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Al Qaeda Today: The New Face of the Global Jihad By Marlena Telvick
Former CIA caseworker Dr. Marc Sageman explains how Al Qaeda has evolved from an operational organization into a larger social movement, and the implications for U.S. counterterror efforts.

Nearly seven years have passed since Al Qaeda issued a fatwa calling on Muslims worldwide to kill Americans and their allies. At the time, Al Qaeda was a hierarchical network with clear lines of authority leading to Osama bin Laden, who in turn provided funding and/or command and control over autonomous groups.

But all of that changed when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan disrupted Al Qaeda's training camps and lines of communication to its top leadership. These changes largely have been misunderstood, says Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA caseworker who left the agency in 1991 and is currently a clinical psychiatrist and an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict. He argues that Al Qaeda has been subsumed into the larger Salafi jihad revivalist movement that predates it.


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The aftermath of the November 2003 attacks in Istanbul, Turkey.

As a CIA operative based in Islamabad from 1986 to 1989, during the Afghan-Soviet war, Sageman interacted with Islamic fundamentalists on a daily basis. There he says he developed an appreciation of them as human beings that ran counter to media portrayals of them in the aftermath of 9/11. This understanding led him to gather empirical evidence to better understand the psychological factors behind the violence.

Since 9/11 Sageman has assembled data on hundreds of jihadi terrorists around the world and reported these findings in his book Understanding Terror Networks (2004). In it, Sageman examines the underlying psychological makeup of these jihadis. He says many do not go through formal training, and refutes the idea that they are recruited. In Sageman's view, they are volunteers -- a perspective that challenges the prevailing myths of who joins the jihad and why.

+ Al Qaeda as Part of a Larger Social Movement

The structure of terrorist groups in Europe is largely misunderstood and for the most part based on pre-9/11 data, Sageman says. "Al Qaeda is really a social movement," he explains. "People think of it as a hierarchical organization, like a military organization, but it was never that. It was always a network, like a peace movement, coalescing together for a peace demonstration on a certain Sunday. That is the model you have to think of. It has very fuzzy boundaries. Some people are part of it, some people are not." To think of it as having a fixed membership, he says, is an illusion.

Sageman points out that the root of the misconception is the fact that bin Laden and his lieutenants did have control of this whole social movement for five years, from 1996 to 2001. But all of that changed when Al Qaeda's control "more or less evaporated" at their height in 2001 after the loss of its sanctuary in Afghanistan.

Ironically, it was at the precise time of Al Qaeda's peak that the downfall in terms of control of the jihadi movement occurred. The organization had conducted a series of successful attacks, from the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa to the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, which Sageman says made them more confident that they could do things without "negative consequences." The invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 "was a surprise to them."

But even with the strong U.S. response, Sageman says bin Laden's "hands-off management style" paid off very well since he had created a system that could survive by itself without him. In that sense, according to Sageman, the movement has become far more dangerous. "Had he been the typical terrorist leader, with very strong command and control" it may have played out differently.

Sageman says that by destroying the training camps, the U.S. eliminated the financial and operational backing bin Laden provided the jihad. "By cutting off the 'golden chain,' he really doesn't have that much money left. We're monitoring his communication so he can't communicate with his troops. The whole network degenerated because [we] undermined the control of this social movement."

As a result, the international jihadi movement reverted to what it was before Al Qaeda and bin Laden came to the forefront -- a collection of local people with local grievances who share the same ideology, Sageman says. These groups follow the methodologies and precepts of Al Qaeda, but without direct links to the group. "This is a bottom-up thing," he says. "This is a bunch of friends who get together and want to do something. Are they coordinated with the top leadership? No."

The May 2003 attacks in Casablanca that killed 45 people and wounded 100 were "a clear case" of the shift in the organization. "The 12 who blew themselves up were just local boys," Sageman explains. "Many of these bombers in Morocco have never heard of Salafi jihad. They have lots of local guys who want to be prophets and murder people; to kill people they consider sinners." He also points to the rash of attacks in Saudi Arabia over the last year to further illustrate the absence of a top-down organization in that they were all locally initiated and uncoordinated, substantiated by the Al Qaeda leadership's public surprise at the attacks.

+ The Face of the New Global Jihad

In one of the first comprehensive non-governmental studies of its kind, Dr. Sageman collected data on 400 terrorists, focusing on those targeting the West as opposed to their own governments. He divided them into four large clusters: the old leadership of Al Qaeda; the Magreb Arabs (people from North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria), including the second generation who grew up in Western Europe and whose parents come from those regions; the "core" Arabs (Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Yemenis and Kuwatis); and Southeast Asians (Indonesians). The results, he says were surprising.

"It turns out that the terrorists are very much like us," he says. "They're not really all that different." In a 2004 speech, Sageman explained, "Most people think that terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, weak minds susceptible to brainwashing -- the sociopath, the criminals, the religious fanatic, or, in this country, some believe they're just plain evil."

But Sageman found that three quarters of his sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority -- 90 percent -- came from caring, intact families. 63 percent had gone to college, as compared with the five to six percent typical in the third world. "These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways," he says.

The terrorists he studied were not, for example, "the Palestinian 14-year-olds we see on the news," but they joined the jihad at an average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi-professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers. Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, his right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri is a physician, and the 9/11 lead hijacker Mohammed Atta was an architect.

+ Absence of a "Profile"

Whatever commonalities there might appear to be, Sageman says, there is no psychological common denominator among the terrorists he studied, aside from their link to the jihad. "There's really no profile, just similar trajectories to joining the jihad and that most of these men were upwardly and geographically mobile," he says. "Because they were the best and brightest, they were sent abroad to study. They came from moderately religious, caring, middle-class families. They're skilled in computer technology. They spoke three, four, five, six languages including three predominant Western languages: German, French and English."

But according to Sageman, despite their intellectual acuity, his subjects were ultimately ill-prepared for life in the West. He traced their transition to radicalism back to a universal human motivation -- loneliness. "When they became homesick, they did what anyone would and tried to congregate with people like themselves, whom they would find at mosques," he explains. "They drifted towards the mosque, not because they were religious, but because they were seeking friends."

These cliques often formed in the vicinity of mosques that had a militant script advocating violence to overthrow the corrupt regimes, thereby transforming these alienated young Muslims into terrorists.

"It's all really group dynamics," he told an audience last year. "You cannot understand the 9/11 type of terrorism from individual characteristics." Sageman points to the Madrid bombers, who blew themselves up when the police surrounded their apartment, as a perfect example: "Seven terrorists sharing an apartment and one saying, 'Tonight we're all going to go, guys.' You can't betray your friends, and so you go along. Individually, they probably would not have done it."

+ Egypt's Larger Role

Sageman suggests another part of the terrorists' background is misunderstood: their countries of origin. "It turns out [of those we collected data on] 60 percent are from Egypt," he says, which shows the terrorist social movement is very much an Egyptian story. "The ideology is Egyptian; the leadership is Egyptian. Most people think it's either Saudi or Afghan, but it's very much Egyptian."

In Understanding Terror Networks, Sageman writes that the Egypt connection dates back to the country's humiliating defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. The war, which discredited President Gamal Abdel Nasser's secular socialist policies, fueled the alternative view that "Islam is the solution." Of the many jihadi groups that formed there in the years to follow, it was the Islamic Jihad (EIJ), under the leadership of Al Qaeda's future deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri that took center stage, after the group assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in 1981. Egypt is also the birthplace of the Salafi group the Muslim Brotherhood, responsible for the creation of Hamas and today with branches in some 70 countries.

Over the years, militant Egyptian jihadi groups would produce a raft of notorious extremists including the 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, "the Blind Sheikh" convicted for a plot to bomb New York City landmarks, and Medhat Muhamad Abdel Rahman, leader of the 1997 attacks which killed 58 foreign tourists in Egypt. Bin Laden, who rose to prominence because of his role in the Afghan fight against the Russians, cemented his hold on the global jihad movement by forming the World Islamic Front (which later became Al Qaeda) with EIJ in 1998.

+ The Recruitment Process (or Lack Thereof)

According to Sageman's research, contrary to public opinion, terrorists are not recruited in the technical sense -- by a dedicated individual whose job is to bring people into an organization they might otherwise be reluctant to join, such as the military.

Instead, jihadis typically first meet through social circles -- friendship or kinship. Then they begin to attend the local mosque together, and if it's a radical mosque advocating violent solutions to establishing a Salafi state, they became radicalized. "This is very much what happened in Hamburg," he says. "Same thing in Madrid, Casablanca and Montreal. … Even bin Laden himself is not a recruiter, although people want to join his organization."

Sageman advocates using the terms "joining" the jihad or "mobilization," as opposed to recruitment. "All those guys have always been volunteers," he argues. "No one has ever been forced to join the jihad. Nobody has ever been blackmailed or brainwashed. They all did it because they wanted to do it."

In fact, according to Sageman, the selectivity of Al Qaeda rivals that of Ivy League universities. "It's actually very much like applying to Harvard," he says. "Al Qaeda's problem before was selection, it was never recruitment. They had four major committees [public relations, finance, fatwa and military] but no recruitment committees. No budget or campaign dedicated to recruitment. They didn't need to. Of the people who went through the camps, only 15 to 25 percent were actually invited to join the organization."

+ The "Operational Death" of Al Qaeda

Sageman argues that today, with groups in Europe performing operations spontaneously and independently, the Al Qaeda leadership no longer maintains any control over who is or is not admitted into the organization. "In that sense," he says, "Al Qaeda is operationally dead. There is no Al Qaeda anymore. The social movement is alive and well, but the guys who did Madrid, Casablanca and Istanbul were not Al Qaeda. They were people who were doing operations on behalf of Al Qaeda, but they were not Al Qaeda. The old Al Qaeda is hiding away in caves someplace."

Being operationally dead does not mean Al Qaeda doesn't play a significant role in the propagation of the jihadi movement. Today, when Al Qaeda releases videotapes, as they did as recently as December 2004, urging a boycott of the Iraqi elections, they're still playing a key role as propagandists for these groups, Sageman says, targeting the 1.3 billion worldwide Muslim community they seek to mobilize.

+ Training No Longer Necessary

The violent videos unearthed and broadcast after 9/11 featuring multinationals in fatigues honing their skills in remote training camps may largely be a thing of the past. "While the movement was under the control of Al Qaeda, they could go to Afghanistan to train, but now they don't have that luxury," Sageman says. "Training is no longer necessary. The guys in Casablanca and Istanbul were not trained. There is no evidence the guys from Madrid ever went to a training camp. But yet they are still able to conduct operations."

It turns out making "sophisticated" cell phone detonators is not that sophisticated, Sageman says. "Anyone who knows anything about a cell phone can hook it up to a detonator." He argues that the over 1,000 Web sites coming out of Iraq showing beheadings via video files are actually "far more sophisticated than rigging a bomb up."

Sageman says the devices used by many terrorists are remarkably primitive. "It's pretty amateurish. The real threat today are attacks like Madrid, Casablanca, Istanbul -- it's not [sophisticated attacks like] 9/11 because these guys can't coordinate."

+ The New Meeting Ground

Sageman says the Internet has largely supplanted the need for physical meetings, presenting an alternate forum for jihadi communication. "It used to be face-to-face interaction," he says, "but that's no longer necessary." He illustrates a possible scenario of five to six jihadis meeting in a chat room -- one in Jakarta, one in Cairo, a third in Jeddah, one in New York, and one in Tucson, Ariz. -- who become fast friends on the Internet, never meeting. "They may actually decide to meet and then two to three weeks later a big explosion occurs," he explains. "They don't need to meet in a militant Islamic mosque anymore."

It is this bottom-up structure that makes monitoring this interaction very difficult for law enforcement, according to Sageman. The seemingly endless supply of sites compounds the issue. "People can go to the Internet and type 'Jihad' or 'Islamist Web site' and they'll get thousands of sites," he says. "There's been an explosion of these Web sites -- any sophomore in high school can set up their own Web site."

+ Combating the Threat

The structural changes in the Salafi jihad after 9/11 have altered the way the world combats terrorism going forward, Sageman says. "Military options work very well when you have hard targets you can destroy -- which we did in a relatively short period of time. Now, because the U.S. and its allies have taken all those targets out and the organization is diffused, military options are limited." Sageman argues the way to fight this is to switch strategies and now engage in a war of ideas.

"It should be an idea-based war as opposed to a military-based war," he says. "The people [that] are still active terrorists need to be captured or killed, but," he warns, "that is the easy task. The much more difficult task is preventing a future generation from joining this violent terrorist movement, and doing more damage."


Marlena Telvick reports from San Francisco. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, American Journalism Review and in reports by FRONTLINE and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Additional reporting by Bruce Livesey.

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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