Friday, November 18, 2005

Beacon No. 72: Arquilla on Al-Qa'ida Leadership


In "Misjudging the Jihad," military theorist John Arquilla cites a study of Al-Qa'ida's leadership by Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA field agent:

Over the years, al Qaeda cadres have generally not come from the pool of poor, semiliterate villagers who never ventured far from home and whose only education has been in religious schools, known as madrassas.

Instead, many of al Qaeda's fighters have been educated in first-rate universities, have been successful in a material sense and are well traveled.


While few terrorists have such starkly dramatic backstories, bin Laden is hardly an exceptional case of a man giving up privilege and embracing peril. Indeed, many al Qaeda fighters have personal histories that echo his.

This is especially true of his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who gave up all hope of a prestigious, prosperous life for the jihadist cause. But even rank-and-file al Qaeda members have often come from upper-middle-class backgrounds.

Al Qaeda's "Hamburg cell," for example, was full of them. Mohammed Atta, who played a key role in the Sept. 11 attacks, studied architecture and finished his dissertation at the Technical University of Hamburg. Ziad Jarrah, who piloted the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in the city. Another cell member, Saad Bahaji, came from a family with a father who was a secular Muslim and a successful businessman and a mother who was an educated German Christian.

So the bulk of Al-Qa'ida's higher-ups are not recruited from mud huts, but rather are white-collar sophisticates who are either bored or worse, afflicted with middle-class guilt that they are somehow unworthy—that they don't get their hands dirty enough supporting their forebears' Cause.

Arquilla also notes that "the rapid spread of advanced information technology has only accelerated a trend toward generally more affluent jihadists," somewhat at odds with my thesis earlier this week focused on winning the hearts and minds of people in mud huts. (See Beacon No. 71, "Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns.")

I'd like to think that Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns might prevent the next generation of Mohammed Attas from arising—that there's little difference between defusing the Iraq insurgency out in the countryside and preventing today's urban five-year-olds from flying aircraft into buildings—but Arquilla explicitly makes this distinction, and is well worth the read besides.


NYkrinDC said...

Most of the leaders of insurgencies usually come from affluent backgrounds. What gives the al Qaeda type more staying power is that in abandoning a life of affluence and comfort, they mimick the life of the prophet Muhammed who abandoned his affluent life style in Mecca only to withdraw to Medina where he built up his forces only to overcome the Meccan elite and establish the first Caliphate. In harking back to this era, they implicitly tie themselves to the life of the prophet Muhammed, serving Allah's cause to purify society and appeal to the larger mass of Muslims in language and imagery they can all understand.

Your proposal for a Big Brother/Sister plan sounds intriguing except that it would take a much larger force than we are capable of fielding. Even then, however, unless the society provides them with sufficient upward mobility to achieve their potential, many are likely to look to the only place where dissent is possible in a the autocratic states in the region; the mosque. Here, it is easy for those who are lost to become radicalized and turn against Western society, since as most Islamist teach it, it is the West's support which keeps the rulers in the region in power, hence the current battle against the far enemy as opposed to the near enemy that al Qaeda is waging.

NYkrinDC said...

That said, John Arquilla is wrong on his prescription for solving the problem. Islamism/Jihadism whatever anyone wants to call it is a symptom of a larger disease, not the disease itself. The disease is disconnectedness. For as connected as these individuals are to the world, well travelled and all, their home societies are mired in disconnectedness with dictatorships that keep control by denying their people a chance to grow or achieve their full potential. Yes, many are radicalized by the US government's policies, be it the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. but they are receptive to radicalization, be it from the web (this reflects the next stage in al Qaeda's growth-al Qaeda 2.0) or from local imams because they feel powerless to affect anything else in their lives.

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