Learning From Dropouts


Verified SOF
Jan 15, 2008

When I served on the staff of the 9/11 Commission, one of our primary tasks was to assemble the story of how al Qaeda's plot developed. One of the aspects of the plot on which we focused our attention was, therefore, the movements, activities, and associations of the 19 hijackers. The basic question we struggled to answer was how al Qaeda persuaded 19 young men to participate in an attack that would result in their certain death. Although al Qaeda's "success" on this front was rather startling, the organization failed to convince all of the initial would-be attackers to go through with their plot. Why not? The stories of the individuals selected for the 9/11 attacks who backed out, even in the face of pressure from the terrorist group, have received little attention in the media or among policymakers, but could teach us important lessons for thwarting future attacks.

While Mohamed Atta, the hijackers' operational leader, is now a household name, Mushabib al-Hamlan and Saud al-Rashid are far less well known. These two young Saudis were selected by al Qaeda's leadership to participate in the attacks and left the training camps in Afghanistan to return home to Saudi Arabia to obtain visas for travel to the United States. Both, however, were beset by second thoughts after arriving in Saudi Arabia. After getting his visa, Hamlan contacted his family despite clear instructions not to do so by his al Qaeda handlers. When Hamlan found out that his mother was ill, he decided not to return to Afghanistan -- even in the face of repeated follow-up pressure by al Qaeda. This included a personal visit at the Saudi college Hamlan had by then returned to from Khalid al-Zahrani, an associate from the training camps who was sent by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, to convince Hamlan to come back.

Rashid's story might illustrate even more dramatically the role that family can play in the dropout process. According to KSM, Rashid may have bailed on the plot because his family found out about his involvement in it and confiscated his passport.

In the summer of 2001, al Qaeda confronted an even larger potential challenge to the operation when Ziad Jarrah, who went on to pilot Flight 93, was deliberating about whether to withdraw from the operation, in part because of Jarrah's "troubled" relationship with Atta. In what was an "emotional conversation," according to the 9/11 Commission, Ramzi Binalshibh -- the Hamburg-based liaison between the cell and the al Qaeda leadership -- was able to persuade Jarrah to stay the course.

Given that we can't kill or capture every potential terrorist, developing a better grasp of this "dropout phenomenon" is critical for the United States and its allies' counterterrorism efforts, particularly in shaping the myriad counter-radicalization programs springing up in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

There are plenty of candidates for study. Despite al Qaeda's reputation for ferocity, secrecy, and esprit de corps, the organization has been plagued by desertions since its earliest days. More recently, key ideologues and leaders have turned against the group, challenging al Qaeda's vision for global jihad. And al Qaeda is hardly alone among the global jihadi groups in suffering from defections. Some of its affiliates have experienced important losses as well, ranging from foot soldiers to key leadership personnel.

The recent defections of prominent leaders, clerics, and ideologues from al Qaeda could have a profound long-term effect on the organization. The most prominent of these defectors is former Egyptian Islamic Jihad head Sayyid Imam al-Sharif (also known as Dr. Fadl). Al Qaeda often cited Dr. Fadl's treatises as ideological justification for its actions, but he has since firmly renounced Osama bin Laden and has written a new book rejecting al Qaeda's message and tactics.

Noman Benotman, a former leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), also publicly turned his back on jihad and played a key role in persuading other key figures in the organization to renounce al Qaeda as well. In September 2009, six leaders of the LIFG issued recantations challenging al Qaeda's global vision for jihad in a 400-plus-page book titled Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Accountability and the Judgment of the People.

Dr. Fadl, Benotman, and the other leaders who have defected all cite al Qaeda's inaccurate interpretation of Islam as a major factor in their decision to abandon the cause. In his treatise, Dr. Fadl called al Qaeda's jihadism reprehensible, arguing that it violates Islam and sharia law. In 2007, Benotman wrote a public letter to al Qaeda's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri -- after years of criticizing the group privately -- arguing that al Qaeda's tactics violate Islam's call for the protection of "man's religion, life, mind, offspring, and wealth." In this letter, Benotman called for al Qaeda to cease its military operations, sentiments repeated in the LIFG's renunciations of al Qaeda in 2009.
عزيزي الشيخ أسامة ، والسلام عليكم. إنني استعراض مسيرتي باعتباره تلميذا ملتزمة تحسين والموت للكفار. هذه الصواريخ والنار هي وسيلة مخيفة للغاية بالنسبة لصبي من شمال غرب السعودية. وهم يعملون على أحشاء بلدي أفضل من أي ملين. اذهبي بسلام والتمتع لكم حياة بائسة كربي.

عبد الجندي من مكة ، ابن عنزة.
عزيزي الشيخ أسامة ، والسلام عليكم. إنني استعراض مسيرتي باعتباره تلميذا ملتزمة تحسين والموت للكفار. هذه الصواريخ والنار هي وسيلة مخيفة للغاية بالنسبة لصبي من شمال غرب السعودية. وهم يعملون على أحشاء بلدي أفضل من أي ملين. اذهبي بسلام والتمتع لكم حياة بائسة كربي.

عبد الجندي من مكة ، ابن عنزة.