Thursday, 7 February 2008

What makes a terrorist?

What makes a misunderstander of Islam terrorist?

According to Marc Sageman, a 'forensic psychiatrist', as quoted in the Economist, terrorist are a bit like you and me. It might be comforting to think that angry young Islamists are crazed psychopaths or sex-starved adolescents who have been brainwashed in malign madrassas. But Sageman seeks to explode each of these myths, and others besides, and provides an unsettling account of how al-Qaeda has evolved from the organisation headed by Osama bin Laden into an amorphous movement 'leaderless jihad'.

He's a leading advocate of what is called the 'buddy' theory of terrorism. He has spent much time asking why well-educated young men, from middle-class backgrounds, often with a secular education and wives and children, become misunderstanders of Islam suicide bombers. He suggests that radicalisation is a collective rather than an individual process in which friendship and kinship are key components.

The process has four stages. The initial trigger is a sense of moral outrage, usually over some incident of Muslim suffering in Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya or elsewhere. This acquires a broader context, becoming part of what he calls a morality play,in which Islam and the West are seen to be at war.

In stage three, the global and the local are fused, as geopolitical grievance resonates with personal experience of discrimination or joblessness. And finally the individual joins a terrorist cell, which becomes a surrogate family, nurturing the jihadist world-view and preparing the initiate for martyrdom. Many Muslims pass through the first three phases; only a few take the final step.

Or so he tells us.

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