The film Recycle delves into the conscience of a jihadist - and brilliantly troubles our ideas about Islamic radicalism, writes Thomas Hegghammer. In the mid-2000s, one of the most pervasive buzzwords in counter-terrorism circles was "radicalisation", referring to the process by which more or less ordinary individuals become terrorists. Scholars and analysts around the world pored over biographies of militants, deployed statistical tools and conducted in-depth interviews, all in the hope of finding the drivers of radicalisation so that policymakers could address them. Some important discoveries were made, among them the fact that people are usually drawn socially into radical circles before they adopt a radical ideology, rather than vice versa. But no one really found a clear answer to the question: What produces terrorists?
In the past few years, the focus has shifted to deradicalisation - the idea that individual militants, if treated a certain way, can abandon violence and revert to a normal life. The deradicalisation idea has proved immensely popular with policymakers, who have seen prisons fill during the war on terror but realise detainees cannot be held indefinitely. Many countries have launched deradicalisation programmes for detained jihadists. One of the most famous of these was developed in Saudi Arabia, where foreign observers have been flocking to study "soft" Saudi counterterrorism. Described as "Betty Ford clinics for jihad", the Saudi rehabilitation centres apply a combination of therapy, instruction, family pressure and financial incentives with seemingly encouraging results. More recently, however, the return of several Saudi former Guantanamo detainees to al Qa'eda's ranks has raised fears of recidivism.
Scholars are only beginning to understand the complex dynamics of radicalisation and deradicalisation. They disagree widely, especially over the relative importance of religious ideology versus material grievances. But one thing seems clear: joining and leaving militancy is not a "switch on, switch off" process. Rather, an individual's progress into and out of jihadism consists of numerous small steps along several possible paths, always intimately tied to social context.
The complexities of radicalisation and deradicalisation are magnificently captured in Recycle, a prize-winning documentary by the young Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al Massad. Recycle follows Abu Ammar, a Jordanian veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, in his daily struggle to make ends meet in the city of Zarqa near Amman. Filmed over a period of several months in 2005, this fly-on-the-wall documentary draws an intimate and touching portrait of a man struggling to reconcile his own conflicting ideals and aspirations in a harsh existence defined by poverty, authoritarianism and regional conflict. The film offers a unique and intellectually stimulating look into the grey area of semi-radicalism in which many young men across the Muslim world find themselves today.
Abu Ammar is a plump, bearded man in his forties who makes a living collecting and selling used cardboard. Seven days a week he drives around the streets of Zarqa in a small pickup truck, ordering his sons out to look for cardboard in any shape or form. Abu Ammar has two non-working wives and eight children to feed, and employment opportunities are scarce for unskilled and unconnected labourers like himself. He used to run a small shop together with his father, but the store had to close after the two had a falling out and stopped speaking to each other.
His existence is a humble one now, but Abu Ammar was once a jihadist who moved among legendary figures in the Arab Afghan community. In the late 1980s Abu Ammar travelled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation along with several thousand other Arab volunteers. Like many, he believed he had an inescapable religious duty to help fellow Muslims under attack by non-Muslims. He soon became a kind of jihadi secret service agent, working as a bodyguard for senior Arab and Afghan mujahidin leaders in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, the headquarters of the resistance effort. Abu Ammar notably guarded Abdallah Azzam, the Palestinian-Jordanian preacher who is widely seen as the spiritual father of the Arab Afghans. By around 1990, however, the jihad was over. The Russians had withdrawn, Abdallah Azzam had been assassinated and the jihadi community in Peshawar was plagued by infighting. Abu Ammar returned to Jordan.
Although he never returned to the battlefront, Abu Ammar remained a Mujahid, or holy warrior, at heart. In the film, we see him constantly discussing religion and politics with his friends, debating the rulings and dilemmas of jihad in the current political context. Since it is 2005, the main issue is of course the jihad in neighbouring Iraq, although Abu Ammar sees the Muslim nation as challenged on many other fronts as well. Abu Ammar is struggling to make up his mind over how he and other Muslims should respond to these challenges. He sees resistance to US occupation of Iraq as a legitimate jihad, but he has reservations about the indiscriminate tactics used by the foreign fighters. On one point he is certain, though: in these tense times it is not permitted for Muslims to reside in non-Muslim lands.
Abu Ammar is also a deeply religious man. Studies show most jihadists are driven by some combination of three factors - religion, politics and adventurism. However, each of these motivations may be "weighted" differently from one person to the next. Some are in it mainly for the adventure, others are politicos in religious garb. For Abu Ammar, piety is paramount. He cares deeply and sincerely about the theology of jihad and will not bend rules for political or military expediency. He has read extensively on jihad - not the contemporary propaganda circulating on the internet, but rather the classical Islamic literature.
Abu Ammar is in fact planning to write a book on jihad himself. For this purpose he has collected thousands of slips of paper, which he keeps in big rubbish bags in his store. The slips contain quotes from the theological literature as well as ideas and sayings of people he has encountered over the years. In the evenings he goes to his "office", pulls out the rubbish bags and types away at an old computer. He seems to have been doing this for years; he does not know when the book will be finished nor how it will be published. The writing in itself seems enough. This is jihad bi'l-qalam - jihad by the pen. There is something eerily strange - perhaps geeky - about Abu Ammar's meticulous collection of the paper slips. In a recent study examining the prevalence of engineers in radical Islamist groups, the social scientists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog contend that there is a certain engineering mindset, characterised by an aversion to ambiguity and a penchant for social conservatism, that is attracted to religious radicalism. Although he is uneducated, Abu Ammar seems to embody some of these traits.
Abu Ammar's faith and past experience in jihad are clearly a source of dignity in an otherwise gloomy existence. Even on camera, he exudes a certain inner calm and stoicism that you would not expect to find in a destitute fundamentalist. In the few months that we follow him, he faces a series of tribulations that would send most other men into depression. At one point he loses nearly all his savings when he buys several cars to sell in Iraq, only to be robbed at gunpoint by Shiite militias upon arrival in Baghdad. When suicide car bombs go off at three hotels in Amman in November 2005, he is caught in the dragnet and detained for several months, although he has nothing at all to do with the operations. Then there are more mundane frustrations, like being stood up by camel milk vendors at 6am in a remote location. But Abu Ammar keeps his calm. He even makes the occasional understated joke.
Abu Ammar lives in Zarqa, an industrial city immediately to the north-east of Amman infamous for its high unemployment levels, poverty and social ills. Alcoholism, glue-sniffing and idleness are widespread in a youth population with few prospects for social mobility. Zarqa is a well-known hotbed of Islamist - and, formerly, leftist - radicalism. This does not mean everyone in Zarqa is a radical - in fact, the director of Recycle, Mahmoud al Massad, is also from there. But the city is nevertheless the capital of Jordanian Islamism. When the preacher Abdallah Azzam fled his native Palestine in 1967 he settled in Zarqa, and many of his relatives who fought with him in Afghanistan still live there. The family of the jihadist ideologue Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi is also from Zarqa. Since 2003, Zarqa, along with the city of Salt, has produced the bulk of Jordanian jihadists in Iraq.
But most famous of all is Ahmad al Khalayla, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Mus'ab al Zarqawi, which literally means "Abu Mus'ab from Zarqa". As the leader of al Qa'eda in Iraq, al Khalayla introduced spectacularly brutal tactics which earned him the nickname "the slaughtering sheikh" before he was killed by a US missile in June 2006. The Amman hotel bombings were also of his making. In Recycle, Abu Ammar and his chain-smoking friends discuss al Khalayla's story at length. As a young man, the "slaughtering sheikh" was entirely unremarkable, so much so that the interviewees cannot remember whether he was a "clerk in the town hall" or "worked on a bus". Al Khalayla was also entirely undevout before heading to Afghanistan in 1989 - by all accounts he was a jihadist driven more by adventurism than religion. Fifteen years later he was the second most wanted person on the planet. In a morbid sense, there is social mobility in jihad.
Recycle challenges a number of common misperceptions of radicalisation. One is that radicalism has nothing to do with poverty. It clearly does, though the relation is neither direct nor uniform for all types of militancy. Another misperception is that jihadism is a monolithic ideological phenomenon. In fact, there are important disagreements between jihadists over where, how and against whom to fight. Abu Ammar represents what one might call "classical jihadism", which advocates private involvement in other Muslims' struggles for national liberation, using conventional means. Thus Abu Ammar was happy to wage guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan, but he condemns Osama bin Laden's international terrorism. Bin Laden represents the "global jihadist" current, which uses all means in all places in its fight against the West. Meanwhile, the jihad in Iraq has presented a dilemma for classical jihadists such as Abu Ammar; although the country is clearly occupied by non-Muslims, most of the fighting has been between Shiites and Sunnis, and the tactics have been extremely brutal.
The film also prompts a few sobering insights into the challenges and limits of deradicalisation. For one thing, in communities like Zarqa, occasional involvement in classical jihadism is viewed as entirely legitimate, if not commendable. No amount of therapy can change the values of a community. Another point is that rehabilitation programmes are extremely resource-intensive; you need a very high "GDP per jihadi capita" to carry them out properly. Saudi Arabia can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on each detainee; countries like Jordan or Egypt cannot. Finally, deradicalisation is probably easier to achieve under certain social conditions. In Saudi Arabia, the authority commanded by religious clerics is higher, and family structures are generally stronger, than in many other Muslim countries, Jordan included. Most "reformed" Saudi jihadists are reined in by their families and the threat of social exclusion. Abu Ammar, in contrast, is not particularly bothered by the break with his father, and at no point in the film does he engage with the views of Jordanian clerics.
In other words, what makes Abu Ammar a compelling character on screen is also what makes him - and so many militants - a vexing phenomenon for those seeking to unlock the dynamics of radicalisation: he is a man with a mind of his own. He is an idiosyncratic figure who does not fit into any of the popular stereotypes or academic models of the radical Islamist. This distinguishes Recycle from the reconstructed or fictional accounts of radicalisation found in films such as Paradise Now or The War Within, and it adds a caveat to the hard-charging academic discourse on the roots of militancy. Recycle shows us radicalism in all its frustrating ambiguity.
Thomas Hegghammer is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.