Long-but-good article about the changing role of violence within Al Qaeda and other former terrorist organizations.
Fadl was one of the first members of Al Qaeda’s top council. Twenty years ago, he wrote two of the most important books in modern Islamist discourse; Al Qaeda used them to indoctrinate recruits and justify killing. Now Fadl was announcing a new book, rejecting Al Qaeda’s violence. “We are prohibited from committing aggression, even if the enemies of Islam do that,” Fadl wrote in his fax, which was sent from Tora Prison, in Egypt.
A Seymour Hersh piece from tomorrow’s New Yorker about the Bush Administration’s plan for Iran. Amazingly enough, Bush is using the same tactics he did to wage war in Iraq. This time, instead of Iraq = Al-Qaeda, it’s Iran = Iraq.
In a series of public statements in recent months, President Bush and members of his Administration have redefined the war in Iraq, to an increasing degree, as a strategic battle between the United States and Iran. “Shia extremists, backed by Iran, are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on our forces and the Iraqi people,” Bush told the national convention of the American Legion in August. “The attacks on our bases and our troops by Iranian-supplied munitions have increased… The Iranian regime must halt these actions. And, until it does, I will take actions necessary to protect our troops.” He then concluded, to applause, “I have authorized our military commanders in Iraq to confront Tehran’s murderous activities.”
Will we fall for it again?
One of the most interesting articles I’ve read in the New Yorker in recent months is Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece on Adam Gadahn, an American who is a member of Al Qaeda and “one of Osama bin Laden’s senior operatives”. In it, Khatchadourian describes how a kid from Southern California coverts to Islam, becomes a radical activist, and ends up making anti-American videos in Pakistan for ObL. Near the end of the article, we’re told about the work of forensic psychiatrist Marc Sagemam, whose study of Al Qaeda members and their motivations formed the basis of his book, Understanding Terror Networks (on Google Book Search):
Sageman discovered that most Al Qaeda operatives had been radicalized in the West and were from caring, intact families that had solidly middle- or upper-class economic backgrounds. Their families were religious but generally mainstream. The vast majority of the men did not have criminal records or any history of mental disorders. Moreover, there was little evidence of coordinated recruitment, coercion, or brainwashing. Al Qaeda’s leaders waited for aspiring jihadists to come to them — and then accepted only a small percentage. Joining the jihad, Sageman realized, was like trying to get into a highly selective college: many apply, but only a few are accepted.
Perhaps his most unexpected conclusion was that ideology and political grievances played a minimal role during the initial stages of enlistment. “The only significant finding was that the future terrorists felt isolated, lonely, and emotionally alienated,” Sageman told the September 11th Commission in 2003, during a debriefing about his research. These lost men would congregate at mosques and find others like them. Eventually, they would move into apartments near their mosques and build friendships around their faith and its obligations. He has called his model the “halal theory of terrorism” — since bonds were often formed while sharing halal meals — or the “bunch of guys” theory. The bunch of guys constituted a closed society that provided a sense of meaning that did not exist in the larger world.
Within the “bunch of guys,” Sageman found, men often became radicalized through a process akin to oneupmanship, in which members try to outdo one another in demonstrations of religious zeal. (Gregory Saathoff, a research psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a consultant to the F.B.I., told me, “We’re seeing in some of the casework that once they get the fever they are white-hot to move forward.”) Generally, the distinction between converts and men with mainstream Islamic backgrounds is less meaningful than it might seem, Sageman said, since “they all become born again.” Many Muslims who accept radical Salafist beliefs consider themselves “reverts.” They typically renounce their former lives and friends — and often their families.
It’s easy to see the power of this approach. A recruiter only needs to use the potential recruit’s own feelings of isolation, loneliness, and social alienation against him and after that it’s like a stone rolling downhill. Reading this, I thought about similar the situation sounds to recruitment at college fraternities or the armed forces. Different ends of course, but the technique is similar: give a guy in a tough spot a comforting social framework, some self-esteem, and a bit of responsibility and eventually he’ll go to war with you, sometimes literally. Anyway, fascinating article.