Looking inside terror cells

They’re college educated people from upper middle-class homes, many of whom are married with children. They don’t have criminal records and they suffer a less-than-average rate of mental illness.

They’re also terrorists.

“ Most of what we know about terrorism is wrong,” said forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, speaking at the Penn Bookstore on Sept. 23. “[Terrorists] are the elite of their country.”

Sageman, an adjunct professor of psychology at the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict and a former CIA operative, decided after 9/11 to study the biographies of terrorists to discern patterns of behavior. Sageman presents the results of his research in his 2004 book, “Understanding Terror Networks” (Penn Press), a collection of more than 200 biographical sketches.

Included are some surprising statistics: 70 percent of terrorists join the network when they are living outside their home country and that same percentage of men join the jihad through friendship with people already involved or collectively with a group of friends.

Sageman, who has now collected close to 400 biographies, said that al Qaeda wants to create a utopian state and permanently drive the U.S. out of the Middle East. “For them to create this utopia, they needed to overthrow the government. They tried the peaceful way but they were oppressed or killed,” he said. “They just want us out.”

Wave of the future

According to Sageman, while 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden no longer has operational control of al Qaeda—thanks in part to U.S. efforts to curb the flow of cash to terrorist training camps—the structure of the al Qaeda network has changed. “Madrid is really the wave of the future,” he said, referring to the March train bombing, which was planned quickly by local leaders for about $5,000.

Sageman says that the best way to fight such a loose and random network of terrorists is with idea-based solutions. “It’s a fight for justice and fairness,” he said. “People look at the U.S. in terms of a hypocritical bully. We need to counter that.”

Originally published on October 7, 2004