Marc Sageman on the global Salafi jihad
June 30, 2006 2:28 PM   Subscribe

Who are the jihadists? Marc Sageman on the global Salafi jihad: its goals, its history, who the jihadists are, how they're drawn to the jihad, how the movement is organized. [more inside]
posted by russilwvong (37 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The above findings refute the conventional wisdom about terrorists. The global Salafi terrorists were generally middle-class, educated young men from caring and religious families, who grew up with strong positive values of religion, spirituality, and concern for their communities. They were truly global citizens, conversant in three or four languages, and skilled in computer technology. One of the striking findings of this sample is that three-fourths of the terrorists joined the jihad as expatriates, mostly as upwardly mobile young men studying abroad. At the time, they were separated from their original environment. An additional ten percent were second generation in the West, who felt a strong pull for the country of their parents. So a remarkable 84% were literally cut off from their culture and social origins. They were homesick, lonely, and alienated.
They drift toward mosques, form strong friendships there, and join the jihad out of group loyalty.

Sageman is a forensic psychiatrist and the author of Understanding Terrorist Networks (reviewed by Steve Coll in the Washington Post). He's also a former CIA case officer who served undercover in the Afghan-Soviet war; he outed himself by signing a letter on the Plame affair.

Statement to the 9/11 commission.

Comments on the Quadrennial Defense Review. Remarkably snarky in places: I’m afraid that the QDR might have mistaken the Environmental Liberation Front for al Qaeda, which of course does not oppose globalization.

PowerPoint presentation on Winning the War of Ideas, e.g. peaceful evolution (acknowledging the fallibility of man) as opposed to terrorism. Warning: uses some yellow-on-white text.

Via Freeman Dyson: The best source of information about modern Islamic terrorists that I know of is a book, Understanding Terror Networks, by Marc Sageman.
posted by russilwvong at 2:30 PM on June 30, 2006

The writer of the post concludes by noting we have lost our credibility by supporting despotic Muslim regimes. Can he name those that are not despotic and is he willing to replace despotic regimes with those within the states he con siders who call for Islamic rule rather than secular rule? What, for example, would he suggest we do with Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia--replace their rulers with a popularly elected group? Try it.
posted by Postroad at 2:59 PM on June 30, 2006

I believe Sageman had Uzbekistan in mind. And he doesn't advocate overthrowing despotic governments, just distancing the US from them. From his comments on the QDR: The QDR also advocates the need to increase U.S. freedom of action and the range of options available to the United States through the building of partnership capacity and strengthening alliances to defeat terrorist networks. This is definitely a worthwhile goal, but it is not an end in itself and must be subordinated to more strategic considerations. The experience with Uzbekistan is relevant. We wisely withdrew our troops from that country when its leader carried out atrocities against its population. Appearing to support tyrants will create more enemies against the U.S. than any short term benefit in the Long War.
posted by russilwvong at 3:14 PM on June 30, 2006

More on Swift: A Secret the Terrorists Already Knew
posted by homunculus at 5:14 PM on June 30, 2006

homunculus: I'm hoping you just misposted that here, it's only very vaguely relevant here.

As to the issue at hand, I think he's spot on if perhaps a bit buzzword-laden. I'm Mr. Network Theory & even I'm a little embarrassed at the denseness of his jargon. But in his defense, he does seem to get it all right.

I think there was a time when the network form wasn't an integral part of the al Qaeda/Salafi movement. If the Administration had taken the lead in isolating the Salafi from the rest of Islam at that time, this whole war would've been really short & we'd have already won it. But that would've required granting legitimacy to Islam that just wasn't possible, for this President at least.

As to where to go from here, well that's still the only path that'll work in the end. Salafism has to be discredited ideologically within Islam & that's not going to happen until & unless the rest of Islam is granted enough of a stake in society as a legitimate element of it. And in the meantime we've got to fight an asymmetrical war with us in the role of increasingly inefficient, increasingly autocratic hierarchy against a highly efficient, self-organizing network structure. If it wasn't that they were dedicated to the end of my civilization, I'd be rooting for them. As a form they've got it licked. They're just pursuing insanely evil goals with the perfect organizational structure, something they seem to have stumbled into purely by accident. It's a shame, really.
posted by scalefree at 8:10 PM on June 30, 2006

They need to be turned in on themselves, that's the weakness that will be their undoing if we can exploit it. Salafism is a highly divisive ideology, given to infighting over points almost as abstract & obscure as those of a Harry Potter fanfic culture. Bin Laden is rumored to have had his mentor, Azzam, assassinated over some ideological failing in the late 80s. We've just got to stop driving their message underground & instead highlight it for the world to see, with a little propagandistic spin of course. If ever there was a righteous use of perception management, this would be it. We've got to convince them to give up the one thing they have going for them, the self-organized network form, in favor of the strict, authoritarian top-down hierarchy that historically is one of Salafism's defining characteristics. If we can just do that, they'll tear themselves apart from within & we'll win without breaking too much of a sweat.
posted by scalefree at 8:28 PM on June 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

9/11/01 was just that: ONE EVENT, FOUR AND A HALF YEARS AGO. From a "tendency" that, except for acting up a bit every now and then, is in and of itself no serious threat to the stability or security of these United States. Watching my fellow Americans scampering around headlessly upheaving about what all that "means" is annoying and embarrassing, especially since all it really boils down is "They're more scared of you than you are of them; leave them alone and they'll leave you alone." So, like, when y'all begin getting the fuck over it please let me know.

Then too, how many Americans died of (often easily) preventable "natural causes" on Sept. 11, 2001? E.g., oh, lung cancer, AIDS and complications of obesity? Not to mention the traffic fatalies caused by driving while drunk and/or while talking on the phone. Then consider how many of us died of those same causes the next day, and the day after, and a month later, and a year later, and are still croaking now on 6/30/06 of those very same things?

Yegad. I knew I should've caught that comet then, and ever since....
posted by davy at 8:34 PM on June 30, 2006

Seriously, if you read their diatribes against each other, you'd know that these guys would tear each other apart like wolverines in a bag if we gave them half a chance. I can't find it now but I did some digging into extremist Salafi forums a while back & found them denouncing each other for the most lunatic digressions, not even against doctrine but against authority. Who gets to be authoritative is a very big deal. Well, obviously it is since that's the whole point of the Shia/Sunni split now isn't it.

That's a trap we're falling into now, of fanning the Sunni/Shia flames. That's going to lead nowhere good, with Sunni nation turning against Shia. Much better would be to position both mainstream Sunni & Shia Islam on one side of the conflict & Salafism on the other.

On preview: davy, the problem is that Bush & bin Laden are locked into this apocalyptic deathgrip & they're each going to use half the planet as a bludgeon against each other until one of them wins. So the sooner we can find a way for one or the other to win, the better off both halves of the planet that are being used as bludgeons against the other will be
posted by scalefree at 8:54 PM on June 30, 2006

Strategically, if we're reduced to having the NSA/ARDA/Disruptive Technology Office hijack AT&T's Daytona & Hawkeye databases & sift through them for patterns we don't even have a language for yet, we've already lost this war. The self-organized network form is basically unbeatable as a strategy. It's the ultimate realization of Sun Tzu. If he weren't fucking insane & dedicated to the death of Western civilization, bin Laden would be recognized as one of the greatest strategists of all time.
posted by scalefree at 9:14 PM on June 30, 2006

It really is a war of ideas & our avatar, our champion, is basically unarmed & going up against Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee & Neo wrapped up into one.
posted by scalefree at 9:18 PM on June 30, 2006

As long as we pursue the strategic goal of stomping out a self-organizing network, we're bound to fail badly, hurt a lot of innocent people & waste ever-increasing amounts of money & give up an ever-increasing degree of our freedoms within society in the process. Self-organizing networks can't be stomped out, that's what makes them self-organizing. It's math. We need to stop fighting math, because the math will always win.
posted by scalefree at 9:30 PM on June 30, 2006

If there's anyone out there who thinks I'm not off the wall & would like to hire me to to see if I can do anything beyond just spewing this crap, drop me a line, seriously. Rates negotiable.
posted by scalefree at 9:37 PM on June 30, 2006

Salafism has to be discredited ideologically within Islam--

Actually, one of Sageman's points is that there's peaceful variants of Salafism. From the first article: Most Salafists advocate a peaceful takeover of the state, either through face-to-face proselytism or the creation of legitimate political parties.

So it's only violent Salafism that needs to be discredited.

As long as we pursue the strategic goal of stomping out a self-organizing network, we're bound to fail badly, hurt a lot of innocent people & waste ever-increasing amounts of money & give up an ever-increasing degree of our freedoms within society in the process. Self-organizing networks can't be stomped out, that's what makes them self-organizing. It's math. We need to stop fighting math, because the math will always win.

You might want to take a look at Sageman's book, because the impression I got was that it's still possible to target such a network. From his statement before the 9/11 commission:
The result of this growth pattern of preferential attachment is a topological map of nodes clustered around large hubs, called a scale free [aha!] network. This has interesting properties. This type of network is robust and resists random attack. Stopping terrorists randomly at our borders will not affect its structure. It may stop terrorists from coming here, but will leave the network undisturbed. However, it is vulnerable to targeted attack, namely against its hubs. If the hubs are destroyed, the system breaks down into isolated nodes. The jihad will be incapable of mounting sophisticated large scale operations like the 9/11 attacks and be reduced to small attacks by singletons. It is of course possible for such nodes to try to become hubs and create their own little networks. Ahmed Ressam tried to recruit new untrained collaborators in the Millennial Plot after his original co-conspirators were unable to travel to Canada. But such operations have not generally been successful.

The hubs are vulnerable because most communications go through them. By following communications back to them, good police work would be able to identify and arrest these human hubs. This strategy has already shown considerable success. The arrests of Baasyir and Ali Ghufron have seriously disrupted the Indonesian cluster. The arrests of Zain al Abidin Hussein (abu Zubaydah), Fateh Kamel and Amar Makhlulif (abu Doha) have broken up the Maghreb Arab cluster. Less is known about the structure of the Core Arab cluster. No doubt the arrests of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his nephew Abdul Basit Karim (Ramzi Yousef) and the death of Subhi Mohammed abu Sittah (Mohamed Atef) have significantly weakened it. But the survival of many of its leaders such as Osama bin Laden and his son Saad, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi (Sayf al-Adl) still makes it a potent threat. Future terrorist operations are most likely to come from this cluster.
posted by russilwvong at 10:03 PM on June 30, 2006

Yeah if you really want to get into it there's a whole range of attacks & defenses with varying degrees of effectiveness, as outlined in this paper for instance. The problem is that any kind of attacks against the hubs of this network are proving to be prohibitively expensive to mount in the real world. The bang for the buck of all-encompassing TIA-style social network analysis as a strategy for eliminating al Qaeda is even worse than that of Star Wars as a strategy for containing even the modest technology North Korea, the most isolated nation in the planet's history, can bring to bear (but that's another rant for another thread). Seriously, we're taking the sum total of all phone & internet transactions the government can get its hands on at a cost of uncounted classified billions, applying equations even the theorists are still theorizing about & hoping to make sense of the results without somehow creating a literal all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother in the process.
posted by scalefree at 10:48 PM on June 30, 2006

I'm far from an expert on Islam, thanks for the correction. Yes I mean violent Salafism has to be isolated from the rest of Islam & even the rest of Salafism.
posted by scalefree at 10:54 PM on June 30, 2006

I mean, it's not for me but as long as they're not trying to avenge every Muslim death since the Crusades I figure we can find terms to agree & compromise on.
posted by scalefree at 11:00 PM on June 30, 2006

Okay, am I the only one getting pissed off with the use of the word "jihad" these days? It means a struggle. Sure, it can mean a violent struggle, but that would be the same as saying that to commit a crime is to steal something.

I remember Lore once made this great post on something he called "passport words" where a word that means something really broad in its native tongue is bastardised into a more specific definition, like 'Salsa' which just means 'sauce'.

We've passported jihad. Can we, you know, stop?
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 11:43 PM on June 30, 2006

That's a common, and misplaced, attempt at "correctness." Yes, it's true that in Arabic the literal meaning of jihad is struggle, and it can be used for other kinds, e.g., spiritual struggle. That's completely beside the point. In this context, jihad means 'holy war' in Arabic and is used as such, and it's perfectly appropriate to use it that way in English. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

scalefree: You sure are talkative.
posted by languagehat at 5:46 AM on July 1, 2006

In this context, jihad means 'holy war' in Arabic and is used as such, and it's perfectly appropriate to use it that way in English.

I understand what you're saying and concede that yes, I am being a bit of a wank contesting it. I'm not saying that it's wrong, because you're right, we have created the context in English. I'm simply saying that it continues to piss me off because it's just made for our annoying need to differentiate between religious zealots.

It pisses me off like buzzwords piss people off. Cheap language concocted by people who want to convince ignorant people. And now we have people within the Middle East using this new version of the word, which is not exactly helping things.

'Course, maybe I'm just in the mood to complain.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 6:30 AM on July 1, 2006

SKSP, if you'd read the relevent verses in the Qu'ran (there are several websites with several versions of translations into English out there) you'd know that in the context of the Muslim scripture "jihad" really does mean "violent striggle" .

Of course some twit will now pop up to argue that the Qu'ran does not mean what it plainly says, that Allah was only joking, but that's not my problem.
posted by davy at 8:03 AM on July 1, 2006

["Striggle." Heh.]
posted by davy at 8:47 AM on July 1, 2006

languagehat: What can I say, it's a subject that really interests me. It's a situation that affects the whole world yet few people really understand it. We're locked into this downward spiral that seems destined to last decades & cost us more money than we have, all because we're using the wrong strategy. We've used half a trillion dollars on this war already. Think about the other problems we could have solved with that money - global warming, avian flu, peak oil, world hunger, third world literacy & democracy. Instead we're pissing it away on weapons & armies that don't advance civilization at all. And all we have to do is stop being stupid about how we fight the war, before we throw away another half a trillion. It's so frickin' frustrating!
posted by scalefree at 9:55 AM on July 1, 2006

Scalefree, there's really no need to "fight the war" at all: if us Western colonialists would stop colonizing oil-producing countries -- many of whom are mostly Muslim -- we'd find that Muslim fanatics would lose their audience. Islam in general was pretty much spent before the Empires decided to switch from coal to oil anyway; if the West had handled the aftermath of WW1 differently this would not be an issue. (Cf. Fisk, "The Great War for Civilisation - The Conquest of the Middle East.")

Here in the "homeland" the point of "antiterrorism", whether in its fire-&-brimstone NeoCon variety or its touchy-feely "hearts-&-minds" version, is to bolster colonialism abroad and tyranny in the U.S.A. It's like the Cold War, only without one big strong enemy who can nuke back.
posted by davy at 10:18 AM on July 1, 2006

You may be right in a philosophical sense but your plan would only work in an ideal world that doesn't really exist. What we need are plans that work in the real world, not ones that rely on the whole US corporate/government/consumerist culture changing its mind all at once.
posted by scalefree at 4:26 PM on July 1, 2006

I see: because doing the right thing is difficult we should continue to do the wrong thing, albeit saying "please" and "thank you" to those we rape at missile-point.
posted by davy at 6:40 PM on July 1, 2006

Fascinating post and great discussion. scalefree, you're not the only one interested in this discussion. Sadly I don't know that plans that work in the real world are being developed let alone implemented. As you say, perhaps we've already lost the war since so much of the current way of looking at problems is from a centralized hierarchical system rather than this decentralized networked model. I also fear that 'they' can't be turned on themselves, since there isn't a centralized 'self' to begin with. davy, I don't think he's saying we should continue doing the wrong thing - but rather that the situation is messy and complicated all the way around. We obviously should stop doing the wrong things - but that might take a while (2008?) before that might even happen.

FYI another interesting book (albeit more on the individuals rather than the actual network and group angle) is Making Sense of Suicide Missions. While there's no shortage of books on the bombers themselves, this was particularily good. I'm not sure which is better - understanding the bombers and the network OR trying to understand them both. I only hope both are being studied by those in charge...
posted by rmm at 7:08 PM on July 1, 2006

SKSP, if you'd read the relevant verses in the Qu'ran (there are several websites with several versions of translations into English out there) you'd know that in the context of the Muslim scripture "jihad" really does mean "violent [struggle]" .

Well that is somewhat correct, there is indeed discussion of jihad in a violent sense within the Qu'ran, because a struggle that is violent is no less a struggle.

However there is plenty of non-violent discussion as well, such as in the second Sura (verse 190 being the famous example). The word that was initially less specific is now commonly stuck with a negative connotation, the idea that a jihad can be peaceful seems absurd to many people (particularly my age). It's a little like what happened to the swastika, although I admit that is a very poor comparison (seeing as how originally there was not a 'negative interpretation' of the swastika).

People seem to get equally riled up about words like 'blogosphere' because they are made to suggest things that aren't true (like bloggers being influential... I kid, I kid). Here we have a word that already existed slightly eschewed to suggest that a major part of the Islamic faith happens to be solely violent.

Sorry to derail and all, but I've never really had a chance to debate this before.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 8:50 PM on July 1, 2006

I see: because doing the right thing is difficult we should continue to do the wrong thing

You may be right in a moral/ethical sense but changing the minds of the entire ruling class & reshaping the economic engine to match is just not a feasible solution for the short term. We may not be able to accomplish that for global warming & peak oil & those are civilization-level threats.
posted by scalefree at 8:47 AM on July 2, 2006

I also fear that 'they' can't be turned on themselves, since there isn't a centralized 'self' to begin with.

Islam is extremely hierarchical by nature. Authority is everything to the Muslim religion, witness the Sunni/Shia split. It's quite an aberration for bin Laden & al Qaeda to abandon that vertical structure in favor of a network form. As the FPP makes clear, they've made a conscious decision to put aside ideology in order to fight the war. I really think that it wouldn't take much of a push to make them revert to fighting amongst themselves over obscure ideological issues & denouncing each other for not recognizing the authority of one Imam or another. Schism is in the blood for these guys, quite literally. We just have to encourage it.
posted by scalefree at 8:57 AM on July 2, 2006

Islam is extremely hierarchical by nature.

That's not just wrong, it's absurdly, idiotically wrong, showing you haven't read anything worth reading about Islam, which is probably the least hierarchical of the world's major religions. There is no equivalent to the Pope in Islam; there is no equivalent to a priest; the imam is chosen by the community to give the Friday sermon, but he has no special authority. All believers are equal in Islam. There is no hierarchy.

The great exception, of course, was Shi'ism, which did follow a divinely appointed leader (called the Imam, which is confusing because it's totally different from normal Muslim usage); the catch here is that the last Shi'ite Imam vanished in the ninth century, so that from then on there was nobody to follow. Each Shi'ite picked a spiritual guide from among the learned, but there was no overarching authority and no hierarchy: you advanced up the rungs of learned guides to higher levels like ayatollah ('sign of God') by acclaim and consensus. This changed, of course, with the Ayatollah Khomeini, who appropriated the mystique of the Hidden Imam to such an extent there were rumors that he was himself the Imam (rumors he never denied). This led to the present quasi-hierarchical quasi-theocracy in Iran, but 1) it's both historically and geographically the exception, and 2) it's mainly about circumstances specific to Iran, not the religion of Islam.

What can I say, it's a subject that really interests me.

Then I suggest you learn a little more about it.
posted by languagehat at 12:04 PM on July 2, 2006

Then I suggest you learn a little more about it.

As an outsider all of Islam (not just the Iranian variety) looks pretty top-down to me, but it's not Islam that holds my interest. It's terrorist networks that just happen to be populated by Muslim extremists.
posted by scalefree at 9:29 AM on July 3, 2006

As an outsider...

I'm an outsider too, but that doesn't stop me from learning a thing or two. You clearly have no interest in Islam, so why are you babbling wrongheadedly about it?
posted by languagehat at 9:56 AM on July 3, 2006

You've always struck me as a very calm & reasonable guy. Are you having a bad day, is there anything I can do to help?
posted by scalefree at 4:29 PM on July 3, 2006

I am a calm and reasonable guy. I am also a guy who gets pissed off by people who persist in spreading false and damaging ideas about other people and their beliefs. Go figure.

Do you really not see anything worthy of a putdown in your going on and on about the "hierarchical nature of Islam" and then, when called on it, saying casually "it's not Islam that holds my interest"? Talk about disingenuous. "Oh, did I insult your mother? Well, I don't actually know your mother, and I don't really care about her, so let's forget that and talk about what I'm really interested in."

No, Islam is not my mother. We're not even related. Analogy for purposes of argument only.
posted by languagehat at 5:38 PM on July 3, 2006

For anybody else still following this who'd like something besides snark between me & languagehat, here's another paper by the CTC that's got even more meat to it than Stealing al-Qa`ida's Playbook.

It's Harmony and Disharmony: Exploiting al-Qa’ida’s Organizational Vulnerabilities (PDF). Chock full of solid analysis based on a rich body of source material from al Qaeda as well as examples from other terrorist networks such as the IRA, ETA & Palestinian Islamic Jihad, it provides a comprehensive framework for understanding & exploiting the organizational problems facing a terror network. A few of the highlights relevant to my disagreement with languagehat:
6. Turn the jihadi vanguard back on itself.
8. Subvert the authority of senior commanders.
10. Force jihadi propagandists back on their heels.
11. Understand and exploit the ideological breaks in the jihadi movement.
12. Anticipate al-Qa’ida’s transformation from an organization to a social movement.
Although they don't strictly validate my claim that Islam is intrinsically hierarchical, they do come to pretty much the same conclusion I did on how to attack them organizationally & ideologically, so make your own judgement.

As a bonus for the true aficionado there's absolutely tons of al Qaeda source documents, some with English translations & some just in Arabic. See here, here & here (that last one acts weird for me, it wants to jump to some nonexistent server & you have to stop it before it does).
posted by scalefree at 9:52 PM on July 3, 2006

Saith languagehat: "the last Shi'ite Imam vanished in the ninth century"

Wrong. As I pointedly noted long ago.
posted by davy at 12:31 PM on July 8, 2006

Huh? The existence of a splinter sect who believes in the Aga Khan is irrelevant to the beliefs of the Twelver Shi'a sect we're talking about here (or were, back when we were talking about it). Take that chip off your shoulder and settle down.
posted by languagehat at 3:32 PM on July 9, 2006

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