Monday, May 24, 2004


by Marc Sageman

University of Pennsylvania Press, $29.95, 220 pages

Marc Sageman’s “Understanding Terror Networks” is one of the most insightful studies published so far on the global Salafi jihad — the interlocking series of radical Islamist terrorist networks led and shaped by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist organization. In it, the author succeeds in unraveling their origins, evolution and organizational makeup — all of which are prerequisites for effective counteraction.

Compiling biographies of 172 Islamist terrorist operatives gathered from open sources, Mr. Sageman employs social network analysis to excavate the movement’s ideological roots and map how it has operated since its origins in the Afghanistan battlefields that pitted the radical Islamic Mujahedin against the Soviet occupiers in the late 1980s.

Mr. Sageman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, offers an unparalleled perspective on this subject. In the late 1980s he served as an intelligence case officer in Afghanistan, working with the Islamic Mujahedin. This provided him rare insight into their beliefs and practices. After leaving government service in 1991, he obtained twin degrees in forensic psychiatry and political sociology, which he applies to compelling effect here.

In the early chapters of the book, Mr. Sageman discusses the origins and evolution of the global jihad, which is grounded in the Salafiyyah religious revivalist movement, and whose goal is to re-establish past Muslim glory in a new caliphate stretching from Morocco to the Philippines. This Salafi ideology determines the mission, goals and tactics of al Qaeda, which is the movement’s vanguard.

What sets the global Salafi jihad apart from other Middle Eastern terrorist campaigns that are religiously inspired and more localized in focus (i.e., the Lebanese Hezbollah or Palestinian Hamas) is the use of violence along two broad fronts: a “lesser” jihad set in motion to “purify” or Talibanize apostate Islamic regimes in the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) and Southeast Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia), and a “global” jihad against the apostate non-Islamist “far” enemies represented by the United States and its European and other allies.

The global Salafi jihad was consolidated by bin Laden and his associates in February 1998, when the World Islamic Front was formed and a fatwa was issued declaring a jihad against Jews and crusaders that urged followers “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilian and military — [this] is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”

This ruling presaged the twin bombings of the U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, which inaugurated offensiveoperationsin “enemy” lands. Mr. Sageman notes that the initial ineffectual response by the U.S. government to the Kenya and Tanzania bombings, as well as the bombing of the USS Cole in October 2000, increased bin Laden’s popularity in the Muslim world and encouragedalQaedato launch more daring operations, with “the next step … clearly to take the fight onto U.S. ground.” This took place on September 11.

In the book’s final chapters, Mr. Sageman uses social network analysis to unravel al Qaeda’s operations since 1998. He identifies four large clusters of terrorist operatives: the first, consisting of the central staff of al Qaeda and of the global Salafist jihad movement, which form the movement’s overall leadership (many of whom are currently hiding in the Pakistan-Afghan border regions); the second, including operatives from core Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Kuwait); the third, also known as the Maghreb Arabs (coming from the North African nations of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), who reside in France and England; and the fourth he identifies as belonging to al Qaeda’s ally, Jemaah Islamiyah, which is centered in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The most provocative parts of the book are the ones discussing the social and psychological backgrounds of terrorists, and here Mr. Sageman takes issue with those who say that terrorists behave the way they do because of childhood traumas that compel them to commit acts of violence.

Mr. Sageman finds little display of such psychiatric pathologies for joining these movements because he views their self-recruitment as part of their “search of a larger cause worthy of sacrifice.” He shows that social bonds are the critical element in the decision by potential operatives to become mujahedin and that such bonds need to be exploited by counterterrorist organizations in order to disrupt and defeat these social networks.

Mr. Sageman’s approach to studying the global Salafi jihadists is a major contribution to the academic literature on terrorism. It is required reading for anyone seeking to understand how widespread the terrorist threat has become and the measures that are required to counteract it.

Joshua Sinai is a Washington-based analyst on terrorism issues.

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