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February 17, 2008


Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks, has a new book out: Leaderless Jihad. From the book description, his analysis seems to agree with Scott Atran's, especially the prominent role he assigns to social networks and much less to direct inspiration from the Qur'an (87% of the terrorists he previously studied had a secular education).

In the post-September 11 world, Al Qaeda is no longer the central organizing force that aids or authorizes terrorist attacks or recruits terrorists. It is now more a source of inspiration for terrorist acts carried out by independent local groups that have branded themselves with the Al Qaeda name. Building on his previous groundbreaking research on the Al Qaeda network, forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman has greatly expanded his research to explain how Islamic terrorism emerges and operates in the twenty-first century.

In Leaderless Jihad, Sageman rejects the views that place responsibility for terrorism on society or a flawed, predisposed individual. Instead, he argues, the individual, outside influence, and group dynamics come together in a four-step process through which Muslim youth become radicalized. First, traumatic events either experienced personally or learned about indirectly spark moral outrage. Individuals interpret this outrage through a specific ideology, more felt and understood than based on doctrine. Usually in a chat room or other Internet-based venues, adherents share this moral outrage, which resonates with the personal experiences of others. The outrage is acted on by a group, either online or offline.

Leaderless Jihad offers a ray of hope. Drawing on historical analogies, Sageman argues that the zeal of jihadism is self-terminating; eventually its followers will turn away from violence as a means of expressing their discontent. The book concludes with Sageman's recommendations for the application of his research to counterterrorism law enforcement efforts.

For those who are still skeptical of the power of social networks—online or offline—in inspiring suicidal acts, here is a Newsweek story from Wales that describes a warped youth culture few adults understand, or try to: How Grim Was My Valley.

Since the start of 2007, a total of 17 young people ... most of them teenagers--have killed themselves by hanging ... no one knows why it's happening ... The deaths have accelerated in recent weeks. Each new suicide has inspired another memorial page on popular social-networking Web sites like Bebo ... The Internet is a recurring theme in the Bridgend hangings. Most and possibly all of the victims were members of the Bebo networking site, and many of them posted messages on the public memorial pages of those who preceded them in suicide.

... the body of the 17th victim, Jenna Parry, was found hanging from a leafless little tree at the edge of a village common, a popular gathering place for local kids who call it the Snake Pit. Several homes can be seen a couple hundred yards away, across a field. The branch she used was barely high enough to keep her feet off the ground. Last week the tree was festooned with dozens of messages, flowers and butterfly knickknacks, including a purple wind chime of glass butterflies. (Friends and family sometimes called her Butterfly). "Save me a place with you," said one unsigned note. Similar thoughts were posted on Parry's RIP page on Bebo. "Your In A Better Place Now!" wrote a friend with the online name Sexyyjodi. "i'll See You Soon! LoveYouuSooMuchhh!!"

Scary stuff, indeed. Throw in a sense of moral outrage—imagined or real—and it is easy to get the Islamic variant of suicidal terrorism. The simple-minded among us, of course, blame it largely on the Qur'an. Both Atran and Sageman urge us to smarten up.

I am a american and not biased..lived on both side of the track poor and high middle class..first of all we need to stop with the Islamic terror stuff, there is worse going on in Kentucky IKA's these ppl feed on black and kews and will kill them at the drop of a dime..they've said on Hist.Ch. before.. What these international terrorist have done is due to part of our government..fact who funded them back when they fought the Russians? USA(government)operation CYCLONE dummies(fact) so when it was over..Our Government was done with short terms we ended up throwing them under the we could keep our ties with ....which makes us Americans look two-face....It foolish for people to point out every Muslim or Islamic person and say what they say about them all being killers..not true our government loves to taint..but yes the Al Quieda are bad..n there are bad people of all colors black, white, hispanic, oriental whatever thats logical!But look our government has kkk n neo nazi doing ish everyday..these people are trully brain washed, it never said its ok to kill ne1 in the Bible, Hitler was half Jewish..Its time for people to wake up and learn that we are all different, and that the Al Que are a product of what the US government made.. they are the outcome of a nation that thinks they are better than everyone but yet we still have major rascism n poverty in a nation that is most organized n technological...something is wrong..Trust me there are thousands more that think like me that know we cant believe everything we hear and only half of what we see...our nation ID cards we handed out in the cloak of benevelance like they where doing us a real favor...all i say to ppl is with every action you hear...start with point of origin then do your detective...or youll still be the ones who think Columbus founded America wow! how long was that lie for..

Here is a statement delivered by Atran on Mar 10, 2010 to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities.

“Pathways to and From Violent Extremism: The Case for Science-Based Field Research”

"We are fixated on technology and technological success, and we have no sustained or systematic approach to field-based social understanding of our adversaries' motivation, intent, will, and the dreams that drive their strategic vision, however strange those dreams and vision may seem to us."

Nicholas Lemann in the New Yorker surveys some more books by social scientists on terrorism:

Today, few consider the global war on terror to have been a success, either as a conceptual framing device or as an operation. President Obama has pointedly avoided stringing those fateful words together in public. His foreign-policy speech in Cairo, last June, makes an apt bookend with Bush’s war-on-terror speech in Washington, on September 20, 2001. Obama not only didn’t talk about a war; he carefully avoided using the word “terrorism,” preferring “violent extremism.”

But if “global war” isn’t the right approach to terror what is? Experts on terrorism have produced shelves’ worth of new works on this question. For outsiders, reading this material can be a jarring experience. In the world of terrorism studies, the rhetoric of righteousness gives way to equilibrium equations. Nobody is good and nobody is evil. Terrorists, even suicide bombers, are not psychotics or fanatics; they’re rational actors—that is, what they do is explicable in terms of their beliefs and desires—who respond to the set of incentives that they find before them. The tools of analysis are realism, rational choice, game theory, decision theory: clinical and bloodless modes of thinking.

That approach ... can produce some surprising observations. ... Mark Moyar, who holds the Kim T. Adamson Chair of Insurgency and Terrorism at the Marine Corps University, tells us that, in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s pay scale (financed by the protection payments demanded from opium farmers) is calibrated to be a generous multiple of the pay received by military and police personnel (financed by U.S. aid); no wonder official Afghan forces are no match for the insurgents.

In addition, in the NY Times Opinionator blog, Robert Wright examines the case of Faisal Shahzad, who tried to blow up a bomb in Times Square some days ago:

In the universe I’m positing, the following scenario is conceivable: A Pakistani guy moves to America, goes to college, gets a job, starts a family. He grows unhappy. Maybe he’s having financial problems (though I’m skeptical, for reasons outlined by Charles Lane here, that Shahzad’s home foreclosure actually signifies as much); or maybe the problem is just that he doesn’t find his social niche. And maybe he was a bit unstable to begin with — which would make it harder to find his niche and might intensify his reaction to not finding it.

Anyway, for whatever reason, he feels alienated in America. He stays in touch with people and events back home in Pakistan, and this gives him another reason to dislike America: American drones are firing missiles into Pakistan, sometimes killing women and children.

Thanks to the Internet, it doesn’t take him long to find like-minded folks, or to come under the influence of a radical imam operating out of Yemen. “Jihadi intent” is taking shape, and eventually he comes into the fold of actual jihadis, a faction of the Taliban in Pakistan. They give him what he hadn’t found in America: a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose. The basic ingredients of bomb-planting behavior are now in place.

Anthropologist Scott Atran, compelling as usual, talks to Robert Wright about what creates terrorists, the subject matter of his book a year ago, Talking to the Enemy (via 3QD). Additionally, here is an audio interview (click on Listen near the top), and another video interview.

Here is an interesting conversation between Newsweek's Christopher Dickey and Maajid Nawaz, a former Muslim terrorist, at THiNK Fest 2011, Goa: "The Story of an Anti-Extremist: Why I Joined the Jihaad, and Why I Rejected It."

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