Al Qaeda is not the central planning, recruiting and organizing force for global terrorism it once was, but has become more of a brand name that leaderless terrorist groups around the world assume to gain recognition and notoriety, according to a leading terrorist expert.
The third wave of terrorists comprises mostly "terrorist wannabes," said Marc Sageman, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, who was a CIA case officer in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
They are a post-Iraq terrorist generation made up predominately of Muslims in Europe who feel shut out of the labor market, said Sageman, speaking in Washington on Feb. 20 at an event sponsored by the New America Foundation. They become increasingly radicalized by shared group discontent and join the terrorist jihad in a quest for glory and heroism, he added.
These dissidents typically don't associate face to face, rather their interaction has shifted to Internet chat rooms and online forums, which act as "echo chambers" where anger intensifies and participants become more radicalized, Sageman said. The virtual world enables the natural dynamic of "in-group love and out-group hate," in which jihadists become more withdrawn from society and associate only with radical and like-minded thinkers.
The Internet also is transforming the demographics of the modern terrorist threat, he said, as younger people, who constantly troll Web sites, and women, traditionally excluded from political participation because of religious reasons, are able to become involved in activism. While the post-Sept. 11 security environment is much more hostile toward terrorist aspirants, the Internet permits scattered groups to connect virtually.
Sageman said the first wave of terrorists were early companions of Osama bin Laden, who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight Soviet invaders. Called Afghan Arabs, most being Egyptian, they are the surviving leaders of al Qaeda. Bin Laden only trusts and has contact with this hard-core group of original al Qaeda members. The second wave joined al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, he said, and is made up mostly of disenfranchised Muslims from Europe. Both groups, which number around 2,000, remain isolated and hidden in the lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan border region.
The third wave sprung up organically, linking virtually with other networks, but because of the war on terror they have been unable to travel to this region for al Qaeda training and resources. Far more terrorist plots originate with this latest wave, Sageman said, but generally, they are poorly planned and the terrorists usually are arrested before they carry out an attack.
The latest terrorist wave is largely a self-limiting threat, Sageman said, because it's made up mostly of bored, unemployed young people with fantasies of glory and thrills. That profile lacks the ideological commitment to jihad that is typical of the older al Qaeda generation. Feeling shut out of the local labor market, they turn to crime and, in many cases, join gangs. They typically lead a life of crime for about a decade and then turn to religion as a salvation, he added, proceeding down a path of radicalization and violence sparked by moral outrage.
Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist who examined the cases of nearly 500 known terrorists in his book 'Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the 21st Century' (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), found no single characteristic that explains why somebody becomes a terrorist. The most common trait among terrorists is shared relationship. More than two-thirds of the cases he examined were either friends who associated at the local mosque and then joined terrorist organizations collectively or were relatives who joined the family business.
"Most small groups of jihadists are trusted friends, who have spontaneously self-organized, with no top down al Qaeda recruitment program," Sageman said. This pattern also was identified by Islamic scholar Olivier Roy in his book 'Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah' (Columbia University Press, 2004). He labeled it franchising. Groups organize based on local solidarities, such as neighborhood, family or tribe and take on the al Qaeda label, but with no actual ties to the organization."
The pool of potential Mujaheddin is composed of small clusters of close friends, relatives, worshippers and disciples, who are connected through strong bonds," Sageman said. "This group becomes self-sufficient and closes in on itself. This social isolation protects the group.
"Since the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorist arrests in the United States have targeted 60 people, he said. During the same period in Europe, terrorist arrests totaled 2,400. More Muslims there turn to terrorism than in the United States because most European countries are built on a notion of national essence, Sageman said, which can shut out other cultures. Muslims in Europe also face a tough job market and high unemployment, he said, factors that foster disenfranchisement, anger and radicalization.
In the United States, the idea of a national melting pot and the American dream tend to weaken the appeal of jihadism among Muslim Americans. The ones who migrate to the United States typically are university professors, engineers, physicians and business professionals who more easily enter the labor force. The average Muslim family in America makes about $70,000 per year, compared with the national average of $48,000, Sageman said.
Many warn of al Qaeda and its jihadist appeal spreading throughout the Muslim world. But Sageman said in every instance al Qaeda has attempted to shift from terrorism to governing, it has been rejected. He cited Algeria in the 1990s, Afghanistan in 2001 and most recently, the Anbar province of Iraq.
The result is a Taliban-like regime, such as the one that arose in Afghanistan in the 1990s, he said. The Taliban was rejected for its harsh measures and piety when a stronger armed movement, the U.S. military, arrived in 2001.
The idea of establishing an al Qaeda regime is not the reason people become terrorists, Sageman said, rather it's about the process of trying to become heroes and finding something appealing in their unsatisfying and boring lives.