Issue Briefs

How can jihadists be recruited? Western intelligence services need new approaches

How can jihadists be recruited? Western intelligence services need new approaches

Samer Libdeh

January 17, 2017

The current wave of radicalization among large numbers of Muslim youth in Europe and in the U.S. is forcing Western intelligence services to reconsider their approach to tackling jihadism, though this would not be without controversy.

Failed recruitment

As was revealed in 2015, the UK’s domestic security service MI5 once tried to recruit Mohamed Emwazi, also known as Jihadi John, the ISIS executioner who appears in their bloodiest films before being killed by a drone strike early 2016. Emwazi rejected the approach of “Nick”, his would-be MI5 handler, and he is now well known for the terror acts he has carried out since then. What if his recruitment had been successful?

How Israel does it

An interesting comparison that comes to mind is with the Israeli intelligence services. They have a reputation for really knowing the right buttons to push on their recruitment targets within radical Palestinian groups.

By and large, Israeli intelligence officers speak a very good level of Arabic, many of them with the appropriate local Palestinian dialect. Many have lived in the occupied areas, this way becoming accustomed to the values and culture of the people there.  As a result, the relationship between an officer and his target could become warm enough to lead to recruitment and intelligence acquisition triggered by long-term acquaintance and easiness of co-operation. These Israeli intelligence officers are quite knowledgeable about their Palestinian targets. Therefore, it is no surprise that many retired Israeli intelligence officers became well-known journalists and pundits specializing in Arabic and Islamic affairs.

Sensible approach

This approach to intelligence gathering makes sense. And therefore it should be pursued. However, lacking the ability to recruit, the failure to acquire good intelligence often carries a high price. Indeed, in Afghanistan in 2010, misguided target profiling led to a number of casualties.

The Jordanian case

The infamous Khost attack on seven CIA officers in January that year was the direct result of the appointment of the Hashemite Prince Ali bin Zeid as the case officer for al-Qaida operatives. He failed to convince the Jordanian al-Qaida bomber to cooperate with Jordanian intelligence. For domestic political reasons, the Prince was drafted onto the case, but the wisdom of this is questionable: would a Hashemite prince ever have the credibility to appeal to and recruit a would-be Jordanian al-Qaida bomber?

The royal family in Jordan lacks popularity among the grassroots, let alone among those who already developed a conviction of jihadism. The truth is that the Hashemites are still perceived as a product of British colonialism among large segment of the Jordanian society.

Due to the obvious differences in socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic background, the Prince was clearly unable to establish and build a relationship of trust with the Jordanian bomber. Worse, it seems that the bomber understood the value of his would-be handler, and so he sought to embarrass him, rather than accept cooperation. At that time, the royal family was desperate for a victory against al-Qaida, and perhaps some kind of financial reward from the US.

How to move on from here

At a time when under-resourced Western intelligence agencies are fighting a wave of radicalization, there are lessons to be learned. To refer to the Jihadi John case again, it seems that while attempts to recruit him went under way Emwazi had already developed a clear new identity based on hostility to British values and society.

His recruitment may have stood better chance of success if handled by someone who belonged to the same ethnic background and socioeconomic class. Using a recruiter called “Nick” – we assume he is of British descent – would stand less chance of success, given that in Emwazi’s subconscious, should he have accepted the offer, he would have seen himself working “for” British intelligence, rather than “with” them. Through his subsequent acts, Emwazi showed that he had utterly rejected the offer. In fact his acts showed that he was bent on reinforcing his own jihadist identity.

The upshot seems to favour a different approach which is not necessarily related to discriminatory racial profiling but is instead based on a broad understanding that there are greater chances of success when exploiting and stressing ethnic and cultural similarities between the intelligence target and his would be handler.

Faced with this large new wave of radicalization, it is important for intelligence services to consider approaches that will make these identity-challenged radical groups feel as if they have a meaningful connection to the Western societies in which they live. Intelligence gathering success will depend on a thorough understanding of the target, including his ethnic and socioeconomic background, while selecting possible handlers who know, better yet share, the same background.

Samer Libdeh is a British-Jordanian policy analyst, journalist and researcher. He held senior research positions in a number of think-tanks in Washington and London. In 2006, as Fulbright scholar, he was awarded the APSA Congressional Fellowship and worked as legislative fellow for Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-NY). Furthermore, he was a communications manager at the Foreign Office in the UK. Previously for around five years, he was active in the second track peace process in the Middle East, as part of the steering committee of the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace.

He holds a postgraduate certificate in international politics and security studies from Bradford University in the UK; a diploma in policy analysis from State University of New York, plus a number of professional diplomas from the Netherlands and Spain. He also holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology from Jordan University.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.