Hot on the heels of yesterday’s Relax Bulletin, the revelation that there are only 91 million admitted jihadists, comes the latest from former CIA agent Marc Sageman, who says that the jihadists only number a few thousand bored youths, looking for thrills. No ideological component, no religious component. So relax, will you?
“The Fading Jihadists,” by David Ignatius in the Washington Post (thanks to the Constantinopolitan Irredentist):
Politicians who talk about the terrorism threat — and it’s already clear that this will be a polarizing issue in the 2008 campaign — should be required to read a new book by a former CIA officer named Marc Sageman. It stands what you think you know about terrorism on its head and helps you see the topic in a different light.
The heart of Sageman’s message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat — and then by our unwise actions in Iraq making the problem worse. He attacks head-on the central thesis of the Bush administration, echoed increasingly by Republican presidential candidate John McCain, that, as McCain’s Web site puts it, the United States is facing “a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War against Islamic Extremists” spawned by al-Qaeda.
The numbers say otherwise, Sageman insists. The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a “clash of civilizations.”
From Ignatius’s account at least, Sageman appears to ignore entirely the other active and violent jihad groups around the world, operating in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Kashmir, Chechnya, Nigeria, etc. etc.
He also seems to ignore the abundant evidence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s — in their own words — “grand Jihad” aimed at “eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and “˜sabotaging” its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and Allah’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.” This statement comes from a 1992 Brotherhood memorandum, in which many prominent American Muslim groups, including the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Students Association, are named as “friends.”
If Sageman mentions any of this, Ignatius doesn’t pick up on it.
It’s the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman’s account, it’s a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls “terrorist wannabes.” Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills.
“It’s more about hero worship than about religion,” Sageman said in a presentation of his research last week at the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank here. Many of this third wave don’t speak Arabic or read the Koran. Very few (13 percent of Sageman’s sample) have attended radical madrassas. Nearly all join the movement because they know or are related to someone who’s already in it. Those detained on terrorism charges are getting younger: In Sageman’s 2003 sample, the average age was 26; among those arrested after 2006, it was down to about 20. They are disaffected, homicidal kids — closer to urban gang members than to motivated Muslim fanatics.
I have no doubt whatsoever that many people join jihadist groups because they’re bored, or because all their friends are doing it, or because they’re looking for thrills, or some such. But “disaffected, homicidal kids” may not be an entirely accurate formulation on the very day that the LA Times publishes a story about a jihadist cell in Morocco consisting of politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats, pharmacists, a police commander, and a TV journalist.
I don’t know how Sageman knows that these bored youths don’t read the Qur’an, but the fact remains that virtually every statement from Osama bin Laden, or al-Zawahri, or even Adam Gadahn, or from the British jihadists, or from Abu Bakar Bashir, or from virtually every other leader of this movement anywhere in the world, quotes copiously from the Qur’an, couches its appeal in terms of the religious obligations of Muslims, and presents the jihad movement as the embodiment of pure and true Islam. This is readily documentable — here is one example, and here is another, and here is a third, and there are plenty more where those came from.
This focus on Islam is strange behavior for a movement that is not essentially religious, and forces us, if we accept Sageman’s analysis, to believe that the vast majority of young men join jihadist groups while ignoring, being indifferent to, or outright rejecting the dominant ideology and goals of those groups. I wonder if he has any documentation of any jihadist who has ever stated such things. I rather doubt he does.
Sageman’s harshest judgment is that the United States is making the terrorism problem worse by its actions in Iraq. “Since 2003, the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including the U.S. The data are crystal clear,” he writes. We have taken a fire that would otherwise burn itself out and poured gasoline on it.
Would it have burned itself out in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, etc. — all those places I named above and others? Would it have ended the Brotherhood’s subversive action inside the United States?
The third wave of terrorism is inherently self-limiting, Sageman continues. As soon as the amorphous groups gather and train, they make themselves vulnerable to arrest. “As the threat from al-Qaeda is self-limiting, so is its appeal, and global Islamist terrorism will probably disappear for internal reasons — if the United States has the sense to allow it to continue on its course and fade away.”
Sageman’s policy advice is to “take the glory and thrill out of terrorism.” Jettison the rhetoric about Muslim extremism — these leaderless jihadists are barely Muslims. Stop holding news conferences to announce the latest triumphs in the “global war on terror,” which only glamorize the struggle. And reduce the U.S. military footprint in Iraq, which fuels the Muslim world’s sense of moral outrage….
Ultimately, more comforting hogwash, diverting us from the reality of the situation.