As someone who runs a company that makes its living building technology to study different kinds of organizations, I learned long ago the need to engage with members of the types of organizations of interest. In some cases, of necessity, these are former members. For example, a while back, we had an intern who was a former street gang member. He helpfully interpreted gang-related social media posts that otherwise would have remained a mystery to both to us and our software. For example: “They be wearin your t-shirt” in gangland unpacks to “After you get shot and killed for being so stupid, your friends and family will be wearing the RIP t-shirts that they will have had printed up for you.” “He know my bus route” similarly unpacks to “I’m really afraid that he will drive by and shoot me while I wait for my bus.” For all the talk about how machine learning can solve every problem, the reality that such comments are statistically fairly rare, and don’t always clearly (or at least quickly) correlate to violent acts. Further, this intern helpfully explained the gang mindset in ways that helped us better build what we needed to build. Even though local law enforcement is sometimes quite knowledgable about gang argot and behavior, it isn’t always the case. And when it is, it is exactly because a very conscientious cops took the time to really engage with some of the gang members.
It is no different with terrorist groups such as ISIS. In fact, if anything, it is even more true. After all, it is relatively easy to understand why kids in blighted areas of places like Detroit or Baltimore might see advantages to joining a street gang. Physical protection in astonishingly violent neighborhoods is often a key motivation. So is all the money to be made selling drugs and stolen merchandise; some of the gang members who survive long enough actually use the money to go to college. In contrast, why someone in a Western country would decide to join ISIS – and especially why women would – is far harder to initially understand. (Given that in France, women or girls have made up ~50% of all jihadist recruits to date, women joining such organizations can hardly be considered as an edge case.)
Common sense suggests that when anything happens a significant number of times, there are reasons for it. Our research partner in France, CPDSI, (Centre de Prévention contre les Dérives Sectaires liées à l’Islam) has spent years trying to understand these reasons by going one jihadist recruit at a time trying to “turn” them back towards a normal life – more than a thousand of them and counting. At the risk of oversimplification, the main thing that CPDSI found was that jihadists had incredibly skilled and well-trained recruiters who were able to very compellingly personalize recruitment pitches. In fact, these techniques are of sufficient sophistication that they are best compared to case officer (professional espionage) techniques.
Given all of this, it should be no surprise that CPDSI took the opportunity to hire a former jihadist recruiter when it presented itself. And not just any former jihadist recruiter, but Farid Benyettou, the one responsible for radicalizing the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo attack. To say that this action provoked considerable hostility in France would be a gross understatement. But this reaction largely misses the point. The real question that should be asked is whether or not the hiring of Benyettou furthers CPDSI’s mission of deradicalizing radicalized individuals, preventing ISIS and other terrorist organizations from successfully recruiting in France, and improving means of automated monitoring to identify jihadist recruiters – as well as recruits – that are about to turn dangerous. There is evidence that all three of these things are true.
Fox News recently did an interview of Benyettou on their national nightly news program “Special Report With Bret Baier” highlighting this very point. This may be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4dKC1pZv30; the video is also elsewhere on our website. Thanks to Fox News, who as always, take the longer (and often contrarian) view.
Postscript: For those of you wondering what analyzing terrorist organizations or street gangs has to do with analyzing Fortune 1000 companies, the answer is a lot more than you might think. Recruiting, and retaining high morale among their members is a necessity for organizations that operate not just outside the law but in opposition to it. For one thing, they have unique issues with turnover, as their leaders have a significant probability of ending up unexpectedly wounded, imprisoned, or just plain dead. Marketing is critically important too: ISIS in particular is all about brand; street gangs that don’t succeed in looking sufficiently scary to other street gangs aren’t likely to survive very long in a harsh competitive environment like Detroit which usually boasts upwards of 100 distinct street gangs at any point in time. Both gangs and terrorist organizations require ongoing revenue to fund their operations; they also require strategies for increasing revenue in the face of competition. There are power struggles among ambitious climbers that are no different (at least in the abstract) than what one would see in a boardroom. As in most fields of scientific endeavor, much is to be learned from observing the ends of the spectrum. And the study of criminal organizations certainly serves this purpose very nicely.