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Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century

Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century by Marc Sageman. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, 208 pp.

In Leaderless Jihad, forensic psychiatrist and counterterrorism consultant Marc Sageman contributes to the field of international security by providing a detailed look into the current global Islamist terrorist threat, examining its evolution since the 1980s and the demographics of who is behind the latest wave of terrorism. Initially, the book lures the reader with its discussion of the waves of Islamist-based terrorism: the first wave, beginning in the 1980s with individuals who fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan and formed the core of what is now al-Qaeda; the second, occurring in the 1990s and motivated by Muslim suffering around the world; and the third (the main subject of Leaderless Jihad), involving jihadists motivated by the US invasion of Iraq. In his description of these waves of Islamist terrorism, Sageman addresses the evolution of al-Qaeda from its incarnation as “al Qaeda Central,” led by Osama bin Laden, to “the al Qaeda social movement . . . composed of informal networks” that, with the help of the Internet, has become a leaderless jihad under the stewardship of the third wave of terrorists (p. 31).

Sageman offers a better understanding of the threat we currently face by examining methods of studying terrorism and by discussing microlevel analysis of the individual and macrolevel analysis of the sociological root causes of terrorism, as well as problems and limitations associated with both methods. He then recommends “Middle-Range Analysis” (p. 23), a scientific method that considers terrorism in the context in which it occurs.

In conducting this new study, the author developed a database of over 500 terrorists, beginning with “the nineteen September 11, 2001, perpetrators” (p. 27) as the index sample, focusing on their “relationships with other terrorists, nonterrorists, ideas, and the social, political, economic, cultural, and technological context” (p. 25). The database allows Sageman to dismiss many misguided beliefs about jihadists—for example, that poverty, lack of traditional education, and deeply religious backgrounds lead them to terrorism. On the contrary, most come from middle-class families, have a college education, and reflect moderately religious to secular upbringings (pp. 48–51).

“The Atlantic Divide,” one of the more intriguing chapters, discusses differences between Muslims’ experience in America, where they have assimilated relatively easily, even in the aftermath of 9/11, and in Europe, where they are seen as outsiders. Sageman believes that the latter perception has led to increased rates of radicalization in Europe, resulting in post–9/11 attacks there by homegrown terrorists.

Sageman ties all of these elements together by connecting the growth of the Internet to the loss of physical habitat that has all but neutralized al-Qaeda Central and has prompted that organization’s social movement to seek the safety of chat rooms, where it flourishes today (p. 121). This phenomenon has added a new layer of complexity to combating terrorism. Whereas in the other waves, groups may eventually moderate and look beyond terrorism to attain their goals, virtual leaderless movements may not: “Unlike traditional terrorist organizations that have physical sites and more territorial ambitions, there is no incentive for a leaderless virtual social movement to moderate or evolve beyond terrorism” (p. 123).

Sageman makes a number of recommendations for combating this new wave of terrorism. Several are sharply perceptive (removing the glory from terrorism, countering the enemy’s appeal, and funding scientific research on terrorism); others seem oversimplified and idealistic (diminishing moral outrage, ending discrimination against Muslims, and eliminating terrorist networks). Nevertheless, given the newness of this approach, the author’s recommendations merit investigation.

Disappointingly, Sageman’s expanded database does not include the detailed data that appeared in his previous work Understanding Terror Networks (2004). Matching the names of the perpetrators to terrorist acts would make the information all the more compelling. Regardless, Leaderless Jihad provides new insight and a fresh perspective on the study of Islamist-based terrorism in the twenty-first century, clarifying the motivations, demographic background, and contextual circumstances behind that threat.

Maj Michael C. Arndt, USAF

Carmel Valley, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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