A review of Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century; and The Mind of Jihad, by Laurent Murawiec

Terrorism studies have been a growth industry and in this field there is a great temptation, for obvious reasons, to explain the problem of terrorism in terms amenable to a policy solution. No one wants to admit to the possibility of an irresolvable problem. As a result, a great deal of nonsense has been perpetrated about the "root causes" of terrorism, especially concerning the Islamic world. 

Marc Sageman is a forensic psychiatrist who has done yeoman's work in clearing away the debris of various phony "root causes." In his new book, Leaderless Jihad, he uses his empirical research involving some 500 terrorists to debunk the soothing notions that terrorism is caused by poverty, lack of education, sexual deprivation, psychological problems, or lack of economic opportunity. Clearly, these were not the causes for the men whom he studied. Compared to their confreres, they were better educated, wealthier, and often married with children. Sageman makes this part of his case convincingly, with dispatch and some good humor. This is important work because policies based upon the erroneous assumption that any of these is the root cause will be ineffective or perhaps even harmful.

Several years ago, I attended a briefing by Sageman in which he laid out the research behind his observation, included in this book, that terrorist networks are composed of people who have other prior associations, familial or social, that most likely brought them into the network in the first place. Networks are not an aggregation of atomized individuals. He provided a schematized map of all the personal interconnections between the operatives in the Madrid bombing. It looked like several overlaid spider webs of various sizes. The map also demonstrated how "jihad" could be relatively "leaderless," because of the decentralized, non-hierarchical nature of the network. Sageman's approach was impressive in that it appeared to offer the real possibility of developing actionable intelligence. This is, no doubt, why he has been called upon by the government as a counter-terrorism consultant. At its best, this book, written in a lucid style, is full of common sense, buttressed by his research. 

Alas, things go askew when Sageman attempts to find the "root cause" of global Islamist terrorism by conducting a ground up exploration of his sample of terrorists. "Ground up" means that he concentrates on the foot soldiers, and tries to draw his conclusions from his observations of them. By doing so, I am afraid he has gotten lost in the weeds. His approach leads him to the extraordinarily misguided conclusion that terrorism is not "the result of the beliefs and perceptions held by terrorists." Also, we hear that "terrorists rarely execute their operations as a direct result of their doctrines…." Why, then, do they do it? Speaking of terrorists in North America and Western Europe, Sageman tells us that they "were not intellectuals or ideologues, much less religious scholars. It is not about how they think, but how they feel." Anyone feellike some terrorism?

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Terrorism is not simply terror—some people doing terrible things on the spur of the moment. It is murder advanced to the level of a moral principle, which is then institutionalized in an organization—a cell, a party, or a state—as its animating principle. The very first thing one must understand is the ideology incarnated in the terrorist organization; it is the source of its moral legitimacy. Without it, terrorism cannot exist. 

In the case of radical Islamism, the trinity of thinkers behind its Salafi ideology is Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and Maulana Mawdudi. Qutb was an Egyptian thinker and writer, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was hanged by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966 and is widely regarded as the intellectual father of Islamic fundamentalism. Hassan al-Banna was another Egyptian, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and presided over its rapid growth in the 1930s and '40s; he was assassinated in 1949, probably by the Egyptian secret service. Maulana Mawdudi is the Pakistani founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, who died in the United States in the 1970s, but whose Islamist writings influenced millions from the 1920s onward, including Qutb and al-Banna.

Sageman is clearly acquainted with Salafi thinking, but he mentions Qutb only twice, al-Banna once, and Mawdudi not at all. This is somewhat like trying to divine the reasons for a war by observing the soldiers in the trenches, rather than by referring back to the respective principles for which the two sides are fighting. How much of the Nazi ideology could one have come to understand by interviewing German soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge?

Then I challenged Sageman concerning this at his lecture, he told me that Sayyid Qutb was not relevant because the people in his case studies did not read him. Very likely they did not (though the locus for the London subway bombers was an Islamist bookstore that no doubt offered his works). But that is no more relevant than saying that the rank and file of the Nazi party had not read Alfred Rosenberg or Nietzsche. It did not matter if they had not. They were nonetheless under the control of a regime animated by the ideology based on the ideas of such thinkers. The regime formed them. Surely the Nazis pouring forth from the Nuremberg rallies were motivated by and full of "feelings," but it is not these feelings that explain them or Nazism.

What is significant is that the Nazi party was able to foist its perverted explanation of reality on the culturally most highly developed civilization in Europe. That ideology somehow meshed with the dysfunctional society of the Weimar republic. Today, the real fear, one shared by Sageman, is that the Islamist ideology will likewise find a much larger audience in the Muslim world, thus creating a situation far more serious than the one we face today. That is why the "war of ideas" is so important in this struggle and why we must understand the ideas of Qutb and other leading Islamist ideologists. 

Unfortunately, Sageman's orientation leads him to some foolish policy prescriptions, such as that we should criminalize terrorism and demilitarize the war on terror. But treating terror only as a police problem is what got us into this mess in the first place. And so long as we confront state sponsors of terrorism, a subject completely absent from Sageman's book, we would be wise to ignore his advice on the military. 

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The problem of Islamist terrorism must be addressed at the level at which it exists. Terrorists are produced by a totalitarian ideology justifying terrorism. That is its "root cause." With respect to the war of ideas, Laurent Murawiec's book, The Mind of Jihad, is everything that Sageman's is not. In a remark that could be directed at Sageman, Murawiec says in his introduction that many analysts "not only lose sight of the mind holding the weapon, but they ignore the mind moving the minds: ‘the mind of jihad.'" This, then, is the book for those who wish to explore the "root cause" in the ideas that give moral legitimacy to Islamist terrorism. 

Murawiec, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, does far more than survey the thoughts of Qutb, Mawdudi, and al-Banna, valuable and essential as that is. He goes into the nature of ideology itself. Here he is aided by the scholarship of Eric Voegelin, which helps him diagnose Islamism as a spiritual pathology. The seminal books of Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion (1958), and Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), help Murawiec see the typology of such pathologies in Gnosticism and in the violent millenarian movements of the Middle Ages. Once this typology is laid out, the reader is more easily able to see what is operating in the Islamist ideology today. 

One is reminded of the remarks of the then-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, when he wrote in his book on Eschatology (1977):

The rejection of chiliasm (Joachim of Flora, the idea that history will produce a Kingdom of God on earth) means that the Church repudiated the idea of a definitive intra-historical fulfillment, an inner, intrinsic perfectibility of history. The Christian hope knows no idea of an inner fulfillment of history. On the contrary, it affirms the impossibility of an inner fulfillment of the world.

Murawiec does not use this quote, but it expresses a motif of much of his work. He not only refers several times to Joachim of Flora (the medieval millenarian, much discussed by Voegelin), but shows the idea of intra-historical perfectibility to be the same essential spiritual disorder in the West as in the East. He also sees that the secular and theological variants of totalitarianism are essentially the same because of this, and because they are both based on some version of pure will as the principal constituent of reality. 

Murawiec uncovers some of the roots of Islamism in Islam itself. Owing to the spade work he has done in Gnosticism and Christian millenarianism as the foundation of modern totalitarianism, however, he can also convincingly draw the connection between modern radical Islamism and 20th-century Western totalitarian movements. They are not simply moving parallel to each other. In fact, they have enjoyed a good deal of ideological cross-pollination and some real working connections. This is not news in respect to Nazism and Hitler's favorite mufti, Amin al-Husayni. But Murawiec's research into the working relationship between the Soviet Union and Islamism is original and startling. By itself, it is worth the price of the book.

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In a work this ambitious, the reader may not find everything convincing. For instance, I think Murawiec overstretches in trying to relate the Arabic tribal "truth" as immanent and therefore relative, with the voluntaristic metaphysics of al-Ashari, the 10th-century Sunni theologian, which gives Allah the privilege of defining good and evil according to his whim. No Muslim would claim the privilege. In terms of the larger argument, there are those who say that nothing outside of Islam is required to understand Islamism.It is simply Islam redivivus. They will not be persuaded by those, like Murawiec, who say Islamism is Islam infected by Western totalitarian ideology. 

I tend toward the Murawiec side. One cannot read Mawdudi, for instance, without being struck by the Leninist rhetoric. In fact, his writings are inconceivable without Western totalitarian ideology. Islamism definitely has a new element in it. It should be no surprise that, in its political manifestation, the Islamist project duplicates the features of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century's secular ideologies and of Socrates' proto-totalitarian city in Plato's Republic. "In such a state," said Mawdudi, "no one can regard any field of his affairs as personal and private. Considered from this aspect the Islamic state bears a kind of resemblance to the Fascist and Communist states." It is, he remarked, "the very antithesis of secular Western democracy." Al-Banna regarded the Soviet Union under Stalin as the model of a successful one-party system, which the Islamists were seeking. In a line worthy of Robespierre, Qutb said that this "just dictatorship" would "grant political liberties to the virtuous alone." This, of course, does not mean that Islam was irenic before these Western influences were felt, and one has to understand why Islam was susceptible to them in the first place. 

Murawiec's book sparkles with insights and is studded with very valuable citations of Islamist ideologues, but it is, in a way, almost too crammed with material, not all of it sufficiently related to the main theme. Sometimes, the ideas seem to topple on to each other. Perhaps I have this impression because I first encountered The Mind of Jihad in a larger two-volume version put out by the Hudson Institute. This edition from Cambridge conflates the two volumes, and cuts some material. It has rearranged not only the chapters but material within chapters. I cannot say it is an improvement. Some of the sloppiness shows in footnotes carried over from the Hudson editions that refer back to a first volume. Chapter two ends by announcing that the book will next address the subject of Gnosticism as it appeared historically, when that is exactly what the last chapter has done. 

Nonetheless, The Mind of Jihad takes the discussion precisely in the direction in which it needs to go if we are to understand and prevail in this new war of ideas. By seeing Islamist jihad for what it is—an expression of a pseudo-religion and false reality—we can both ascertain the sources of its strength and divine its vulnerabilities. If we understand the enemy, we are a long way toward winning this war. Then all we have to do is understand ourselves.