- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

“Conventional wisdom” on Islamic terrorism is wrong, according to Dr. Marc Sageman, author of “Understanding Terror Networks,” who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and is a counterterrorism adviser to the U.S. government.

The theory that terrorists are poor, angry and fanatically religious is a myth, he said.

Dr. Sageman, who has a doctorate and a medical degree and who worked as a CIA case officer in Pakistan during the Soviet war in nearby Afghanistan, made his comments at a June 17 conference in the District, while discussing what he learned while writing his book. He studied 400 members of terrorist networks from North Africa, the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Of this sample, he said, 75 percent come from upper- or middle-class backgrounds, and most also from “caring, intact” families. Sixty percent were college educated and 75 percent could be considered professional or semi-professional. Seventy percent were married, and most had children.

Only half came from a religious background, and a large group raised in North Africa or France grew up in entirely secular communities, which, Dr. Sageman said, “refutes the notion of culture,” often cited as a factor encouraging terrorism.

He rejected the idea of terrorists as “inherently evil.”

“None of these guys, really, are evil — though their acts definitely were.” Neither are they mentally ill, he said. Of those studied, he said, only 1 percent had hints of psychological disorders — the same as the world base rate.

“Most of [them] were the elite of the country,” he said.

Many were sent abroad to study, became lonely and isolated from their communities and cultures, and sought friends among people like themselves. They often found them in groups based around mosques, even if they had little previous interest in religion, Dr. Sageman added.

Seventy percent joined a jihad — “holy war” — group while away from their country of origin, he said, and a further 20 percent were second-generation immigrants. Sixty-eight percent had friends in the jihad, or joined as groups. An additional 20 percent had close relatives who were already members.

Dr. Sageman described the fledgling terrorist at this stage as someone who feels excluded from society and resents this. The mosque provides reasoning to this emotional process: “Society is corrupt, cruel, infected by Western values.” This is where the notion of the Salafi comes in, he said.

Salafi, “the re-creation of the practices of the devout ancestors,” as Dr. Sageman last year told the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, is inherently a peaceful social movement, with about 30 million followers worldwide.

Dr. Sageman pointed out that more than half of the terrorists in his sample worshipped at only 10 mosques worldwide.

Salafis generally advocate the formation of a model Islamic society “based on fairness and justice” by nonviolent means. But there is a violent strand, he said.

This violent group develops what he called “in-group love and out-group hate.” It sees those standing in the way of the true Islamic community as “infidels,” who, according to distorted interpretations of the Koran, can justifiably be killed.

Targets include Arab leaders viewed as oppressive or corrupt, such as the Saudi royal family, and, particularly in the case of networks such as al Qaeda, the “far enemy,” Dr. Sageman said, meaning those Western countries seen to be aiding such leaders, chiefly the United States.

The social movement of the Salafi jihad, he said, developed over three stages — the first being in Afghanistan during the Soviet war. Though he rejects the frequent suggestion that the CIA “created” Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, he concedes “we encouraged indirectly the rise of an Islamist movement … [and] transformed … local insurgents against their own governments … and made [the movement] global over time.”

Many foreign fighters were unable to return home after the war in Afghanistan, Dr. Sageman said, for political or criminal reasons.

In 1991, they were expelled from Pakistan to the Sudan, where they became radicalized. After five years, the most militant returned to Afghanistan, he said, where bin Laden was setting up his training camps. Within two months, Dr. Sageman said, bin Laden had issued his first fatwa against the West.

Since the terrorist attacks against the United States of September 11, 2001, he said, terrorist networks have mutated.

Though bin Laden did for some years have fairly strict control over his organization, there are now “smaller, decentralized clusters of friends … disparate organizations coming together,” with little in the way of instructions from the top, apart from broad ideologies.

These are, Dr. Sageman said, “self-organizing, bottom-up social movements … even more dangerous than a top-down organization,” because “they can’t be decapitated.”

The professor dismissed the usual perception of terrorist recruiting, saying: “They can generate without the need to recruit.” Instead, he said, the movement is “very much dependent on volunteering,” with “only 15 [percent] to 20 percent accepted to al Qaeda.”

Therefore, Dr. Sageman said, it is “almost trivial to arrest terrorists acting right now, against preventing the next generation.” Though we must, he said, “eliminate the immediate and present threat to the U.S. and the West, much of our focus needs to be on the war of ideas. “Our military options have run out,” he said.

“We have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot,” Dr. Sageman said.

“Much of the [present] anger is because of the run-up to Iraq, the occupation of Iraq. … The way we’ve handled the Israel-Palestine issue has not played well in the Muslim world. We need to appear much fairer and just in our dealings with both sides than we have been in the last few years.”

Now, “terrorism is on the way up,” he said. In 2001, two-thirds of the leadership was killed, he said, but this year, the leadership has reconstituted itself and is “willing to take far more risks than the old leadership was able to.”

These “new terrorists … really cannot be targeted by bombs,” Dr. Sageman said. “This requires a different type of war — an idea-based solution … we really haven’t engaged it yet.”

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