Islamist terrorism – past and present

Brian M Downing

A review of Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, we were inundated by hysterical books which purported to give thoughtful analysis of al Qaeda but which instead only added to our confusion – and also to our injudicious responses ever since. Leaderless Jihad was not published until well after the attacks and that is one of the reasons it is perhaps the most thoughtful book on al Qaeda and the social movement associated with it.

Though a psychiatrist, Sageman rejects a psychological approach to understanding terrorists. (A sign of an independent mind, this.) After going through his database of jihadists, he finds no personalty type or traumatic event that makes people heed the call to jihad. Nor does he see social context such as poverty to be helpful. Any such context is hopelessly vague and cannot explain why so many millions of people living in that context do not become terrorists.

Instead, he calls our attention to a middle ground between micro and macro explanations – social networks. It is within networks of émigrés from a particular locale, student groups, mosques, and internet communities that young men and increasingly young women, become jihadists. And it is these networks that plan and execute acts of terror.

His profile of jihadists is intriguing and often counterintuitive. They are not poor. They are most often from middle-class backgrounds, though the trend since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is toward poorer origins. They are not deeply religious. Indeed, many had relatively secular upbringings. As for the madrassa students we see swaying rhythmically as they recite the Koran, he notes that they tend to stay in their locale or perhaps go off to fight for the Taliban, who though militants, are not usually terrorists. Jihadists are not failures. Many have education and responsibilities to colleagues and families. Nor do they typically have criminal backgrounds, though there is an increasing trend toward criminal activity as fledgling terrorists get money for their attacks however they can. Inasmuch as the funds were once supplied by al Qaeda contacts, this suggests that the West has been successful in disrupting money flows.

So, jihadism is not based on psychological problems, social context, religiousness, or ignorance. Jihadism, Sageman finds, is based on moral outrage at injustices heaped upon fellow Muslims, chiefly in Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, and more recently, Iraq. Significantly, the initial US invasion of Afghanistan did not elicit outrage among Muslims, but the invasion of Iraq two years later, did.

Terrorist attacks today do not come from foreign jihadists infiltrating a western country to attack, as with the September 11th events. The danger is more with homegrown terrorists, as attacks in Britain and Spain indicate. Europe faces more such terrorists than the US does – and for reasons that Sageman articulates. After the widespread death and destruction of the Second World War, Europeans brought in large numbers of Muslims (and other minorities) from their colonies to help rebuild. Foreign workers, many from Arab countries of North Africa, were unable to assimilate into European societies even after decades, and instead lived in urban ghettoes, generally disliked by the surrounding people. The US had no such postwar immigration; Muslims coming into the US are usually middle class if not professional; and most see the US as offering greater acceptance and advancement. For them, the American Dream is both attractive and attainable.

What to do about Islamist terrorism? Sageman argues that our military responses were wrongheaded. They increase moral outrage, encourage recruits for terror networks, and make jihadists into romantic figures. Instead, networks in the West and the Islamic world should be fought by intelligence and police work followed by non-sensationalized trials that present defendants simply as criminals, not as agents of an epochal, global movement. Western societies should work to reduce prejudice and arbitrariness directed against Muslims in the diaspora. And finally, the author recommends a good faith effort to resolve the Palestinian issue, which lies at the center of much of Islamist outrage, in and out of the Middle East.

~ ©2009 Brian M. Downing

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