WASHINGTON — Most Americans have a false idea of the shadowy, worldwide terrorist network led by al-Qaida, according to a former CIA operative who collected the life histories of almost 400 members of the deadly movement.
The stereotype that these terrorists are poor, desperate, single young men from Third World countries, vulnerable to brainwashing, is wrong, Dr. Marc Sageman told an international terrorism conference in Washington last week.
Most Arab terrorists he studied were well-educated, married men from middle- or upper-class families, in their mid-20s and psychologically stable, said Sageman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Many of them knew several languages and traveled widely.
But when they settled in foreign countries, they became lonely, homesick and embittered, he said. They felt humiliated by the weakness and backwardness of their homelands. They formed tight cliques with fellow Arabs and drifted into mosques more for companionship than for religion. Radical preachers convinced them it was their duty to drive Americans from Muslim holy lands, killing as many as possible.
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Sageman served as a CIA case officer in Afghanistan from 1987 to 1989, running agents against the Soviet occupation. In a book, "Understanding Terror Networks," published in May, he traced the roots of the movement to a centuries-old Islamic tradition dedicated to purifying Muslim lands of "infidels" and restoring the past glories of Islam.
He described al-Qaida and its global allies as "a violent Islamist social movement held together by an idea: the use of violence against foreign and non-Muslim governments or populations to establish an Islamist state in the core Arab region."
For its members, terrorism is "an answer to Islamic decadence — a feeling that Islam has lost its way," he said.
Sageman drew his data from transcripts of legal proceedings against terrorists, unclassified government documents, police wiretaps, scholarly articles and news accounts. He acknowledged that his sources are incomplete and sometimes of questionable reliability. Because he dealt only with public records, he said, his sample may be biased toward the better-known, more prominent members of the movement.
Nevertheless, his work appears to be the most thorough profile of the members of the terrorist network available outside the walls of government secrecy.
Sageman didn't include in his sample the violent insurgents who are bedeviling Americans and their allies in Iraq. He also didn't count local terrorist networks in the Palestinian areas, Lebanon, Kashmir, Chechnya, Latin America and other radical nationalists in his survey. He focused on the sprawling collection of terrorist cells inspired by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization.
Sageman's findings about the social and psychological makeup of the terrorist network "sound perfectly plausible to me," said Jessica Stern, a former expert on terrorism at the National Security Council who's now at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "It's consistent with my findings."
In a review of Sageman's book, Joshua Sinai, a veteran terrorism analyst in Washington, called it "one of the most insightful studies published so far" on the Islamic terrorists.
In her interviews with terrorists, Stern found a common thread to be a feeling of humiliation for the decline of their once-great Islamic culture. "If you're humiliated, you want to blame somebody and try to fix it," she said.
Following are some of Sageman's conclusions:
Until recently, the central staff or core leadership of the terrorist movement, headed by Saudi Arabia native bin Laden, consisted of about 38 members, two-thirds of them from Egypt, with a smattering of Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and other Middle Easterners. The Egyptians joined al-Qaida when it formed in the 1980s. They were mostly Islamic militants involved in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Since September 2001, about two-thirds of the original leadership has been killed or captured, and replaced by "younger, more aggressive new leaders," Sageman said. "The network has become more decentralized and more disconnected from the central staff. This has resulted in more frequent and more reckless operations."
The majority of the network is made up of Middle Eastern Arabs from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen and Kuwait, as well as North Africans from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. There's also a contingent of second-generation Muslim immigrants in France, Spain and other Western European countries.
A smaller group of Southeast Asians is centered in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Because of its decentralization, the network "provides no hard targets for military operations," Sageman said. "The war on this type of terror must be fought on many fronts."
He suggested police surveillance of local cells, interception of their communications and tracking terrorists' friends and relatives, since they are also likely to be members or supporters.
The leadership and the bulk of the members came from comfortable upper- and middle-class homes, challenging the argument that poverty breeds terrorism. Some were doctors, lawyers, engineers or other professionals.
Only a small percentage of Sageman's sample were poorly educated. Fewer than one-fifth lacked a high school education. Seventy percent had at least some college; several had master's or doctoral degrees. Except for the Southeast Asians, 90 percent went to secular schools.
Contrary to the view that terrorists are single, childless, immature young men, lacking any attachment to society, nearly three-quarters of the sample were married. Most had children.
Some people think terrorists are criminals or antisocial psychopaths. But Sageman found that most had normal childhoods without any trouble with the law. Those who later turned to petty crime did it to raise money for their actions, not for personal gain.
"The data suggest that these were good kids who liked to go to school and were often overprotected by their parents," he said. "They are not essentially evil, but they definitely act evil."