For months now, counterterrorism officials have seen signs that al-Qaida has been looking for new and innovative ways to recruit terrorists, including a new manual that has surfaced on the Internet.
Researchers at West Point recently stumbled on the 51-page manual while they were visiting a jihadi chat room, called Ekhlass. It's a Web site that allows members to have interactive discussions, post videos and download manuals. Ekhlass is the second most popular jihadi chat room on the Web, and al-Qaida often posts things there. Because of that, it is a place counterterrorism analysts track regularly.
So when the West Point analysts discovered a step-by-step primer called "The Art of Recruiting Mujahedeen," it got their attention. On one level, the manual might be an early indication that al-Qaida is trying to identify new sleeper terrorists. On the other hand, the book is so basic it seems to suggest al-Qaida is getting desperate for new members.
Brian Fishman, the head of research at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, says he was struck by the remedial tone of the book. At the end of a chapter, for example, there are questions to judge both the recruiter's progress and the recruit's.
"The recruiter himself doesn't have to use a lot of judgment — they are simply the intermediary for the technique that is being taught in the handbook," Fishman says.
Here's how the manual, as translated by the CIA, suggests a recruiter build a rapport with a recruit:
"This stage lasts approximately three weeks," it says. "You must do something important at this stage. You must identify his interests and relations with people and how he spends the whole 24 hours, meaning you study him secretly to be reassured about your choice."
This section touches on such things as being nice to the recruit. It suggests the recruiter pretend to be his friend, perhaps even buy him small gifts. It ends with a questionnaire to assess progress. "Is the recruit anxious to see you?" it asks. You get one point for "no" and three points for "yes." Does he accept your advice and respect your opinion? It reads a little like one of those relationship quizzes in women's magazines. "If you have received less than 10 points, you are on the wrong path, repeat the stages from the beginning. From 10 to 18, you are on your way."
The book is clearly tailored to recruiters who may not know much about the Quran. It suggests recruiters target non-Muslims or recent converts to the Muslim faith. Fishman says the simplicity may suggest that al-Qaida and its affiliated groups have had to lower their recruitment standards.
"When you think about al-Qaida's senior leadership, you have sophisticated thinkers there," he says. "People with engineering degrees and doctorates — those sorts of folks. That's not who is being targeted with this handbook. This is for a different class of terrorist, if you will."
While the manual might suggest a hint of desperation, experts say it also presents some real concerns. Georgetown University professor and counterterrorism expert Bruce Hoffman says the manual is aimed at attracting people who are less likely to arouse the suspicions of law enforcement. And it may be part of al-Qaida efforts to attract followers who can blend into different communities.
"I think it really reflects what we see in many established terrorist groups historically," he says. "This persistent quest or search for a new and broader constituency from which they can potentially draw recruits from."
One of the most worrisome aspects of the manual is that it is focused on keeping recruits right where they are — in the countries in which they already live. Hoffman says that will make them harder to find.
"In this way, they are hoping to create the ultimate fifth column, or a sleeper that really is unknown, is undetectable and is beneath the radar and in place in precisely the enemy territory where al-Qaida wishes to strike," he says.
What is impossible to gauge at this point is just how many people have downloaded "The Art of Recruiting Mujahedeen," and whether any of them have put it into practice. Which is, of course, exactly how al-Qaida wants it.