May 15, 2008

Leaderless Jihad

I didn't know this, but Marc Sageman apparently has a new book on Al-Qaeda out, called Leaderless Jihad.

For those of you who don't know who Sageman is, shame on you. He's a former CIA Case Officer and psychiatrist with experience in Pakistan and Afghanistan who has undertaken some very interesting studies on Al-Qaeda.

His previous book, Understanding Terror Networks, is a classic of terrorism literature and has been highly recommended by pretty much every terrorism lecturer and researcher up at the St Andrews. Its a wide-reaching investigation into the background, motivating beliefs and (most importantly) social networks that comprise the nebulous organization called Al-Qaeda. Notes based on this research of 400 Al-Qaeda members can be found here.

These social bonds are the most important factor in recruiting and getting someone into terrorism, which is why I think Sageman's book is so important. If we rely on arguments from religion, personal psychopathy, brainwashing or hatred of 'Western' values, many of which are unproven caricatures as Sageman shows, then we wont be able to carry out the necessary counterterrorism policies - which should be aimed at severing the existing terrorists from a pool of possible recruits, while taking in their current members and working towards a political solution of the underlying factors that led to the emergence of terrorists in the first place.

His new book seemed more focused on what is called the New Wave of Al-Qaeda terrorists. Essentially, these are lone wolf or self-forming cells, who instead of being intensely religious and well educated (the profile of a previous Al-Qaeda member) are younger, probably had more run-ins with the police or a criminal record, and are "bored and looking for thrills".

This seems to be a real possibility. I remember more than a few classes I took with John Horgan where he said the process of radicalization often took place after one made contact with the terrorist group in question. If these "thrillseekers" are looking for jihadist videos, tracts and forums for thrills, sooner or later they are going to be talking with people sympathetic to a jihadist worldview. This taints or affects their thinking into a downward spiral based on the violent and paranoid worldview which could ultimately result in terrorist related activities.

Of course, that's a highly simplified way of putting it, and no doubt the actual processes are much more discrete and subtle. But I think as a simplified and limited explanation, it can work. These people get caught up in a discourse of warriorship, fanatical Islam and martyrdom. "We have always been warriors, we have always fought and been victorious, and now we are weak and persecuted". Its the common theme of too many terrorist group's rhetoric to be just a coincidence.

According to a talk Sageman gave at the New America Foundation "It's more about hero worship than about religion," The vast majority of Sageman's sample did not attended radical madrassas, coould speak Arabic and have not read the Koran. Nearly all joined the movement because they knew/are related to someone who's already in it. The age of these terrorists is decreasing too: In Sageman's 2003 sample, the average age was 26; among those arrested after 2006, it was down to about 20. Its more accurate to describe these people as supermepowered, transnational gang members than terrorists.

All of this has very interesting, and worrying implications for policy and society in general. Especially the latter, since media culture and rhetoric has not caught up with Sageman's studies or knowledge. They'd much rather listen to media heads or politicians than soldiers and academics who study terrorism closely, and to be honest, that's a real shame. Because if we don't understand how Al-Qaeda is morphing and evolving, we're going to be throwing around very dangerous charges and allegations at people who may have had little or nothing to do with such attacks, and be concentrating on totally useless avenues of investigation and prevention.

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