Behind Enemy Lines
Reviewed by Steve Coll
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page BW10
UNDERSTANDING TERROR NETWORKS
By Marc Sageman. Univ. of Pennsylvania. 220 pp. $29.95
The Afghan-Pakistan Connection
By Mariam Abou Zahab and Olivier Roy
Columbia Univ. 92 pp. $49.50
Public rhetoric about terrorism is often abstract. President Bush declares a generalized "war on terror." The press explains, as a provocative Newsweek cover put it after Sept. 11, "Why they hate us." Now a presidential campaign summer rings with broad questions about whether the Iraq war strengthened or weakened al Qaeda, and whether it is possible to alter the sweeping forces that are presumed to foster Islamic radicalism, such as satellite television networks, oil dependency, Middle Eastern poverty, and the spread of madrassas, religious schools that often teach an unyielding Islamic faith.
These two small and important books analyze al Qaeda and jihadist violence in a more granular, specific fashion. They are interested not in grand ideas but in the details of al Qaeda's recruitment and support networks. They use the biographies of individual terrorists and obscure al Qaeda-linked groups to explain the movement's evolving structure. By this path the authors challenge some poorly examined assumptions of familiar public debates.
In the end, by hewing to scientific method and forswearing strategy, the authors illuminate crucial but neglected strategic questions of their own: How and why do al Qaeda cells form? What are the important patterns of individual radicalization? What is al Qaeda's new geographical center?
Marc Sageman is a former CIA case officer who worked undercover on the Afghan frontier during the 1980s. After he left the agency, he became a forensic psychiatrist specializing in the motivations of murderers and genocide perpetrators. Drawing upon open sources, Sageman studied the biographies of 172 jihadist terrorists, scrutinizing their stories for patterns. In Understanding Terror Networks he spreads out a feast of stimulating insights.
Sageman concentrates on the small, loose, committed cells of young Muslim men that seem to form almost spontaneously in Europe or North Africa. The cell members pledge themselves to the global jihad, then develop the discipline and commitment needed to carry out a terrorist attack, sometimes by suicide. These Bunches of Guys, as they have been labeled half-facetiously, bind each other to secret membership and reinforce a mutual commitment to violence.
The multinational Hamburg cell that executed the Sept. 11 attacks -- intimate, ultimately loyal but often arguing among themselves, as the Sept. 11 investigative commission recently showed -- is a prototype of the emerging global jihad. In another context such testosterone cliques might rob banks or brawl at local soccer matches. Here kinship and friendship networks, images of violence against Muslims, deepening faith and access to al Qaeda's resources can lead them to cross oceans and commit mass murder.
Sageman argues that poverty, religious belief and political frustration are "necessary but not sufficient" to explain how a few angry young Muslim men -- but not many, many others -- decide to embrace jihadist violence. More important are "social bonds" among the young volunteers, the sense of clandestine belonging they develop, and their ability to make reinforcing contact with al Qaeda leaders or trainers. Bunches of Guys become effective terrorist cells "through mutual emotional and social support, development of a common identity, and encouragement to adopt a new faith." These internal group ties are more significant, Sageman argues, than external factors "such as common hatred for an outside group." After losing its Afghan sanctuary, al Qaeda's leadership is less hierarchical than in the past and more reliant on such semi-independent cells in diverse regions. Sageman notes that the Moroccans who carried out the hotel bombings in Casablanca in 2002 bonded and planned their attacks on long camping trips in local caves and forests, aided by expert advice from more senior al Qaeda contacts who had once trained in Afghanistan. He calls such local volunteers and local training a "wave of the future." After his book went to press, a similar regional group killed 191 people in railway bombings in Madrid.
Sageman's work is mainly detailed analysis, but he does offer some practical advice, some involving his old work as a spy recruiter. Group loyalty among Islamic radicals makes it very difficult to lure informers or agents. The best luck is likely to be had from Bunches of Guys who trained for jihad but decided not to act -- the Lackawanna Six in upstate New York, for instance, or the similar accused group in Northern Virginia. In such cases, Sageman writes, an "aggressive policy of prosecuting" these almost-jihadists without exploring their recruitment as agents may be a "mishandled opportunity." Perhaps even more important is putting country-by-country and node-by-node pressure on al Qaeda leaders and trainers, making it harder and riskier for aspiring cells to connect with the more ambitious, capable wings of Osama bin Laden's movement. If a particular volunteer Bunch of Guys is unable to train or plan with competent al Qaeda leaders, they are more likely to fade away in place or carry out a relatively small attack.
These cell-by-cell outcomes may have much more impact on the overall potency of al Qaeda violence than changes in Middle East education or job creation -- certainly in the near term, and perhaps in the long term as well. Sageman also argues persuasively that just as European socialist parties and democratic communist parties helped to isolate Soviet-backed communists and radical Marxist cells, so should the United States explore how to use peaceful, radical Muslim political movements to cut off jihadists from popular support. Secular Arab governments have used such strategies successfully, as did European colonial administrations in the Middle East before them. Debate about such nuanced political strategies in the United States since Sept. 11 has barely developed; Sageman's contribution is helpful.
As for Iraq, it "is a great opportunity but also a great danger," Sageman concludes. Its success as a democracy may indeed alter Middle Eastern politics for the better, he thinks, but Iraq may also become a new "Peshawar or Khartoum . . . where the excitement for the jihad is renewed." The al Qaeda visible in Sageman's analysis is more movement than organization, an "imagined community," in the phrase of anthropologist Benedict Anderson, increasingly located not in any one geographical place but in the virtual and global space of the World Wide Web -- continually reaffirmed by cliques of angry young Muslim men tapping their keyboards in Internet cafés from Rabat to Riyadh to Jakarta.
Yet if there is any one country that matters most to al Qaeda's future, argue Mariam Abou Zahab and Olivier Roy in Islamist Networks, it is Pakistan, where "the fate of the last jihadists" trained and inspired before Sept. 11 "is being played out." The "Pakistanization of al Qaeda," as the authors call it, is rooted in 20 years of collaboration between elements of the Pakistan army and intelligence service and the radical Islamist movements that birthed and nurtured bin Laden's organization. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, contradictions long submerged and unresolved in Pakistan are surfacing as open conflict -- as in the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl and the recent assassination attempts against President Pervez Musharraf.
Zahab, a French specialist on Pakistan, and her colleague Roy, an accomplished scholar on political Islam, argue that in Pakistan -- unlike in other countries where al Qaeda has recruited and thrived -- "the state and the Islamist movements had common interests," namely, political control of Afghanistan and Islamic revolution in Kashmir.
Before Sept. 11, bin Laden targeted the United States while his lesser-known Pakistani allies -- radical groups such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi, Harakat al Mujaheddin al Alami and others -- concentrated on Kashmir. Now these Pakistani groups have more fully fused with al Qaeda under pressure from Musharraf, who in turn is acting under heavy pressure from Washington. The groups are responding by trying to kill Musharraf, sheltering fugitive al Qaeda leaders and organizing regional attacks against Western and Indian targets.
In a richly detailed analysis of the recruitment patterns among the Pakistani groups, Zahab and Roy report that, contrary to popular belief, the great majority of violent Pakistani jihadists have come not from the madrassas but from dysfunctional state schools or private, semi-commercial English-language schools promising a modern education in exchange for religious indoctrination. (In Sageman's more global sample, too, only 17 percent of the terrorists he examined had Islamic religious primary or secondary education; the rest went to secular schools.) For Pakistan's floundering, desperate lower-middle classes, jihad can offer a path to upward social mobility, since "the family of a martyr acquires a privileged position" in local towns and villages, often including financial support. Islamist Networks is a thin work, more a journal article between hard covers than a fully formed book. Still, especially read with Roy's other lectures and published work, it is nourishing.
Iraq is commonly described as a hinge conflict that will decide al Qaeda's future, but Zahab and Roy place more weight on the current peace talks between India and Pakistan, especially the talks about Kashmir's future. Unless those negotiations succeed, Pakistan's army will again "need the jihadis to put pressure on India," they fear, reviving the cycles of violence and state support that strengthened al Qaeda in the past. In the meantime, they argue convincingly, while Iraq's insurgency may be of rising importance, Pakistan "continues to be the central point of mobilisation of the Islamic radicals." •
Steve Coll, managing editor of The Washington Post, is the author of "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001."