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Constructing Expertise: Terrorist Recruitment and “Talent Spotting” in the PIRA, Al Qaeda, and ISIS


Studies in Conflict and TerrorismJournal abstract

The academic literature is divided with regard to whether terrorist recruits are dangerous masterminds, “malevolently creative,” and capable of perpetrating well-planned mass casualty attacks in the heart of European capitals. Or whether they are imbeciles, incapable of carrying out the most basic tasks, who mostly end up blowing themselves up by accident. This duality about the capabilities of terrorists is reflected in analyses of terrorist incidents. In fact, both depictions of terrorist recruits are accurate. Acuity and professionalism are not movement dependent (the same group may attract a variety of recruits) and might, instead, reflect a recruitment cycle that terrorist groups experience—one that alternates between labor-intensive and expertise-intensive periods of recruitment. The phases may shift because of external pressures (periods of territorial expansion/contraction) and opportunities (need for better quality recruits) with associated shifts in how groups use propaganda to attract a different quality of recruit during different periods of time. A possible first step toward hindering terrorist recruitment is to better understand the ways in which terrorist organizations work—where and when they recruit, whom they target, and the different propaganda messages used for selective/targeted recruitment. A clearer picture of the process could provide opportunities to counter a group's appeal, replenish their ranks, and inoculate vulnerable populations against recruitment. Case studies of three different terrorist organizations (Al Qaeda, the Islami State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS], and the Provisional Irish Republican Army [PIRA]) presented here posit that there exists a terrorism “recruitment cycle” that alternates between labor and expertise focus, uses different recruitment strategies and different propaganda messaging depending on this cycle.

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