Al-Qaeda, a Social Movement, but not a Hierarchical Group

August 23rd, 2004 - by admin

Pascal Riche / Liberation – 2004-08-23 00:28:50

(August 17, 2004) — An American psychiatrist of French origins, 51-year-old Marc Sageman is a terrorism specialist. Formerly with the CIA, he directed Mujahadijn groups in Afghanistan during the eighties. Today, he teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and has just published Understanding Terror Networks. He has earned consultation by the Administration on the basis of a data base he created with the profiles of 382 terrorists who claim to be from Al-Qaeda or closely linked Islamist movements.

Washington has revealed information from Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan’s hard drive(1). What has been learned about Al-Qaeda that’s new?

We’ve been able to observe their method of communicating through a “short-cut”, in this case, computer scientist Khan. It’s not surprising and it shows the trouble they have communicating with the outside. Among other things, they have found accounts of reconnaissance of US sites done over four years ago. Some have said: “It’s alarming because Al-Qaeda prepares its attacks a very long time in advance.” I’m not convinced. Al-Qaeda’s latest attacks were put together in five or six weeks. I find it rather reassuring that nothing more recent was found.

Have you shared your optimistic conclusions with American officials?

Yes. Some of them – the analysts – agree with me. Others don’t, for reasons I believe to be political.

The Administration has made it known that Al-Qaeda has succeeded in preserving “certain elements of its centralized command structure.” Is that possible?

Al-Qaeda is a social movement, not a hierarchical organization. There’s always a desire to communicate, to send messages by audio or video cassette…but this desire does not find expression on the ground. The Madrid, Casablanca, and Istanbul attacks were entirely conceived, planned, and realized at the local level. No order came from a centralized authority.

What do we know about Al-Qaeda today? How many people does it include?

No one knows. The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London has calculated that Al-Qaeda may count on 18,000 people: the 20,000 who have trained in Afghanistan, less 2,000 killed or captured. In fact, we know that 15 to 25 % of the militants who train return to Al-Qaeda. That would make them 1,000-3,000 people, but these numbers don’t mean a lot since the terrorists no longer organize themselves the way they did before 2001. They’re not trained in the training camps any more. It’s friends, cousins, who give each other ideas among themselves and one day they have an idea they proceed to act on.

Is Al-Qaeda over-estimated?

That’s my impression. Because we want to prevent the worst. The authorities sound the alarm at the least incident. They send three FBI agents to the airport because some guy has simply forgotten to take a cutter out of his bag. Everything is considered suspect. The danger is that the security services can no longer recognize real signals that indicate something happening in the deluge of information – this “noise”, as it is called.

You’ve analyzed the biographies of close to 400 members of Al-Qaeda and other similar organizations. What is the identikit portrait of today’s terrorist?

He’s an expatriate who comes from his country’s elite. In 65% of the cases, he’s been to university. He comes to a Western European country, he’s disoriented, he doesn’t adapt well, he gets together with other people like himself. They feel excluded, frustrated not to have a place in the world that corresponds to their talent. They’re not very religious people: in 90% of cases, they weren’t raised in religious schools. This group isolates itself from society. Very strong ties between them are created. They turn their hatred outward from the group. One day, one of the members is attracted by a radical religious speech and he drags the others along.

Has this profile changed?

Yes. The terrorists’ level of education is deteriorating: in the Casablanca attack, only one terrorist out of fourteen had been to university.

What triggers the decision to act?

Sometimes it’s the arrest of a friend. Or then, the invasion of Iraq: in the case of the Madrid attack, it was Spain’s participation that pushed the terrorists to commit their attack. They saw a document on the Internet explaining that Spain must be hit to force it to withdraw its troops from Iraq: they did it. They weren’t Al-Qaeda members, not even religious at the outset: they were drug retailers.

Do these groups emerge more easily in Europe than in the United States?

That’s the impression I have. Integration is a real problem in France, Spain, Germany, or Great Britain. In the United States, adaptation is easier because there’s movement. A person can climb the social ladder.

What can be done to reduce the risk of seeing these cells multiply?

United States foreign policy, which infuriates the Arabs, must change. They see only the war in Iraq, support for Israel, and backing for tyrants in their own countries. The terrorists are people who, at first, try to attach themselves to a Utopia, who dream of a just society that doesn’t exclude anyone. Communism used to supply such a Utopia. Now it’s the Salsifist Utopia Al-Qaeda represents that fills the void. This Utopia must be substituted with another, fair, one that can coexist in harmony with Western culture.

(1) Pakistani computer scientist arrested in his country in mid-July. He was one of the intelligence sources who led to the August 1st elevation of the terrorist alert level in the United States.

Original verison in French:

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