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In This Issue...

Sageman refutes all these notions, showing that, for the vast majority of the mujahedin, social bonds predated ideological commitment, and it was these social networks that inspired alienated young Muslims to join the jihad. These men, isolated from the rest of society, were transformed into fanatics yearning for martyrdom and eager to kill. The tight bonds of family and friendship, paradoxically enhanced by the tenuous links between the cell groups making it difficult for authorities to trace connections , contributed to the jihad movement's flexibility and longevity.

And although Sageman's systematic analysis highlights the crucial role the networks played in the terrorists' success, he states unequivocally that the level of commitment and choice to embrace violence were entirely their own. Understanding Terror Networks combines Sageman's scrutiny of sources, personal acquaintance with Islamic fundamentalists, deep appreciation of history, and effective application of network theory, modeling, and forensic psychology.

Steve Ressler

Sageman's unique research allows him to go beyond available academic studies, which are light on facts, and journalistic narratives, which are devoid of theory. Misunderstanding Terrorism. In Understanding Terror Networks, Sageman explores the development of terrorist networks and the relationships that coalesce to form such widespread and effective systems.

He first spends a good deal of the book discussing jihadist thinkers and outlining their impact on the thinking of the major terrorist network in operation today, al Qaeda. The jihadist movement was initially focused on re-establishing Muslim prominence by overthrowing Muslim governments, the "near enemy," in order to establish a massive Islamist state.

Understanding Terror Networks — Central Intelligence Agency

Al Qaeda's shift from this focus on the "near enemy" to targeting the "far enemy," which includes great powers like the United States, was a slow transition that culminated in the declaration of "Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. He emphasizes the need for Islamist unity, which would be threatened if the jihad targeted Muslim governments, which have at least a modicum of support from other Muslims.


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Interestingly, the migration by al Qaeda from Afghanistan to Sudan and then back to Afghanistan also played a role in generating this emphasis on the "far enemy," since only the more radical members of the terrorist organization followed the group as it was displaced. Having traced one of the threads that influenced al Qaeda's objectives, Sageman proceeds to follow the trajectory of its expanding membership.


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Tracing the lives of terrorists active in al Qaeda, Sageman illustrates how such radical ideology is spread to indoctrinate new recruits. He divides this terrorist organization into various clusters, based primarily on geography. By examining the biographies of individual terrorists, Sageman finds that, on the whole, they are from the middle and upper classes, are highly educated primarily in secular schools , and have very little criminal experience.

The majority of these terrorists joined the jihad during tumultuous periods of change in their lives, such as moving to a new country.

Yet perhaps the most striking aspect of this network is the absence of any formal recruitment program promoted by the jihadist leadership. Instead, individuals are connected to the terrorist movement through their network of friends or family and often join the organization as a group, volunteering to become members.

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These social bonds are critical to the membership and effectiveness of the global Salafi jihad , and somewhat surprisingly, Sageman finds that they were often in place before a terrorist ideology was stimulated. Understanding the formation of terrorist networks is vital if the international community seeks to render groups like al Qaeda less effective.


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Sageman addresses this important question with a good deal of impressive research, and he clearly has examined the issue from a variety of perspectives and through a range of disciplines, including political sociology and traditional terrorist theory. Unfortunately, the writing is dry and rather less engaging than the subject matter, and readers who do not take easily to a highly academic style