Bolstered by the power of the Internet, Western governments have more to fear from "homegrown wannabes" than the core of al Qaeda, an influential terrorist expert warns.
It's no secret that the power of the Internet has been leveraged by the likes of al Qaeda to radicalize and to recruit a new generation of terrorists, as well as disseminate terrorist tactics and methods to whomever has the initiative to carry out an attack. But a new trend in jihadism is emerging, according to terrorism expert Marc Sageman in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy (subscription only):
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the threat confronting the West has changed dramatically, but most governments still imagine their foe in the mold of the old al Qaeda. The enemy today is not a product of poverty, ignorance, or religious brainwashing. The individuals we should fear most haven’t been trained in terrorist camps, and they don’t answer to Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. They often do not even adhere to the most austere and dogmatic tenets of radical Islam. Instead, the new generation of terrorists consists of homegrown wannabes— self-recruited, without leadership, and globally connected through the Internet. They are young people seeking thrills and a sense of significance and belonging in their lives. And their lack of structure and organizing principles makes them even more terrifying and volatile than their terrorist forebears.
Sageman describes these self-starters as the "third wave of radicals" to emerge out of al Qaeda's ideology of global jihad. The first wave was "al Qaeda Central," those Afghan Arabs that came to the region around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border to fight the Soviets during the 1980s. These recruits were well-educated, middle class, and an average age of 30 before taking up arms. The second generation came from those elite Middle Eastern expatriates who left their homelands to study in Western universities throughout the 1990s. Alienated in their new cultural setting, this younger generation's anger at their marginalization led to their radicalization. These men then sought training at al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and were incorporated into al Qaeda Central.
The third wave, writes Sageman, constitutes something new. Radicalized by the invasion of Iraq, these even younger men, many of them teenagers, want to take part in jihad like the heroes they venerate. Cut off from al Qaeda Central, they use the Internet to create decentralized terror networks that are self-financed and self-trained, what Sageman calls "a leaderless jihad."
Unlike their predecessors, Sageman told a gathering at the Center for National Policy , the "third-wave is devoid of intellectuals. It is a youth culture."
Examples of this new trend abound. The young Muslim man that murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street in 2004 was part of a homegrown terror network that planned to bomb the Dutch parliament among other bombing and assassination targets.
The Madrid train bombing of 2004 presents another example of this concept of leaderless jihad. The perpetrators of the Madrid train bombing, the deadliest jihadist attack on European soil, were all foreign born Muslims, many mixed up in crime, that met after soccer games and attending mosque. No connections have been discovered between the Madrid network and al Qaeda Central.
Because this new generation has no connections to known terrorists and uses the Internet to communicate, Sageman notes, it's easier for them to evade detection by the West's intelligence agencies. It also makes it harder to prosecute criminally as well. Dutch prosecutors released seven men convicted as members of the Dutch network because "no structured cooperation [had] been established," according to the appeals court, meaning the convicted didn't meet face-to-face making it hard to provide evidence that a terrorist organization existed.
But Sageman remains sanguine. He believes the seeds of the third wave's destruction lay within. During the talk at the Center for National Policy, Sageman called the third wave "self-limiting." Because jihadism has gone virtual, there's no command and control to direct sophisticated terrorist operations. Furthermore, much of the jihadist rhetoric online remains fantasy and will never materialize. And while Iraq animates the current Muslim rage online, it won't be a rallying cry forever and as "the Western footprint there fades, so will the appeal of fighting it," argues Sageman.
Already successful at killing or capturing the first and second generation of al Qaeda, he says the United States must shift away from a military mindset toward active containment. This means the United States needs to undermine jihadism by associating it with common criminality. "Turn them into the common thugs they are," recommends Sageman. Perception is everything in this fight.
Additionally, the United States must resist giving arrested or captured terrorists the media attention they crave. When terrorist arrests occur, the government should not hold press conferences and it should try the cases as quietly as possible.
However, if the United States continues the military approach to terrorism, Sageman warns, it falls into the trap of giving this new generation of terrorism what it desperately wants: the legitimacy conferred upon them when they fight the world's lone superpower on the battlefield. Sageman regards this as a spectacle that only leads to further recruitment that replenishes the terrorists' ranks.