Meet the al-Qaeda archetype

Educated, professional, married and sane. In fact, says terrorism expert Marc Sageman, a lot like us.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘I suppose it must be disconcerting to be told that the guys who did 9/11 were not lunatics from another planet, but were actually fairly normal.’

Terrorism expert Marc Sageman made waves at an international conference in Washington last week, when he presented his findings on 382 suspected terrorists who have direct or indirect links to Osama bin Laden’s network. Sageman found that the terrorist stereotype – of poor, young, single men from the dusty backstreets of the Muslim world brainwashed into committing fanatical acts – doesn’t stick when it comes to al-Qaeda. Rather, most of them are well-educated, well-off, cosmopolitan and professional, with good jobs, wives and no history of mental illness. ‘Some people at the conference were…a little taken aback’, Sageman says. ‘I could have been describing them rather than bin Laden’s men.’

Sageman teaches at the University of Pennsylvania; he is a counterterrorism adviser to the US government and author of Understanding Terror Networks. He spent the past two years poring over the available data on terrorists known to be associated with al-Qaeda. That includes direct members of al-Qaeda, such as bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, al-Rashidi and the rest, and members of other groups known to share al-Qaeda’s goals, including Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jemaah Islamiyah (detonators of the Bali bomb), and the Abu Sayyaf Group in the southern Philippines. Sageman left out the Palestinians, Chechens, Kashmiri guerrillas and others involved in a ‘domestic insurgency against their own governments’, instead focusing on ‘Muslim terrorists who target foreign governments and their populations, the “far enemy”’ (1). ‘I looked at the new terrorist’, he says. ‘The new, nihilistic, global terrorist.’

He found that ‘traditional theories of terrorism’ offer few insights into the lives and motivations of these new terrorists. Where terrorists are usually seen as being ignorant and immature, as coming from a poor background and a broken family, with no skills and no family or job responsibility, little of this is true for al-Qaeda members and supporters. According to Sageman, even traditional theories about terrorists being ‘evil’ and ‘religious fanatics’ do not work for the new lot, a majority of whom had secular upbringings and schooling and some of whom adhere to few strict religious rules. ‘I think it’s comforting to believe these guys are different from us, because what they do is so evil’, says Sageman. ‘Unfortunately, they aren’t that different.’

He drew his data from unclassified government documents, police wiretaps, news reports, academic publications and transcripts from trials in America, France, Germany, Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco, arriving at what one American journalist last week described as ‘the most thorough profile of the members of this terrorist network available outside the walls of government secrecy’ (2). His sample breaks down into four groups – Central Staff (38 leading al-Qaeda members), Maghreb Arabs (162 terrorists from the north Africa region), Core Arabs (127 terrorists from the ‘core Arab’ states Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Kuwait), and Southeast Asians (55 terrorists largely from Indonesia and Malaysia).

He admits that his sources are incomplete and sometimes of questionable reliability. He points out that because he largely relied on public records, his results may be skewed towards better-known, more prominent al-Qaeda associates; and where information about upbringing, profession, marital status and the rest was available for some in his sample, it wasn’t available for others. Yet he believes his research is sufficiently detailed to show that ‘there’s something different about these new groups’.

Sageman found that, for all the simplistic claims made recently about poverty breeding terrorism, a majority of his al-Qaeda sample were middle or upper class and well-educated. Of his sample of 382, he had information on the social status of 306; he found that 17.6 per cent were upper class, 54.9 per cent middle class, and 27.5 per cent lower class. The highest number of upper- or middle-class individuals was among the Core Arabs (from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Kuwait), and the highest number of lower-class individuals was among the Maghreb Arabs from north Africa. Even among those who seem most closely to fit the terrorist stereotype – the Southeast Asians – Sageman found a bias towards being middle class. Out of those for whom he had information about family background and social status, 10 of the Southeast Asians were middle class and two lower class.

Sageman had info on the level of education reached for 264 of his subjects – 16.7 per cent were educated to a level less than high school; 12.1 per cent had at least a high school education; 28.8 per cent had some college education; 33.3 per cent had a college degree; and nine per cent had a postgraduate degree.

Even more surprising are Sageman’s findings on what type of education these individuals received. Of 265 of his subjects, only 9.4 per cent had a religious education, and 90.6 per cent had a secular education. Among the Central Staff (bin Laden and co), fewer than five individuals had a religious education; among the Maghreb Arabs, none had a religious education. A recurring scare story since 9/11 has involved those Islamic fundamentalist schools in Pakistan and elsewhere, which are said to be breeding new bin Ladens. ‘But very few of my subjects went to schools like that’, says Sageman.

The al-Qaeda subjects’ high level of education is reflected in their professions. These are not drifters or unemployed loners tempted into a life of terrorism by the promise of money or glory; rather, most of them had good jobs. Sageman gathered information on employment for 268 of his subjects: 42.5 per cent were professionally employed (doctor, lawyer, teacher, and so on), 32.8 had a semi-skilled job, and 24.6 per cent were unskilled. The highest number of professionals was among the Central Staff (only one of whom was an unskilled worker), while the highest number of unskilled workers was among the Maghreb Arabs.

Sageman’s sample is made up of young, respectable Arabs and Asians. The average age of his subjects is 25.69 years. Even the Central Staff are mostly young, where the average age is 27.90 years; among the Core Arabs the average age is 23.75 years, and among the Southeast Asians it is 29.35 years. For those subjects where information about marital status was available, Sageman found that 73 per cent were married and most had children; all of the Central Staff and Southeast Asian members were married. Among the entire sample, a majority had never committed a crime, apart from some credit card fraud, money-laundering and other petty offences among the less well-off Maghreb Arabs.

While al-Qaeda members and supporters may have a perverse and twisted view of the world, Sageman found that, contrary to some conventional wisdom, they are not mentally ill. He found only four cases of a ‘possible thought disorder’; one subject had ‘mild mental retardation’. There was ‘very little trauma’ in the subjects’ upbringings, and fewer than 10 per cent of them experienced the death of a parent while they were young. Overall, says Sageman, they were ‘good kids’ – ‘with the exception of some second-generation Maghreb Arabs, who lived a life of petty crime’.

There is a tendency to view al-Qaeda and its supporters as completely different to us. They are described as ‘cult fanatics’; one author claims that, ‘When all is said and done, most men, and especially men from non-Western cultures and less developed areas, are capable of taking great pleasure in great evil’ (my italics) (3). Yet Sageman’s findings suggest that some of the most nihilistic terrorists today are fairly Westernised and well-off. ‘It is comforting to think of the terrorist as “the Other”’, says Sageman, ‘but that isn’t quite the case. Mostly these guys are the elite of their countries; they are very much like some of us in the West’.

But that begs a big question: what went wrong? How did these people from ‘caring and middle-class families’ become mass killers? How did individuals so apparently like us – professional, well-educated, married and normal – turn into nihilistic terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers, killed scores at the Pentagon, massacred holidaymakers in Bali, and exploded rucksack bombs on rush-hour trains in Madrid? Sageman has no easy answers. But, he says, there is one thing more than any other that distinguishes these al-Qaeda people from groups such as the Taliban and Pakistani fundamentalists, and which might provide some clues to their bizarre transformation. They are, says Sageman, ‘international people’; they are ‘global citizens’ who left their homes and travelled, some of them to the West.

Sageman found that a high number of his subjects, 70 per cent, ‘joined the jihad’ in a foreign country, and ‘many of these joined in a Western country’. They were recruited – or rather ‘they self-recruited themselves’, he says, pointing out that there is little evidence of a hierarchical structure to al-Qaeda or its off-shoot groups – after leaving home and travelling abroad. ‘Basically, what we’re talking about here is the elite of the country sent abroad to study, because the schools in Germany, France, England and the USA are better. That is what you have with someone like Mohammed Atta’, he says, referring to the reported ringleader of the 9/11 operation, who left Egypt to study architecture in Hamburg where he set up the Hamburg cell that apparently coordinated much of the 9/11 attack.

‘Another large component are people who left home for economic opportunities’, says Sageman. ‘For instance the Maghreb Arabs, who went to Spain, Italy and France for work.’ Then there are those who already lived in the West, the French, Spanish, Italian and British-born citizens who also became part of the terror network. Sageman says that 10 per cent of his sample are second-generation Arabs, largely Maghreb Arabs who grew up in France and Spain.

The Core and Maghreb Arabs, in particular, were ‘upwardly and geographically mobile’, says Sageman; some of them were ‘conversant in three or four languages’. He contrasts the global nature of the new terror networks with the myopic, navel-gazing fundamentalism of groups like the Taliban. ‘They are completely different from the Taliban. They thought the Taliban were just a bunch of ignorant guys who couldn’t read and write. They hated each other, in fact. Al-Qaeda thought the Afghans were just a bunch of crazy-eyed fanatics.’ Sageman points out that not a single one of his 382 subjects is from Afghanistan, where the Mujihadeen was born 25 years ago during the Afghan-Soviet war. They are not Pashtun villagers but travelling, educated Arabs and Asians, many of whom are ‘recruited’ in London, Paris, Hamburg, Montreal, or other cities ‘away from their own home’.

Some in the West imagine that terrorism is something from ‘over there’. The war on terror focuses on foreign fields, on an external enemy; indeed, much of the war on terror has been aimed at Afghanistan, even though Sageman found that there were no Afghans in his al-Qaeda sample. Yet many of the Islamic terror attacks of the past decade have had ties closer to home than we would like to admit. They have been executed, not by fanatics from far away, but by Sageman’s ‘international people’; by individuals who lived and worked in the West, and who often became radicalised in the West, too.

The bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993 was organised by Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, a 25-year-old Pakistani who went to college in Swansea in Wales – and he was helped by people he met in a mosque in New York. Ahmed Ressam, a 33-year-old Algerian who was caught trying to plant a bomb at Los Angeles international airport in 1999, had drifted around the ex-pat Algerian community in France before moving to Canada; it was in a Canadian mosque that he got involved in Islamic extremism.

Mohammad Atta seems to have developed his particular brand of anti-Western terrorism while in Hamburg rather than in Cairo, where he had been a member of the anti-government Muslim Brotherhood but was never involved in terrorist activities. Zacarias Moussaoui, the ‘twentieth hijacker’ of 9/11, was a French-born Muslim who got involved with fundamentalists at a mosque in Brixton in south London; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, apparently a key planner of 9/11, studied at university in North Carolina. Richard Reid, the ‘shoe-bomber’ who tried to blow up a plane over the Atlantic in December 2001, may seem like a traditional terrorist – an unemployed loner of less than average intelligence – but he was brought up in Bromley in south-east London, and also fell in with fundamentalists at the Brixton mosque. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, the Briton convicted of murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl, was educated at the prestigious Forest School in Walthamstow in London, and attended the London School of Economics.

Sageman believes there must be something in the global experience that plays a role in pushing the subjects who travelled towards the new terror networks. ‘They become separated from traditional bonds and culture’, he says. ‘Many of them will have become homesick, feeling lonely and marginalised and perhaps rejected by their new host society.’ Sageman found that most of the individuals he studied were not actively recruited into al-Qaeda or other groups, but rather ‘fell in with the wrong crowd’. ‘They kind of drifted to the mosques, more for companionship and friendship than for religion. This is where they would become a “bunch of guys”, smoking and drinking and generally bitching about their lives.’

‘It’s not just the homesickness. You also need to have some kind of script. These guys are lonely, and then they hear this narrative, from radical mosques and so on, which says: “You guys are unhappy because you are excluded from society and the reason you’re excluded from society is because there is a crisis of values. It’s because of the corruption of the West, because of greed and decadence, and you have to fight against it.” This script seems to make sense of what has happened to them and explains why they feel so low.’ Through this process, observed Sageman in his studies, homesick Arabs and Asians start to ‘create a clique that distances itself from society and develops its own micro-culture’.

Isn’t there also something about Western society itself which encourages these otherwise well-educated and respectable individuals to hunker down, to create cliques that ‘distance themselves from society’? Sageman talks of the role of radical mosques in providing homesick Muslims with a means for venting their spleen, and sometimes providing them with links to other, perhaps violently minded individuals. Yet the drift of young Muslims, whether Western-born or middle-class foreigners, to radical mosques and fundamentalism also says something about a malaise at the heart of Western society.

Some of these terrorists are not made in Kabul, Cairo or Tehran, but in London, New York and Montreal. Such terrorism, it seems, is less a consequence of far-away fanaticism infiltrating the West, but rather suggests a failure on the part of mainstream institutions in the West to cohere society or to provide individuals with any meaningful sense of identity. There is a growing sense of atomisation and alienation in the West, not only among immigrants but across society. Homesick Arabs might feel it more acutely, but it affects everyone in British, American and European societies, in the growth of disillusionment with public institutions and disenfranchisement from the political process. Could it be that the new terrorism, which we consider so strange, so awful, so alien, is in fact a product of the same corrosive forces that impact on the rest of us?

Sageman’s study certainly forces us to confront some awkward questions. After the horrendous Madrid attacks of March 2004, conservative newspaper columnist Barbara Amiel said of the bombers: ‘They inhabit a different moral universe from us.’ (4) It might make us feel better to see terrorists as an alien breed, but the fact is that often they inhabit the same physical universe as us; and according to Sageman’s findings, they are like us in many ways too. It is surely time to look anew at what is driving the new nihilism, and how we might combat it.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Understanding Terror Networks, Marc Sageman, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004

(2) US has false al-Qaeda view, ex-agent says, San Diego Union-Tribune, 4 July 2004

(3) See Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) See Creating the enemy, by Brendan O’Neill

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