the Normality of Global Jihadi Terrorism
ne of the most difficult things to understand about the 9/11/01 terrorist attack on the United States is why the terrorists did what they did. What drives people to kill themselves so spectacularly and commit mass murder at the same time?
Common theories of rationality do not help. It is obvious that when people fly into buildings, something else trumps their self-interest. The common tendency is to explain other people’s behavior as stemming from some internal predisposition. The conventional wisdom about terrorists falls into this line of arguments: terrorists are products of poverty, broken families, and ignorance who lack skills and opportunities; they are without occupational or family responsibilities; or they have weak minds and are vulnerable to brainwashing from madrassas (Islamist boarding schools) or their families of origin.
Alternative explanations of terrorism center on personality factors. Some claim that terrorists, especially those who commit suicide in the process of murdering innocent civilians, are mentally ill, have personality disorders, are criminals, religious fanatics, or simply evil. This article will examine these claims in the light of empirical evidence and generate a new theory of the evolution of terrorists, stressing the importance of natural group dynamics.
The following analysis is based on the biographies of about 400 terrorists collected from open sources. This sample includes only people who are linked to the perpetrators of the attacks of 9/11 and are therefore part of al Qaeda or its affiliates. It excludes other terrorists, who have more nationalistic goals, such as the Palestinians or Tamil Tigers. The data comes from documents and transcripts of legal proceedings involving these terrorists and their organizations, government documents, press and scholarly articles, and Internet articles. Although each piece of evidence may be of questionable reliability, the overall pattern shows robust trends that are consistent over the on-going gathering of this database.
Malignant Social Factors
The common stereotype is that terrorism is a product of poor, desperate, naïve, single young men from third world counties, vulnerable to brainwashing and recruitment into terror. Unpacking this formula, the geographical origins of the mujahedin should be not only the third world, but some of the poorest countries of the third world. It also implies that they come from the lowest socio-economic strata. Their na•ve vulnerability implies that they either are brainwashed early into hatred of the West or are relatively uneducated and susceptible to such brainwashing as young adults. In this sense, they are relatively unsophisticated and local in their outlook. A broad experience of the world might be protective against the alleged brainwashing that presumably led to their conversion to terrorism. The desperation implies that their occupational opportunities are extremely limited. They are single, for any strong family responsibilities might prevent their total dedication to a cause that demands their ultimate sacrifice.
In fact, most of the terrorists in the sample come from core Arab countries, immigrant communities in the West, Indonesia or Malaysia. They do not come from the poorest countries in the world, such as Afghanistan. Surprisingly, there is no Afghan in the sample. In terms of socio-economic background, three-fourths come from upper and middle class families. Far from coming from broken families, they grew up in caring intact families, mildly religious and concerned about their communities. In terms of education, over 60 percent have some college education. Most are in the technical fields, such as engineering, architecture, computers, medicine, and business. This is all the more remarkable because college education is still relatively uncommon in the countries or immigrant communities they come from. Far from being immature teenagers, the men in my sample joined the terrorist organization at the age of twenty-six years, on average.
Most of the terrorists have some occupational skills. Three-fourths are either professional (physicians, lawyers, architects, engineers, or teachers) or semi-professionals (businessmen, craftsmen, or computer specialists). They are solidly anchored in family responsibilities. Three-fourths are married and the majority have children. There was no indication of weak minds brainwashed by their family or education. About half of the sample grew up as religious children, but only 13 percent of the sample, almost all of them in Southeast Asia, were educated in Islamist boarding schools or madrassas. The entire sample from the North African region and the second generation Europeans went to secular schools. About ten percent were Catholic converts to Islam, who could not have been brainwashed into Islam as children.
Another popular set of explanations of terrorism centers on mental illness or innate criminality. Such popular explanations are based on the belief that “normal” people do not kill civilians indiscriminately. Such killing, especially when combined with suicide, is viewed as irrational. The mental illness thesis is dealt a strong blow by the fact that only one percent of the sample had hints of a thought disorder, which is below the base rate for thought disorder worldwide. A variant of the abnormality thesis is that terrorists are sociopaths, psychopaths, or people with antisocial personality disorder. These terms are used to mean that terrorists are recidivist criminals, due to some defect of personality. Such recidivism implies that this personality defect had some antecedents in childhood. Out of the third of the sample where fragments of childhood data exist, less than eight percent showed evidence of a conduct disorder. The rest of this group seems to have had normal childhood without any evidence of getting in trouble with the law.
On a logical basis, although antisocial people might become individual terrorists, they would not do well in a terrorist organization. Because of their personalities, they would not get along with others or fit well into an organization, and indeed would be least likely to join any organization that would demand great sacrifices from them. They would be weeded out early if they attempted to join. Likewise, very few people in my sample had any criminal background. Those who did came from the excluded North African immigrant community in Europe and Canada, where they resorted to petty crime to survive. But there were no previously violent criminals in this sample. Therefore, it is more parsimonious to argue that, in an organized operation demanding great personal sacrifice, those least likely to do any harm individually are best able to do so collectively.
The failure of mental illness as an explanation for terrorism is consistent with three decades of research that has been unable to detect any significant pattern of mental illness in terrorists. Indeed, these studies have indicated that terrorists are surprisingly normal in terms of mental health.
Pathological Personality Dynamics
Despite this consensus among terrorist experts, some versions of the mental illness thesis still survive among the public and mental health professionals, who seek an explanation for terrorism in terms of pathological personality dynamics, which compel them to commit acts of violence. They argue that terrorists suffer from some form of personality pathology due to childhood trauma. Childhood narcissistic wounds get healed in adulthood through “pathological narcissism” or “paranoid personality,” which eventually results in the pursuit of terrorism.
The paranoid variant of this argument postulates a dynamic triad: insatiable narcissistic entitlement; disappointment, disillusionment and frustration that inevitably result when the narcissistic needs are not satisfied; and narcissistic rage arising from the rejection of the entitlement and a sense of betrayal. This rage is projected onto scapegoats - hence the need to have enemies, answering the “Why do they hate us?” question - and results in violence. This is the essence of the “psychopolitics of hatred.”
The “narcissistic” variant of this argument does not have much support from the sample. The evidence from the sample of these terrorists shows well adjusted children, without any antecedents of a narcissistic personality disorder. Nor was there much evidence of “childhood trauma” described by self, friends, or relatives. As a group, they had surprisingly little personal trauma in their lives, given their origin (communities with higher mortality rate than the Western world). There is little evidence of pathological, malignant or even simple narcissism in the sample. Unlike many other terrorist organizations, global jihadi groups are careful to avoid a cult of personality, for they believe that everything belongs to God. Indeed, they take seriously the notion of Islam as submission, and this is not compatible with a narcissistic cult of personality, which often degenerates in a pyramidal organization, with all the controls in the hands of the leader. Al Qaeda’s structure is quite the opposite, with a large degree of local autonomy and initiative.
The “paranoid” variant of the pathological personality argument, which depends on mysterious internal forces that cannot be formally surveyed, also lacks empirical support from the sample. What needs to be shown is that terrorist leaders and followers either suffer from paranoid personality disorder or the paranoid dynamic triad. The sample under study did not reveal a pattern of paranoid personality disorder or lifestyle before joining the jihad. The concern with security and secrecy after joining the social movement is simply a realistic necessity for survival of these clandestine organizations and not indicative of any pathology. Likewise, any politically violent group, whatever its ideology, demonizes its opponent. This is in the nature of these organizations and does not imply paranoia. Indeed, the al Qaeda leadership has been remarkably free of internal purges and vicious infighting so common with more traditional terrorist organizations. This promotion of cooperation among different local terrorist groups is not consistent with a paranoid style of personality.
The failure to find a common profile for this particular form of terrorism is consistent with three decades of research, which tried in vain to identify a common predisposition for terrorism. The most extensive research projects focused on former German and Italian terrorists from the 1970s. The studies concluded that there was no social or psychological profile for terrorism. More recent comprehensive reviews of the evidentiary basis of these arguments have found it to be completely unfounded. This search is another instance of what social psychologists call the fundamental error of attribution. They found that people usually attribute other people’s behavior to internal predisposition, such as personality, but attribute their own behavior to situational variables. The vast majority of experiments in psychology also suggest that situational factors rather than personal characteristics are better explanations for people’s behavior. The failure to discover common malignant social factors or pathological personality dynamics in al Qaeda terrorists clears the way for an analysis of the situational variables at the time of joining the jihad.
Joining the Jihad
What were the circumstances in the lives of the potential terrorists at the time they joined the global jihad? One of the most striking findings from the data is that about seventy percent of the terrorists joined the jihad as expatriates. This means that they joined the jihad in a country where they did not grow up. Another ten percent were the excluded second generation of Maghreb Arabic origin raised in Western Europe. So, about eighty percent were alienated from their ambient society and cut off from their cultural and social origins, far from their family and friends of origin.
The expatriate sample consists of two different groups. One could be called the best and the brightest of their original countries. They were upper middle-class, educated young men from caring and religious families, who grew up with strong positive values of religion, spirituality, and concern for their communities. They were truly global citizens, conversant in four or five languages, and skilled in computer technology. Because they were the best and the brightest, they were sent to Western Europe and North America to study and polish off their skills. The other group consists of migrants to the West, in search of economic opportunities. They were lower middle-class, with more rudimentary education, but still conversant in two or three languages. Both groups of upwardly mobile young men found themselves separated from their original environments. They became homesick, lonely, and alienated. Although they were intellectually gifted, they were marginalized, underemployed and generally excluded from the highest status in the new societies. Although they were not religious, they drifted to mosques for companionship. There, they met friends or relatives, with whom they moved in together often for dietary reasons. As their friendship intensified, they became a “bunch of guys,” resenting society at large which excluded them, developing a common religious collective identity, egging each other on into greater extremism.
Another interesting pattern from the data is that most terrorists joined the jihad through friendship and kinship bonds. Sixty-eight percent had pre-existing friendship bonds to people already in the jihad or joined the jihad as a collective decision. The Montreal cluster, which attempted to bomb Los Angeles Airport during the Millennial celebrations; the Hamburg cell, which provided the leadership for the 9/11/01 operations; and the Madrid cell, responsible for the 3/11/04 Atocha train station bombings were good illustrations of this pattern of expatriate groups joining the jihad.
These were not individual but collective decisions. These pre-existing friendship bonds accounted for all the students joining the jihad, for Western universities select their students on the basis of merit and not family. Childhood friends, raised together in the suburbs of the Middle East, and migrating together to the West formed the rest of this sample. Twenty percent more joined through kinship bonds. This means that they had a close relative in the jihad, such as a father, a brother or a first cousin. Kinship bonds are more prevalent in the economic migrant group, for the pattern was for an older brother to migrate and later bring along younger siblings or relatives. Kinship is becoming more prevalent in the mobilization into this terrorist social movement, as more economic migrants join it in the post 9/11 period. While the Hamburg cell formed by university students did not include a single bond of kinship, the Madrid network, mostly economic migrants with a sprinkling of students, included six sets of brothers. Once inside the terrorism social movements, the new members cemented their mutual bonds by marrying the sisters and daughters of other terrorists.
Joining this violent social movement was a bottom-up activity. Al Qaeda had no top-down formal recruitment program. There was no central committee with a dedicated budget for recruitment or any general campaign of recruitment. There was no need for them. There were plenty of volunteers who wanted to join the jihad. Al Qaeda’s problem was never recruitment but selection. It was akin to applying to a very selective college. Many apply but few are accepted. Likewise, al Qaeda was able to assess and evaluate potential candidates who showed the desire to join by coming to Afghanistan for training. It invited only about fifteen to twenty-five percent of that group to join the jihad. Post 9/11, after the U.S. military eliminated terrorist sanctuaries, this selective process has stopped. Now, volunteers join the movement and perform operations without being trained or formally joining the old al Qaeda. Casablanca, Istanbul and Madrid are examples of this new trend.
Much has been made of the religious dimension of this new wave of global terrorism. Yet, at the time they started along the trajectory that led them to join this social movement, there is little evidence of religious fanaticism. Expatriates and the excluded second generation drifted toward local mosques because they were looking for Muslim friends, and that’s where Muslims hang out. And this is where pure chance might have contributed to their radicalization. If the future friends met in the vicinity of a radical mosque, this mosque might have provided a mutual script for their common meetings that took place there. Very few mosques advocated a very radical militant and violent interpretation of Islam. Indeed, about ten Islamist institutions generated about forty percent of the sample. Although there was a dip in religiosity at the time they met, within a short time, there was a dramatic shift in devotion to their faith. But social bonds predated any ideological commitment. There was no evidence of “brainwashing”: the future terrorists simply acquired the common beliefs of their friends.
The process just described is grounded in social relations and dynamics. To look at it through individual lenses, as a Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island narrative, is to miss the fundamental social nature of this process. And this is where women might play a critical role. So far, the account of the global jihad seems to be a purely male story of heroic warriors fighting the evil West. Yet, women also may play a critical role in this process. They might provide the invisible infrastructure of the jihad. As influential parts of the social environment, they often encourage their relatives and friends to join the jihad. Many Christian converts or secular Muslims joined because of marriage to a committed wife. Indeed, invitation to join the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah depends on the background of the spouse of the applicant. And once in the jihad, single members often solidify their participation by marrying the sisters of other members. This further separates the new recruit from the rest of society and increases his loyalty to the social movement.
Motivating terrorist operations
So far, the evidence points to mobilization into this terrorist social movement as a social process based on pre-existing friendship and kinship. But the most troubling aspect of this network of terrorists is their willingness to kill innocent civilians and themselves in the process. How does this process take place? This is where the role of religion comes into play.
A violent militant ideology resonated with the new “bunches of guys” formed all over the world because it provided an explanation for their common experience of exclusion and pointed them in a direction to remedy their situation. This ideology is based on a utopia promoting justice and fairness. This particular ideology has its roots in a revivalist explanation of Muslim loss of prominence over the past five centuries. Like all “born again” arguments, it claims that Muslim have strayed from the righteous path. The source of strength of the original and righteous Muslim community was its faith and its practices, which pleased God. Recapturing the glory and grandeur of the Golden Age requires a return to the authentic faith of the ancient ones, namely the Prophet Mohammed and his companions, the salaf, from the Arabic word for predecessor or ancient one.
The revivalist versions of Islam advocating such a return are called Salafi. The message is that the world, including Muslim countries has reached a state of decadence, injustice and unfairness, which was similar to the state of barbarism, jahiliyya, prevailing in the Arabian Peninsula just before the revelations of the Quran. This is due to a “crisis of values,” namely greed, corruption and promiscuity, which could only be redressed from above, by capturing the state. The strategy is the creation of a pure Islamist state, which would create the conditions for the reestablishment of such a community, where justice and fairness would reign, in contrast with the everyday experience of corruption, decadence and injustice experienced by this group.
Most Salafists are peaceful, but a small sect advocates violence in seizing control of the state because of a history of violent repression by Arab countries. In the 1990’s, after two decades of failure to achieve their goal, members of this sect, al Qaeda, concluded that the reason for their failure was that the West, and the U.S. government in particular, was propping up their local “apostate” regimes. Therefore, they switched priorities and decided to expel the “far enemy” (the United States), which supported the “near enemy” (their own government), from the Middle East. The strategy was to strike a blow against the U.S. hard enough on the model of what had happened in Beirut in 1983 and later in Somalia in 1993 so that the U.S. would leave the Middle East and they could then overthrow their own governments. Hence, bin Laden’s declaration of war against the U.S. in his 8/96 fatwa.
Salafi ideology promotes new values, centered on personal commitment to Islam and the Islamic community. It preaches a new activist conception of Islam, where it is a personal duty incumbent on every Muslim to participate in the building of an Islamist society and state. New adherents usually welcome this new activist mandate despite considerable personal cost because it replaces the malaise of their passivity in the face their marginality in society with a new sense of purpose and efficacy born from action. It also rewards them with feelings of solidarity with small cliques of like minded militants transcending their alienation from society and its values.
This transformation starts innocuously with the lifelong struggle to become a good Muslim. In Salafi doctrine, it implies an emulation of the mythical Salaf, which means a process of self purification or struggle within oneself for the sake of God (greater jihad). His behavior must set a personal and vivid example to promote Islam as a worldview and a way of life. The novice must battle his own desires and temptation and reject material and sensual pleasures in his quest. Self-denial is difficult for life is full of temptations. This may explain the hostility at tempting and suggestive sexual images, making such self control all the more difficult.
Although this personal jihad is presented as an individual struggle against one’s temptations, in reality, it is a social one. Faith and commitment are grounded and sustained in intense small group dynamics as friends and peers provide support and strength to help cope with any potential hardship. These born-again believers welcome struggles in this life as a test of their faith. Over time, “authentic” Islamic spirituality and religious growth replace dominant “Western” values of career advancement and material wealth, which had contributed to their original feelings of exclusion, frustration, unfairness and injustice.
The jihadists believe that society faces a “crisis of values” for its main problems are not material but spiritual. The progressive detachment from the pursuit of material needs allows them to transcend their frustrated realistic aspirations and promotes satisfaction with spiritual goals. These goals are more consistent with their limited resources and opportunities, and relieve the malaise arising from their exclusion and marginalized status. Their sacrifices and participation in this Islamist vanguard provide them with a sense of moral superiority, optimism and faith in a collective future. Their activism and firm belief in the righteousness of their mission generate a sense of efficacy that enables them to overcome the apathy and fear that would otherwise inhibit high risk terrorist operations.
Over time, there is a general shift in values: from the secular to the religious; from the material to the spiritual; from short-term opportunity to long-term vision; from individual concerns to communitarian sacrifice; from apathy to active engagement; from traditional morality to specific group morality; and from worldly gains to otherworldly rewards. This transformation is possible only within intense small group face-to-face interactions. The values and fellowship of these groups not only forge intense bonds of loyalty and a collective identity but also give a glimpse of what a righteous Islamist society could be like. The small size of these cliques and the mutual dedication of their members allow them to spontaneously resolve their problems among themselves. The quality of these small and dense networks promotes in-group love, transforming self-interest into self-sacrifice for the cause and comrades. The militants’ experience in these groups deludes them into believing that social problems would also be spontaneously resolved in a righteous Islamist society, accounting for their curious lack of concern about what this ideal society would actually look like or how it might function politically or economically.
So far, this description of the transformation from a newly mobilized recruit into a motivated militant has stressed the positive and idealistic dimension of the process, much as militants report or subjectively experience it. However, there is a darker and more negative part of this process that insiders rarely talk about but outsiders clearly pick up, namely the out-group hate displayed by these groups. Such hate is loud and clear in their private speech captured in the wiretaps of the Hamburg, Montreal and Milan al Qaeda cells recorded in the late 1990’s and all too visible on websites sympathetic to al Qaeda.
A top-down focus on the refined abstractions of the Quran and Hadith or al Qaeda official proclamations cannot explain the unleashed hatred and passion. Only a bottom-up examination of the concrete interactions of the militants and their circumstances can account for this hatred. It is grounded in their everyday experience of humiliating exclusion from society at large and promoted within the group by a vicious process of one-upmanship in mutual complaints about the alienating society. This “bunch of guys” phenomenon escalates resentment into a hatred and rejection of the ambient society itself. They expressed their hatred by cursing its symbols and legitimizing myths and by endorsing a conspiracy theory of Jews corrupting a now totally degenerate and unredeemable society. The wiretaps give a hint of this visceral hatred that seeks to destroy society even at the cost of their own lives. This virulent rejection of society finds a home in the doctrine of takfir or excommunication of society, which is popular in militant circles and sanctions the commission of crimes against infidels in the pursuit of the jihad.
This trajectory from low risk participation with an increasingly closer set of friends, to medium risk proselytism for an ideal way of life, and to high risk terrorist activities is a progressive and insidious one. This progression embraces an ideology that frames activism as a moral obligation demanding self-sacrifice and unflinching commitment to the jihad. This particular interpretation of Islam stands apart and challenges the validity of mainstream Islamic faith and practices and isolates the new adherents to this doctrine. Their self sacrifice is again grounded in group dynamics. The terrorist is ready to show his devotion to his now exclusive friends, their group, and their cause by seeking death as a way to show his devotion to all of them. This ultimate self-sacrifice is easier to perform within the “bunch of guys.” Individually, each member of the group might lack the courage to kill himself. But, group loyalty, support and encouragement help them overcome this hesitation, for a refusal to carry out this common suicide would be an act of betrayal to the group. In-group love combined with out-group hate under a violent Salafi script is a strong incentive for committing mass murder and suicide.
The terrorism of this global Salafi jihad is grounded in group dynamics rather than individual pathology. One will not be able to understand it by focusing on individual attributes of the terrorists. The account presented here rests on normal everyday group dynamics embracing everyone. People naturally behave according to these normal processes and there is no need to postulate a vague “weak personality” in a vain last attempt to try to differentiate the terrorism from us. Once a participant in this violent social movement, it is difficult for an individual to abandon it without betraying his closest friends and family. This natural and intense loyalty to the group inspires the participant’s faith and transforms alienated young Muslims into fanatical terrorists.
Dr. Marc Sageman is a former CIA case officer who, in the late 1980’s, ran the U.S. unilateral programs with the Afghan mujahadin during the Afghan-Soviet War. He is a forensic psychiatrist and has collected over 400 biographies of al Qaeda terrorists. His book, Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) which challenges the conventional wisdom on terrorism, is the outstanding work on that subject.