A new study suggests family ties might play an important role in a person’s willingness to commit terrorist acts.
The report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looked at dozens of terrorists, trying to figure out what motivates terror dropouts and how others might be influenced to turn their backs on violent operations.
Michael Jacobson, who wrote the study, said one key difference in the case of British student Sajid Badat was his continued connection to his family. Badat didn’t go through with a December 2001 shoe-bombing.
British intelligence tracked him down two years later using evidence found on shoe bomber Richard Reid, who tried to bring down a plane in December 2001 and is serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison. More recently, a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner last Christmas with explosives sewn into his underwear.
Jacobson, who interviewed 10 dropouts, said that unlike Reid and Abdulmutallab, Badat returned from militant camps and eventually moved back in with his family. Badat is serving a 13-year sentence.
Families can play a positive or negative role in a terrorist’s plans. Lead Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta told his compatriots to cut family ties. However, the two Sept. 11 conspirators who dropped out were both in touch with their families, against Al-Qaida instructions.
At the same time, Al-Qaida is known to realize the power that families can exert in keeping a terrorist in the fold. It has paid extra to men with wives, given them additional time off to be with their families and encouraged them to recruit their spouses to the cause, according to the report, which cites captured Al-Qaida documents.
L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a former Al-Qaida member and key witness in the trial of four men accused in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, turned against the group in part because it rejected his request for $500 to cover his wife’s cesarean section. Seeing the slight as part of a larger pattern of stinginess, Kherchtou split from Al-Qaida when it moved from Sudan to Afghanistan.
Another would-be extremist from the United States was intercepted by his sister at a foreign airport en route to Pakistan and persuaded to go home. The intercept was orchestrated by a Texas imam who was contacted by the family and has close ties to the FBI, according to the report.
Others have been turned off by the gritty reality of the terrorist life versus the romantic vision that brought them into it in the first place.
Five of six Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna, N.Y., who pled guilty to supporting terrorism in 2003 dropped out of their Afghan training camp in 2001 despite pressure from their recruiter; bad food was one irritant.
An unidentified British official quoted in the report said many young Britons who have traveled to Pakistan have quickly returned home due to disappointment in the experience.
This is due in part to the severe changes Al-Qaida made in its training camps because of the war in Afghanistan. Before Sept. 11, the camps had not just religious studies but also weapons and physical training.
Camps now are smaller and more ad hoc; recruits have sometimes been asked to pay for their own equipment and housing.
One effective method is puncturing the mystique of terrorist leaders, such as the 2006 dissemination of a videotape showing slain Al-Qaida leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi inept at fixing and firing a jammed machine gun.
Highlighting the hypocrisy of killing civilians and other Muslims in attacks can also be effective, Jacobson found.
The U.S. government should also publicize the fact that leaving terrorist organizations is possible, Jacobson said. The Lackawanna Five received permission from Osama bin Laden himself to leave the camps early.
But Jacobson points out that the government is often the least effective spokesman for a counter narrative to terrorists; former terrorists and extremists are in a better position.