Al-Qaida’s Red Tape

Do you have to fill out a form to be a terrorist?

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Jose Padilla pleaded not guilty to conspiracy charges in a Miami federal court on Thursday, where prosecutors revealed a document said to be his application for entry into the al-Qaida terrorist network. The government retrieved the paper from a cache of almost 100 so-called Mujahadeen Data Forms discovered in Afghanistan. Do you really need to fill out paperwork to join al-Qaida?

Not anymore. Would-be jihadists only filled out the data forms when al-Qaida was firmly entrenched in Afghanistan and coordinating its activities with those of the Taliban. (These days the term “al-Qaida” refers to a loosely knit global network, rather than a centralized organization.) Before the U.S. invasion in 2001, some recruits were asked to fill out personal data forms before enrolling in Afghan training camps. The data form ascribed to Padilla, for example, includes sections for language skills, religious training, and professional or military experience. It also asks for a reference—”state the party that recommended you”—and the address of an emergency contact (“optional”). Another section of the form presents a series of check boxes after the question “What are your plans after training?” The options include: “Train and return”; “Jihad”; “Work within a group.”

Camp instructors kept an eye out for the best trainees and passed along their names to terrorist leaders. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of the people who attended the camps were selected to join al-Qaida. Bin Laden and his deputies may have used the data forms when they needed recruits for specific missions. The Sept. 11 hijackers, for example, were among the few recruits with the skills necessary to operate in the United States.

Once you were selected, you’d have to swear an oath of loyalty (called bayaat) to the organization. In 2002, authorities found a document at an Islamic charity in Bosnia that gave an exact wording for this oath. The document also laid out several “requirements to enter al-Qaida”: New inductees had to provide a trusted reference and pledge an open-ended commitment, and they had to be obedient and well-mannered people.

Experts say al-Qaida didn’t have much of a bureaucracy even before the invasion of Afghanistan. Some trainees filled out the data forms but others didn’t, and the early stages of recruitment relied on personal relationships. As far as we can tell, that’s still how it works today: Aspiring terrorists seek out and make contact with the global movement through religious study groups or like-minded family and friends.

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Explainer thanks Yovanni Lopez of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, Walt Purdy of the Terrorism Research Center, William Rosenau of the RAND Corporation, and Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania.