Why Some Terrorists Make the Choice to Leave al Qaeda

Learning what drives militants away could help officials fight the terrorist group, a new paper says.

This undated image taken from video obtained by CNN shows members of al Qaeda's elite fighting group 'Force 055' training with machine guns in Afghanistan.

Members of al Qaeda's elite fighting group 'Force 055' training with machine guns in Afghanistan.

By + More

When it comes to exploring why people join the ranks of the al Qaeda terrorist network, scholars and intelligence officials have offered a host of possible motivators, ranging from the disenfranchisement of a particular tribe or sect to more general humiliation, marginalization, and alienation from society.

But what prompts a terrorist to quit an organization like al Qaeda?

For L'Houssaine Khertchou, it was $500. The Moroccan, who joined al Qaeda in 1991 and later trained to become Osama bin Laden's personal pilot, eventually turned in his al Qaeda membership card when a bin Laden aide refused to cover the cost of his wife's cesarean section. After another financial dispute, Khertchou had had enough. "If I had a gun, I would have shot [bin Laden] at that time," he later testified.

Learning the answers to why some terrorists abandon their brethren, says one terrorism expert, is critical to understanding the "radicalization cycle."

The failure of the terrorist group to provide for its members, for instance, or a failure to meet the expectations of recruits might be key to splintering cells from the inside. "It appears that terrorist cell members who maintain contact with friends and family outside the organization are more likely to withdraw," terrorism expert Michael Jacobson writes in an upcoming paper published in the journal of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Perhaps in part in recognition of this, [9/11 hijacker Mohamed] Atta had forbidden the 18 other hijackers in the United States from contacting their families to say goodbye."

Terrorists' frequent lack of respect for their commanders also poses intriguing opportunities for counterterrorism officials.

Noman Benotman, who ran a Libyan terrorist group attempting to overthrow Muammar Qadhafi, broke with bin Laden in 2000 over the direction of the global jihadist movement. In fact, Benotman claims to have urged bin Laden to abandon international terrorism altogether.

It is unclear how many members of al Qaeda (or other terrorist groups) have quit, but the answer could help in the fight against terrorism.

Jacobson, a senior fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence who was one of the investigators for the 9/11 Commission, says that exploring the motivation for terrorists leaving groups like al Qaeda is just as critical as understanding why they join in the first place. "Until all aspects of the radicalization cycle are better understood, including those who have left the terrorists' fold, it will be difficult to develop an effective strategy to defeat the al Qaeda movement and its ideology," he says.