Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 03, 2020
Mind games behind terror recruitment The ability for modern-day terrorist organisations to demonstrate sustained expansion of human capital while honing their human resource management skills, is central to their ability to continue fulfilling their policy objectives. The conventional discourse around counterterrorism has long hinged on unearthing the push and pull factors of radicalisation, but little has been done to understand the psychological underpinnings of terrorist recruitment strategies. To help policymakers grasp reasons for why terrorism is attractive to an increasing number of youngsters, it is important to understand the vulnerabilities terror masters and handlers exploit to recruit potential candidates to their ranks.

The terror staircase

Before elaborating upon the specific psychological tactics used by recruiters, it is useful to understand the path of radicalisation that many potential recruits take. In this regard, the staircase model of radicalisation posited by Fathali Moghaddam, is especially useful. This model understands the terrorist act committed as the final stage of a narrowing staircase. The staircase begins with the level of perceived injustice, which is a shared sentiment amongst disenfranchised groups. Although many on this initial level feel dissatisfied, only a select few climb to the next stage wherein they look at the available options to turn their dissatisfaction into tangible actions of dissent. Following this, those advancing to the next stage seek moral justifications for their actions, which, when appropriately reaffirmed, lead to the solidifying of hate for the “out group” – i.e. the group that the terrorist organisation considers its enemy. If the individual passes through the aforementioned stages, an environment conducive for engaging in terrorism is created. Individuals at the final stage of the staircase also find ways to sidestep certain inhibitory mechanisms that may come in the way of the violence. For example, the cry of a victim invoking the person's empathy may prevent him from committing the act. In such cases, these inhibitions are sidestepped by the strong sense of “us vs them” and the moral justifications the individual got conditioned to in earlier stages of the radicalisation process. Although this model is reductive in its approach to understand the complexities of radicalisation, it is useful in setting up the context to discuss recruitment strategies and how these leverage the intrinsic human vulnerabilities of people, thereby facilitating their smooth transition from the base to the top of this “staircase”.

Recruitment tactics

An important principle underscoring the persuasiveness of terrorist recruitment is known as “foot-in-the-door-technique – a compliance tactic that aims to get a person to agree to a large request by making them agree to a relatively modest request first. In the context of terrorism, this technique is used by recruiters as they never directly ask potential candidates to join the organisation as a full-fledged fighter. Instead, the process always begins with a seemingly modest task of joining a chat room or being invited to explore content on certain propaganda websites. Once compliance for the seemingly benign request is achieved, the recruiters may gradually increase the demands from candidates by encouraging them to become “members” and gain exclusivity. This perceived sense of exclusivity associated with being a member of these groups or being the chosen one allows recruiters to create a sense of aspiration around group membership. This strategic use of exclusivity strikes at the innate vulnerability of human beings to aspire for uniqueness and frame their identity as being somewhat special. Thus, the foot-in-the-door technique used by recruiters ensures that the call for jihad and giving one's life to the cause is not presented right at the outset. Research has shown that there are certain antecedent conditions like reciprocal transactionalism and monetary incentivisation that may weaken the chances for this technique to work. Thus, it is no surprise that recruitment into terrorist organisations rarely involves money or some sort of reciprocity. Instead, it is framed as fulfilling higher order goals and compels the candidate to explore the ideological foundations of the organisation as a means to persuade them. An often-undiscussed recruitment tactic used by terrorist organisations such as ISIS in conjunction with romanticising a “holy war” is how they try to create a semblance of organisational legitimacy and relatableness. For example, ISIS’s social media posts often discuss the great life one can live in the Caliphate.” They also include pictures of ISIL fighters with Nutella jars so as to lure foreign fighters by communicating a sense of relatableness with Western mores and traditions. This counterintuitive recruitment tactic reflects how recruitment goes through phases wherein initially, a strategy to lure candidates through foot-in-the-door tactics and relatable propaganda is conducted, after which, increasingly radical demands and ideas may be put forth. The importance of ideology, as discussed earlier, was echoed by Jesse Morgan, the recruiter for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, when he elaborated on the three stages of recruitment practiced by the ISIS. The psychological principle of “foot-in-the-door” may explain the means through which candidates are reeled in; however, it is a repackaging of certain ideological beliefs that form the rationale for asking recruits to do certain questionable tasks. All three steps are based on interpretations of the Quran. Based on references to the Hadith, the first stage is known as Tawheed al-hakkimiya, which means Allah is the one true legislator. Thus, rather than merely invoking monotheism, the association between god and legislator acts as a basis to demand the destruction of democratic process, the ballot system and the Western world order at large as it contradicts the approach to lawmaking advocated by the Quran.. The other two stages are Kufr Bi Taghut and Al Wala Wal Bara. While the former refers to the belief in only one god and denouncing other forms of idol worship, the latter refers to rejecting everything and everyone against the jihadist movement. These stages as articulated by Jesse Morgan goes to show the power of creating doubts over  one’s religious identity – that many potential recruits consider sacrosanct – in eliciting compliance. By creating a robust framework that differentiates between believers and non-believers, recruiters are able to leverage the insecurity potential recruits may feel of not living up to the ideals of group affiliation (in this case, religious group). This is done by making increasingly preposterous demands from candidates who want to prove their loyalty to the group – and by extension, cling on to their identity.

Top of the staircase

Once recruited into the terror ranks and indoctrinated, terror organisations have to ensure continued compliance and increased allegiance to the cause. For this, the principles of reinforcement and punishment is key. Constant negative reinforcement through harsh criticism often depletes the person's self-worth and forges continued compliance and a sense of indebtedness towards the organisation. In the words of Zacarious Moussaui, a French citizen who pleaded guilty for killing US citizens during 9/11, “In his own eyes, he is completely belittled: he feels guilty because he is incompetent. And yet he is told over and over again that others before him have succeeded and gone on to ‘great things’... And if he carries on, it is to the bitter end. Because the only thing he can do to help the cause is to give his life to it.” As expressed by Moussaui, creating a sense of indebtedness for which giving one's life may be the only road to redemption and martyrdom – a romanticised idea in terrorist rhetoric – enables the organisation to create such ‘indebtedness’ and make the recruits do the unimaginable. In today’s day and age, terrorist recruitment is predominantly an online process. Unlike face-to-face interactions, the internet provides potential recruits with anonymity, which reduces the perceived accountability of the candidate and leads to a sense of de-personalisation. This erosion of the individual's sense of coherent identity as a result of anonymity increases the group’s salience and the probability of adherence to group norms. Anonymity may also create a sense of reduced responsibility for actions by reducing the fear of repercussions and social ostracisation. Thus, with the internet providing newer avenues for recruiters to engage with vulnerable youth, challenges on preventative measures at curbing recruitment are rapidly evolving. Nonetheless, understanding the psychological principles governing these tactics could help empathize with the plight of those indoctrinated and, in turn, find ways to communicate warning signs and provide alternative means of group affiliation that are less dangerous.
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Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer was a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. His research interests include understanding the mental health implications of political conflict the role ...

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