Politicians who talk about the terrorism threat -- and it's already clear that this will be a polarizing issue in the 2008 campaign -- should be required to read a new book by a former CIA officer named Marc Sageman. It stands what you think you know about terrorism on its head and helps you see the topic in a different light.So all we need to worry about is a bunch of Evel Knievels? Puhleeze!
Sageman has a résumé that would suit a postmodern John le Carré. He was a case officer running spies in Pakistan and then became a forensic psychiatrist. What distinguishes his new book, "Leaderless Jihad," is that it peels away the emotional, reflexive responses to terrorism that have grown up since Sept. 11, 2001, and looks instead at scientific data Sageman has collected on more than 500 Islamic terrorists -- to understand who they are, why they attack and how to stop them.
The heart of Sageman's message is that we have been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the terrorism threat...
The first wave of al-Qaeda leaders, who joined Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave of terrorists, who trained in al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan during the 1990s, has also been devastated, with about 100 hiding out on the Pakistani frontier. These people are genuinely dangerous, says Sageman, and they must be captured or killed. But they do not pose an existential threat to America, much less a "clash of civilizations."
It's the third wave of terrorism that is growing, but what is it? By Sageman's account, it's a leaderless hodgepodge of thousands of what he calls "terrorist wannabes." Unlike the first two waves, whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of the Internet culture. Outraged by video images of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in password-protected chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people across time and religious boundaries, they are bored and looking for thrills....
David Ignatius, the author of the commentary and quite obviously not a supporter of John McCain, manages not to agree with the body of his own essay, which is mostly a rundown of Sageman's arguments:
I don't agree with all of Sageman's arguments, especially about the consequences of a quick drawdown in Iraq, but I think he is raising the questions the country needs to ponder this election year. If Sageman's data are right, we are not facing what President Bush called "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation," but something that is more limited and manageable -- if we make good decisions.And just what might be the definition of "good decisions" and adequate managment? Appeasement? Not publishing Mo-toons? Burying the memory of Theo Van Gogh's murder? Ignoring the threats on Geert Wilders's life?
Maybe Mr. Sageman and Mr. Ignatius would do well to read IBA. They just might get a better grip on reality.