Understanding Terror Networks

By Mayer Nudell, CSC

Understanding Terror Networks. By Marc Sageman, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, 800/537-5487 (phone), (Web); 220 pages; $29.95.

 In the last decade, the ever-changing phenomenon of terrorism has metamorphosed yet again, this time into a form that is deadlier and more difficult to combat than ever. Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is not only more violent than previous forms of terrorism, but it also operates in different ways. Understanding Terror Networks, by Marc Sageman, examines these differences, challenging the conventional wisdom about how and why terrorism operates.

Sageman, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Pakistan in the late 1980s, says that the traditional explanations for terrorism--poverty, trauma, mental instability, and so forth--don't apply to Islamic terrorists. His view is that social bonds are more important than ideological commitments and that these bonds are being transformed into a rationale for fanaticism that is inducing young, frustrated Muslims to become religious fanatics seeking to kill and obtain martyrdom. Sageman's underlying thesis is that modern technology has influenced this phenomenon, but the shape and dynamics of the social networks that become terrorist networks determine the survivability, flexibility, and, ultimately, the success of these groups.

The book reflects a systematic and pragmatic approach based on Sageman's personal experiences and research. Blending his training as a forensic psychiatrist, his experience as a diplomat dealing with Afghani mujaheddin, and his proficiency with various social science methodologies, Sageman has put together an excellent snapshot of the dangers posed by contemporary Islamic terrorists that is a blend of network theory, modeling, empirical analysis, and historical review.

The stereotypical terrorist--poor, desperate, single, and male--is no longer the principal challenge, Sageman contends. Rather, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist is as likely to be well educated, married, psychologically stable, and from a middle- or upper-class background. In many of these cases, they become homesick, embittered, and humiliated by the weakness and backwardness of the Arab world. Thus they form tight social cliques and look to the mosque for companionship, where they are convinced by radical clerics to embrace jihad against the West.

Understanding Terror Networks is a new and different view of a new and different form of terrorism. The insights and conclusions of Sageman befit his name and will benefit seasoned observers of terrorism, practitioners, and newcomers to the field alike.


Reviewer: Mayer Nudell, CSC (Certified Safety and Security Consultant), is an independent consultant based in Southern California who works on crisis management, contingency planning, and related issues. He is a member of ASIS International.



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