Ex al-Qaeda member sheds light on group’s tactics
London - According to a former high-ranking member of al-Qaeda, the reason the Islamic State (ISIS) has been successful in its recruitment efforts has been its ability to capitalise on deep-rooted feelings of guilt, courtesy of its own Islamic upbringing.
Aimen Dean, a founding member of al-Qaeda, who after feeling disillusioned with the terror group became an informant for British intelligence, says ISIS has used the concept of redemption as a major recruitment tool. “In Islam there are three pillars of worship, which is love for the lord, fear of his punishment and hope for his reward. And this is the balance that Islam encourages,” Dean said. “The problem with many societies, like Saudi Arabia, for example, where I grew up and later in life in mosques I’ve visited in Europe, the focus was more on the fear aspect rather than love or hope.”
According to the former jihadist, with the majority of imams preaching fear, and with an entire generation of people feeling guilty, groups such as ISIS are able to take advantage of a desire for redemption. “[ISIS] told this generation that the shortest path to martyrdom is jihad, therefore you want forgiveness, jihad; you want redemption, jihad; you want a clean slate, jihad. You are forgiven before the first drop of your blood reaches the ground,” Dean said.
As a young Bahraini living in Saudi Arabia, Dean was inspired by the stories of jihad and joined the mujahideen movement in Bosnia in the 1990s and then subsequently found himself in Afghanistan swearing allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But after the 1998 al-Qaeda suicide bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people, Dean suffered a crisis of faith that led to him rejecting jihadism. Recruited by Qatari intelligence, Dean worked for British intelligence for eight years, before having his cover blown in 2006 in a book that revealed a number of CIA sources, forcing him to take on the assumed name he is currently known by out of fear of reprisals. The information he provided helped foil a number of attacks and led to the arrest of numerous al-Qaeda operatives.
Dean believes that besides the desire for redemption, another factor luring recruits to ISIS is its political narrative of a war against Islam, and not just from the West, but also from the Shia community, liberals and what they have labelled as the apostate regimes.
“With this persecution complex, he or she starts to ascend spiritually above everyone else and in the process develop a superiority complex, believing they are the elite of the Ummah, [community] so they start to see non-Muslims and other fellow Muslims, even relatives as sub-human, which unleashes the psychopath within, like we saw in Saudi Arabia recently with the man who killed his father because he worked in a government job.”
A reason that ISIS appeals to more people than al-Qaeda ever did is the lifestyle it offers, Dean said. “Where al-Qaeda offered danger and a life on the run from one safe house to the next, [ISIS] offered a society where even women can participate, where new recruits can establish roots, by having a family, a home and being recognised as an authority, respect and empowerment, which was lacking in their lives.”
Dean also attributed ISIS’s successful recruitment to the rise in sectarianism in the region, a by-product of the 2003 Iraq invasion and occupation. According to the former al-Qaeda member, an example of this can be seen in the drop in Saudi ISIS recruits after Riyadh launched its campaign against the Shia Houthis in Yemen.
“In the past the average number of Saudis travelling to join [ISIS] was between 80 and 90 per month, but after the Saudis started their campaign in Yemen and stood up against the alleged Iranian expansion in the region, the average number of Saudi recruits dropped to 20 per month, an almost 400 per cent drop. You see that sectarianism plays a far more important role,” he added.
As for the failure of moderate Islamic scholars to highlight ISIS activities as non-Islamic or counter to Sharia law, he said: “What we have are old scholars trying to address the issue through old-fashioned means, many of them feel that the Friday sermons suffice, either they don’t engage on social media, or if they do, you will see an hour-long video on YouTube of meaningless drivel that does not resonate with the average person. For example Taher al Qaderi in Pakistan wrote a long dissertation on how suicide bombings are forbidden in Islam.
“But it was 600 pages, which was enough to put an Islamic scholar to sleep despite the merits of his thoughts.”