Sociologists in Research and Applied Settings
This occasional column focuses on the interesting career paths and achievements of sociologists whose primary work in sociology is not in the academy or whose “extracurricular” work outside academic settings is noteworthy for its societal or policy impact. These sociologists are engaged directly with the public, applying methods of science and their sociological expertise.
Explaining Terror Networks
in the 21st Century
by Marc Sageman, sociologist, forensic psychiatrist and government counterterrorism consultant
From sociology to medicine, to intelligence and psychiatry, my seemingly winding career path came together in the post-9/11 world of counterterrorism.
My diverse background—built on a foundation of sociology—has led me to study terror networks and to consult with various branches of the United States government, foreign governments, and various law enforcement agencies around the United States.
My latest endeavor is a position with the Intelligence Division of the New York Police Department under David Cohen, deputy commissioner for intelligence.
The Evolution of a Career
Having received an undergraduate degree at Harvard University, I then obtained an MD and doctoral degree in sociology at New York University.
After a tour as a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy, I joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1984. I spent a year on the Afghan Task Force with the CIA and then went to Islamabad from 1987 to 1989, where I ran the U.S. unilateral programs with the Afghan Mujahedin.
In 1991, I resigned from the agency to return to medicine, completing a residency in psychiatry. I’ve been practicing forensic and clinical psychiatry since 1994 and have evaluated more than 500 murderers throughout my career.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, I found that what people were saying about the perpetrators was simply not consistent with my own experience. The Afghan-Soviet war took place during my service with the CIA, and at that time I dealt with Islamic fundamentalists on a daily basis. The insights to the fundamentalists’ beliefs and practices I gained from this work ran counter to what I was hearing in the mass media, so I decide to investigate this phenomenon.
I started by collecting biographical material on about 400 Al Qaeda terrorists to test the conventional wisdom on terrorism. Biographies came from various sources, but mostly from the records of trials, which produced thousands of pages of information. Placing the data in a matrix, I began an analysis of the 400 who all targeted the United States.
In 2004, my research was published in a book titled Understanding Terror Networks. My latest work, Leaderless Jihad, came out early this year and expands on the first to explain how Islamic terrorism emerges and operates in the 21st century.
Applying Social Science to Counterterrorism
My doctoral degree in political sociology was useful in studying large-scale common good organizations. This helped focus on larger social patterns even in my everyday practice, where I try to combine the statistical and analytical tools of social science with individual case study. The discovery of the advances in social-network analysis and social movement theory provided valuable insights into some of the surprising aspects of the global terrorist network that I now study.
The social-network analysis of the group of 400 terrorists revealed that most commonly held beliefs about terrorists are misconceptions.
For example, as my study and other recent research shows, there appears to be no direct link between poverty status of perpetrators and their terrorist activity. Three-quarters of the sample turned out to have upper or middle class status. Popular opinion also links terrorists with broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, and susceptibility to brainwashing.
These are also misconceptions. The vast majority of my sample—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5 to 6 percent that is the usual for third world populations.
The average age of those joining the jihad by Al Qaeda’s members is 26. Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children. Three-quarters were professionals or semi-professionals. They were mostly scientists and engineers, architects, and civil engineers.
As a psychiatrist, originally I was looking for disorder characteristics common to these 400 men. Only four of the 400 had any hint of a mental disorder, which is below the worldwide base rate for thought disorders. So, overall they were as healthy as the general population. Of the 19 September 11 terrorists, none had a criminal record. You could almost say that those least likely to cause harm individually are most likely to do so collectively.
Unlike the common view that places responsibility for terrorism on society or a flawed, predisposed individual, my research indicates that the individual, outside influence, and group dynamics come together in a four-step process through which Muslim youth become radicalized. These steps are just recurring common themes and should not be viewed as chronological "stages." They can occur in any order: so there are at least 24 pathways to radicalization, defined behaviorally as the pathway to political violence.
First, significant moral violations—either experienced personally or learned about indirectly—spark moral outrage. Then, individuals interpret this outrage through a specific ideology, more felt and understood than based on doctrine. Next, adherents share this moral outrage, usually in a chat room or other Internet-based venues. The outrage resonates with the personal experiences of others. Finally, the outrage is acted on by a group, either online or offline.
In the case of my sample of 400, 70 percent joined the jihad while they were living in another country from where they grew up. When they became homesick, they tried to congregate with people like themselves, whom they found at mosques. They moved in to apartments together in order to share rent and eat together following Halal, the Muslim dietary laws. These cliques, often in the vicinity of mosques that had a militant script advocating violence to overthrow corrupt regimes, transformed alienated young Muslims into terrorists. The process of radicalization is very much a function of group dynamics. You cannot understand the 9/11 type of terrorism by focusing primarily on individual characteristics.
Group dynamics also play an important role in sustaining the motivation to carry out terrorist acts. The Al Qaeda social movement was dependent on volunteers, and there are now huge gaps worldwide in the volunteer network. The movement has now degenerated into something like the Internet. It is now self-organized from the bottom up, and is much decentralized. Networks function more like street gangs than a “high-minded” mission-driven terrorist network.
In the post-9/11 world, Al Qaeda is no longer the central organizing force that aids or authorizes terrorist attacks or recruits terrorists. It is now more a source of inspiration for terrorist acts carried out by independent local groups that have branded themselves with the Al Qaeda name.
With the new landscape of terrorist organizations, there is a ray of hope. I believe that the new zeal of jihadism is self-terminating. Eventually its followers will turn away from violence as a means of expressing their discontent.
In the meantime, sociology can provide the counterterrorism community with insights into the social contexts of terror networks, debunking the myths that currently exist among the general public and the intelligence community.