” the government, through force if necessary. They note how members of militia groups are often well-trained in the use of arms and explosives. Some militia groups even have skilled armorers and bomb-makers, and members with outdoor survival skills who are adept at guerrilla-warfare techniques. Among their conclusions, the authors note that militia groups, while not directly responsible for the actions of their members, may offer social and psychological support that will enable individuals to carry out lethal acts on their own. Thus, the danger from these groups may lie in the ability of individuals, motivated by militia propaganda, to launch unilateral attacks on disparate targets, coordinated only by timing—and that danger remains clear and not yet preventable.

            The next chapter, by Professor Magnus Ranstorp—Director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence (CSTPV) at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland—explores the Hizballah training camps of Lebanon. Since its foundation in 1982, Hizballah has developed a highly complex and multifaceted terrorist infrastructure under Iranian guidance and support and with Syrian patronage. Hizballah’s training camps have served multiple political and operational purposes over time, extending from solidifying its structure in the early 1980s to providing very advanced guerrilla and terrorist training to its own and other selected fighters from Palestinian factions. Over time, the group acquired an impressive weaponry arsenal and a high degree of interoperability between its military and terrorist wing, especially with the expert assistance of Iranian military advisers and instructors. In his view, there are few organizations as capable, precise and dangerous as Hizballah.

            Next, Professor Román Ortiz of Los Andes University (Bogotá) provides an insightful analysis of terrorist training activities employed by the FARC, Colombia’s most lethal band of guerillas. He notes how the content of FARC training courses have changed over time, in order to meet the strategic needs of the organization. For example, in the beginning of the 1990s FARC’s leadership established a broad training program to develop skills for major mobile warfare operations such as extensive ambushes or attacks against fortified bases. However, by the end of the decade the group abandoned mobile warfare and gradually returned to guerilla warfare, and thus refocused its training courses on tactics such as mine warfare, sniping, and anti-aircraft defense. This analysis underscores how a terrorist group’s training is influenced by its strategic environment in addition to its ideological or political objectives.

          A growing concern worldwide over the possible terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction provides the context for the next chapter, in which RAND policy analyst John Parachini examines Aum Shinrikyo’s development of a chemical weapons program. Parachini describes the evolution of this program, the types of knowledge and materials that were acquired, and the key players involved—such as the group’s chief chemist Masami Tsuchiya, who joined Aum after receiving his master’s degree in organic chemistry from Tsukuba University, and Tomomasa Nakagawa, who was trained as a medical doctor at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine. Overall, Aum’s experience with chemical agents illustrates the opportunities and limitations non-state actors encounter when they attempt to develop an unconventional weapons capability on its own from scratch. While Aum killed far fewer people with toxic chemicals than a host of major bombings in the last 20 years, the very fact that they acquired the knowledge and materials to successfully conduct terrorist attacks is alarming. Even a small group of people, if they have sufficient resources and are able to maintain tight security, can pose a catastrophic danger.

          Finally, the last chapter of this volume (by James Forest) provides a summary of terrorist training camps around the world—the most common and important places where indoctrination and operational teaching for terrorism (on strategic and tactical levels) takes place. In addition to strategic and tactical learning, terrorist training camps incorporate a number of psychological development processes—as described in the earlier chapters of this volume—which advance the ideological motivations that brought the students to the camps in the first place. The physical isolation of the training camps is an important aspect to this process, in part because members come to rely on each other (and thus build bonds of mutual trust within the organization) for success and survival. In short, training camps for terrorism are obviously places of great concern for the civilized world, because they bring enthusiastic learners (with a willingness to kill) together with experts who teach them how to kill.


This second volume in the Making of a Terrorist series is meant to provide a general overview of the most important places of terrorist learning and the developmental processes that take place within them. As a collection, the chapters address the problem of global terrorism from a central lens of knowledge—specifically, the role of teaching and learning in helping a terrorist organization maintain its capacity to carry out its deadly operations. Our ability to combat the global terrorist threat requires a better understanding of how and where these activities such as ideological indoctrination and operational learning take place, before devising ways to disrupt or degrade the terrorists’ organizational capabilities. Thus, these chapters provide an important contribution to the study of terrorism, offering policy implications for counterterrorism professionals, scholars, and policymakers around the world.


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] Albert Bandura, Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986).

[2] Albert Bandura, et al., 1975.

[3] See Martha Brill Olcott and Bakhtiyar Babajanov, “The Terrorist Notebooks,” Foreign Policy, March-April 2003, p. 30-40.

[4] Ibid.


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