Monday, November 29, 2004

The constitution of a terrorist

On the FPRI website, Marc Sagemen, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer in Afghanistan, writes on the nature of terrorists. “Understanding Terror Networks”:

The 400 terrorists on whom I’ve collected data were the ones who actually targeted the “far enemy,” the U.S., as opposed to their own governments. I wanted to limit myself for analytical purity to that group, to see if I could identify anything different from other terrorist movements, which were far more nationalistic.

Most people think that terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities, weak minds susceptible to brainwashing - the sociopath, the criminals, the religious fanatic, or, in this country, some believe they’re just plain evil.

Taking these perceived root causes in turn, three quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.

Al Qaeda’s members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi-professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion. The natural sciences predominate. Bin Laden himself is a civil engineer, Zawahiri is a physician, Mohammed Atta was, of course, an architect; and a few members are military, such as Mohammed Ibrahim Makawi, who is supposedly the head of the military committee.


As a psychiatrist, originally I was looking for any characteristic common to these men. But only four of the 400 men had any hint of a disorder. This is below the worldwide base rate for thought disorders.

I think this should drive the final stake through the heart of the liberal shibboleth that poverty causes terrorism (that is, if this study hadn’t already). These people were seemingly normal in every respect—well, at least as normal as possible for engineers—and yet they ended up as radical Islamic terrorists. Why did they end up this way? Sagemen writes:

Because they were the best and brightest, they were sent abroad to study. They came from moderately religious, caring, middle-class families. They’re skilled in computer technology. They spoke three, four, five, six languages. Most Americans don’t know Arabic; these men know two or three Western languages: German, French, English.

When they became homesick, they did what anyone would and tried to congregate with people like themselves, whom they would find at mosques. So they drifted towards the mosque, not because they were religious, but because they were seeking friends. They moved in together in apartments, in order to share the rent and also to eat together - they were mostly halal, those who observed the Muslim dietary laws, similar in some respects to the kosher laws of Judaism. Some argue that such laws help to bind a group together since observing them is something very difficult and more easily done in a group. A micro-culture develops that strengthens and absorbs the participants as a unit. This is a halal theory of terrorism, if you like.

These cliques, often in the vicinity of mosques that had a militant script advocating violence to overthrow the corrupt regimes, transformed alienated young Muslims into terrorists. It’s all really group dynamics. You cannot understand the 9/11 type of terrorism from individual characteristics. The suicide bombers in Spain are another perfect example. Seven terrorists sharing an apartment and one saying “Tonight we’re all going to go, guys.” You can’t betray your friends, and so you go along. Individually, they probably would not have done it.
So this whole apocalyptic death cult boils down to a bad case of peer pressure. I think there is something to this, but it requires something further to take these people from an excluded clique to international terrorists -- there are always insulated groups within societies, but they don't always lash out violently.

In essence, the question is "What causes this secluded group to attack larger society when most other secluded groups don't?" As I've written extensively before, I think that totalitarian governance plays a role, but, with the death of Theo Van Gogh at the hands of an Islamist terrorist in an open, Western democracy, it is apparent that the religion of Islam is a major factor as well, if not the major factor.

I've always been aware of the totalitarian proclivities of Islam, it's glorification of death and it's earthly nihilism--characteristics that form a volatile mixture--but I simply do not know enough about Islam to comment further (although, admittedly, lack of knowledge usually doesn't stop me from blathering randomly in other arenas).

So, as for Islam, I will only say that I believe it needs its own Reformation, and it needs it 500 years ago.


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