The Future of Political Violence and Terrorism Studies: An Interview with Marc Sageman

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The Future of Political Violence and Terrorism Studies: An Interview with Marc Sageman

Marc Sageman

This interview was conducted by Dr. Ahmet Celik who is a Senior Expert at GC4SS

We start here our first GC4SS’ Interview Series with Marc Sageman who is an iconoclastic Polish-born American scholar in the field of Terrorism. As an independent expert on terrorism, he is the founder of Sageman Consulting, LLC. He is also a Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center for the Study of Terrorism.

After graduating from Harvard, he obtained an M.D. and a Ph.D. in sociology from New York University.  He was a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy and a case officer at the Central Intelligence Agency for seven years.  He spent three years supporting the Afghan Mujahedin resistance against the Soviet occupation. He returned to medicine and completed a residency in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.

He is a forensic and clinical psychiatrist and taught course on law and psychiatry, Holocaust perpetrators and terrorism at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University at both graduate and undergraduate levels. After a year at the U.S. Secret Service, he was the New York Police Department’s first “scholar in residence” for over a year. For three and a half years, he was the special advisor to the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff (Intelligence) on the “insider threat,” including terrorists and spies. In the fall of 2012, he was ISAF Political Scientist looking at the Insider Threat in Afghanistan.

He is the author of Understanding Terror Networks, Leaderless Jihad, Misunderstanding Terrorism, and Turning to Political Violence and several studies on the process of radicalization. His new book is about the recent London attacks is due out soon. He is currently working on book covering terrorist attacks in France.

The Most Populer Books of Marc Sageman

GC4SS: Let us start with our first question which is directly about your position in the world of terrorism researches. You have produced a highly significant body of work on terrorism. When we google your name we always come across the word of “independent” as an adjective next to scholar/researcher/expert in your biographies. Could you elaborate on what benefits could young researcher gain by being independent especially in the field of security sciences? Would you recommend young scholars to follow your path?

Dr. Sageman: I’m glad you noticed this. In social science, it is important to be neutral, impartial, objective and therefore independent. In a subject like political violence and terrorism, it is easy to identify with one side or the other. In fact, when the overwhelming majority of research is paid by governments, it becomes very easy to identify with the government’s side. This has strong implications, the most important of which is neglect of large subjects, like atrocities committed on one’s own side, namely the government. In this case, the scholar becomes an extension of the government, mostly through unconscious self-censorship, and social science degenerates into counter-terrorism masquerading as social science. This neglected issue of government aggression against a group which it labels terrorist is one of the major blind spots in terrorism research. One not only sees it and then investigates it when one is truly neutral or independent. This has of course the potential of cutting off funding for one’s research. This is why, for the past half-decade, I cut off all my ties to government institutions and been self-funded in my research on terrorism. My last two books, Misunderstanding Terrorism and Turning to Political Violence, analyze this governmental contribution to not only the outbreak of political violence, but its continuation and even expansion. The vast majority of serious terrorism research is thus skewed and accepts government viewpoints and interpretations as its frame and point of departure. Of course, a young researcher without independent means has very little opportunity to be truly independent because most research funding comes from governments. Perhaps, he or she should seek more private money (private funders or academic institutions) to fund this research, where government activity is so important.

The vast majority of serious terrorism research is thus skewed and accepts government viewpoints


Sageman in a Field Trip

GC4SS: As you have identified in your books and articles, Jihadist are not intellectuals and predominantly ignorant. As you have asserted their reasoning is very simple: “West is attacking Muslims and we are defending Muslims”. Have you ever heard of a policy targeting this reasoning and what policies would you recommend to solve this problem?

Dr. Sageman: Of course, most Western governments dispute the notion that the West is attacking Islam. However, the jihadis have lots of evidence in support of their arguments (support of Israel against Palestinians; invasions of Muslim lands; mass bombings of Muslims abroad; support of unpopular tyrants in Muslim lands…) which the West has trouble explaining. Even the notion, “Make America Great Again,” is easily countered by “Make Islam Great Again,” which is the easy jihadi answer to Western hegemony. The anti-Muslim speech in the West does not help. The West cannot counter this simple jihadi argument without effectively changing its foreign policy and pursuing the most outrageous anti-Muslim speech in defamation lawsuits. This has not been done and the West seems unfair to Muslims, an appearance playing into the hands of jihadis.

Make America Great Again,” is easily countered by “Make Islam Great Again”,…./…the West seems unfair to Muslims

GC4SS: In your book “Leaderless Jihad”, you have asserted that the Al Qaeda is no longer a threat to the world security and put forward a hypothesis that locally radicalized individuals as well as groups would become as a new threat. This might bring also negative consequences for Muslim communities in the West also. What can be done by the Muslim communities as well as the authorities to stop this self-radicalization process? Is there any real solution to reverse this trend?

Dr. Sageman: The process of radicalization (which, to me, is simply turning to political violence, regardless of what one thinks) is really a social identification with Muslim victims of Western violence, which encourages a few Muslims to become soldiers (“mujahedin”) to defend their attacked community (the “ummah”). So, bombing Muslims abroad can inspire Muslims at home to identify with the victims abroad and decide to defend or avenge them by carrying out attacks at home. Mainstream Muslim communities in the West have always condemned these terrorist attacks, but the Western media is not reporting it and the Western public and politicians believe that most Western Muslims have not protested against these attacks (and therefore must be supportive of them). It is in the nature of political conflict that one neglects protesting voices from the alleged enemy group and even takes the most extreme voices in that group to be most representative of that group. This is a natural phenomenon, not unique to the jihadi threat. Since the Muslim mainstream community is already doing all it can to distance itself from the jihadis, the responsibility falls to the Western politicians to amplify these majority voices. Of course, since Western politicians now cater to their electorate instead of trying to lead and educate them, they have no interest to do so, and so perpetuate the myth that the vast majority of Muslims in Western countries are not doing enough to counter the jihadi threat.

Mainstream Muslim communities in the West have always condemned these terrorist attacks, but the Western media is not reporting it

Sageman Lecturing on Radicalisation

GC4SS: Although lost its initial power, ISIL has emerged a new and quite different phenomenon in the jihadist terrorism. In your opinion, how and why has it become so successful to attract so many followers from different parts of the world to its cause?

Dr. Sageman: The Islamic State has lost much of its attractiveness since the middle of 2015. The wave of foreign fighters going to Syria and Iraq has become a trickle after that date, for complex reasons. Most of the disappointed foreign fighters point to the internal fighting among jihadi groups in Syria as the reason for their defection. Their friends in the West and Muslim countries share this disillusionment. So, the original appeal was the promise of building a just and fair Muslim society in the Middle East, one that would contrast with corrupt Muslim regime. Once this promise faded, the flow of volunteers to the Islamic State essentially stopped.

GC4SS: What kind of anti-terror lessons can be inferred from the initial success of the ISIL for the future? As a very competent expert in the field of jihadi terrorism, what is your prediction about ISIL as well as this new phase of jihadism? Will the ISIL be able to be eliminated completely from the world stage?

Dr. Sageman: I believe that the Islamic State is a spent force. However, the promise of an ideal Islamic nation with territorial reality in the Middle East is still strong, even if temporarily disappointed. So, the Islamic State will fade away but the neo-jihadi dream and hope will stay strong as long as corrupt and tyrannical regimes exist in the Middle East and the West supports them, or worse becomes directly involved in the bombing and killings of Muslims abroad.

the Islamic State will fade away but the neo-jihadi dream and hope will stay strong as long as corrupt and tyrannical regimes exist

Do you consider that the Islamic World speaks out enough against its own terror groups, like the ISIL or the al Qaeda?

Dr. Sageman: Corrupt Muslim regimes do not have much credibility among young Muslim dreamers who hope for a better world. Whatever they say carries very little weight among these young dreamers.

GC4SS: Other than the news or the images originated from a suicide bombing or a devastating attack time to time, the world seems to forget that there is still an ongoing war in Afghanistan with a potential of deterioration, where the Taliban is gaining strength again and the ISIL has emerged as a new force. From this point of view, what should and/or can be done by the US as well as by the international community in order to prevent Afghanistan from slipping back into the Taliban’s control? Do you have a worst-case scenario for Afghanistan?

Dr. Sageman: The Western world does not care about Afghanistan as long as there are no Western victims. Since the withdrawal of most Western forces (down to about 10,000 troops) from Afghanistan and their lack of involvement in direct firefights, there are fewer Western victims. Now, Afghanistan is seen mostly as a drain on Western treasuries. Both the Soviets and NATO (under strong US leadership) have shown that the West has very limited impact over the long term in Afghanistan. In fact, as long as they are there and guarantee the survival of a regime, most Afghans can blame their problems on foreigners and have little incentive in trying to find internal political solutions to their major and real grievances. I do not believe that the Taliban or the Islamic State are strong enough to muster an offensive campaign capable of taking over the Afghan government. It is very different to carry out local ambushes from uniting into a coalition that can carry out large scale offensive action. There are too many local warlords jealous of each other for them to unite in an effective offensive movement. So long as foreign troops will stay in Afghanistan, the political situation will be at a stalemate. The withdrawal of foreign troops has the potential (but unfortunately not the certainty) to lead to a local political solution. The solution is an Afghanistan with a weak central state and strong provincial governments, a federation, like Switzerland, another mountainous country. This has been the political solution in Afghanistan for two centuries until the 1970s when Kabul tried to impose its will on the rest of the country. Afghanistan has been at war ever since. The presence of foreign troops and foreign aid prevents this solution because it is much easier to funnel all foreign help through a centralized bureaucracy. This encourages a strong central government and weakens the provinces, which is the major reason for the fighting. The foreign presence is an impediment to a political solution in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of foreign troops has the potential (but unfortunately not the certainty) to lead to a local political solution

GC4SS: We live in the age of internet, through which you argue jihadists are self-radicalized. We also observe that outsiders could easily manipulate the people’s heart and minds as seen in the 2016 US Presidential election.  While keeping these two facts in our minds, what would you recommend to prevent the cyber-space from becoming a destabilizing force for the peace in the world?

Dr. Sageman: This is an important issue, and I confess that I have not given this very much thought. I’ve focused on how and why people fight over time (going back two and a half centuries) and over space (looking at four continents). I have not really focused on the modern reality of the Internet. It adds to the ability of people to believe that they are part of an imagined community (in the Benedict Anderson sense of the term), which is no longer confined to geographical limits. Seeing one’s imagined community attacked facilitates a few people to volunteer to defend their imagined community, leading to political violence. It is not really the Internet that is at fault here, but the lack of creativity in potential world leaders in making the rest of us imagine that we are part of the same community, namely the human race.

GC4SS: We witness a proxy war in Syria. Various actors in the field are competing and/or fighting with each other for gaining superiority. As the recent chemical weapon attack has shown, there is a serious potential for escalation between the US and Russia, as well as their proxies. What are your predictions for Syria? Do you consider any risk for the World to witness another World War?

Dr. Sageman: I have lately focused on global neo-jihadi political violence in the West. I am not an expert on the political situation in Syria. It is hard to predict what will happen there as so much depends on foreign involvement in that country.

GC4SS: Your new book, which will be about the recent London attacks is due out soon. Is it possible for you to discuss your findings and recommendations and also, if implemented, their potential effects on the anti-terror policies as well as measures with us?

Dr. Sageman: The book is really a straight story telling about what happened in Britain between 2004 and 2006 in terms of global neo-jihadi attacks. I intend to write a shorter book on the implication of getting the facts straight for policy.

GC4SS: Do you have any other new research project that you can share with us?

Dr. Sageman: Yes, I am currently writing a book on the global neo-jihadi threat in France. Since to me, the emergence of political violence (terrorism) partly comes from an escalation of conflict between two political community (here French jihadis) and state agents, I traced the evolution of the relationship between these two communities since its inception in France. So, I had to go back to the French invasion, occupation, and annexation of Algeria in the 19th century; the Algerian war of independence and its effect in France; the evolution of the immigrant community in France over 40 years and its relationship to the French; and the transformation of this community in terms of the crackdown of the French state on a segment of this community and the consequences of French foreign policy. I have already started another large-scale project to look at political violence in the United States for 30 years post-World War II, in terms of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam movement. The mid-1970s were marked by the withdrawal from Vietnam and a temporary transformation of the repressive powers of the state because of the confluence of many political scandals. This eliminated a lot of grievances from political challengers and seemed to be a good end point to this study.

GC4SS: What are the future security threats and what should scholars in the field of security studies at global level should be focusing on in the future?

Dr. Sageman: As I have already argued, the field of terrorism research is still stagnant. People do not build on the findings of previous work. This is because the field is full of speculation and very little facts. Scholars need to convince their respective government to release classified information dealing with this issue and give scholars access to imprisoned perpetrators. I have based most of my recent work on primary sources, such as trial transcripts (and not just on indictment documents that most scholars use. These indictments are the prosecution best case incriminating defendants and ignore vast amounts of evidence. They are very one-sided, presenting the government’s point of view and not the terrorists’ one.) The use of primary source material will transform the field. At this point, the main focus for scholars is to gain access to primary sources and not just government biased arguments.

The use of primary source material will transform the field

GC4SS: As discussed in this year’s Munich Security Conference, international order is on the brink of a major change, where it seems that the new world order would be based on less liberal but more nationalist and realist values and principals. We even notice its consequences on the political stage of countries in terms of election of more nationalist and/or right-wing parties. In this context, what would be its potential ramifications and effects for the field of terrorism?

This type of partisanship is bound to generate far more conflicts among competing political groups that will be tempted to address their grievances with violence rather than a political process with which they’ll be disillusioned. I see a period of more internal political violence among the challengers that will not be contained by state agents.

This type of partisanship is bound to generate far more conflicts

GC4SS: Some scholars and experts claim that whereas “the US benefits from a Muslim community that cooperates readily with law enforcement, in Europe, the less-integrated Muslim communities are more hostile and therefore more hesitant to cooperate with the state.” Do you agree on this opinion? If yes, what do you suggest to law enforcement agencies particularly in Europe to be able to communicate better with the Muslim communities?

Dr. Sageman: This is a very complex issue, which should be examined more country by country. The statement is truer in France, where the Jacobin state is aggressively trying to eliminate the existence of political communities in the name of legal uniformity. In France, the word “communautarisme” is very negative and a threat to state sovereignty. In essence, French officials exclude religious Muslims as legitimate interlocutors. These young Muslims are not viewed as truly French and are not treated as such by state agents, mostly the police and court officials. Therefore, the national police has very little legitimacy among young poor Muslims living in banlieues. On the other hand, this is not true, for instance, in Denmark or even Germany, where second generation Muslim immigrants are treated as country nationals, endowed with the same rights as other citizens. In these two countries, there is greater communication between state agents and Muslims.

…..French officials exclude religious Muslims as legitimate interlocutors…. ….this is not true, for instance, in Denmark or even Germany….

GC4SS: Do you consider that the Western law enforcement agencies are better-equipped than the past, in terms of coping with terrorism? In this context, what are the most common mistakes being made by the various law enforcement agencies? Is there any need to review and change accordingly the policies implemented by law enforcement agencies?

Dr. Sageman: Again, this is an issue that needs to be addressed country by country. Danish policemen view themselves as providing a service to the community. They are close to the community they serve. Whenever they view young people that may be “radicalized,” they try to bring them back to the fold, to re-affiliate them into society. In contrast, France is at the opposite side of this spectrum. French policemen see themselves as preserving political institution and imposing order on society. When they see a threat, they have a punitive attitude and fill up prisons with suspicious young Muslims. Each country’s law enforcement agency behavior is embedded in a culture and tradition that will be very difficult to change. Each policeman conceives of himself and his role in society differently. Yet, both countries are Western European countries. This issue has to be analyzed country by country because of their historical, social, cultural, legal, economic differences.

…..Danish policemen view themselves as providing a service to the community…../ ….French policemen see themselves as preserving political institution and imposing order on society…..

GC4SS: Proxy wars became so obvious in Syria and there are examples of States could support groups without facing much legal consequences. What is your opinion about the State’s supporting local radical or even terrorist groups for their behalf?

Dr. Sageman: As I said, I focus on political violence in the West. My opinion about such issues in the West is based on solid empirical grounding. This is not the case about the Middle East, and so my opinion is no better than a randomly chosen layman. I believe that I should spare you my prejudices.

GC4SS: What would you advise to the world leaders in order to tackle better with terrorism?

Dr. Sageman: Terrorism, or what I prefer to designate a certain type of political violence, is part of the human condition. It has always existed, back to the mythical cavemen. It is here to stay, because it is natural that human conflicts will degenerate to violence under a specific set of conditions (which I elaborate on in my latest book). So, “tackling” terrorism is really minimizing this type of political violence. In essence, the state (world leaders) should be careful not to politicize private grievances (through state intervention in these grievance), not to escalate conflicts with a political protest community, fight against disillusionment among members of that community with legal and legitimate forms of addressing their grievances, be careful not to physically attack this political protest community which might lead to a sense of moral outrage against state agents and lead a few members of that community to volunteer as soldiers defending their community. Once, the violence has broken out, the state should break the cycle of violence through fair and just repression of the violent political actors and be careful to distinguish them from the larger community from which they emerge. All of the above recommendations are elaborated in greater details in Turning to Political Violence.

The world leaders should be careful not to politicize private grievances 

Thank you Dr. Sageman for your brave and enlighthining answers.

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