Middle East Policy Council

Book Review

Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century

Marc Sageman

Fall 2008, Volume XV, Number 3
Careful analysis and well-articulated research is rare amid the onslaught of recent books devoted to terrorism and violent Islamist extremism. Marc Sageman’s new book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, is one of those rare contributions. Sageman seeks to examine the evolution in the global jihadi movement since the destruction of al-Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan and the transformation of the organization into a diffuse, loose-knit, informal network. As a forensic psychiatrist and a former CIA case officer working with the Afghan resistance during the Soviet occupation, Sageman offers keen insights in a well-crafted and thoroughly documented assessment of the rise of al-Qaedainspired and al-Qaeda-aspirant terrorism. This violence is a break with the historical precedent of terrorism directed by what has come to be known as al-Qaeda central.

Picking up on his earlier study (Understanding Terror Networks, 2004) Sageman argues that terror networks are built through ties of kinship and friendship. These connections, he asserts, often precede radicalization. Who you know plays a large part in the collective recruitment process. Kinship and friendship linkages are increasingly recognized, thanks in large part to Sageman’s work, as a critical component in how networks form and expand. Moreover, there is a growing body of specialists who focus on the application of social movement studies to extremist Islamism. Evidence of the potency of kinship and friendship ties can be seen in the strong tendency among jihadis from Morocco to Yemen for radicalization to run in families and among close childhood associates. Sageman’s thesis is now perhaps best known as the “bunch of guys” or the so-called “halal” theory of terrorism, suggesting that individuals go through the radicalization process collectively, amid friends and comrades sharing common interests.

One of the book’s greatest contributions comes in chapter three, where Sageman debunks a series of commonly held misperceptions about the origins of terrorism. Based on an analysis of some 500 individual cases that he has collected through open-source research (up from the 172 used in Understanding Terror Networks), he is able to systematically refute a number of prevailing assumptions about what drives an individual to terrorism. Economic deprivation, brainwashing, naïveté, ignorance, lack of family responsibility and sexual frustration are all in turn dismissed as primary factors. Sageman also demonstrates that psychological abnormality and prior criminality do not play a significant role in his sample. The intersection of terrorism and criminality deserves further study; early assessments suggest that, in some cases, it is more pronounced than in Sageman’s sample. In discussing educational levels, Sageman observes the high prevalence of individuals pursuing technical studies such as engineering and medicine among jihadis. Why are so many jihadis engineers? This is the topic of an important recent Oxford study, Engineers of Jihad, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog (2007).

Another major contribution of Leaderless Jihad is the identification of a four-pronged radicalization process. Sageman is careful to note that this is not a linear process, nor is it a progression with easily definable boundaries. He identifies the four aspects as moral outrage, a perception of Islam under siege, the resonance of moral outrage with personal experience, and mobilization by networks. Sageman uses this framework to contextualize the rise of so-called self-starters, the leaderless jihad. This process helps us understand the radicalization process; however, as others have noted, another important factor is the role of radical ideology. Exposure to radical ideology and extremist recruiters and materials plays an important role in radicalization. To be fair, Sageman does not dismiss ideology; rather Leaderless Jihad focuses on understanding the bottom-up social mobilization that has become increasingly more common today.

The last chapter focuses on a series of policy recommendations designed to combat terrorism. While including calls to prevent the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by terrorist groups and action to eliminate terrorist networks, Sageman also calls for other policies, such as greater funding for serious scholarship on terrorism. We are beginning to see implementation of the latter. Perhaps more important, he identifies important policies that will no doubt do much to short-circuit the radicalization process: reducing discrimination against Muslims, countering the appeal of radicalism and avoiding incidents that lead to moral outrage within the Muslim world. Recognition that there is no security solution to the struggle against violent, radical Islamism is vital, and many of Sageman’s recommendations are spot-on.

Leaderless Jihad at times reads like a primer for the 100 or so government policy makers and senior planners concerned with terrorism. Nonetheless, this important book offers much to researchers and analysts, as it is tightly focused on two essential questions: who gets radicalized and why.

What separates this book from the bulk of material produced in recent years is its cogent analysis, direct assessments, and accessibility. Sageman’s use of his own unique data set is impressive. Coupled with the insights he brings to the analysis garnered through his personal experiences, this results in a very nuanced assessment. As a fellow researcher, I would have liked to see more detail about the cases he tracks, especially as his data set represents a potentially invaluable resource for other academics. Leaderless Jihad is a timely study that should be read by researchers, analysts and policy makers alike.

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