Politicians who talk about the terrorist threat should be required to read the book Leaderless Jihad
, by former CIA officer Marc Sageman. It stands what you think you know about terrorism on its head and peels away the emotional, reflexive responses to 9/11, looking instead at scientific data Sageman has collected on more than 500 "Islamic" terrorists.
Sageman's message is that we've been scaring ourselves into exaggerating the threat and then making the problem worse by our unwise actions in Iraq. He attacks Bush's central thesis, echoed by McCain's slogan that the U.S. is facing a dangerous, relentless enemy in the War on Islamic Extremists spawned by Al Qaeda.
The numbers say otherwise. The first wave of Al Qaeda leaders joined Osama in the 1980s and is down to a few dozen people on the run in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. The second wave trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s and has been devastated, with about a hundred left hiding on the Pakistani frontier. Sageman does not deny that these people are dangerous and must be killed, but they hardly pose an existential threat to America, much less a "clash of civilizations."
It's the third wave of terrorism that's growing, but it's only a leaderless hodgepodge of "terrorist wannabes." Unlike the first two waves whose members were well educated and intensely religious, the new jihadists are a weird species of Internet culture. Outraged by videos of Americans killing Muslims in Iraq, they gather in anonymous chat rooms and dare each other to take action. Like young people in all times and places they are bored and looking for thrills.
It's more about hero worship than about religion. Many of this third wave can't speak Arabic and have never read the Koran. Only 13% of the sample studied have attended radical madrassas. Their average age is 23 and nearly all join the movement because they know or are related to a member. They are disaffected, homicidal kids--more like urban gang members than motivated Muslim fanatics. It's inherently self-limiting. As soon as the amorphous groups gather and train, they make themselves vulnerable to arrest.
As the threat from Al Qaeda is self-limiting, so is its appeal, and global Islamist terrorism will probably disappear for internal reasons if the United States has the sense to allow it to continue on its course and fade away. Since 2003 the war in Iraq has without question fueled the process of radicalization worldwide, including even in the U.S. We have taken a fire that would have burned itself out and (almost literally) poured gasoline on it.
Sageman's policy advice is to take the glory and thrill out of terrorism. Jettison the rhetoric about Muslim extremism since these leaderless jihadists are barely Muslim at all. Stop holding news conferences to announce the latest triumphs in the "global war on terror," which only glamorizes the struggle. Reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq, which fuels the Muslim world's sense of outrage, an outrage that is reinforced by the echoing cries of outrage from an increasing majority of the non-Muslim world.
If Sageman's data are right, we are not facing what 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 start making good decisions.