How jihad went freelance
Jan 31st 2008: From The Economist print edition
Al-Qaeda has evolved from a single group to an amorphous movement. Does that make it less dangerous or more so?
TERRORISTS are a bit like you and me, or so Marc Sageman suggests. It might be comforting to think that angry young Islamists are crazed psychopaths or sex-starved adolescents who have been brainwashed in malign madrassas. But Mr Sageman, a senior fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, explodes each of these myths, and others besides, in an unsettling account of how al-Qaeda has evolved from the organisation headed by Osama bin Laden into an amorphous movement—a “leaderless jihad”.
Mr Sageman is a leading advocate of what is called the “buddy” theory of terrorism. He has spent much time asking why well-educated young men, from middle-class backgrounds, often with a secular education and wives and children, become suicide bombers. He suggests that radicalisation is a collective rather than an individual process in which friendship and kinship are key components.
The process has four stages. The initial trigger is a sense of moral outrage, usually over some incident of Muslim suffering in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya or elsewhere. This acquires a broader context, becoming part of what Mr Sageman calls a “morality play” in which Islam and the West are seen to be at war. In stage three, the global and the local are fused, as geopolitical grievance resonates with personal experience of discrimination or joblessness. And finally the individual joins a terrorist cell, which becomes a surrogate family, nurturing the jihadist world-view and preparing the initiate for martyrdom. Many Muslims pass through the first three phases; only a few take the final step.
Mr Sageman has unusual credentials: a former CIA officer, he is also a forensic psychiatrist and a counter-terrorism consultant. He published the first version of his theory three years ago in an influential book, “Understanding Terror Networks”. His aim, to put the study of this new kind of terrorism on to a scientific footing, has not changed. But al-Qaeda has, and the task of analysing it has become more complex.
In his new book Mr Sageman's sample of militants has grown from 172 to 500. He gives more prominence to Europe, where, after the London and Madrid bombings and other thwarted attempts, a new front-line has opened up. He devotes a chapter to the internet. Crucially, he argues that most of today's suicide bombers have little or no link with the original al-Qaeda (dubbed “al-Qaeda central”) but are part of a broader, more amorphous phenomenon which he calls the “al-Qaeda social movement”. Mr Sageman is sceptical of the view, which gathered weight last year, that “al-Qaeda central” is resurgent. Rather, it is the mutual attraction of freelance jihadists, outraged by the Iraq war and increasingly mobilised online, which should worry us most.
Like others, Mr Sageman believes the Iraq war, which appeared to legitimise the idea of a rapacious West in conflict with Islam, was a spectacular own-goal for America. Unless that idea can be successfully countered, he says, America may find itself confronting not just a terrorist fringe but a substantial segment of the Muslim world, which would intensify and prolong the conflict to disastrous effect. A successful hearts-and-minds campaign, on the other hand, would stiffen moderate spines and help take the glory out of jihadism; eventually, “the leaderless jihad [would] expire, poisoned by its own toxic message.” It is an optimistic conclusion, given all that has gone before.
There is much common ground between Mr Sageman and Daniel Byman, a counter-terrorism expert at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution who was at one time on the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission). He too laments the Bush administration's lack of a coherent strategy, the needless alienation of allies, the failure to win Muslim hearts and minds, and the deadly fall-out from Iraq. Both authors believe that in the war of ideas Americans should focus on jihadist brutality rather than trying to burnish their own image. Both regard Europe as the main battleground, and they also question just how useful democratisation can be as a tool of counter-terrorism; indeed Mr Sageman believes it is entirely irrelevant.
Mr Byman argues that America must do better on five fronts: the military, the war of ideas, intelligence, homeland defence and, in a nuanced way, democratic reform. Many of his policy proposals are eminently sensible, though some people will decry his advocacy of Israeli-style targeted killings. But where Mr Sageman is plain spoken, Mr Byman is often hesitant and diffuse. He has a disconcerting knack of undercutting his own arguments. Moreover, his remorseless concentration on prescription, with a minimum of explanatory background, will put off all but the most dedicated experts.
Counter-terror specialists are seldom knowledgeable about the intricacies of modern Islam, and vice versa. Those looking for a reliable guide to the currents of political Islam, of which al-Qaeda-style jihadism is but one, could do worse than turn to a young American scholar, Peter Mandaville, an associate professor at George Mason University, near Washington, DC. Mr Mandaville's primer, “Global Political Islam”, is a well-informed account of the origins of mainstream Islamism, the strategies of Islamisation, the emergence of the radical fringe, the competition for authority among Muslim elites and the impact of globalisation on Muslim politics. This is a study which sets out to transcend the “narrow moment” of al-Qaeda. Given our current obsession with global jihad, this book is a welcome companion to Mr Sageman's work.
Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century.
By Marc Sageman.
University of Pennsylvania Press; 208 pages; $24.95 and £16.50
The Five Front War: The Better Way to Fight Global Jihad.
By Daniel Byman.
Wiley; 320 pages; $25.95 and £13.99
Global Political Islam.
By Peter Mandaville.
Routledge; 408 pages; $43.95 and £21.99