On deradicalisation: Marc Sageman and the psychology of jihadists (Part 2)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Tuesday 16 Jan 2018

Initially, Jihad was defensive -- aimed to expel non-Muslim invaders -- but later it clearly changed in practice

In the first part of this series, I drew many distinctions between those experts who focused on the “clash of ideas” as the way to deal with radicalisation and those who preferred to consider terrorism to be the result of a kind of “anomy," psychological problems, identity crisis, et. cetera.

On Friday, 5 January, during a serious talk show on a French TV channel, experts concurred: the de-radicalisation paradigm was a total failure. It should belong to history’s dustbin. It was impossible to prevent people from believing whatever they wanted to believe, it was more appropriate to focus on preventing them from moving and doing something bad.

“Disengagement” should be the new keyword.

I’m no expert, but I had bought some books on terrorism, so I decided to begin studying them. I avoid beginning with the thesis focusing on the clash of ideas and of discourses. Egyptians are working a lot on the “renewal/correction of religious discourse," so I prefer to start with the other paradigms.

I began by reading Marc Sageman’s seminal “Understanding terror networks." It was widely lauded and many consider it a must-read. It is more or less divided into three sections. The first deals with the “history” of Jihad, how it went from local to global.

The Sageman paradigm is quite simple. Traditional Salafism says Muslims should obey the Muslim ruler, even if he is unjust, as this is necessary for civil peace. Therefore, to circumvent this prescription, at some point or another one willing to justify rebellion would have to say the ruler is an apostate. This one was Sayyid Qutb. His understanding of Salafism gave birth to takfirism. It was revolutionary and inspired generations of militants.

Violent Salafism, at first, was local -- mainly Egyptian. Then the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and militants from different countries went east, to help the Afghan resistance and sometimes to fight. Jihad acquired an transnational dimension. At the beginning, this Jihad was defensive and traditional: it was just aimed at repelling a non-Muslim invader.

Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian religious scholar and founding member of Al-Qaeda, did not like the idea of rebellion against Muslim leaders. The many Egyptians who went to Afghanistan unsuccessfully tried to convince him to change his mind and interpretation. These foreign fighters converted his principal aide, Osama Bin Laden, to their views, and finally killed Azzam.

For them, Jihad, according to Qutb’s teachings, should be offensive and directed against rulers of the Muslim world who were not "real" believers, but rather apostates. This was the second moment.

The third one saw a change of target: instead of fighting the Muslim leaders, Jihad tried to strike at the “distant enemy," the USA -- the world's only remaining superpower.

Sageman says global jihadism includes four components: the central command, where Egyptians are overrepresented, the southeast command, with many Indonesians, the Machriq command, where Egyptians and Saudis are the main players, and the Maghreb command, which includes Arabs and Europeans from Maghreb origins.

This presentation is useful. Of course, we can contest many points and detect some inaccuracies – it is clear Sageman is unfamiliar with the Egyptian theater, a crucial one. The relation between Qutb and Salafism, or between Qutb and Ibn Taymiyya, is much more complicated than his description suggests. But this does not concern our series.

Far more interesting is his discussion of the thesis saying the USA is the indirect father of al-Qaeda, as Washington was willing to endorse and support the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, thus creating the monster. Some still say the USA and the West are willing to occasionally use the jihadists, and say Syria is a case in point. Sagement categorically denies this. He says that Jihad went through different phases: defensive Jihad repelling an invader has nothing to do with offensive Jihad targeting a superpower and attacking innocent civilians without any justification.

The USA never foresaw the mutation, from one to another, which occurred 15 years later. Therefore, the US government is not accountable for it. He also adds the US helped the Afghan resistance and no American official ever met with a foreign fighter. These went to Afghanistan using other channels, of which the Americans knew nothing. Those who oversaw the training and the distribution of American military aid were the Pakistanis, and this made perfect sense. The Pakistanis trained the Afghan Mujahidin who eventually trained the foreign fighters.

This might be true, but it is astonishing. I was very young, I was not working on these issues, and yet I knew many Islamists who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. All the Arab States knew it. I am quite sure someone told the Americans these were dangerous people. The argument “we could not foresee the mutation” is thus even weaker.

Reading any piece of the literature produced by Qutb, or by the militants, or studying what they did in Egypt, is not that difficult. Qutb produced a fierce defense of offensive Jihad, acknowledges Sageman, and he was not alone. Attacking innocent civilians was considered acceptable for these militants. Their hatred for American policies in the Middle East and for liberal societies was obvious. Probably some decided the stakes were too high in Afghanistan to waste time checking and pondering the pedigree and the worldviews of those who came. The future would take care of itself.

The funny thing is that Sageman complains about some Arab States who were reluctant to participate in the global war on terror, and which only changed their minds after being themselves hurt by terrorist incidents. Well, we can return that point to both the USA and Great Britain.

The second section of the book deals with the militants. Sageman is cautious and forewarns us two different things. First, there is no guarantee his sample is representative. Second, no serious analysis is complete if we do not have a sample of people sharing the same characteristics with terrorists, but who do not opt for violent terrorism.

Let me explain this: if, for instance, you say people become terrorists because they are poor, or because they suffer from identity troubles, you have to explain why so many poor people, or so many with identity problems, do not opt for terrorism, and a truly scientific explanation requires two samples.

Then Sageman reviews the explanations provided by the conventional wisdom, with a clear purpose: he wants to prove they are inappropriate. They may be inappropriate for all kinds of terrorists, but they are clearly wrong for the jihadists.

Sageman wants also to prove the jihadists can differ one from another. For instance the Maghreb section is widely different from the others.

To be followed.


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