Marc Sageman’s views on terrorism in the 21st century

Much of Sageman’s data set focuses on the central organization of Al Qaeda. Do you feel that this can be generalized to the larger jihadist movement?

Sageman’s contention that Al Qaeda is now a decentralized and more diffuse organization is quite correct. After the killing of Osama bin Laden and his top rung of aides, there seem to be a weakening of command-and-control style of organizational leadership. Sageman’s data, drawn heavily from the Islamic diasporas from across the world bear this view. The new modus of operation is for discrete and disparate groups of a few individuals to conceive and execute acts of terror. The result is that the scale of these acts tend to be smaller and its targets less specific. That there were no acts of terrorism to match the human and collateral damage witnessed on 9/11 supports this view. Hence what is observed with Al Qaeda is applicable to the broader jihadist movement.

Discuss the roles that social networks can play in creating and maintaining terrorist groups.

As per Sageman’s analysis, central leadership has given way to communities of terrorist cells. In this milieu, affiliation to a particular organization is less important compared to the adoption of the general jihadist ideology. In this way terror acts of recent years have been the brainchild of localized secret social networks of jihadists. The key to the survival of these social networks is the support they receive from fellow Muslims in civil society. Though some members of the broader Islamic community do not believe or participate in jihad, their implicit support is essential for the success of these terror groups. Evidence from the first, second generation Muslim immigrants to the UK support this claim.

Although Sageman discounts psychological explanations of terrorism, certainly not all analysts agree with him. What role do you think that psychological issues play in the ‘making of terrorists’?

I agree with Sageman in that sociological explanations hold more merit than psychological ones. In the context of the creation of jihadists, there are numerous socio-cultural factors at play. Indoctrination from a young age in orthodox religious views is one factor. The education system of madrasas is part of this set up. Likewise, the stereotyping of gender roles, especially the acceptance of violence as a masculine trait is also part of the problem. The allure of martyrdom with its mythical promises of a heavenly after-life is another reason why jihad thrives.