Tracking Terrorists

Terrorism analysts Stuart Gottlieb, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and Fernando Reinares take aim at Marc Sageman on his perception of "The Next Generation of Terror."

According to Marc Sageman ("The Next Generation of Terror," March/April 2008), there would be little wind in the sails of the global radical Islamist movement if not for the United States' occupation of Iraq, which he argues is inflaming "homegrown wannabe" jihadists. If the United States simply withdraws from Iraq and treats terrorism as "common criminality," this new breed of jihadi dilettantes will eventually just "fade away."

According to Marc Sageman ("The Next Generation of Terror," March/April 2008), there would be little wind in the sails of the global radical Islamist movement if not for the United States’ occupation of Iraq, which he argues is inflaming "homegrown wannabe" jihadists. If the United States simply withdraws from Iraq and treats terrorism as "common criminality," this new breed of jihadi dilettantes will eventually just "fade away."

Sageman’s singular focus on Iraq is unfortunate because it leads him, one of the world’s most seasoned terrorism analysts, to understate the problem dramatically and call for a dangerous return to pre-9/11 solutions. In fact, when viewed through a broader lens, Sageman’s own case studies lead to a conclusion contrary to those he posits: that we confront a widespread ideological existential challenge that extends well beyond any specific foreign policy of the day, including the Iraq war.

For instance, Sageman declares that the radicalization of Mohammed Bouyeri, the Dutch Muslim who brutally murdered filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the streets of Amsterdam in 2004, can be traced to his "outrage over the Iraq war." Yet nowhere in Bouyeri’s public writings is there any mention of the Iraq war. Nor did Bouyeri mention Iraq at his sentencing in July 2005. He was quite outspoken, however, about his outrage over the film regarding Islam’s treatment of women that van Gogh and former Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali produced.

Sageman also attributes the Madrid railway bombings in March 2004 to its ringleader’s becoming "increasingly obsessed with the war in Iraq." But seven months after the attack — after all Spanish troops had withdrawn from Iraq — authorities uncovered another major plot, this time to blow up at least six high-profile buildings in Madrid, Real Madrid’s soccer stadium, and the Atocha train station (again). Spain remains in the cross hairs not because it initially supported the Iraq war, but because it is considered historically occupied Muslim territory.

Finally, Sageman never explains why these new jihadists, who have been radicalized over the Internet, are less dangerous than those radicalized in the training camps of the 1990s. Moreover, with all his focus on Iraq, he fails to explain why the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is not inspiring similar Muslim "outrage," or how a retreat from Iraq would diminish the power of the global jihadi movement rather than serve as a tremendous recruiting moment akin to the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The face of the jihadi movement may very well have changed during the past 15 years, but its goals remain the same: mass casualty attacks against the West and its allies in the Muslim world. Until that goal changes, we must stay focused on preventing the next attack and remain wary of politically comforting, silver-bullet recommendations.

— Stuart Gottlieb
Director of Policy Studies
MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

—-

Since late 2001, analysts have repeatedly declared al Qaeda defeated, its leadership marginalized, and the terrorist group supplanted by a new kind of threat. These declarations have consistently proved premature. Although Sageman offers interesting insights, there are strong reasons to question his claim that "[t]he individuals we should fear most haven’t been trained in terrorist camps, and they don’t answer to Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri."

Sageman’s contention that al Qaeda’s "golden age" passed with the toppling of its safe haven in Afghanistan is hardly novel, yet he overstates the impact. Many al Qaeda leaders relocated to Pakistan. Even though Pakistan’s military tried to flush al Qaeda out of the tribal areas, U.S. officials acknowledge that the group has gained a safe haven there. The result has been a heavier al Qaeda hand in recent plots. But even before this new safe haven, the conventional story line of a marginalized al Qaeda leadership was questionable.

Although Sageman describes the Madrid bombings as the result of a "self-recruited leaderless jihad," there were numerous links to established terrorist networks — including through Syrian al Qaeda agent Abu Dahdah, and preachers Abu Qatada and Mullah Krekar. Spanish authorities’ failure to prove that bin Laden or Zawahiri ordered the attack does not render these linkages irrelevant.

Connections between "al Qaeda Central" and the more credible terrorist threats continue to become clearer. At least two of the terrorists behind London’s 7/7 bombings, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, trained in Pakistan. Al Qaeda’s senior leaders had enough prior knowledge of 7/7 to send footage of Khan and Tanweer to Al Jazeera after the attack. Multiple intelligence agencies have linked operational command for the potentially catastrophic August 2006 trans-Atlantic air plot to top al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. British terrorist operatives have trained in Pakistan for at least half a dozen plots since 2003, while other European countries have likewise seen their extremists travel there for training — a trend dramatically illustrated by the plots disrupted in Germany and Denmark in September 2007.

Operatives who are "self-financed and self-trained" have a spottier record. The Fort Dix plotters had terrible operational security, taking a video of themselves firing weapons and yelling in a foreign tongue to Circuit City to be transferred to DVD. The hydrogen peroxide in the explosives used by Britain’s July 21, 2005, subway and bus bombers failed to react. The Miami cell that allegedly wanted to destroy Chicago’s Sears Tower reached out to al Qaeda because they doubted they could succeed on their own. According to the indictment in the June 2007 Kennedy Airport plot, the would-be bombers wanted to "present the plan to contacts overseas who may be interested in purchasing or funding it."

Homegrown cells without links to outside networks have not matched the success of al Qaeda and its affiliates. It is still far too early to declare that al Qaeda Central’s day has passed.

— Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Vice President of Research
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Washington, D.C.

The Madrid bombings are often held up as a prototypical example of an autonomous local cell at work. Its perpetrators, writes Sageman, are an example of a "self-recruited leaderless jihad." Yet a number of facts unveiled by Spanish police investigations, with the cooperation of several foreign security services, appear to contradict this widely held view.

Certainly, most of those who actually perpetrated the attacks on March 11, 2004, or committed suicide weeks later in Leganés, Spain, were young, male immigrants of Maghrebi origin who became radicalized and recruited for the purposes of carrying out that operation. The other participants in the bombings, however, do not fall into this category. Some, for instance, who played crucial roles in its planning and execution had ties to the al Qaeda cell founded in Spain by Abu Musab al-Suri in the early 1990s.

Moreover, among the other individuals involved were leading members of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG), who worked alongside the actual bombers and their material collaborators in the months preceding the attacks, as the court verdict in the case makes clear. Indeed, a prominent member of the MICG, Youssef Belhadj, fixed the date for the Madrid bombings while in Brussels exactly one day after Osama bin Laden appeared on Al Jazeera on October 18, 2003, threatening Spain because of its support of the United States in Iraq. He also traveled periodically to and from Madrid but left Spain three days before the attacks, which — significantly — were separated from Sept. 11, 2001, by 911 days.

Also aware in advance of the bombings was a former member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Rabei Osman Sayed Ahmed, who resided in Italy and had devoted the past decade to promoting jihad throughout Europe. Further, senior members of at least three North African groups associated with al Qaeda, including the MICG and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, gathered in Istanbul in February 2002 to discuss future acts of jihad outside conflict zones. Casablanca was targeted first, then Madrid.

Al Qaeda’s international network in Europe and the Middle East also aided suspects’ escape from Spain after the bombings. Two particularly notorious participants in the attacks, who acted as operational leaders, were in e-mail contact during 2003 with Amer Azizi, who was presumably in Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan. Azizi had past dealings with 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before his arrest and thus was considered near to al Qaeda’s core.

Does this really sound like an attack simply attributable to an autonomous local cell and a convincing example of a self-recruited leaderless jihad? The evidence suggests it does not.

— Fernando Reinares
Professor and Director
Program on Global Terrorism
Elcano Royal Institute
Madrid, Spain

Marc Sageman replies:

Writing in a policy magazine opens oneself to polemical attacks. Terrorism research is fraught with ambiguous data that, when taken out of context, can be spun into fantastic conspiracy theories. During the past two centuries, scientific methods have been called upon to settle such controversies. I would refer my critics to the first chapter of my book, Leaderless Jihad, which outlines the application of the scientific method to terrorism research. Stuart Gottlieb’s simplification and distortion of my argument do not merit a reply. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is right to point to the British exception. Because three quarters of British Muslims of Pakistani descent are from Kashmir, they can find relatives who can broker links to al Qaeda-inspired Kashmiri terrorists, and I deal with this issue extensively in my book. Nonetheless, even in Britain, the emerging trend is still consistent with my argument.

The Madrid bombing has been subject to grand conspiracy theories that erroneously connect dots to ETA or al Qaeda. Each of Fernando Reinares’s claims has been definitively rejected by the Spanish court’s decision, which ruled that the bombing was perpetrated by a local Islamist militant group inspired by al Qaeda but with no direct link to the organization. Because of these allegations, my team and I reviewed more than 100,000 pages of discovery material; attended the trial to listen to the testimony of important witnesses; investigated the Spanish and Moroccan neighborhoods where the perpetrators lived; and reviewed all the relevant information on al Qaeda dealing with the Madrid connections. We found that none of these allegations could be substantiated. Police informants who had penetrated this group and telephone intercepts of its internal communications failed to reveal any direct connection to al Qaeda. Just like the discredited Saddam Hussein-al Qaeda link, these allegations will gradually fade toward irrelevance.

More from Foreign Policy

Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.
Newspapers in Tehran feature on their front page news about the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, signed in Beijing the previous day, on March, 11 2023.

Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America

The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.

Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.
Austin and Gallant stand at podiums side by side next to each others' national flags.

The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense

If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at the Moscow Kremlin Wall in the Alexander Garden during an event marking Defender of the Fatherland Day in Moscow.

Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War

Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.

An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.
An Iranian man holds a newspaper reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties, in Tehran on March 11.

How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests

And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.