One of the most interesting articles I’ve read in the New Yorker in recent months is Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece on Adam Gadahn, an American who is a member of Al Qaeda and “one of Osama bin Laden’s senior operatives”. In it, Khatchadourian describes how a kid from Southern California coverts to Islam, becomes a radical activist, and ends up making anti-American videos in Pakistan for ObL. Near the end of the article, we’re told about the work of forensic psychiatrist Marc Sagemam, whose study of Al Qaeda members and their motivations formed the basis of his book, Understanding Terror Networks (on Google Book Search):
Sageman discovered that most Al Qaeda operatives had been radicalized in the West and were from caring, intact families that had solidly middle- or upper-class economic backgrounds. Their families were religious but generally mainstream. The vast majority of the men did not have criminal records or any history of mental disorders. Moreover, there was little evidence of coordinated recruitment, coercion, or brainwashing. Al Qaeda’s leaders waited for aspiring jihadists to come to them — and then accepted only a small percentage. Joining the jihad, Sageman realized, was like trying to get into a highly selective college: many apply, but only a few are accepted.
Perhaps his most unexpected conclusion was that ideology and political grievances played a minimal role during the initial stages of enlistment. “The only significant finding was that the future terrorists felt isolated, lonely, and emotionally alienated,” Sageman told the September 11th Commission in 2003, during a debriefing about his research. These lost men would congregate at mosques and find others like them. Eventually, they would move into apartments near their mosques and build friendships around their faith and its obligations. He has called his model the “halal theory of terrorism” — since bonds were often formed while sharing halal meals — or the “bunch of guys” theory. The bunch of guys constituted a closed society that provided a sense of meaning that did not exist in the larger world.
Within the “bunch of guys,” Sageman found, men often became radicalized through a process akin to oneupmanship, in which members try to outdo one another in demonstrations of religious zeal. (Gregory Saathoff, a research psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and a consultant to the F.B.I., told me, “We’re seeing in some of the casework that once they get the fever they are white-hot to move forward.”) Generally, the distinction between converts and men with mainstream Islamic backgrounds is less meaningful than it might seem, Sageman said, since “they all become born again.” Many Muslims who accept radical Salafist beliefs consider themselves “reverts.” They typically renounce their former lives and friends — and often their families.
It’s easy to see the power of this approach. A recruiter only needs to use the potential recruit’s own feelings of isolation, loneliness, and social alienation against him and after that it’s like a stone rolling downhill. Reading this, I thought about similar the situation sounds to recruitment at college fraternities or the armed forces. Different ends of course, but the technique is similar: give a guy in a tough spot a comforting social framework, some self-esteem, and a bit of responsibility and eventually he’ll go to war with you, sometimes literally. Anyway, fascinating article.