Joshua Sinai
(Program manager for counterterrorism studies at The Analysis Corporation ( in McLean, Va. USA)


Radical Muslims represent a minority within the Muslim world. Since most Muslims are not extremists, why are so many young Muslims drawn to extremist interpretations of Islam as the basis for establishing radical regimes in their societies? How do they become radicalized? Finally, how can violent radicalism be countered and defeated?

These questions are discussed in Marc Sageman's important book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008; 208 pages, $24.95). Dr. Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and political sociologist, is also a former CIA case officer who worked with the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He is also the author of the groundbreaking "Understanding Terror Networks," which was published in 2004 and has become one of the leading studies on the global Islamist terror movement.

In "Leaderless Jihad" Dr. Sageman, whom I know professionally, updates and expands his earlier work on what drives radical elements of a society to terrorism. Dr. Sageman's research is unique in the field of al Qaeda studies, in particular, because of his "evidence-based" approach. Here he has assembled profiles of individual operatives to generate insights about their personal characteristics and motivations, recruitment patterns, organizational formations and warfare.

According to Dr. Sageman, the al Qaeda-led Islamist social movement consists of several thousand members (out of a worldwide Muslim population of some 1.5 billion). It is "composed of social networks that mobilize people to resort to terrorism. These networks may become formal organizations, like al Qaeda or its Indonesian affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, depending on shifting circumstances."

Moreover, while al Qaeda "Central" is currently headquartered along the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier, its "social movement has spread far beyond the original organization." This makes it even more dangerous, according to Dr. Sageman, because as a social movement it has dramatically grown beyond its organizational origins.

Today's al Qaeda (and the social movement it has spawned) is the product of three historical waves, Dr. Sageman writes. The first wave consisted of the "old guard," the veterans of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan who joined Osama bin Laden in forming the core of al Qaeda Central in the 1980s. The second wave joined al Qaeda in the 1990s after training in its camps in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda "Central" was predominant during this phase, closely directing its operations around the world.

The third wave, however, is the post-2001 generation of radicals, who joined al Qaeda following the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq. Although it lost its safe haven and training facilities in Afghanistan, the al Qaeda-led social movement is even more pervasive because of its global reach as well as its links to al Qaeda "Central" along the Pakistan-Afghan border and on the Internet, where it has succeeded in radicalizing a new generation of activists, including many among second-generation Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America. This was the cohort, for example, that carried out the suicide attacks against London's transportation system in July 2005.

How are the members of al Qaeda's third wave mobilized into becoming "warriors for Islam?" Dr. Sageman writes that they view themselves (whether rightly or wrongly) as "heroes, fighting for justice and fairness" to transform their societies.

Moreover, Dr. Sageman asserts, the process of their radicalization depends on an individual's sense of moral outrage in response to perceived suffering by fellow Muslims around the world; how he might interpret such moral outrage within the context of a larger war against Islam; whether or not the sense of "moral outrage" resonates with one's own experience, for example, discrimination or difficulty in making it in Western society and, finally, being mobilized by networks that take one to the next level of violent radicalization in the form of terrorist cells.

To counter the social movement inspired by al Qaeda, Dr. Sageman proposes a strategy to "take the glory and thrill out of terrorism." Military operations against them should be conducted swiftly and precisely, with such terrorists considered "common criminals." The sense of "moral outrage" by young Muslims can be diminished by helping to resolve local conflicts that al Qaeda's propaganda highlights as injustices against the Muslim world. The young jihadists want to become heroes, so they need to be provided with alternative role models, such as Muslim soccer stars and other successful community leaders.

Dr. Sageman's incisive observations based on carefully examined evidence, astute insights and scholarship make "Leaderless Jihad" the gold standard in al Qaeda studies.

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