A fresh look at terrorism's roots
By David Isenberg
THE LINKS: According to Prof Sageman, members of Al-Qaeda are 'part of a violent Islamist born-again social movement' which is formed through the spontaneous self-organisation of informal, trusted friends. -- PHOTO: AFP
Title: Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks In The Twenty-First Century
Author: Marc Sageman
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press (December 2007); 176 pages; US$24.95
AVOID MISTAKES OF COLD WAR
The most important thing the US can do in countering global Islamic terrorism is to avoid the mistakes of the early Cold War era when policymakers assumed communism was one global monolithic movement. It wasn't. Nor is Al-Qaeda.
WHEN considering solutions to really important problems, it is useful to step back and ask whether 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 complex and difficult. 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 such as 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 claims by US President George W. Bush's administration that 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 United States invaded Iraq, that is, 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 ethno-political conflict and a former foreign service officer. He 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 terrorist activity. In Leaderless Jihad, he gives us a book that chooses to boldly go where few books on terrorism have gone before; namely, to use scientific methods 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 extremists who carried out the Sept 11, 2001 attacks and those like them are radicalised to become terrorists.
Professor Sageman takes the common-sense view that you cannot defeat an enemy until you know him and understand what drives him. 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 more than 500 terrorists, he has been able to see what various members of Al-Qaeda had in common. He finds them to be '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. Prof Sageman's data show them to be generally idealistic young people seeking glory by fighting for what they perceive as justice and fairness.
This runs against the Bush administration's counter-terrorist strategy, which is framed in terms of promoting democracy and freedom - a concept 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 per cent 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 cancelled 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 in world history that a fair and just community existed.
The Salafis, like other religious fundamentalists, see the Muslims' gradual decline over the centuries as evidence that they have strayed from the righteous path.
Among Prof Sageman's most useful points is his description of Al-Qaeda as both a social movement and an ideology. The most important thing the US can do in countering global Islamic terrorism is to avoid the mistakes of the early Cold War era when policymakers assumed communism was one global monolithic movement. It wasn't. Nor is Al-Qaeda.
Even before Sept 11, it had evolved beyond the group that formed in the aftermath of the Soviet-Afghan war, and it has evolved again several times since, and will continue to do so. Increasingly, to paraphrase the old cliche about politics, all terrorism is local.
Prof Sageman also does an excellent job of debunking the conventional wisdom as to how people become terrorists, i.e, that they are brainwashed when they are immature children or teenagers, that they lack family obligations, act out of sexual frustration or that there is something intrinsically wrong with them (the 'bad seed' school of thought).
Prof 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 top-down recruitment into Al- Qaeda. Rather, the movement forms through the spontaneous self-organisation of informal, trusted friends.
And despite much right- wing fear-mongering, Prof Sageman finds that there are far fewer home-grown Islamic terrorists in the US than in other regions like Europe. He attributes this to the fact that the Muslim community in the US is far less radicalised 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, Prof Sageman finds that as Islamic terrorism has evolved, it has also been 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, allowing 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 US. No number of ominous predictions of Al-Qaeda acquiring chemical, biological or nuclear weapons will change that.
He feels the only thing that can keep Al-Qaeda from ending up on the dust heap of history is if the US 'transforms its fight against global Islamic terrorism into a war against Islam, which would mobilise all Muslims against the US'.
Thus, the answer to the terrorist threat is the same one proffered by American historian and diplomat 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.
The writer is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the Independent Institute and a US Navy veteran.
Copyright: Asia Times Online