Among Sageman’s most useful points is his description of al-Qaeda both as a social movement and an ideology. The most important thing the United States can do, in countering global Islamic terrorism, is to avoid the mistakes of the early Cold War era when policymakers assumed that communism was one global monolithic movement. It wasn’t and neither is al-Qaeda. Even before September 11 it had evolved beyond the group that had first formed in the aftermath of fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and it has evolved several times since, and will continue to do so. Increasingly, to paraphrase, the old cliche about politics, all terrorism is local.
Sageman also does an excellent job of debunking the conventional wisdom as to how people become terrorists, ie, that they are brainwashed when they are immature children or teenagers, that they lack family obligations, act out of sexual frustration, that there is something intrinsically wrong with them (the “bad seed” school of thought).
Sageman finds that one of the greatest motivators for joining an Islamic terrorist social movement is the one that is most easily understood; relationships with friends and kin. In other words, there is no to-down recruitment into al-Qaeda. Rather, the movement forms through the spontaneous self-organization of informal, trusted friends. [complete article]