January 18, 2008


A fresh look at terrorism's roots: a review of Leaderless Jihad by Marc Sageman (David Isenberg, 1/19/08, Asia Times)

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.

While the comparison to Communism is apt (and Nazism ought be included), the mistake of the early Cold War was to tolerate the existence of any Communist regime when we had it in our power to nip the whole thing in the bud. It's wise to avoid that mistake this time. The Base, therefore, has no base.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 18, 2008 12:00 AM
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