A Fresh Look at Terrorism’s Roots

January 18, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared on Asia Times Online on January 18, 2008.

Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty‐​First Century by Marc Sageman. University of Pennsylvania Press (December 2007) . ISBN-10: 0812240650. Price US$24.95, 176 pages.

When considering solutions to really important problems it is useful to step back and ask what if everything we know is wrong.

The question, of course, is not asked nearly enough. Questions that are complex and difficult often require solutions that are equally difficult and complex. Sometimes they require us to shake off our preconceived blinders and think in entirely new ways.

Take, for example, the issue of terrorism. To look at a document like the White House’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism is to read statements like this:

The terrorism we confront today springs from: Political alienation; grievances that can be blamed on others; subcultures of conspiracy and misinformation; and an ideology that justifies murder.

But what if that is wrong? What if all the platitudes and cliches about why people turn to terror, such as George W Bush administration claims that global Islamic terrorists hate democracy and freedom, are based on myths and sound bites, signifying nothing? What if most of the terror experts are guilty of the same sin that the intelligence agencies were accused of in regard to the reason the US invaded Iraq, ie, cherry picking the evidence?

If that is the problem then the answer is this book.

Marc Sageman is a University of Pennsylvania professor of psychiatry and ethnopolitical conflict, and a former Foreign Service Officer who worked closely with Islamic fundamentalists during the Afghan‐​Soviet war in the 1980s and gained an intimate understanding of their networks. His 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks gave the first social explanation of the global wave of activity.

Now, in his new book, Leaderless Jihad, we have a book that chooses to boldly go where few books on terrorism have gone before; namely to use scientific method to study terrorism.

In so doing he chooses not to focus on individuals and their backgrounds, or “root” (micro and macro approaches respectively) causes, to explain how the Muslims who carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks and those like them are radicalized to become terrorists. Sageman takes the common sense view that you can’t defeat an enemy until you know them and understand what drives them. Instead, by using ordinary social science methods he studies how people in groups influence each other to become terrorists.

By building his own evidence‐​based, independently checked database of over 500 terrorists he has been able to see what various members of al‐​Qaeda had in common. He finds that are “part of a violent Islamist born‐​again social movement”.

And this social movement, similar to the Russian anarchists of the late 19th century, is actually motivated by idealism. Sageman’s data show that they are generally idealistic young people seeking glory fighting for justice and fairness.

This runs counter to the Bush administration counter‐​terrorist strategy, which is framed in terms of promoting democracy and freedom; a concept that that is readily grasped by the American domestic audience.

But these are not terms with which Middle Eastern Muslims identify. To them democracy means leaders who win elections with almost 100% of the vote. And if a Salafi Islamist party does win an election, as was the case with the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria in 1992 or Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2006, the election results are canceled or the world shuns the victor.

Thus, those who eventually become terrorists see Western‐​style democracy as a harmful “domination of man over man”, undermining their theocratic utopia (Salaf). In their view that was the only time world history that a fair and just community existed. The Salafis, like other religious fundamentalists, see the Muslim decline over the past centuries as evidence that they have strayed from the righteous path.

Among Sageman’s most useful points is his description of al‐​Qaeda both as a social movement and an ideology. The most important thing the United States can do, in countering global Islamic terrorism, is to avoid the mistakes of the early Cold War era when policymakers assumed that communism was one global monolithic movement. It wasn’t and neither is al‐​Qaeda. Even before September 11 it had evolved beyond the group that had first formed in the aftermath of fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and it has evolved several times since, and will continue to do so. Increasingly, to paraphrase, the old cliche about politics, all terrorism is local.

Sageman also does an excellent job of debunking the conventional wisdom as to how people become terrorists, ie, that they are brainwashed when they are immature children or teenagers, that they lack family obligations, act out of sexual frustration, that there is something intrinsically wrong with them (the “bad seed” school of thought).

Sageman finds that one of the greatest motivators for joining an Islamic terrorist social movement is the one that is most easily understood; relationships with friends and kin. In other words, there is no to‐​down recruitment into al‐​Qaeda. Rather, the movement forms through the spontaneous self‐​organization of informal, trusted friends.

On a positive note, despite much right‐​wing fear‐​mongering, Sageman finds that there are far fewer homegrown Islamic terrorists in the United States than in other regions, like Europe. He attributes this to the fact that the Muslim community in the United States is far less radicalized, due to America’s greater acceptance of immigrants, as a part of its integrationist, religiously tolerant, “American Dream”, “melting pot” mythology. In short, inclusion, as opposed to exclusion, pays dividends.

In conclusion, Sageman finds that as Islamic terrorism has evolved it has increasingly degraded, out of necessity due to its own lack of appeal, into a “leaderless jihad”. To the extent it still has an agenda, it is set by general guidelines found on the Internet, which allows it to maintain a facade of unity. Without the Internet it would dissipate into a political vacuum.

In truth, Islamic terrorism is not an existential threat to the existence of the United States. No amount of ominous predictions of al‐​Qaeda acquiring chemical, biological or nuclear weapons will change that.

According to Sageman, the only thing that can keep al‐​Qaeda from fading into the dust heap of history is if the United States “transforms its fight against global Islamic terrorism into a war against Islam, which would mobilize all Muslims against the United States”.

Thus, the answer to the Islamic threat is the same one proffered by George Kennan with respect to the Soviet Union; containment. The goal is to accelerate the process of internal decay already taking place within al‐​Qaeda and its copycat cells.

About the Author