On deradicalisation: Marc Sageman and the psychology of jihadists (Part 3)

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 8 Mar 2018

Sageman says the international media's image of the jihadist as an desperate, brainwashed young bachelor with no diploma is usually false, but are all his assessments convincing?

The stereotype of the poor, uneducated jihadist is largely incorrect, and this does not surprise anybody who has looked closely at the matter. At least a half of international jihadists have a solid upper-middle class background, and around 15% are even richer. The poor are a significant minority, except in the Maghreb region (which includes Western Europe, for Sageman). Most of the converts, however, are from disadvantaged classes.

Sageman also says international jihadists are neither ignorant nor deprived from access to education. Their level of education is well above the international average, and well above the average in the Global South. Moreover, if we ignore the Maghreb region, the average education level of jihadists is even higher.

The author also makes some interesting points: most international jihadists are better educated than their parents, who did not became jihadists. In addition, many of them are well-travelled, so Sageman assumes they know the world and are definitely not narrow-minded ethnocentrists. He adds, therefore, that we cannot say they were brainwashed.

Let us pause for a moment. Sageman claims more than once his research destroys the stereotypes. He may be destroying the medias’ discourse. However, for anyone who has carefully studied the issue, all this is banal stuff -- there is until now nothing new under the sun. Most of his findings can be found in Kepel’s early works.

Kepel, if my recollections are correct, said the jihadists had a problem with the kind of modernisation that occurred in their countries. He never said they did not know what it is.

Sageman underlines the centrality of Egyptians in international jihad. Anybody who knows Egyptian history knows a specific group played an important role in this country’s political life: the university students with rural middle-class backgrounds, who were newcomers to the city and its unique way of life. They were bachelors, separated from their family, with little access to women.

The real question is why these students opted for almost fifty years for nationalist and leftist ideologies, and then, starting from the second half of the seventies, preferred Salafist ideologies. Many obvious answers can be proposed, but this would lead us too far astray.

Suffice to say that a colleague, Selma Belaala, conducted a study on jihadism in Algeria and reached a conclusion of the same type, but with some significant differences. If my recollections are correct, she found that most jihadists were from families which were newcomers to the areas where they lived. This affected their social cohesion. I don’t say this to score petty points, but to underline the necessity of better academic cooperation in studying jihadism.

A very interesting finding by Sageman uncovers a huge difference between the Maghreb and Southern Europe, versus the Middle East and Asia. The jihadists from the first two zones are more often than not later converts to religious practice, while Asian and Middle Easterners were often devout as children.

The paradoxical consequence is that the Al-Azhar argument, that “we need more religious teaching to counter extremism," will raise a red flag in western countries, and is opposed by many secularists in our country.

In addition, and more generally, this warns us against universal remedies. Countering extremism requires approaches that differ from one country to another. However, studying the others’ experiences is necessary.

Sageman also tells us that three quarters of his sample are married. This only partially contradicts the conventional wisdom. It proves you can be involved in terrorist activities while being married, but we should add most terrorists were recruited by the movements before the marriage. The organization provided them with values, goods, meaning -- and wives.

Then, Sageman focuses on the psychological explanations. This is his own specialisation, and he warns us against the advice of other experts who know nothing about terrorism nor about psychiatry. He pointedly tells us many would like to explain the jihadists' bestial crimes by depravity, mental disease or psychological disorder. Those who perpetrate such crimes and who willingly kill themselves to achieve these crimes are surely psychopaths or sociopaths. Unfortunately, this is not the case, says Sageman.

The main problem is his sample is too small (ten cases) to be significant, but his discussion is nevertheless interesting. In his sample, no one has significant mental illness. Two or three have mild troubles, but this is the average in any population. The jihadists are not different.

Are they psychopaths or sociopaths? This means they are recidivists and they had already abnormal behaviour during their childhood. Sageman was able to gather data on 61 jihadists. Fifty seven were normal.

By itself, the sample is too small to be relevant. Nevertheless, Sageman has a powerful argument. Terrorism is a collective activity, and a risky one. Terrorist movements cannot afford the luxury of hiring abnormal people, with a proven record of strange behaviour, unforeseen initiatives, and inability to work within a team. When they discover that a recruit suffers from that kind of trouble, they sideline him.

This was the case with the “missing terrorist”, Zakarias Moussawi, of September 11 infamy. His participation could have compromised the success of the operation, so the leaders decided to expel him. The conclusion is staggering, but logical: those are the most unlikely to do evil alone are the most likely to do it collectively. Alas, this sounds plausible.

Are terrorists criminals who looked for a religious legitimation of their lust and hatred? Many European terrorists were petty criminal before their conversion to Salafist ideology. Nevertheless, this ideology brought solace and meant redemption. They were, in a way, “born again." True, they still perpetrated crimes, but the goal was no longer the same. Instead they tried to fund jihad.

Despite the overwhelming lack of evidence, many psychiatrists try to salvage the “mental illness” paradigm. They opt for three different explanations: pathological narcissism, paranoia and authoritarian personality.

Sageman scrutinizes the three explanations. There are many forms of pathological narcissism, but the result is aggressiveness against a scapegoat, who is identified as the cause of the pain and failings. This behaviour can be a kind of unconscious revenge against parents, or a revenge for their parents or a mix of both. Sageman claims this does not apply to international jihadists. But are his arguments convincing?


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