Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century

Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century

Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century

Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century


In the post-September 11 world, Al Qaeda is no longer the central organizing force that aids or authorizes terrorist attacks or recruits terrorists. It is now more a source of inspiration for terrorist acts carried out by independent local groups that have branded themselves with the Al Qaeda name. Building on his previous groundbreaking work on the Al Qaeda network, forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman has greatly expanded his research to explain how Islamic terrorism emerges and operates in the twenty-first century.

In Leaderless Jihad, Sageman rejects the views that place responsibility for terrorism on society or a flawed, predisposed individual. Instead, he argues, the individual, outside influence, and group dynamics come together in a four-step process through which Muslim youth become radicalized. First, traumatic events either experienced personally or learned about indirectly spark moral outrage. Individuals interpret this outrage through a specific ideology, more felt and understood than based on doctrine. Usually in a chat room or other Internet-based venues, adherents share this moral outrage, which resonates with the personal experiences of others. The outrage is acted on by a group, either online or offline.

Leaderless Jihad offers a ray of hope. Drawing on historical analogies, Sageman argues that the zeal of jihadism is self-terminating; eventually its followers will turn away from violence as a means of expressing their discontent. The book concludes with Sageman's recommendations for the application of his research to counterterrorism law enforcement efforts.


The threat from al Qaeda and its local affiliates is rapidly changing. The Islamist terror networks of the twenty-first century are becoming more fluid, independent, and unpredictable entities than their more structured forebears, who carried out the atrocities of 9/11. The present threat has evolved from a structured group of al Qaeda masterminds, controlling vast resources and issuing commands, to a multitude of informal local groups trying to emulate their predecessors by conceiving and executing operations from the bottom up. These “homegrown” wannabes form a scattered global network, a leaderless jihad. Although physically unconnected, these terrorist hopefuls form a virtual yet violent social movement as they drift to Internet chat rooms that connect them and provide them with inspiration and guidance. As the threat has migrated from outside to inside Western countries, the challenge for governments lies in detecting and neutralizing these groups before they become violent. The key to successful eradication of this threat, which is real but unlikely to endanger the existence of the nation, is to understand the dynamics of this process, which has serious implications for how Western governments should proceed to contain this menace.

This book, like its predecessor Understanding Terror Networks, brings the scientific method to the study of terrorism, taking into account how it has changed in recent years. Reports that al Qaeda is regaining strength and mustering resources for another assault do not reflect the full picture (see Chapter 7). The threat to the West has evolved from infiltration by outside trained terrorists against whom international liaison cooperation and border protection are ef-

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