Geopolitics

20 Years After 9/11, Islamic Terrorists Struggle To Recruit

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS openly complain about the difficulty in finding new members ready to give everything for the cause.

Still image taken from an ISIS propaganda

Charles Kurzman

Al-Qaeda was planning two sets of terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. On Sept. 11, 2021, as Americans commemorate and mourn the lives lost that Tuesday morning 20 years ago, it is important to remember the second plot as well – the attacks that didn't happen.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the organizer of the 9/11 operation, originally envisioned simultaneous attacks on the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States. He bragged about having had dozens of recruits to choose from.

But the numbers were smaller than he expected. Several people dropped out of the plot and could not be replaced. Ultimately al-Qaeda could find only 19 sufficiently trained militants who were willing to die for the cause. As a result, the West Coast plot had to be canceled.

As strange as it may sound, revolutionary Islamist groups suffer from recruitment problems as any other organization does. My research on Islamist terrorism has found that al-Qaeda and its rival offshoot, the Islamic State group, have long had chronic difficulties replenishing their ranks.

These groups complain about their recruitment problems frequently. "We are most amazed that the community of Islam is still asleep and heedless while its children are being wiped out and killed everywhere and its land is being diminished every day," al-Qaeda wrote in one of its online publications in 2004. It is a sentiment that the group has repeated over many years.

The Islamic State group has also expressed disappointment in Muslims' lack of militancy. In June 2017, for example, it published an article in an online magazine criticizing Muslims who "drag the tail of shame" by remaining "safe in your homes, secure with your families and wealth" instead of joining the revolutionary movement. The problem, according to a November 2017 article in the Islamic State's online daily newspaper, is "love of life and hatred of death," a "disease of weakness whose final result will be the supremacy of the enemy over the Muslims."

Democracy, not revolution

Love of life is only one of the militants' recruitment problems.

According to social science surveys, the bulk of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims find these groups abhorrent. Most Muslims support policies that encourage or enforce Islamic piety, but they don't support revolutionary violence. A large majority of Muslims support democratic elections, which the revolutionaries consider un-Islamic.

Democratic thought has deep roots in Islamic tradition, including the "nahda" renaissance of Arab intellectuals in the 19th century, mass pro-democracy moments in the early 20th century in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, and the Arab Spring movement that started in late 2010.

The world's governments have made it very hard for people to find and join militant groups.

Islamist militants such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group view democratic efforts as a threat and have repeatedly targeted pro-democracy Muslim scholars and activists for assassination. For instance, Muhammad Nu'man Fazli, a cleric in Afghanistan, was among the recent victims of this sort of violence. His mosque outside Kabul was bombed by the Islamic State group in May 2021 during a cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government, specifically because of his support of democracy, according to a statement in the Islamic State group's newspaper.

The world's governments have made it very hard for people to find and join militant groups. There are few safe places for training, and the ones that do exist are typically in remote areas that are hard to reach, such as the mountains of northwest Pakistan, the deserts of eastern Mali, the forests of the Lake Chad basin and northern Mozambique, and the islands of the southern Philippines.

Even online, militants must constantly seek new methods to avoid detection. Every message they send or receive risks exposing them to arrest or drone attack.

Competing for recruits

Nationalist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban are also trying to recruit Islamic extremists. Like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, these movements also aim to impose an austere version of Islamic law, at least partly through force of arms. But their ambitions are primarily local, as opposed to the global agendas of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

The nationalists and globalists may cooperate at times – most notably, the tense alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the years leading up to 9/11. Still, they are fundamentally rivals when it comes to recruitment, and the nationalists are far more successful in drawing on trusted local networks.


Still image taken from a propaganda video released October 18, 2017 showing Tahrir al-Sham in clashes against the Islamic State — Photo: Handout/Planet Pix/ZUMA Wire

In Afghanistan today, the Taliban have tens of thousands of militants among their recruits, according to U.S. government estimates. The Islamic State group's regional branch, often referred to as ISIS-K, has approximately 1,000 fighters, and al-Qaeda has fewer than 1,000.

Twenty years after 9/11, al-Qaeda has never found enough recruits to carry out its second wave of mass-casualty attacks on America. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only a dozen people in the United States were convicted in the years after 9/11 for links with al-Qaeda, and none were involved in large-scale plots.

The Islamic State group has organized or inspired several dozen attacks in the United States, but the numbers fell off sharply in the middle of 2015, when the Turkish government closed its border with Syria. And those were do-it-yourself operations involving small arms, homemade explosives, vehicles and knives, averaging 14 fatalities per year. The Islamic State group has never mobilized enough militants in the West to "destroy the White House, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower, by Allah's permission," as it threatened to do in 2015.

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group remain serious about targeting the United States. But the good news for Americans, on this anniversary of 9/11, is that militants face a recruitment bottleneck – a mundane organizational problem that afflicts these very unconventional organizations.

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A tribute to the 30,000 Iranian political prisoners murdered in Iran in 1988

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Laba diena!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Afghanistan's Taliban demand to speak at the United Nations, China takes a bold ecological stand and we find out why monkeys kept their tails and humans didn't. Business magazine America Economia also looks at how Latin American countries are looking to attract a new generation of freelancers known as "digital nomads" in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[*Lithuanian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Taliban ask to speak at UN: With global leaders gathered in New York for the 76th meeting of the UN General Assembly, Afghanistan's new rulers say their country's previously accredited United Nations ambassador no longer represents the country, and have demanded a new Taliban envoy speak instead. Afghanistan is scheduled to give the final intervention next Monday to the General Assembly, and a UN committee must now rule who can speak.

• Four corpses found on Belarus border with Poland: The discovery of bodies of four people on Belarus-Poland border who appear to have died from hypothermia are raising new accusations that Belarus is pushing migrants to the eastern border of the European Union, possibly in retaliation over Western sanctions following the contested reelection of the country's strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The discovery comes amid a surge of largely Afghani and Iraqi migrants attempting to enter Poland in recent weeks.

• China to stop building coal-burning power plants abroad: Under pressure to limit emissions to meet Paris climate agreement goals, China announces an end to funding future projects in Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries through its Belt and Road initiative.

• Turkey ratifies Paris climate agreement: Following a year of wildfires and flash floods, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the UN that Turkey will become the last G-20 country to ratify the emissions-limiting accords. Turkey already signed the agreement in 2016, but has yet to hold a vote in parliament.

• Mass evacuations following Canary Islands volcano: More than 6,000 people have fled the Spanish archipelago as heavy flows of lava have buried hundreds of homes. Four earthquakes have also hit the Canaries since the Sunday eruption, which could also cause other explosions and the release of toxic gas.

• Rare earthquake hits Melbourne: The 5.9 magnitude quake struck near Melbourne in southern Australia, with aftershocks going as far Adelaide, Canberra and Launceston. Videos shared on social media show at least one damaged building, with power lines disrupted in Australia's second largest city. No injuries have been reported.

• The evolutionary tale of tails: Charles Darwin first discovered that humans evolved to lose this biological trait. But only now are New York scientists showing that it was a single genetic tweak that could have caused this shift, while our monkey relatives kept their backside appendages.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"The roof of Barcelona" — El Periodico daily reports on the latest delay from what may be the longest-running construction project in the world. Work on the iconic Barcelona church La Sagrada Familia, which began all the way back in 1882 as the vision of master architect Antoni Gaudí, was slated to be completed in 2026. The Barcelona-based daily reports that a press conference Tuesday confirmed that the deadline won't be met, in part because of delays related to COVID-19. Officials also provided new details about the impending completion of the Mare de Déu tower (tower of the Virgin), the first tower of the temple to be completed in 44 years. Although it is currently the second tallest spire of the complex, it will become the highest point of the Sagrada Familia, reaching 172.5 meters thanks to an illuminated "great cross."

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Latin America, the next mecca for digital nomads

Latin American countries want to cash in on the post-pandemic changes to the fundamental ways we work and live, in particular by capitalizing on a growing demand from the new wave of remote workers and "youngish" professional freelancers with money to spend, reports Natalia Vera Ramírez in business magazine America Economia.

💻🏖️ Niels Olson, Ecuador's tourism minister, is working hard to bring "digital nomads" to his country. He believes that attracting this new generation of freelancers who can work from anywhere for extended visits is a unique opportunity for all. Living in a town like Puerto López, he wrote on Twitter, the expat freelancer could "work by the sea, live with a mostly vaccinated population, in the same time zone, (enjoy) an excellent climate, and eat fresh seafood." For Ecuador, the new influx of visitors with money to spend would help boost the country's economy.

🧳 While online-based freelancers already hopped from country to country before COVID-19, the pandemic has boosted their current numbers to around 100 million worldwide. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates there could be a billion roaming, digital workers by 2050. Some European countries already issue visas for digital nomads. They include Germany, Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, Estonia and the Czech Republic, but in the Americas, only four countries make the list, namely Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Panama and Costa Rica.

💰 In August 2021, Costa Rica approved a law for remote workers and international service providers, intended to attract digital nomads and make its travel sector more competitive. The law provides legal guarantees and specific tax exemptions for remote workers choosing to make the country their place of work. It allows foreign nationals earning more than $3,000 a month to stay for up to a year in the country, with the ability to renew their visa for an additional year. If applicants are a family, the income requisite rises to $5,000.


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$2.1 billion

Google announced yesterday it will spend $2.1 billion to buy a sprawling Manhattan office building, in one of the largest sales of a building in U.S. history. The tech giant plans on growing its New York workforce to more than 14,000 people.

📣 VERBATIM

It is sickening and shameful to see this kind of president give such a lie-filled speech on the international stage.

— Opposition Brazilian congresswoman Vivi Reis in response to President Jair Bolsonaro's inflammatory 12-minute speech at the UN General Assembly. The unvaccinated head of state touted untested COVID-19 cures, criticized public health measures and boasted that the South American country's environmental protections were the best in the world.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Bertrand Hauger

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