Thursday, February 28, 2008

From the Sage to the Ridiculous

I first read Marc Sageman's, Understanding Terror Networks a few years back, and it changed the way I viewed the international jihadist threat. It was eye-opening. Sageman (himself, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA operative) employed a unique method (poring over hundreds of biographical profiles of known-terrorists) to reveal truths and dispel myths about the identities and motivations of terrorists that join al-Qaeda-like organizations. Sageman offers a pretty good summary of this work here. I have cited Sageman numerous times (examples here and here), and consider him one of the preeminent experts in the field (I am not alone in this estimation).

Thus, it was with some excitement that I perused David Ignatius' column on Sageman's latest effort, Leaderless Jihad (via K-Drum):

What distinguishes his new book, "Leaderless Jihad," is that it peels away the emotional, reflexive responses to terrorism that have grown up since Sept. 11, 2001, and looks instead at scientific data Sageman has collected on more than 500 Islamic terrorists -- to understand who they are, why they attack and how to stop them.

The heart of Sageman's message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat -- and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain's Web site puts it, the United States is facing "a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists" spawned by al-Qaeda.

The numbers say otherwise, Sageman insists. The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a "clash of civilizations."

It's the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman's account, it's a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls "terrorist wannabes." Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills.

"It's more about hero worship than about religion," Sageman said in a presentation of his research last week at the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank here. Many of this third wave don't speak Arabic or read the Koran. Very few (13 percent of Sageman's sample) have attended radical madrassas....

Sageman's harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. "Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear," he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it. [...]

Sageman's policy advice is to "take the glory and thrill out of terrorism." Jettison the rhetoric about Muslim extremism -- these leaderless jihadists are barely Muslims. Stop holding news conferences to announce the latest triumphs in the "global war on terror," which only glamorize the struggle. And reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq, which fuels the Muslim world's sense of moral outrage.

Um, yeah. To all that. Almost on cue, John McCain rushes forward to showcase his ignorance in order to provide Sageman the contrast he needs to bring his ideas into clear relief:

…I am told that Senator Obama made the statement that if Al Qaeda came back to Iraq after he withdraws -- after the American troops are withdrawn -- then he would send military troops back, if Al Qaeda established a military base in Iraq. I have some news: Al Qaeda is in Iraq. Al Qaeda, it's called Al Qaeda in Iraq, and my friends if we left they wouldn't be establishing a base, they wouldn't be establishing a base, they'd be taking a country. And I'm not going to allow that to happen my friends. I will not surrender. I will not surrender to Al Qaeda.

Oh brother. Juan Cole probably does more than what is required to dispense with this shallow thinking, but it's worth the read:

...[T]he allegation that he makes about there being 'al-Qaeda in Iraq' that could well take over the country is part lie and part insanity. The Sunni Arabs are no more than 20% of the Iraqi population. How could a tiny minority from within them take over the whole?

...But there are only a few hundred foreign fighters. A small minority of Iraqis has associated with them. They don't call themselves 'al-Qaeda in Iraq.' The major such group is "The Islamic State of Iraq." And to say that they have "bases" in Iraq is pretty grandiose. They have some safe houses and try to take and hold neighborhoods, so far with indifferent success.

The idea that this small minority of violent Muslim fundamentalists could take over Iraq is completely crazy. They haven't even been able to keep their toehold in Baghdad-- the Sunnis have been largely ethnically cleansed from the capital by Shiite militias.

So the Shiites would not allow an "al-Qaeda" takeover of Iraq. Neither would the Kurds. Nor would most Sunni Arabs (as in al-Anbar Province, where the Dulaim tribe is at daggers drawn with the Excommunicating Holy Warriors).

Moreover, the neighbors would not allow the radical Sunnis to take over. Iran would sit on its hands while Shiites were massacred in Baghdad? Secular Turkey would allow this development? Baathist Syria? Hashemite Jordan (which played a major role in tracking down and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi)?

McCain's assertions that "al-Qaeda" has a strong position in Iraq or has any chance of taking over the country if the US leaves are both inaccurate. One is an error, the other is a dark but insubstantial fantasy.

It is imperative that John McCain be kept away from the Oval Office. He simply doesn't understand terror networks.

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