The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism

Why Osama bin Laden Still Matters

Since Rudy Giuliani's early exit from the Republican presidential primary, the issue of terrorism has barely been mentioned by any of the candidates in either party. Given its absence from this year's U.S. presidential campaign, it is easy to forget how prominent a role terrorism played in 2004. Many observers believe that Osama bin Laden's dramatically choreographed videotaped appearance on October 29, 2004, may have tipped the vote in President George W. Bush's favor by reminding Americans of the horrors of 9/11 and instilling a fear of future attacks. And although terrorism has largely been ignored as a campaign issue thus far, bin Laden and al Qaeda may deliberately raise its visibility once again.

The publication of Leaderless Jihad is therefore timely. Its author, Marc Sageman, brings unique credentials to the study of terrorism. European-born but American-educated, Sageman holds a doctorate in political sociology and is a practicing psychiatrist. He served in the U.S. Navy as a flight surgeon before joining the CIA in 1984. During the late 1980s, Sageman was based in Islamabad and worked closely with the Afghan mujahideen forces that were fighting the Soviets.

Sageman's first book, Understanding Terror Networks, was an important work that received little public attention when it was published four years ago. It provocatively challenged the conventional wisdom that victory in the war on terrorism would be achieved by killing and capturing bin Laden, his main ideologue, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the rest of al Qaeda's leadership. According to Sageman, al Qaeda was not an organization to be systematically destroyed but a social network that had to be disrupted. The only effective defense against Salafi terrorists, he claimed, was a thorough understanding of the web of relationships that sustained them -- something that was sorely lacking in both the government and academe at the time.

Sageman continues this line of argument in Leaderless Jihad. The gravest threat facing the United States and the West today, he maintains, is not a revived al Qaeda straddling the lawless border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Rather, he contends, the true menace comes from loose-knit cells of Western-born Muslims or Muslim immigrants studying and working in the West. These disaffected "bunches of guys" are often friends, roommates, or classmates who undergo the process of radicalization together.

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