Why do terrorists stop?

Michael Jacobson asks why some high-profile terrorist attacks didn’t happen, and relates how defections and resignations plague even the most extreme terror organizations — and the petty reasons why. One terrorist quit the follow-up to the 9/11 attacks because he tired of the extremism. Another al-Qaeda terrorist quit because Osama bin Laden wouldn’t pay for his wife’s C-section. Jacobson wants us to find a pattern that we can use to defuse the biggest weapons AQ and other terror groups have:

Why do some terrorists drop out? We rightly think of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups as formidable foes, but the stories of would-be killers who bail give us some intriguing clues about fault lines that counterterrorism officials should exploit. The reasons for a change of heart can be strikingly prosaic: family, money, petty grievances. But they can also revolve around shaken ideology or lost faith in a group’s leadership.

It’s become a truism of counterterrorism that we must understand how and why individuals become jihadists in the first place. But almost nobody is studying the flip side of radicalization — understanding those who leave terrorist organizations. We’d do well to start. Figuring out why individuals walk away from terrorist groups can help governments predict whether an individual — or even a cell — is likely to go through with a plot. Understanding the dropouts should also make it easier for governments to determine which terrorists might be induced to switch sides, help stop radicalization and craft messages that could peel away people already in terrorist organizations. The more we know about why terrorists bail, the better we can fight them.

So where to start? Despite al-Qaeda’s reputation for ferocity and secrecy, plenty of wannabes wind up dropping out from it and its affiliates[.]

One obvious point comes from Jacobson’s essay, although Jacobson doesn’t offer a way to capitalize on it. AQ handlers impress on their suicide jihadists to keep from contacting their families. Jacobson notes that Ziad Jarrah, who piloted United 93 on 9/11, almost dropped out of the plot because of his relationship with his German fiancée. Ramzi Binalshibh had to talk him into staying in the plot, but another potential member dropped out when he returned to his family in Saudi Arabia after leaving the training camp in Afghanistan. Family ties, therefore, should provide a means to negating the attraction to the nihilistic strain of Islam.

But how could the US leverage that? We can’t. Even though it is the most effective manner in disarming the human time bombs produced by terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the US has little influence on whether jihadists contact their families, or even whether the families would want to disarm their brainwashed members if they made contact. That leaves us with other methods of squeezing the terrorist groups, especially financially but also operationally.

Here we can have some direct impact. The loss of funds makes it harder for AQ and other organizations to pay their people, and that creates dissent. One early AQ member “fumed” over the lack of compensation he received and began embezzling from Osama. When Osama demanded restitution, Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl — who at one point tried to acquire uranium for AQ — went on the run, fearing for his life. L’Houssaine Kerchtou wanted to kill bin Laden when he got turned down for the $500 reimbursement for his wife’s C-section in Morocco.

Others have left over tactics and lack of success. Osama’s own son Omar left after 9/11, asking what good the mass murder had accomplished, telling a journalist that the organization consisted of “dummies”. Another AQ leader left during the Afghan jihad, resentful that people with less military experience than himself were in command and botching the job in late 2001. Failure breeds resentment and a lack of confidence in leadership.

Jacobson wonders whether we can learn from these lessons, but in fact we already have. It shows that terrorists don’t stop when people surrender; rather, they stop when they start losing. The myth that fighting terrorists breeds more terrorists ends with Jacobson’s essay. If we cut off their funds, kill them on the field, and stop their attacks before they begin, terrorists get the message. It won’t stop the Osamas and the Baitullah Mehsuds, but it eventually cuts them off from their recruiting base and their experienced underlings. It takes longer than some attention spans can handle, but that is the path to victory for the West.