spiked-politics | Article | Meet the al-Qaeda archetype

What Makes A Terrorist?

UK magazine Spiked reports on an academic conference on terrorism. Marc Sageman, an expert on terrorism, had studied the lives of 382 people with direct or indirect links to al Qaeda.

His finding is that al Qaeda's members tend to be "well-educated, well-off, cosmopolitan and professional, with good jobs, wives, and no history of mental illness." Only 9.4 percent had a religious education, but 90.4 percent--the rest--had been educated in secular schools. None were uneducated. Nearly half were were professional careerists, including doctors and lawyers.

In this, they are different in form from Palestinian terrorists, Jemaah Islamiyah or Abu Sayyaf. Those organs recruit among the poor and hopeless for domestic insurgency. Al Qaeda is a terrorist group for the upper class. It also has wider goals--not change at home, but remaking the world in its image.

So what, if not poverty and despair, is the cause of the terrorist's desire to destroy the West? Sageman points to this:

They are... 'international people'; they are 'global citizens' who left their homes and travelled, some of them to the West.... 70 percent 'joined the jihad' in a foreign country, and 'many of these joined in a Western country'. They were recruited -- or rather, 'they self-recruited themselves'... after leaving home and travelling abroad....

Sageman believes there must be something in the global experience that plays a role in pushing the subjects who travelled towards the new terror networks. 'It's not just the homesickness. You also need to have some kind of script. These guys are lonely, and then they hear this narrative, from radical mosques and so on, which says: "You guys are unhappy because you are excluded from society and the reason you're excluded from society is because there is a crisis of values. It's because of the corruption of the West, because of greed and decadence, and you have to fight against it."... Sageman talks of the role of radical mosques in providing homesick Muslims with a means for venting their spleen, and sometimes providing them with links to other, perhaps violently minded individuals.

If this analysis is correct, and I think it is, it actually eases some of the problems we face in infiltrating these groups. The dangerous places aren't in alien lands, but in our own cities. It should be easy to arrange for American "Muslim" operations officers to drift into the mosques of London or Paris. Claiming to share the disaffection with the Western decadence, and sharing in fact the sense of being in a foreign land, they would appear to be natural compatriots. The education level favored by our intelligence services is right, too.

That being so, there is no excuse for a continued failure to infiltrate. Bureaucracy is not an adequate reason to fail in the task.

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