PARIS — Three years after the Sept. 11 attacks forced the West to take a collective crash course on Islamic terrorism, the myths endure: The militants are impoverished and uneducated. Lifelong religious fervor drives them to embrace jihad. Al Qaeda aggressively recruits and brainwashes the men.
Those ideas are tempting but wrong, argues Marc Sageman, a CIA veteran-turned-forensic psychiatrist. In a book based on 172 case studies of jihadis, Sageman concludes that social bonds are a more vital force than religion in molding extremists.
Mohamed Atta and his fellow hijackers were a classic example of this ”bunch of guys” theory: educated, upwardly mobile, but alienated immigrants who formed a tight-knit clique in Hamburg. Powerful friendships drove their radicalization, Sageman said. In long talks about Islam, their love for one another mixed with hate for the West, propelling them finally into Al Qaeda, he says.
”It’s a group phenomenon,” Sageman said. ”To search for individual characteristics in order to understand them is totally misleading. It will lead you to a dead end.”
Sageman came to Paris early last month to discuss his book, “Understanding Terror Networks,” with scholars and law enforcement officials who are among the West’s foremost specialists on radical Islam. His work has struck a chord because it searches for scientific answers to questions that haunt the world with each new act of bloodshed: Why? Who are the terrorists? What makes them kill?
Like many European investigators, Sageman, who spent seven years in the CIA, emphasizes the fluid, spontaneous nature of the global jihad and Osama bin Laden’s hands-off approach to leadership, based on providing money and inspiration.
The Al Qaeda network has not engaged in active recruitment or so-called mind control, he argues. Instead, extremist cliques made up of friends and relatives seek out brokers, usually veteran jihadis who can channel them to training camps and other gateways to the network, he said.
”Joining the jihad is more akin to the process of applying to a selective college,” Sageman wrote. ”Many try to get in, but only a few succeed, and the college’s role is evaluation and selection, rather than marketing.”
His theses have been disputed. In 2002, the Dutch intelligence service found that Al Qaeda had ”explicitly instructed” recruiters to base themselves in Europe and troll for aspiring jihadis in prisons, mosques, and other gathering places.
Although he has advised the Homeland Security and Defense departments and testified before the Sept. 11 commission, Sageman says his book relied on court documents, articles, and other data. Most of the accused or convicted extremists Sageman studied were middle class or wealthy, rather than poor; married, rather than single; educated and skilled, rather than illiterate.
The main threat to the United States is a Madrid-style attack, Sageman asserts.
”A 9/11 is no longer possible for two reasons,” he said. ”Al Qaeda is no longer the threat it was . . . and the environment has completely changed. Everyone is looking out for terrorists.”