Saturday, July 16, 2005

Profile of Salafi jihadists....   posted by Razib @ 7/16/2005 08:37:00 PM

This morning I saw a post over at ParaPundit where Randall Parker quoted Marc Sageman, my ubiquitous source for the factoid about the overrepresentation of technical (scientists, engineers, etc.) types in Al Qaeda. As it happens, I had a copy of Sageman's book, Understanding Terror Networks, on hand, and I decided to read it today. If you are interested in understanding the Al Qaeda network from a scholarly angle, read this book! It is less than 200 pages long, and the text is not even particularly small, the prose is social science dense, but not opaque or jargonistic (there are Arabic terms throughout, but they are precisely defined prior to use). In particular, you should read chapter 3, "The Muhjahedin," which is a ethnography of the world "Salafist terror network." This is the data that serves as the core of this book, and no matter your political beliefs it is genuine empirical red meat to bite into. Sageman explains that he made choices about data selection, he focused on those who were involved in worldwide Islamic terrorism driven by purely religious-Salafist motives. This means that localized Islamic terrorists (Hamas) and secular terrorists from Muslim nations (Al Aqsa Brigades) are not included in his sample. Below, I have copied the essential tables from the aforementioned chapter, but it is important to note that Sageman provides a lot of context and framing, so if you don't have time to read the book, just read chapter 3, it'll take you a half an hour at B&N or Borders.

First, you have to understand that Sagemen broke up his sample by region and amalgamated them into four primary clusters:
  • The Central Staff (Al Qaeda command & control)
  • Core Arabs (those activists from the central Arab region)
  • Maghreb Arabs (those from North Africa and the North African Diaspora)
  • Southeast Asians (mostly Indonesians)
Though there are individuals of other Muslim nationalities within the sample, it is dominated by Arabs and Southeast Asians, with a heavy skew toward Egyptians in "The Central Staff."

I'm having a hard time getting blogger not to format my tables and so mess everything up, so here is where I put them.

Here are the general trends that Sageman highlights:
  • Salafist radicals are not impoverished and uneducated. In fact, the Central Staff + Core Arabs, who are the main actors, are extremely privileged and well educated (even by Western standards, but they are off the charts in the context of their nations of origin). The Maghreb Arabs, many of whom were actually raised in relatively (though not in absolute terms) deprived circumstances in France are much less affluent and well educated than the dominant personalities in Al Qaeda. The Southeast Asians tend to derive from the pesantrans (the Southeast Asian version of madrassas) of Indonesia, and are associated with one or two relatively top-down organizations.
  • A relatively secular background was the norm for the Maghrebis, many of whom Sageman notes grew up in France with little Islamic education. In contrast, the Arabs and Southeast Asians tended to have a more thorough Islamic background, even if they were not "green diaper" babies. Sageman notes that removing the Maghrebis from the equation though does make a difference and makes the "green diaper baby" thesis more defensible. In addition, many of the central players in Al Qaeda do come from a Salafist cultural milieu, and most radical Salafist terrorists will be familiar with Islamic concepts at the very least. These are not died-in-the-wool-atheists who find God.
  • Out of the sample of 117 where Sageman had information about childhood religious values, 9 were Christian. This is a frequency of converts far higher than in the Muslim population worldwide.
  • 78% of the terrorists joined the Salafist jihadi movement away from their country of origin, whether in the West or in another Muslim nation.
  • There was a tendency toward underemployment and perceptions of relative deprivation (ie; Arab French resentment toward the majority population). In the case of those from affluent families in the Middle East, the underemployment is probably partially an artifiact of the fact that they tend to join the Salafist terror movements in their early 20s, just as they are finishing their educations, and likely do not ever enter "normal" society and instead focus on jihadi activism.

Sageman dismisses the standard Freudian explanations offered as the motivations behind terroristic behavior, and rebuts the stereotype that these individuals are frought with psychopathologies. In fact, 80% were also married men, and few engaged in criminal activites as their vocation (the exception was among some of the Maghrebis and converts from Christianity, the latter of which tended to skew toward lower class origins). Sageman's thesis is pretty simple, in the later chapters he sketches out the importance of networks effects, friendships, bonding, clique formation, etc. He tends to reject excessive focus on ideology as the driving factor, though it is clearly a necessary factor to crystalize the path of the lives of these men. The author simple reminds readers that there is a wide ranging literature which suggests that individuals who join radical groups tend to overemphasize the ideological reasons for their joining, and underemphasize the personal life context and in particular the influence of peer groups and family. In other words, Salafist radicals did not have a lurking disease-of-the-mind which religious fundamentalism could coopt, rather, they were a self-selected group of individuals who must be understood in the context of their social universe, and in many ways they were rather banal personalities.

In any case, since I recommended that you read the book, I'm not going to go on much further, but I will offer that some might quibble with Sageman's terminology. He uses the term "Salafist jihadi" very precisely, as he distinguishes them from more traditional Salafists, and fundamentalists of other stripes. Additionally, I believe he makes some minor doctrinal errors and elides over disputes and debates in terms of Islamic sectarian typology without indicating to the reader of the issues undernearth the surface, but, I think these errors don't really detract from the ethnographic data and the network based analytic model he deploys. I suspect that a full fleshing out of the nuances of Salafi vs. Wahabbi vs. Deobandi vs. Tablighi, etc. etc. would have weighed the book down a great deal (the categories are not always exclusive and equivalent in the way he tends to frame them).

One important thing though, Sageman goes to great lengths to suggest that the Salafi worldwide jihadis are a very peculiar, self-selected and abberant group in the context of Islamic radicals. He points to the origin of the core of Al Qaeda in one of two Egyptian Islamic terrorist groups, a Cairo based organization which he claims exhibited a tendency toward being less rooted within their social context, and so more prone toward abstraction and vague ideological goals. In contrast, the rival of the group that was absorbed by Al Qaeda was also radical, and moved in the same circles (a faction was responsible for the Luxor massacre), but this movement never warmed to the idea of worldwide jihad. Sageman offers that the reason is that this group was more closely connected with the milieu of Upper Egypt, and so it was grounded in a way that the Cairo branch was not in the social environment and restraints eventually pulled it back from the path that Al Qaeda took (it is now in ceasefire with the Egyptian state and has rejected violence as ineffectual).1

Addendum: The reason I am happy to leave comments on on this blog is that I see this as a way to engage with intelligent readers who are moving through knowledge-space with me, scaling various factual mountains and ascending upward so we can gain the best vantage point of the world below us. This means that I expect people to actually read the tables I copied and pasted if they want to offer comments! My commentary is just fat, the tables are the muscle and bone.

1 - Though the Upper Egyptian group was also drawn from "scientists and engineers" as well, the individuals probably had the same psychology, but their predispositions resulted in a disparate life path because of their social context.