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Rookies in the Major League: Recruitment Miscalculations in Terrorist Organizations
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The amount of prospective members available to a terrorist organization is subject to a myriad of factors. For example, terrorist organizations which refrain from targeting civilians and provoking government backlash are lower risk and generate greater support (Abrahms 2018). Or, if an organization is economically endowed, profit-driven opportunists may flock to the membership roster (Weinstein 2005). While a terrorist organization is in its earliest, weakest stages, it requires as many recruits as possible to get operations off the ground. For a better developed organization, however, taking in too many new members becomes a liability. When terrorist organizations weigh the potential security risks against the benefits of expanding their ranks, some opt to take the risks. The greatest mistake contemporary terrorists, particularly terrorist organizations, make is unselective recruiting after they are already well-established because it tends to accrue inexperienced operatives who jeopardize group cohesion, are ineffectual during attacks, and disregard hierarchical authority.

Influxes of inexperienced recruits may threaten a terrorist organization’s inner-group cooperation and bonds of socialization. A wider, poorly selected pool of recruits undermines group cohesion and interpersonal bonds (McCormick 2003). Commitment from one fighter to his or her peers, the unit, and the mission are contingent upon such ties (Mironova 2019). When ties are weak, there are higher battle and non-battle casualties, lower training standards, higher rates of stress, and lower quality of life for fighters (Mironova 2019). Over time, these dynamics may fracture trust between members at all levels of the organization’s hierarchy. Additionally, terrorists have bonds of socialization which are dependent on each fighter being equally as culpable as the next. When inexperienced and therefore untrusted members have not yet formed these bonds, they lack full commitment to terrorist missions and are more likely to retreat to avoid mortal harm (Alakoc 2015). Beyond jeopardizing mission security for all other participants, their inexperience erodes group cohesion and cooperation (Alakoc 2015).

Unselective recruiting produces undertrained, undedicated terrorists. Efficient and resilient terrorist organizations seek as many applicants as possible while selecting only qualified new members. This process yields skilled terrorists able to cater to the group’s medical, military, technical, and religious needs; this is an expertise-intensive recruitment technique (Windisch, Logan, and Ligon 2018). The opposite, more labor-intensive recruitment technique grows ranks as much as possible regardless of skill (Windisch, Logan, and Ligon 2018). This tends to result in members who are unwilling or unable to engage in conflict- such as al-Qaeda messenger Abdallah al-Kurdi- or are profit-driven and likely to shift allegiances (Mironova 2019; Fishman 2016). In both the short and long term, a labor-intensive technique damages the organization; unqualified newcomers jeopardize current terrorists’ safety, and this dissuades prospective fighters from joining (Mironova 2019). Additionally, if a terrorist organization engages in state-building, unseasoned operatives cannot provide services such as education, infrastructure, and law enforcement crucial to gaining legitimacy and civilian trust (Van de Walle and Scott 2011; Windisch, Logan, and Ligon 2018).

Unselective recruitment leads to new members who undercut respect for the terrorist organization’s hierarchy. Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji published that survival depends on subordinates trusting their leaders’ decisions (Ryan 2013). The majority of soldiers lack an understanding of the politics behind each move, and therefore must have a deep belief in those above them (Ryan 2013). When new terrorist recruits lack respect for their superiors, they will lack respect for the lessons and knowledge which they impart as well. Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, and the Provisional Irish Army (PIRA) alike instructed their recruits in ideology and belief before equipping them with technical skills (Braddock 2020; Qassem 2005). When Rhodesia’s Liberation Movement accepted recruits trained in opposing ideologies, soldiers addressed their superiors as comrades and refused to accept military decisions (Raeburn 1978). Contrary to the Liberation Movement’s failed strategy, a cache of leaked ISIS documents reveals that their applications contain questions which gauge applicants’ obedience to authority (Omar, Engel, and Plesser 2016). Such screening yielded high levels of loyalty, few defections, and preservation of the chain of command (Omar, Engel, and Plesser 2016).

Through social media marketing, contemporary terrorist organizations are able to cast a wide net for recruitment and gain greater infamy (Ligon, Harms, and Derrick 2015). This essay has argued that the greatest mistake contemporary terrorists, particularly terrorist organizations, make is unselective recruiting after they are already well-established because it tends to accrue inexperienced operatives who jeopardize group cohesion, are ineffectual during attacks, and disregard hierarchical authority. New research and policy should focus on the techniques by which contemporary terrorist organizations filter recruits, or fail to filter recruits, so counterterrorism efforts will address specific weaknesses.

Isabella Baker is an undergraduate at American University majoring in International Relations and Russian with a focus in national security. She has experience interning and serving as a T.A. for diverse perspectives within the International Relations sphere, including the Global Language Network, United States House of Representatives, Department of Defense, Department of State, and National War College. After university, she aspires to serve American security interests in Eastern Europe as an Officer of the U.S. Foreign Service. Isabella is a native English speaker, fluent in French, and proficient in Russian and Spanish.



Abrahms, Max 2018. Rules for Rebels: The Science of Victory in Militant History. Oxford University Press. Chapter 5.

Alakoc, Burcu Pinar 2015. "Competing to Kill: Terrorist Organizations Versus Lone Wolf Terrorists." Terrorism and Political Violence.

Braddock, Kurt 2020. Weaponized Words: The Strategic Role of Persuasion in Violent Radicalization and Counter-Radicalization. Cambridge University Press. 

Fishman, Brian H. 2016. The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory. Yale University Press.      

Hunter, Samuel, Neil D. Shortland, Matthew P. Crayne, and Gina S. Ligon. 2017. “Recruitment and Selection in Violent Extremist Organizations: Exploring What   Industrial and Organizational Psychology Might Contribute.” American Psychologist 72(3): 242-254.

Ligon, Gina Scott, Mackenzie Harms, Douglas C. Derrick 2015. “Lethal Brands: How Violent Extremist Organizations Build Reputations.” Journal of Strategic Security. 1(8): 27-42.

McCormick, Gordon H. 2003. “Terrorist Decision Making.” Annual Review of Political Science 6: 473-507

Mironova, Vera 2019. From Freedom Fighters to Jihadists: Human Resources of Non-State Armed Groups. Oxford University Press. Chapter 1.

Omar, Ammar Cheikh, Richard Engel, and Ben Plesser 2016. “Leaked ISIS Personnel Files Paint Picture of Group’s Recruits.” NBC News. March 10.                         https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-uncovered/leaked-isis-personnel-files-paint-picture-group-s-recruits-n535676. Accessed 14 June 2020. 

Qassem, Naim 2005. “Organization and Public Works.” in Hizbullah: The Story from Within. Saqi Books. 

Raeburn, Michael 1978. We Are Everywhere: Narratives from Rhodesian Guerillas. Random House. Selection: “Refusal.”

Ryan, Michael W. S. 2013. Decoding Al-Qaeda's Strategy. Columbia University Press. Chapter 4.

Van de Walle, Steven and Zoe Scott 2011. “The political role of service delivery in state-building: Exploring the relevance of European history for developing countries.” Development Policy Review 29(1): 5–21.

Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2005 “Resources and the Information Problem in Rebel Recruitment." The Journal of Conflict Resolution 49(4): 598-624.

Windisch, Steven, Michael K. Logan, and Gina Scott Ligon 2018. “Headhunting Among Extremist Organizations: An Empirical Assessment of Talent Spotting.” Perspectives on Terrorism 12(2): 44-62.


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