Dispelling Myths About Terrorism and Terrorists:

A Review of Marc Sageman's Understanding Terror Networks


Friday, Jun. 18, 2004
Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Univ. Penn. Press 2004)

Marc Sageman does not work for the government -- much less one of the alphabet soup intelligence agencies -- or one of the fancy think tanks. He has not had access to confidential or classified material. But Sageman's new book, Understanding Terror Networks, offers very interesting insight into terrorism nonetheless.

What Sageman has done is to vacuum up seemingly every bit of public source material on the world's terrorists, and to digest and analyze that material in a highly readable style. Sageman is an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict, and a forensic psychiatrist in private practice in Philadelphia. But fortunately, there's no "psycho-history" or similar babble in this volume.

What Sageman is saying is simple and convincing: The West cannot defeat terrorists and terrorism until it understands the phenomenon.

Understanding Basic Terrorism Concepts: The Global "Salafi Jihad"

The global salafi jihad is the subject of this book, and each of those words merits close attention. Sageman explains them aptly in a taut opening chapter, and in so doing he is trying to understand how those who engaged in the global salafi jihad construe their own goals.

Working backwards, "jihad" - which means striving or struggle -- is a core concept of historical Islam. As some Western religions impose an obligation on their adherents to defend their faith, a like emphasis can be found in Islam. Further, within the historical narrative of the development of Islam, the defense obligation can be interpreted as a specific call to expel non-believers or, as they say, infidels.

"Salafi" - which means "ancient ones" - is a particular strain of Islam. The salafi movement, which dates back many hundreds of years, can be conceived of as a traditional revivalist movement. Its adherents reject as bastardizations the theocratic evolutions that have shaped aspects of modern Islam. They seek to return to the pure truth of the ancient ones (the salafi) who founded the faith. There are those in the Episcopal Church who still stand by the 1928 Prayer Book -- similar idea.

Along the way - here and elsewhere in the book - Sageman seeks to dispel dangerous myths about the terrorists we face by offering more specific explanations. Here, the myth he attacks is that they just "hate the West."

Sageman believes that there is a more grounded, instrumental (though equally despicable) basis for terrorist attacks on the West, stemming from distorted conceptualizations of jihad and salafism. It is the very rootedness of the terrorists' call that makes it so dangerous.

A Schism In Salafism: Can Muslims Attack Muslims?

In the second section of this book, Sageman offers a careful historical accounting of the development of both salafism more generally, and al Qaeda in particular.

Sageman explains that there were two great shifts in the history of salafism -- both of which caused schisms in the group, and both of which shaped the particular salafi threat the world faces today.

First, the jihad was originally construed as an action against non-Muslims. And there remains an undercurrent of assumption in the less fanatical corners of the movement that any Muslim government is better than the risk of a non-Muslim government.

As in the case of other religions, though, adherents have struggled with the question of when a nominally Muslim government strays so far from the ancient ways as to become unworthy of preference -- to become, as a matter of Islamic theology, jahilyya, meaning that it is in a state of barbarism such as preceded Mohammed and the creation of the Muslim faith.

The precursors of al Qaeda in Egypt dramatically staked out their position on this issue with the assassination of Anwar Sadat. And even now, the current wave of attacks in Saudi Arabia fits within the same tradition.

The split is clear: some have declared the ruling Saudi class to be de facto infidels. Some certainly have not, and the decision to wage terror war against the Egyptian state (by attacking Sadat, but also by attacking the tourist infrastructure of the state) caused a significant schism in the salafi movement.

Another Schism in Salafism: Whether to Focus on "Far" or "Near" Enemies

The second move that brought the al Qaeda brand of salafism to its current state was to concentrate on the "far," rather than the "near," enemy. This had the twin benefits of externalizing the costs and disruption of terrorism from the local environment, while at the same time fitting within an intellectual superstructure of attacking the Western nations perceived to be the paymasters of the Muslim regimes deemed jahilya by radical salafists.

As Sageman explains, the native Egyptian salafi movement lost its popular support, and is largely moribund. The Egyptians who stayed with the fanatical salafi cause moved first to the Sudan and later (back) to Afghanistan, and worked to export their attacks on the far enemy. As was highlighted in this week's report of the 9/11 Commission, the move from "near" to "far" was the particular goal of Osama bin Laden.

This point highlights another myth that Sageman seeks to discredit: that al Qaeda was a product of the Afghan resistance movement and, by extension, American support for the mujhadeen who defeated the Soviet occupation. Sageman argues convincingly that the true wellspring of Al Qaeda lies in Egypt, not Afghanistan.

Shattering Another Myth: Terrorists Are Actually Unusually Well-Educated

The balance of the book exhibits Sageman's exhaustive research methods, by compiling a vast array of socioeconomic and cultural information about individual terrorists (well more than one hundred) known to the West.

Here, another myth is shattered. Terrorists, especially those who are capable of staging horrifically spectacular attacks, are not the ill-clothed unemployed of the "Arab street." To the contrary, it turns out that they have education and opportunities well beyond the capacity of their average countrymen.

Sageman finds that, as with any other cultish organization, it is ties of kin and friendship that explain the growth and development of terror networks. He memorably writes that you will find hardly a single humanities major among the terrorists he has studied; these are engineers and technocrats, longing for and embracing, clear cut rules and solutions.

Policy Prescriptions and Predictions for the Future

In the prescriptive conclusion to the book, Sageman offers some sound policy principles, derived from his empirical and historical study. His predictions are not on the whole comforting. But they do suggest that the 9/11 attacks were an exception unlikely to be repeated.

It seems unlikely, Sageman predicts, given the disruption that has been wrought on the al Qaeda command and control structure, that another plot of the complexity and expense of 9/11 could be carried through. In addition, Sageman points out that the post 9/11 history of terrorism shows a move towards smaller attacks against softer targets on the periphery of the West. These are the actions of the new, decentralized terror network - perhaps harder to stop, but also less likely to produce the spectacular successes that feed the movement.

Here, though, is where we must pity those who would be so bold as to make predictions, however guarded, about terrorism. The Madrid train bombing post-dated the publication of this book, and plainly is an example of another devastating, large-scale attack in the West itself. Also, it seems clear that there was substantial planning and organization behind the bombing.

That leads to a particular fear: that we've gotten the worst of both worlds. It's true, as Sageman notes, that al Qaeda has become more decentralized - and thus even harder to locate and fight. But it may also be true that Al Qaeda, rather than settling for only small-scale attacks, has instead pushed its management talent down the organization chart, into the regional cells - raising the specter of more attacks like Madrid. The only answer is vigilance.

Could a "Broken Windows" Approach to Terrorism Possibly Work?

One of the marquee programs of the Rudolph Giuliani mayoralty was the application of the "broken windows" theory to criminality. The theory holds that fixing the broken windows in a neighborhood will end up preventing other, larger crimes, by projecting the appearance of a strong police presence. Giuliani applied the theory most famously in a crackdown on turnstile jumpers in the subway.

Criminals, "broken windows" adherents reasoned, commit crimes both small and large and enforcement resources expended on the front end of small crimes should yield benefits in terms of large crimes averted. I found this theme popping up in my marginal notes throughout Sageman's book.

Incredibly, both the Hamburg and the Montreal Al Qaeda cells were under intense real-time police surveillance. The Montreal plotters had committed a score of petty crimes in addition to manipulating the immigration system. And they committed these crimes not merely because they were miscreants, but because petty crime was the funding mechanism for their cell. Prevent street crime and you may be preventing terrorism, especially as (one hopes) the financial infrastructure of al Qaeda has been compromised even more than its human capital.

What Sageman, then, has found bolsters the argument for invasive and exacting enforcement of criminal and immigration law. An atmosphere of enforcement omnipresence may discourage plotting, and hamper a given terrorist group from attracting converts.

The Lesson for Iraq: Hostility Won't Only Come From Fanatical Salafists

A final thought that I took from this fine book related directly to recent experience in Iraq. Once one thinks not about the "far enemy" fanaticists, but about the "close enemy" anti-infidel strains of many variants of mainstream Islam, it seems plain that the U.S. occupation of Iraq would face broad resistance - and not just from Al Qaeda.

One need not be a fanatical salafist, and certainly need not be an Al Qaeda member, to feel a religious impulse to attack foreign non-Muslim troops on Muslim ground. It makes one wonder how one might have reasonably expected American forces to be "welcomed as liberators" in Iraq, and it gives some considerable context to the current struggles there.

Matt Herrington, a frequent FindLaw book reviewer, is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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