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Behind Enemy Lines

Reviewed by Steve Coll

Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page BW10


By Marc Sageman. Univ. of Pennsylvania. 220 pp. $29.95


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The Afghan-Pakistan Connection

By Mariam Abou Zahab and Olivier Roy

Columbia Univ. 92 pp. $49.50

Public rhetoric about terrorism is often abstract. President Bush declares a generalized "war on terror." The press explains, as a provocative Newsweek cover put it after Sept. 11, "Why they hate us." Now a presidential campaign summer rings with broad questions about whether the Iraq war strengthened or weakened al Qaeda, and whether it is possible to alter the sweeping forces that are presumed to foster Islamic radicalism, such as satellite television networks, oil dependency, Middle Eastern poverty, and the spread of madrassas, religious schools that often teach an unyielding Islamic faith.

These two small and important books analyze al Qaeda and jihadist violence in a more granular, specific fashion. They are interested not in grand ideas but in the details of al Qaeda's recruitment and support networks. They use the biographies of individual terrorists and obscure al Qaeda-linked groups to explain the movement's evolving structure. By this path the authors challenge some poorly examined assumptions of familiar public debates.

In the end, by hewing to scientific method and forswearing strategy, the authors illuminate crucial but neglected strategic questions of their own: How and why do al Qaeda cells form? What are the important patterns of individual radicalization? What is al Qaeda's new geographical center?

Marc Sageman is a former CIA case officer who worked undercover on the Afghan frontier during the 1980s. After he left the agency, he became a forensic psychiatrist specializing in the motivations of murderers and genocide perpetrators. Drawing upon open sources, Sageman studied the biographies of 172 jihadist terrorists, scrutinizing their stories for patterns. In Understanding Terror Networks he spreads out a feast of stimulating insights.

Sageman concentrates on the small, loose, committed cells of young Muslim men that seem to form almost spontaneously in Europe or North Africa. The cell members pledge themselves to the global jihad, then develop the discipline and commitment needed to carry out a terrorist attack, sometimes by suicide. These Bunches of Guys, as they have been labeled half-facetiously, bind each other to secret membership and reinforce a mutual commitment to violence.

The multinational Hamburg cell that executed the Sept. 11 attacks -- intimate, ultimately loyal but often arguing among themselves, as the Sept. 11 investigative commission recently showed -- is a prototype of the emerging global jihad. In another context such testosterone cliques might rob banks or brawl at local soccer matches. Here kinship and friendship networks, images of violence against Muslims, deepening faith and access to al Qaeda's resources can lead them to cross oceans and commit mass murder.

Sageman argues that poverty, religious belief and political frustration are "necessary but not sufficient" to explain how a few angry young Muslim men -- but not many, many others -- decide to embrace jihadist violence. More important are "social bonds" among the young volunteers, the sense of clandestine belonging they develop, and their ability to make reinforcing contact with al Qaeda leaders or trainers. Bunches of Guys become effective terrorist cells "through mutual emotional and social support, development of a common identity, and encouragement to adopt a new faith." These internal group ties are more significant, Sageman argues, than external factors "such as common hatred for an outside group." After losing its Afghan sanctuary, al Qaeda's leadership is less hierarchical than in the past and more reliant on such semi-independent cells in diverse regions. Sageman notes that the Moroccans who carried out the hotel bombings in Casablanca in 2002 bonded and planned their attacks on long camping trips in local caves and forests, aided by expert advice from more senior al Qaeda contacts who had once trained in Afghanistan. He calls such local volunteers and local training a "wave of the future." After his book went to press, a similar regional group killed 191 people in railway bombings in Madrid.

Sageman's work is mainly detailed analysis, but he does offer some practical advice, some involving his old work as a spy recruiter. Group loyalty among Islamic radicals makes it very difficult to lure informers or agents. The best luck is likely to be had from Bunches of Guys who trained for jihad but decided not to act -- the Lackawanna Six in upstate New York, for instance, or the similar accused group in Northern Virginia. In such cases, Sageman writes, an "aggressive policy of prosecuting" these almost-jihadists without exploring their recruitment as agents may be a "mishandled opportunity." Perhaps even more important is putting country-by-country and node-by-node pressure on al Qaeda leaders and trainers, making it harder and riskier for aspiring cells to connect with the more ambitious, capable wings of Osama bin Laden's movement. If a particular volunteer Bunch of Guys is unable to train or plan with competent al Qaeda leaders, they are more likely to fade away in place or carry out a relatively small attack.

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