Monday, November 22, 2010

Marc Sageman's Leaderless Jihad - A Critique

Earlier this year, I wrote a review on Professor Marc Sageman's Leaderless Jihad.  Earlier today I ran across it and decided to share it here.  Note, it’s a book review and not an opinion piece, but Sageman writes a very academically compelling argument on the problems of terrorism.  He is refreshingly devoid of extreme bias.  Enjoy:


                Many have defined the causes and the roots of terrorism.  Many have tried to describe the conditions that breed radical Islamic terrorists.  Most strategic foreign policy analysts take a macro-level, root-cause approach to what breeds terrorism.  The majority of these attribute the terrorism to be products of brutal poverty; inhumane, dictatorial, and tyrannical governments; and/or anger at US foreign policy toward the Muslim world.  Others have attempted to describe these causes by examining the individual terrorist.  They have tried to look for genetic similarities, commonalities with upbringing, and/or shared histories of mental illnesses.
Marc Sageman
Marc Sageman, a forensic psychologist takes a new approach to defining the terrorism problem set.  He describes the terrorist as products of networks of individuals sharing similar emotional reactions to external stimuli.  Sageman states this process occurs as follows:  They start out by experiencing either personally, or vicariously, events that cause “moral outrage;” they then come to a conclusion that the West is engaged in a war on Islam; they then experience things personally that resonate with these thoughts; finally, they are mobilized, radicalized into action, by networks of similarly minded individuals, or by an already radicalized recruiter.  He does a very thorough and persuading job, utilizing extensive personal research to provide evidences for these conclusions.
Sageman finishes his book by providing policy recommendations that are aimed at disrupting these steps in the process.  This document will examine each of these nine recommendations, providing the author’s opinion on the strengths and weaknesses of them.

Establishing Homeland Security

                Sageman makes the argument, correctly, that Islamic terrorism as it currently presents itself, is not an existential threat to the United States.  It should, therefore, he argues, be contained at its current level.  While this author agrees with the premise of the statement, this author also thinks a policy of simple, non-action is unrealistic in a representative government.  It is simply untenable in today’s society.


In this step, Sageman recommends adopting a similar policy as was practiced in the Cold War.  He argues that it will be a difficult step because the third wave of terrorism, those radicalized after, and due to, the Iraq War, are already in Western countries.  They are the domestic radicals and containing them involves “disrupting the process of radicalization before it reaches its violent end” (Sageman 2008, 151).  “Aggressive border protection, especially at airports worldwide, has effectively countered this threat” (Sageman 2008, 151).

Take the glory out of terrorism

                Sageman then proposes this step to take the incentive out of terrorism.  One proactive method he argues is to make the use of military force should be last resort.  It is true that images of Muslims fighting American soldiers do glorify the ‘jihad,’ as Iraq proved and he argues that the forces should be moved in and out quickly if used at all.  Though, at this point, the author could not help but ask was that not the plan to begin with, in Iraq (Sageman 2008, 153)?  This obviously makes the use of military force problematic.  True, it should be last resort, yet to expect brief, intense conflicts followed by immediate withdrawals will usually cause more damage than good as in the case of Somalia.
                Another method of de-glorifying terrorism Sageman suggests is to “reduce the terrorists to common criminals” (Sageman 2008, 153).  While his reasoning is sound from a Western point of view, recent history has shown this view to be problematic.  The trial of terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is likely to turn into political circus, a forum granted to admitted terrorists who openly wish for “martyrdom,” to put the United States on trial in front of the Muslim world (White 2008).  There is no doubt the terrorists want that exposure.  Now, whether or not this would have any negative effect overseas remains to be seen.

Diminish the moral outrage

                Sagemen’s next suggestion is to find ways to interdict that first point in the radicalization process:  the moral outrage.  This is where Sagemen falls prey to the conventional wisdom of the diplomatic corps and those who take the terrorists at their words.  He specifically states the Palestinian issue in Israel and calls for the US to broker a peace between the two.
                This is where this author must throw up his hands in exasperation and ask what have the US been trying to do for the last 30 years?  This author agrees the Palestinian issue to be a legitimate grievance and one that needs resolution.  However, to believe that a lasting peace, if even possible for HAMAS to abide by, would be a cure to diminishing moral outrage is simply disingenuous.  The professional Palestinian agitators of Fatah and HAMAS would simply latch onto another aspect of US foreign policy to serve as the target of the hatred the terror-hustlers antagonize.
                The fact is, the US must be in certain places in order to protect its strategic interests.  Examples of these include energy interests in the Middle East, the burgeoning natural resources on African continent, and the securing of strategic lines of communication to ensure freedom of travel of trade routes and military forces.  These areas include many Muslim countries.  Until the US retreats to within its borders and is no longer an influential force, which would existentially threaten our way of life, it will remain an object of hatred and scorn by many in this world.  That is not to say the US should not make attempts to be honest ambassadors of human rights and freedom and seek to build positive relationships with all peoples, but to believe appeasement can turn enemies, especially in that part of the world, is naive.

Counter enemy’s appeal

In this step, Sageman calls for Muslims themselves to fight extremist Islam themselves.  He rightly says the war is within Islam and must be won by the majority that is a proponent of peace (Sageman 2008, 157).  He also exposes the tremendous need for appropriate heroes and role-models for Muslim youths (Sageman 2008, 159).   Though these recommendations are positive actions that would make a difference, they are dependent upon the population the US is trying to reach.  Therefore, this step, the author found the most unconvincing from a policy standpoint.  It is highly unrealistic to base policy upon the hope that the population to be reached simply complies with the wishes of the US.
The only actual suggestion he gives US officials from a policy perspective is to enhance what the military calls strategic communication.  This campaign would be aimed at exploiting the overreach and atrocities of the terrorists against fellow Muslims.  This combined with practicing restraint in operations, both domestic and overseas, and the aforementioned actions on the part of the Muslim community.

Eliminate discrimination against Muslims

                This recommendation, Sageman argues, would do wonders in combating his third stage of the radicalization process:  the resonance with personal experience (Sageman 2008, 163).  If there were no personal experiences that could be interpreted as discrimination on the basis of Islam, then there would be no resonance with that moral outrage and would counter thoughts on the existence of a war against Islam.  He calls out Europe for its systematic intolerance of immigrants, particularly Muslim minorities, as particularly culpable for this discrimination.  To counter this, he asks Europe to adopt the US melting-pot construct, practicing acceptance, encouraging assimilation, and affording job opportunities.
                This author is again skeptical of this recommendation.  The most outspoken of Muslim advocacy groups in America, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has numerous links to international terrorist organizations (Frum 2004).  This is just one example of the extreme views of those supposed to counter actual discrimination in the United States.  All too often, formerly legitimate groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Jewish Anti Defamation League, and the American Civil Liberties Union, become hijacked by far left extremists who turn into attack mouthpieces who create popular backlashes against the very people they propose to help.  Sageman is correct in one half of his recommendation: Muslim advocacy groups should indeed protest actual, legitimate acts of discrimination; however, they should also make very public efforts to seek to destroy, counter, and actively work within the Muslim community to counter extremism.

Eliminate terrorist networks

                In this, the most obvious recommendation, Sageman calls for a grass-roots level solution to destroying terrorist groups already in place.  In order to make this an effective campaign, the law enforcement community must have the respect and support of the populace.  He cites the inability of the European police forces to recruit Muslim minorities as one of the reasons for the disconnect and distrust between the police and the peoples (Sageman 2008, 166). Furthermore, he lauds the American police departments’ practices of drawing its police officers from within the communities they police.  This allows for representation of the Muslim, and other, minorities within the police, greatly alleviating tensions and perceptions of discrimination and racism (Sageman 2008, 166).
                This is, perhaps, is the strongest of the recommendations Sageman has.  Terrorism, by Sageman’s own exposition, is a community problem.  Terrorists, especially those in Western countries, are radicalized in small groups, usually in an ethnocentric enclave.  When law enforcement does not have the support or trust of those they police, vital reports do not make it to the right ears.  Key suspicious incidents are not relayed to the police because of the mutual suspicion.  Endless government programs and public expositions of cooperation and friendship between national religious entities will do little to solve the terror problem compared to a real grass-roots commitment to security and cooperation.

Fund scientific research on terrorism (so he can get more cash)

                This author’s first thought when reading this step was “Obviously!  So Sageman can get more grants!”  All humor aside, this recommendation does make sense.  Far too much in resources is squandered chasing politically acceptable counterterrorism policies.  Sageman is correct in stating government agencies are not the place to be conducting research into terrorism as the research and conclusions themselves are far too often influenced by the opinions of seniors and/or more ‘experienced’ individuals who are grounded and unmovable to new ideas (Sageman 2008, 173).
                Another of the more interesting reasons why Sageman distrusts the current government research is the distaste he says they have of open source collection.  He believes all the models and analysis tools are worthless without vast amounts of data to populate those models and tools.  Rather than invest more in the employment of unbiased, open-source collectors of this data, the intelligence community instead relies of the standard, secretive collection methods of the community (Sageman 2008, 173).  Sageman is correct in this statement; and the government has noticed this deficiency.  By reconstituting the Foreign Broadcast Information Service as the new Open Source Center and essentially awarding open source its own “INT” as in OSINT, the US has demonstrated an increase in emphasis on open source collection to provide analysts those data points necessary (Director of National Intelligence 2005).  Obviously, more is needed, but it is a healthy start.

Deny WMD acquisition

In this recommendation, Sageman tells policymakers to not focus solely on the traditional terrorist networks and their, possible, rogue state sponsors.  He suggests recent history shows there are other methods of obtaining the necessary materials and expertise than from state assistance (Sageman 2008, 175).  Secondly, he calls for measured, rational responses to any possible attack (Sageman 2008, 176).  This is the celebrated Hollywood scenario (The Sum of All Fears) wherein terrorists are able to initiate a full-scale thermonuclear war between two powers, one of which suffered the initial terrorist attack.
                These recommendations are soundly based upon logic and evidence.  They are more warnings than recommendations and Sageman drops a not-so subtle hint to the rash atmosphere in between the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq.


Sageman does do a fine job of making recommendation that would interdict each step of the radicalization process he describes.  He leaves virtually no stone unturned, covering all aspects of Islamic terrorism.  In this author’s opinion, his two main weaknesses are the fact that many of the recommendations rely on the actions of third parties, and not the United States; and that he suffers from some mirror imaging, projecting the Western mind onto the Muslim (and most likely, Arab) mind.  And by mirror imaging, this author means that Sageman assumes the overtures (that much of recent history has disproven) taken toward the Muslim community will be interpreted as he believes they should:  as reciprocal acts of goodwill and understanding.
                This work by Sageman is very compelling, in that he approaches the manner in an academic fashion, clear-headed, and devoid of political rhetoric.  As stated in the outset, his findings are very difficult to counter, as they are all factual based.  His recommendations, on the other hand, are a little suspect at times and would need a long time to see the results even if they are positive.


Director of National Intelligence. "Establishment of the DNI Open Source Center." Central Intelligence Agency. November 8, 2005. (accessed February 26, 2010).
Frum, David. "The Truth Abour CAIR and Terrorism." Front Page Magazine. November 26, 2004. (accessed February 26, 2010).
Sageman, Marc. Leaderless Jihad - Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. Philladelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
White, Josh. "9/11 Architect Tells Court He Hopes for Martyrdom." The Washington Post. June 6, 2008. (accessed February 25, 2010).

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