Why Al-Qaeda Members Defect – Analysis


By Rajeh Said

Al-Qaeda’s secretive mode of operation makes it difficult to determine the size of its membership. However, the prevailing view, acknowledged by al-Qaeda leaders, is that this membership is dwindling, especially among experienced leaders whom al-Qaeda is struggling to replace upon their elimination.

The decline in al-Qaeda’s membership can be attributed to several factors, primarily the military strikes that have targeted its leadership in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the global pursuit of its members.

In Iraq, media reports citing western officials indicated that the number of foreign recruits has dropped and that al-Qaeda is turning to local militants who are less committed to the al-Qaeda’s broader agenda. In Saudi Arabia, thousands of militants were captured and underwent the Kingdom’s Munasaha (Counselling) programme. Similarly in Algeria, officials recently announced that over 7,000 terrorists surrendered as part of the Peace and National Reconciliation Charter since 2006.

While it is known that al-Qaeda’s personnel losses are the result of the death or imprisonment of its members, what is not widely known is the extent of its losses from the defection of members who previously belonged to al-Qaeda or its affiliates. Many former members discarded their extremist ideas and renounced violence entirely as a means to achieve their goals.

Despite the lack of accurate figures on the number of defectors from al-Qaeda and its affiliates, recent studies addressed specific cases of militants who abandoned their extremist ideas and organised militant activism entirely.

Study noted importance of familial ties

A recent study conducted by Britain’s Home Office and published on the department’s website, sought to analyse the reasons why extremists leave al-Qaeda and organisations influenced by it. The study concluded that there are a variety of factors that compel an extremist to change his convictions.

The study cited familial ties between a member of an extremist organisation and his family as a primary reason for renouncing acts of violence such as suicide bombings. This was indeed the case with two members that al-Qaeda was grooming to participate in the September 11th attacks against the United States. However, the two men, Saud al-Rashid and Mushbeeb al-Hamlan, abandoned their assignments tasks after they contacted their families, despite prohibitions by the organisation against doing so, according to the study.

The study also noted that some extremists undergo a clear change in personal priorities, such as the desire to start a family or obtain work, both of which lead to some form of social stability. There are also psychological factors such as the individual’s disillusionment with the practices and ideology of the organisation, or physical reasons arising from a dispute between the individual and his leaders or comrades (discrimination or favouritism).

The study also points to experiments undertaken in various countries to persuade extremists in detention to abandon their extremist ideas, notably the Munasaha (counselling) programme used by Saudi Arabia with al-Qaeda members. This approach is jurisprudential in nature and is provided by religious scholars who use counter-arguments and evidence to prove that the killings committed by al-Qaeda, both now and in the past, have nothing to do with the real concepts of the Islamic religion.

The Munasaha approach was adopted in Saudi Arabia after repeated incidents of terrorism in Saudi Arabia starting in 1995. These attacks motivated Saudi authorities to seek solutions to prevent such acts from re-occurring and to learn from the experiences of countries that suffered from regular terrorist acts, such as Egypt and Algeria, and to address ideological deviation and terrorist operations.

Living in West helped former jihadist understand importance of freedom

In addition to the factors detailed in the study, there appear to be a variety of other circumstances that compel members to leave their organisations, voluntarily in most cases.

The Libyan Noman Benotman, the former leader of the Islamic Fighting Group, is one such case.

Benotman does not hide his “jihadist” history today, including time spent in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets and the Communists at the end of the 1980s. Benotman’s activism was not limited to Afghanistan. He also participated in his group’s efforts to topple the Libyan regime in the 1990s through violent means.

Following the events that followed al-Qaeda’s attacks against the United States on September 11th, the Libyan activist changed his convictions almost entirely. He left the Fighting Group and became a fierce opponent to all of al-Qaeda’s operations, which he deems contrary to the principles of the Islamic religion and damaging to its image and the image of Muslims.

Benotman’s long-term residence in the West appears to be a catalyst for his recognition of the fallacy of al-Qaeda’s theories and its justifications for launching attacks against Western and Islamic countries. He discussed this view in an article in The Times, on October 21st, writing, “Living in the United Kingdom has taught me a most important lesson in relation to the future of Libya: freedom is a lethal weapon against extremism.”

Freedom is certainly important, but it only becomes an effective weapon against extremism when it is included in a system of fundamental principles. These principles are the underlying principles of Western regimes such as the succession of power through free popular choice, justice, the rule of law, a separation of powers, protection of human rights, and care for the poor and the elderly.

Of course, these concepts are certainly not without flaws, and they are sometimes applied in excess or erroneously. But Benotman said that while living in the West, he learned that these principles protect him, for the most part, and also protect other Islamist activists, including fervent supporters of al-Qaeda, which says it is engaged in a war against the West and seeks the destruction of its regimes.


The Magharebia web site is sponsored by the United States Africa Command, the military command responsible for supporting and enhancing US efforts to promote stability, co-operation and prosperity in the region.

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