Giovanni Giacalone 150

The process of jihadist recruitment: A structured approach and a counter-strategy

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Intelligence and Security, Middle East, Migration, Strategy & Defence, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Giovanni Giacalone*, Analyst KEDISA

The era of internet has progressively introduced a new type of extremist radicalization process known today as “online radicalization”; a phenomenon that has progressively increased since 2011, in concurrence with the so-called “Arab Springs” and the rise of ISIS, which has made a strong use of the web for both, propaganda and recruitment.

The IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police) defines “online radicalization” as:

“The process by which an individual is introduced to an ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from mainstream beliefs toward extreme views, primarily through the use of online media, including social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  A result of radical interpretations of mainstream religious or political doctrines, these extreme views tend to justify, promote, incite, or support violence to achieve any number of social, religious, or political changes”. [1]

In many cases extremist radicalization is followed by the process of recruitment, which can mean that an individual is willing to embrace weapons and depart for Syria in order to join jihadist groups but it can also embrace a second option which is the perpetration of attacks in their home-countries. As Isis often claims, a jihadist should emigrate from the land of the misbeliever and join the “Islamic State” or, as an alternative, he should wage war against the infidels in their homes.

In some cases the phenomenon of jihadist online radicalization has been erroneously interpreted as an improvised self-made process which brought single individuals to a progressive radicalization through the use of radical online material, chats and forum; a process which has consequently brought them to look for a way to volunteer for jihad.

Even though there have been cases of single individuals who managed to do most of the “job” by themselves, the so-called “lone-wolves”, it is also true that in most cases structured or semi-structured networks of radical activists have been detected; cells that can vary in dimensions and that often have access to a conspicuous amount of resources to fund their activities.

Alexei Grishin and the “Individual Approach”

Dr. Alexei Grishin, president of the Center for Religion and Society, has well explained such process, which he calls “The Individual Approach” (Индивидуальный подход), making and interesting comparison between a potential jihadist and a customer:

“We know that there are about a million cases of recruitment and each one of them is different…..The recruiter is looking for an individual approach for each victim, according to age, sex, religion and psychology of the victim”. [2]

In brief, according to Dr. Grishin between 5,000 and 10,000 people have been actively working for Isis propaganda and recruitment in Russia; between 300 and 500 only in the area of Moscow. Russia is the third language used by Isis for propaganda, straight after English and Arabic.

The process of propaganda and recruitment, which are strictly related, can take place either physically or through the use of internet and they often aim at two categories:

  • Young people with a strong need for social protest
  • Immigrants who have to deal with socio-economic distress and discrimination

Dr. Alexei Grishin also explains that the “individual approach” to jihadist recruitment and propaganda requires the involvement of three specific “professional figures” with precise tasks:

The “observator” or “aimer” (наводчик), who has the role of screening, which means detecting a potential individual who could be sensitive to extremist propaganda and his/her psychological or material “weak points”: resentment towards his/her social context, economic distress, relevant psychological problems, specific personal needs. It is not a case that Isis often promises a salary, marriage, a life-goal,  a group identity, an important role in a society ruled by “God’s law”.

The propagandist (пропагандист) who has the role of exploiting the “weak spots” of the potential target through proper indoctrination and brain-wash: a well-orchestrated manipulation and de-contextualization of Islamic doctrine and history.

The recruiter (вербовщик) who has the role of pushing the potential target from theory to practice, either by enrolling him in a jihadist fighting group within Isis in the Middle East or by pushing him to conduct terrorist attacks like the ones we have seen in mid-November 2015 in Paris.

The implementation of the “individual approach”: three cases

The individual approach has been detected in several cases of recruitment and in different parts or Europe such as Russia, Italy and the Balkans.

As Daghestani analyst Khalid Magomedov points out in his research, according to the Russian intelligence services, 99% of the dating between Isis militants and Russian girls takes place through the website, which is one of the largest Muslin dating sites in the world.

Nikah has specific options in order to build a well-detailed profile that do not only include geographical location, age, height, weight and marital status, but also if the person was born Muslim or if he/she converted and even the branch of Islam and the level of involvement inside religion (“very religious”, “not very religious” ect…). The website also has an application for smartphones. [3]

The case of Maria Pogorelova

It is obvious that websites that provide such detailed information about people make it easy for jihadists to identify potential targets to brainwash and recruit.

It eventually is the case of  18-year old Maria Pogorelova, from San Petersburg, who was recruited online for Isis in Syria by a certain Abu Bak, from Kabardino-Balkaria. Maria was detected in Istanbul on November 17th 2014 and later changed her name into “Maryam Marianova”; she currently lives in Aleppo.

An interesting fact is that Maria Pogorelova was previously a member of the San Petersburg nationalists, she had a swastika tattooed on her neck and was arrested by the police in 2013 for jumping over cars in the city center. It is clear that the recruiters were well aware of her violent political activism and her sense of social revolt that could have been an important element for the process of jihadist radicalization. [4] [5]

Was the person who recruited her aware of Maria’s precedent events? According to which method was the girl’s racist views turned into jihadist? Did Maria bump into somebody who eventually addressed her towards the Muslim online dating site?

The case of Maria Giulia Sergio

Indeed jihadist recruitment can also occur outside the “virtual world” but rather in “real life”, while still counting on a structured network of individuals, each one with a specific task.

Maria Giulia Sergio is an Italian woman who converted to Islam and later joined Isis together with her Albanian husband, Aldo Kobuzi. She came from a catholic family from the south of Italy with significant economic problems that immigrated to the north in order to find a better life.

As the website Serbianna explains, Maria Gulia married to a Moroccan citizen residing and she was attended the faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Milan. The marriage did not go well though; some have speculated that she did not find her husband religious enough, but people who were close to the couple claimed that the reason was mainly cultural. The family of her former husband did not accept her as an Italian and even though she even reached the point of wearing a niqab, it did not help, while other sources have pointed out economic issues that the couple had: the divorce was unavoidable.

Immediately after, Maria Giulia told a friend of hers that she was looking for someone strictly religious and managed to meet Aldo Kobuzi thanks to a friend. According to official sources, Aldo Kobuzi and Maria Giulia Sergio got married on September 17th and left for Syria shortly after, together with Aldo’s mother, Donika. Their trip was organized and financed thanks to the network of Genci Balla, head of the recruiting network in Albania and Bujar Hysa, a well-known extremist imam currently detained in Albania. Aldo Kobuci’s brother in law, Mariglen Dervishllari, took care of putting him in touch with his mentor, Genci Balla, as recordeded in a phone tapping: “I’m sending you my brother-in-law. I gave him your phone number”.  Maria Giulia Sergio and Aldo Kobuzi could praise important contacts inside ISIS, such as Ahmed Abu Alharith, a well-known ISIS recruiter and foreign fighters coordinator who gave them hints on how to safely reach Syria.[6]

A major role in the radicalization of Maria Giulia Sergio and in the attempt to radicalize other members of her family, was covered by Bushra Haik, a 30 year-old Canadian citizen of Syrian origins who grew up in the Italian city of Bologna. She left Italy in 2012 for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she married a religious figure. Bushra had a major role in radicalizing other targets as well, through Quran, Tafsir and Aqidah lessons that she taught through Skype. She had a large number of followers and also taught Arabic and Quran recitation, all online with the Skype account Bushra_1. She is very well-known inside the Muslim community in northern Italy and she is currently at large and wanted by Italian authorities. [7] [8]

In this case it is also obvious that Maria Giulia was an easy target for radicalization, not only due to her difficult economic conditions, but also to the rejection that she had to face during her first marriage. Her former strong Catholic background can also have covered an important role.

It would be interesting to go deeper into the analysis of Maria Giulia’s recruitment as it is very likely that Grishin’s “observators” could also be detected in the social environment that the woman spent time in.

A central role is obviously covered by Bushra Haik, but as a propagandist. Who was it that eventually pushed Maria Giulia towards Bushra Haik’s classes, which were a major instrument for jihadist indoctrination? What kind of contacts inside the Italian Muslim community did Bushra have? How did Bushra reach Saudi Arabia and through which contacts when she left Bologna for good in 2012? Did she have contacts with the Islamic University of Medina, were Mariglen Dervishllari also had studied?

The case of Dmitry Sokolov and Naida Asiyalova

On 21 October 2013, a suicide bombing took place on a bus in the city of Volgograd, in the Volgograd Oblast of Southern Russia. The attack was carried out by a 30 year-old female militant named Naida Sirazhudinovna Asiyalova, who detonated an explosive belt containing 500–600 grams of TNT inside a bus carrying approximately 50 people, killing seven civilians and injuring at least 36 others.

Naida Asiyalova was an extremely interesting figure, in fact she was not just the wife of 21 year-old Dmitry Sokolov, a Russian student native of Krasnoyarsk who had converted to Wahhabism, but she was also the one who had recruited him. The two had met at the University of Moscow and she had rapidly recruited him for the Wahhabi cause in Daghestan.  [9] [10]

Asiyalova was well-known in Daghestan where she constantly changed residence and where she met with widows and wives of terrorists. Due to her strong commitment to jihad, she had easy access to extremist milieu and to finances. She was also linked to Ruslan Kazanbiyev and Kurban Omarov, two other jihadists who were planning attacks inside the Russian Federation.

Asiyalova was not a “lone wolf” but part of a structured network that could count on observers: in fact she might have been herself both an observer and a recruiter. As Artur Ataev, senior researcher at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research. Pointed out: “The fact that a young man from the Moscow suburbs was recruited by rebels indicates the rapid expansion of the social base of terrorism”. [11]


It is clear that the main bridge between jihadist screening and enrollment is the propagandistic phase, which needs to be heavily targeted in order to break the recruitment process.

A proper counter-terror approach requires the crackdown of Wahhabi/jihadist networks but it also needs a proper de-radicalization strategy,  which means prevention. Hence it is essential to develop a series of institutional initiatives, some of which have already been implemented in Chechnya and Daghestan, in order to reach young people, who can easily become targets of Wahhabi recruiters, and explain them the correct Islamic doctrine, through the help of properly qualified religious figures who are able to convey the message in a manner that best fits the related audience. This can be done in schools, universities, in religious places and of course in internet.

Institutional initiatives are also essential in order to determine and plan the required strategies. For instance, on December 8th and 9th 2015, several de-radicalization events were carried out in the Daghestani capital, Makhachkala.

On the first day the third Congress of institutionally recognized Russian Islamic leaders took place, with the participation of more than 50 muftis and imam from various Russian regions. At the event several topics regarding the Islamic ummah, inter-religious dialogue and social issues were discussed.

The following day an “All-Russian inter religious forum” took place with the objective of finding proper strategies to contrast terrorism and Wahhabi propaganda. The forum was attended by scientists, journalists, analysts and other experts.

* Khalid Magomedov contributed to this article




[3] Magomedov Khalid, “Исламский экстремизм на службе геополитических интересов великих держав”, 2015

[4] Ibidem





[9] Sokolov was killed in a shootout with Russian security forces in November 2013 in Daghestan.