Al-Qaida's dumbed-down recruitment manual.

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March 24 2009 7:03 PM

Jihad Lite

Al-Qaida's dumbed-down recruitment manual.

Al-Qaida recruitment manual.
Al-Qaida recruitment manual

The Latin Mass is long gone, the Metropolitan Opera beams subtitles from seat backs, and Wikipedia is depopulating library stacks. Now even al-Qaida is cutting corners and dumbing down.

The evidence is A Course in the Art of Recruitment, a document that started appearing on jihadi Web sites this past summer. Its provenance is uncertain, but The Art of Recruitment is making its way through al-Qaida's distribution network, and its author's nom de guerre is Abu-Amr al-Qaidi. (Al-Qaidi means "of al-Qaida.") Writing in the CTC Sentinel, a publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Brian Fishman and Abdullah Warius describe the 51-page manual as a tool "designed to provide less-skilled jihadist recruiters operating independently of any cohesive terrorist organization the tools to effectively recruit secular and moderate Muslims into the global jihadist movement." It's Terrorism for Dummies.

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The Art of Recruitment is hardly the first al-Qaida training manual to surface, but it represents something of a breakthrough in the terror group's ability to provide simple and practical advice to its far-flung franchisees. As such, it's a useful window on the considerable (and, to some extent, reassuring) difficulties involved in persuading somebody to become a terrorist. "The book is so basic," observed NPR's Dina Temple-Raston in a March 23 report, that "it seems to suggest al-Qaida is getting desperate for new members." Less reassuringly, The Art of Recruitment provides what may prove handy tips for less-experienced terror groups to steer around these difficulties. These include:

  • Nobody Likes a Pushy Terrorist! Reaffirming a strategy long familiar to weirdo cults, Abu-Amr recommends the soft sell. "Be careful not to discuss the concerns of Muslims with the recruit at the beginning," he advises, "so you do not seem as if you are attempting to recruit him." Don't get into religious arguments with your prospect or criticize his actions. As matters progress, you can talk about mujahedeen and insurgents in a general sort of way, but avoid mentioning al-Qaida because your recruit may be "negatively affected by the calumnies of the media" toward this much-maligned organization.
  • Brush Up on Your Quran. You don't have to be a scholar, but "seek knowledge, even if it is very little," so you can be prepared when your recruit experiences religious doubt. "One suspicion only is enough to move people off the road, particularly in the beginning." Doubt is a part of life. Be ready for it!
  • Isolate, Isolate, Isolate! Although recruiters are advised to take care at first not to separate a recruit from his "family, society, and reality," eventually it becomes necessary to "create a favorable environment." This is achieved by "removing him from the bad environment in which he lives" and putting him into "a good environment designed to improve his faith." Until that happens, keep the recruit busy listening to lectures and reading religious pamphlets, especially "those that discuss Heaven and Hell, eternal paradise or eternal damnation," etc. The manual contains a long list of recommended texts ("The jihadist library is large and full of books that were written with martyrs' blood"), audiotapes, and video clips downloadable from the Web.
  • Be Nice. Your recruit will always appreciate a thoughtful gift. Take him to lunch. Take him "for a boat ride on the Nile or some other retreat." Go to prayers together; ask him to supplicate on your behalf and vice versa. "Send him a nice da'wah [i.e., proselytizing] message on his mobile phone."
  • Choose Your Moment. When you're finally ready show your recruit jihadi propaganda, choose a time when he is "tranquil and in the best religious mindset possible." Don't lay it on him when he's "upset or worried or sad." Break the ice by talking about Palestine, "an issue on which there is no disagreement." (It's assumed your recruit will not hold a membership in B'nai B'rith.) Work your way up to explaining why "democracy and parliamentary activities" are incompatible with Islam. Let him know he is "fighting the greatest power that modern history has known." Once you get going in earnest, it's OK to mention al-Qaida.

What sort of person is al-Qaida looking for?

Abu-Amr declares his "favorite group" to be the nonreligious, in part because they lack a vocabulary to answer religious arguments ("It is you who is right") and in part because they lack the sort of fanatical reputation that attracts anxious attention from the police. Religious newbies are also good because their views are unformed and their acquaintanceships probably in flux. Those long committed to religion are OK, so long as they aren't hotheads, cowards, gossips, misers ("money is the backbone of jihad"), or introverts (because—I have no idea where Abu-Amr gets this from—they're wishy-washy and uncomfortable with nonconformity). Converts from alternative forms of radicalism tend to be malcontents and therefore far more trouble than they're worth. "Youth in remote areas" are likely to be "naturally religious"—avoid them if they aren't—and "easy to shape and convince," because they're hicks. Colleges offer fabulous recruitment opportunities, but for that reason they're crawling with spies. People with "deviant ideas" (example: "human rights activists") can work out provided that they "listen to other opinions and show a readiness for dialogue and persuasion." The group Abu-Amr seems most wary of, oddly, is Sunni fundamentalists, partly because they think they know everything and partly because they might be spies. For the same reasons, Abu-Amr tends not to trust potential recruits who know the Quran by heart.

Even in its dumbed-down form, I'm pleased to report, becoming a terrorist would appear to require an extremely daunting quantity of reading. Dozens of vitally important texts are mentioned in the manual, and though The Art of Recruitment streamlines the reading list by identifying in many instances the most crucial passages, it nonetheless seems to me that you don't get to strap on an explosive device and enter paradise until you've completed the equivalent of a graduate seminar in jihadi studies. (None of the readings identified as most crucial is from the Quran.) Terrorism is not, nor ever will be, suitable work for dilettantes.

Note: I do not speak Arabic. Thanks to Brian Fishman of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center for providing an English translation.

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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