Terrorism Born in the West

Konstantin Novikov (Russia)

Research indicates that 70% of Al-Qaeda’s members come from Western Europe and America.

It is generally thought that Islamic terrorism and the terrorists who have declared war on America, Israel and Europe are somehow alien to Western civilization, attacking it from outside. Research by Professor Mark Sageman testifies to the reverse—that terrorism is a product of the West. And it is not just a reaction by traditional Muslim society, which does not want to be absorbed by the liberal cosmopolitan melting pot, but a geographic and cultural phenomenon, as a product of Western globalization.

Mark Sageman, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, a former CIA officer and a U.S. government advisor on combating terrorism, presented a report at an international conference held in Washington. His paper was based on an analysis of 382 profiles of terrorists having a direct relationship with the Al-Qaeda network and close ties with Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, al-Rashid, the Egyptian group Islamic Jihad, Jemaah Islamiah and the Philippine group Abu Sayef.

Sageman’s analysis was focused on those who operate globally and are not associated with any specific territory, and it excluded Chechens, Palestinians, and Kashmiri militants, i.e., those whose acts of terror are directed against their own governments. Sageman calls the terrorists he studied members of the so-called “Global Salafist Jihad” social movement. Salafists (they are more often referred to as Wahhabists) advocate the most literal and rigid interpretation of the Koran and are hostile toward later doctrinal concepts, which they view as heretical deviations from the original prophetic message.

Sageman believes that it makes sense to identify the Global Salafist Jihad as one of the main strategies of Islamic Jihad. It was first publicly announced by Osama bin Laden in his 1996 fatwa, in which he proclaimed the fight against the “far enemy” to be the priority, that is, the fight against the West and, in particular, the United States and Israel. After defeating the “far enemy,” jihad must spread to the “near enemy,” to their own corrupt governments, which only exist because of Western support.

Bin Laden called for inflicting the maximum possible damage on the enemy, that is, he called for speaking to the West in the language of violence, the only language that the West, in bin Laden’s opinion, understands. And he chose “martyrdom operations” by suicide bombers as the main instrument of jihad.

Professor Sageman believes that it is not appropriate to label bin Laden’s followers as evil religious fanatics. They are well-educated, affluent, cosmopolitan, married, working professionals, who do not suffer from mental illnesses. Referring to popular opinion about terrorists that portrays them as totally alien to Western culture, Sageman said that “unfortunately, they are no different from us.”

The notion that poverty is the main motivation for recruitment of new members to the terrorist network, in Sageman’s opinion, oversimplifies the picture. The majority of Al-Qaeda’s members belongs to the middle and upper classes: 17.6% are from the upper class; 54% from the middle class; 27.5% from the lower class. Only 16.7% have not completed a secondary education; 12.1% completed their secondary education; 28.8% attended college and 33% finished; 9% have an advanced degree. Contrary to the popular belief that the members of terrorist groups are recruited in fundamentalist Islamic schools, only 9.4% of terrorists have a religious education; the remainder are exclusively secular.

No members of the network were found to be either unemployed or vagrants who came to terror looking for money or glory. They can better be described as qualified professionals with good jobs: 42.5% are doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.; 32.8% are semi-skilled professionals; and only 32.8% have no special skills. And the latter category is primarily made up of Arabs, immigrants from the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia).

At the same time, those involved in terrorist organizations are primarily young people; the average age of militants is 25.7, and even in the Central Headquarters the average age is 27.9. From available information about the family status of members of terrorist groups, it can be said that 73% of them are married, and many have children. Few terrorists were ever involved in criminal activities or prosecuted for criminal offenses, and the few exceptions occurring among Maghreb Arabs—for petty crimes such as credit card fraud and money laundering—only prove the rule.

According to Sageman, there is a widespread cliché in the West to the effect that people from non-Western cultures and underdeveloped regions are able to take great pleasure from atrocities. However, Sageman’s research testifies that the majority of modern terrorists are quite westernized and affluent. Sageman reports that most of these young men belong to the elite in their countries and bear a strong resemblance to Westerners, and that is why it is so hard for a Westerner to see them as “alien” or as “outsiders.” But why do these young people who resemble us, who are educated and affluent, mentally well balanced and well socialized, choose the path of absolute nihilism and mass murder of civilians?—asks Professor Sageman.

Trying to avoid speculation and rely only on factual evidence, he calls attention to the one detail that most distinguishes “global Al-Qaeda terrorists” from the Pakistani fundamentalists, the Taliban or the Chechen militants: these people are internationalists, “citizens of the global village,” who have left their homes and set off on a journey, some of them traveling to the West. It turns out that 70% of them became radical Islamists and joined the jihad in Western countries. Typically, there were recruited, or rather “recruited themselves,” after being sent to study as representatives of the elite of their own countries in the United States, Germany, England or France.

Another typical destiny for an Al-Qaeda member is a trip to wealthy Western countries in search of material success. As a rule, Maghreb Arabs have emigrated to Spain, France, Italy or Great Britain in search of well-paying jobs. Many of them have become citizens of those countries, and according to Sageman’s calculations, 10% grew up in their “new homeland.”

Maghreb Arabs and emigrants from the central Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Kuwait) are socially and geographically mobile. Some of them speak three or four languages. Their cosmopolitanism differs sharply from the local culture of members of fundamentalist movements like the Taliban. Moreover, Al-Qaeda militants look down on the Taliban as a bunch of uneducated bumpkins who are unable to read or write. Sageman notes that there is not one emigrant from Afghanistan among the “global terrorists.” And this is no random observation. In light of these facts, remarks the analyst, it is very difficult to say that terrorism came into the West from somewhere outside. Therefore, the war on terror conducted outside the Western world—in Afghanistan or Iraq—misses its target.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who in all likelihood was one of the leading organizers of the September 11 attack, was a student at the University of North Carolina. One of the alleged ringleaders of the attack, Mohamed Atta, was a student who emigrated from Egypt to Hamburg to study architecture. Ahmed Omar Sheikh, who was convicted for the murder of journalist David Pearl, studied at the prestigious Forest School in London and attended the London School of Economics—these are typical representatives of the so-called “Al-Qaeda.”

As a rule, “global terrorists” are people separated from their traditional relationships and cultures. Many of them were homesick and felt deeply isolated, marginalized and rejected by the society in their host countries. They attended mosques not so much out of religious convictions as in search of comrades and friends. There they found kindred spirits. In the mosques they heard radical sermons about the decadence and crisis of Western values, and about the greed and selfishness of the natives. This became a plausible explanation for the alienation and loneliness they felt in the Western world. Nostalgic Arabs and Asians began creating their own subculture.

The inability of Western culture to integrate immigrants attests to the unhealthy crisis of that society. Sageman believes that terrorism is nurtured not in Kabul or Cairo, but in London, Paris and New York—it is not a result of the penetration of Muslim fanatics into the West, but a consequence of the inability of the institutions of Western society to give individuals a strong sense of identity. Arabs and other immigrants may feel it much more acutely than native Europeans or Americans, but atomization and alienation affect virtually every citizen of the “prosperous” democracies. Therefore, any kind of fundamentalism, not just that minted in Islam, may in the future become the ideological basis for a new phenomenon like “global terrorism,” concludes Professor Sageman.

For our part, we would add that the reason for the emergence of terrorism in the West is not fundamentalism of various kinds, as the author of the study fears, but those root causes which he himself pointed out—the alienation of people in Western society; the atomization and disintegration of society itself; the decline of traditional values; and the cosmopolitanism, greed and egotism that serve as the foundations of the consciousness and lifestyle that have been cultivated in the West.

Konstantin Novikov is a frequent contributor to the ‘Russian Line‘ web-site.

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