Magazine article The Spectator

Dangers of the Group Mentality

Magazine article The Spectator

Dangers of the Group Mentality

Article excerpt

LEADERSHIP JIHAD: TERROR NETWORKS IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY by Marc Sageman University of Pennsylvania Press, £16.50, pp. 200, ISBN 9780812240658

Marc Sageman is deservedly one of the best-known academics working on terrorism. A clinical psychologist and former CIA officer, in 2004 he published Understanding Terror Networks, a book which enlarged the way the subject was seen.

Hitherto, most researchers and governments had located the 'root causes' of terrorism either in religion (Islam) or in social and economic conditions. A third approach, the biographical, offered fascinating case-histories of terrorists thought to be mad or incomprehensibly evil and who generally turned out to be rather more commonplace.

Sageman's achievement was to start with evidence, not theory. He constructed a database of 172 terrorists and looked at what their lives had been, and particularly at whom they knew. This led to his 'bunch of guys' theory: essentially, that people become terrorists by joining groups and then influencing each other to commit acts of terrorism. Although religiously inspired, they are neither knowledgeable nor devout; they are certainly not theologians. Although they make politics of religion, most are politically unsophisticated and wilfully blinkered.

What moves them is the intoxication of feeling part of what Sageman calls 'the violent, Islamist born-again social movement'. That, and the intimacy of clandestinity, the selfrighteous thrill of seeking justice for others, the heady sense of personal destiny and the illusion of paradise persuade them to act in groups in ways that, individually, most would never do. Unexceptional young men see mass murder as the key to unlocking the frustration of their lives and to achieve lasting significance. In most other ways they are like the rest of us.

In this book Sageman reaffirms the findings of his earlier work, adding the results of his expanded database which now comprises some 500 cases. Noting that, like most political movements, 'The composition of the al'Qa-eda social movement is solidly middle class', he identifies three waves of modern terrorism. The first is the old guard, companions-in-arms of bin Laden in 1980s, Afghanistan, still the core of al-Qa'eda, educated, often wealthy Middle Easterners. The second wave joined in the 1990s, seeking to avenge the sufferings of Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and the Philippines.

They came not only from Muslim countries but from the Muslim diaspora in the West, and trained in Afghanistan until the camps were destroyed after 9/11. Like their predecessors, they became global terrorists, of no fixed abode, guns for hire wherever the cause should need them (although most grew out of it and returned or retired to Europe and social security). …

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