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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Friday, October 22, 2010

Demilitarizing Jihad

By J.M. Berger

This article first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Veterans Vision magazine.

Starting in 2008, the media and counterterrorism officials took note of a rising wave of American jihadists -- U.S. citizens who have adopted the ideology and methodology of Al Qaeda and its ilk.

In reality, these citizen extremists have been with us all along -- and in similar numbers to what we see today. Americans have taken part in the modern age of jihad from its very beginning in 1979, when two Americans joined a terrorist group that seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

I recently reviewed more than 250 documented stories of American jihadists from 1979 to the present, including both U.S. citizens and long-term legal residents. The list includes people who fought in foreign wars in the name of Islamic causes as well as people involved in terrorist networks.

Before September 11, no one in the U.S. government documented the number of Americans who had fought for jihadist causes. Even in the post-9/11 era, reliable numbers are hard to come by. But the data as it exists shows the number of American jihadists over the last 20 years has held steady or risen only modestly. The current "surge" seems larger than it is because people are paying more attention now.

But that doesn't mean it's a static field. There has been a dramatic evolution in the type of people who go to jihad. One of the most notable changes has been the increasing involvement of military amateurs.

In Afghanistan during the 1980s and in Bosnia during the 1990s, Americans were often first lured into Islamic extremist networks through idealism and good intentions. Both conflicts seemed like ethically clear situations in which innocent Muslims faced invasion and even extermination. And in both conflicts, the U.S. offered at least moral support to the Muslim side. In short, you could be a jihadist and still see yourself as a good American.

Because of this, it was relatively easy to recruit Muslim U.S. military veterans as jihadists. In Afghanistan, a number of Vietnam vets fought the Soviets. In Bosnia, a Saudi-backed program actively recruited Muslim veterans who had served in the Gulf War to assist the mujahideen. At least a dozen vets -- and probably more -- were recruited to Bosnia as either trainers or fighters.

Although activity in the U.S. provides a useful window on jihadist trends, this wasn't just an American phenomenon. For instance, commanders of the mujahideen in Afghanistan and Bosnia served in the Egyptian armed forces, as did several early members of Al Qaeda. Many of these figures had been purged from their military positions after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 by a cell of army members.

One important Al Qaeda figure -- Ali Abdelsaoud Mohamed -- had experience in both the Egyptian and U.S. armed forces. He served in the Egyptian military prior to the Sadat assassination. Later, he emigrated to the United States, becoming a U.S. citizen, enlisting in the Army and serving at Fort Bragg.

Mohamed's military experience didn't just enhance his own performance as a terrorist; he passed his skills to others as one of Al Qaeda's most important teachers, running basic and advanced training camps in Afghanistan. Mohamed also stole and translated U.S. Army training manuals into Arabic for use by Al Qaeda and other self-styled jihadists.

Mohamed helped professionalize a generation of terrorists and also used his military skills directly against the United States. Al Qaeda sent Mohamed and at least one other U.S. Army veteran to Somalia during U.S. humanitarian operations during the 1990s, and they likely played a role in the Blackhawk Down incident that resulted in the death of 18 American soldiers.

In addition to recruiting a relatively small number of people from the large pool of Muslim veterans, jihadists in the pre-9/11 era sought out professional criminals, such as illegal gun dealers and bank robbers, and a handful of police officers. The common denominator in all these fields is experience with violence, weapons and operational discipline -- important skills when fielding an army.

In the post-9/11 world, the calculus of jihadist recruitment in the U.S. has changed. It is no longer possible to act as a jihadist and still maintain one's self-image as a "good American." Although jihadists still seek to sway U.S. military members, individual actors like Nidal Hasan do not transmit military skills to jihadist networks. The vast majority of American jihadist recruits are now young men with very little direct experience of violence, let alone combat.

There are a couple of reasons for this change. Jihadists before 9/11 were often selected by recruiters who knew them personally and could afford to be discriminating. Recruits were targeted not just for enthusiasm but for useful skills and experience.

Today's jihadist networks prioritize warm bodies over skills, and they use the Internet to empower self-selection rather than seeking out known individuals. As a result, the new demographic skews toward young men who are more likely to have attended computer camp than JROTC.

The data set I examined for this piece was confined to American citizens and long-term legal residents. But there is some evidence to suggest a similar trend is taking place worldwide. A study of foreign fighters by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found the vast majority of foreign jihadists entering Iraq had been students before they were fighters. Former military personnel represented significantly fewer than 10 percent of the cases examined, trailing behind teachers, professionals and skilled laborers.

The drop in the successful recruitment of American military veterans is particularly good news, since U.S. forces are among the world's most professional services. American vets also paid dividends to Al Qaeda and other jihadists since they could teach fighters how to counter specific tactics used by Americans (as they did in Somalia).

Foreign fighters are likely to field growing numbers of unprofessional soldiers, thanks to the change in America's political climate, continued vigilance about radicalism among foreign military services and the continued disruption of Al Qaeda training camps.

However, in specific locations, the risk continues and may even be heightened. Military members in Pakistan and Yemen are particularly at risk for terrorist infiltration, including outright defections and informal accommodations with jihadist networks.

Unprofessional forces present a decidedly mixed bag for U.S. strategists, especially when those forces are mixed with local insurgencies. Trained soldiers are more likely to professionalize their comrades. When untrained foreign fighters mix with local insurgencies, the results are unpredictable and nearly impossible to model, resulting in a constant flow of new and unexpected threats and challenges.

Another increasingly important consideration: Unprofessional soldiers are far more likely to put civilians at risk. Human shields and direct attacks on civilians aside, professional military training embeds the protection of innocent bystanders into its underlying assumptions.

U.S. forces have both explicit and implicit obligations to protect civilians. Unprofessional forces create situations that exacerbate such risks, sometimes intentionally and sometimes through ignorance of basic military practices. Collateral damage to civilians is a growing problem for U.S. forces trying to win the support of local populations. Unfortunately, that situation is likely to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.

J.M. Berger is a journalist and analyst covering terrorism for He has written for the Boston Globe and produced content on terrorism for National Public Radio, Public Radio International and the National Geographic Channel. Berger's book on American jihadists will be published in 2011.

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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