Understanding Terror Networks

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University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004 - Political Science - 220 pages
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For decades, a new type of terrorism has been quietly gathering ranks in the world. America's ability to remain oblivious to these new movements ended on September 11, 2001. The Islamist fanatics in the global Salafi jihad (the violent, revivalist social movement of which al Qaeda is a part) target the West, but their operations mercilessly slaughter thousands of people of all races and religions throughout the world. Marc Sageman challenges conventional wisdom about terrorism, observing that the key to mounting an effective defense against future attacks is a thorough understanding of the networks that allow these new terrorists to proliferate.

Based on intensive study of biographical data on 172 participants in the jihad, Understanding Terror Networks gives us the first social explanation of the global wave of activity. Sageman traces its roots in Egypt, gestation in Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, exile in the Sudan, and growth of branches worldwide, including detailed accounts of life within the Hamburg and Montreal cells that planned attacks on the United States.

U.S. government strategies to combat the jihad are based on the traditional reasons an individual was thought to turn to terrorism: poverty, trauma, madness, and ignorance. Sageman refutes all these notions, showing that, for the vast majority of the mujahedin, social bonds predated ideological commitment, and it was these social networks that inspired alienated young Muslims to join the jihad. These men, isolated from the rest of society, were transformed into fanatics yearning for martyrdom and eager to kill. The tight bonds of family and friendship, paradoxically enhanced by the tenuous links between the cell groups (making it difficult for authorities to trace connections), contributed to the jihad movement's flexibility and longevity. And although Sageman's systematic analysis highlights the crucial role the networks played in the terrorists' success, he states unequivocally that the level of commitment and choice to embrace violence were entirely their own.

Understanding Terror Networks combines Sageman's scrutiny of sources, personal acquaintance with Islamic fundamentalists, deep appreciation of history, and effective application of network theory, modeling, and forensic psychology. Sageman's unique research allows him to go beyond available academic studies, which are light on facts, and journalistic narratives, which are devoid of theory. The result is a profound contribution to our understanding of the perpetrators of 9/11 that has practical implications for the war on terror.


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This is a book assigned to my Global Terrorism class. It is a very easy read, and presents a lot of information with good research behind it. The information leads to more research, which is always a ... Read full review

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About the author (2004)

From Chapter 4, "Joining the Global Jihad"

Because any attempt to find a common social factor or personality predisposition for terrorism runs into the fundamental problem of specificity, profiles based on such personal characteristics as age, sex, national origin, religion, education, and socioeconomic background are of very little value in identifying true terrorists. In the case of global Salafi mujahedin, however, there is one common element that is specific to them and to no one else, and that is the fact that they have made a link to the jihad. These links are key to the dynamics of terror networks. To further our understanding of these networks, it is critical to understand how these links are formed. How does one go about joining the global Salafi jihad? To explore this question, let us examine the case histories of two terrorist cells, the plotters of the unsuccessful millennial bombing of the Los Angeles airport and the Hamburg cell responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. Millennial Plot

Ahmed Ressam was born on May 9, 1967, at Bou Islamil, Algeria. His father Belkacem Ressam, a hero from the Algerian War of Liberation, owned a coffee shop and a six-bedroom house. He was a devout Muslim but did not demand that his family follow his practice, and his children were not religious. Ahmed, the oldest child, was a shy, skinny boy and a decent student. At sixteen, he developed a stomach ulcer and went to Paris for a lengthy course of treatment. This set him back in his studies, and he failed his final baccalaureate examinations, ending his opportunity for further studies at university. He worked at his father''s coffee shop and lived a secular life. He wore designer jeans, drank wine, smoked hashish, frequented nightclubs, went out with girls, and had nothing to do with Islam. He was aloof from the nascent political storms brewing over Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s. On September 5, 1992, he boarded the ferry for Marseille, in search of a better life (Ressam, 2001; Bernton et al., 2002).

Lacking proper papers, Ressam drifted to Corsica, where he found work picking grapes and painting houses and got involved in the underground market in false documents. He was arrested on November 8, 1993, for an immigration violation and was released awaiting his hearing in March, 1994. Not wanting to return to Algeria, he flew to Montreal on February 20, 1994, with false documents identifying him as Tahar Medjadi. On arrival at the airport, he admitted that his documents were faked but invented a story about militant engagement and false imprisonment in Algeria and asked for political asylum. He was released on bond, given welfare benefits (for three years) and scheduled to come back for a hearing.

Alone in Montreal, Ressam drifted to places where he could meet compatriots. One of the most popular was the Assuna Annabawiyah Mosque, which attracted about 1,500 worshippers on Fridays, mostly from the expatriate Algerian community. A significant portion of this community was involved in small-scale crime, such as trafficking in false documents, credit card fraud, and petty theft. The mosque was one of the centers where people involved in these crimes met in order to fence their stolen goods. Young men congregated around the mosque and its connected bookstore, which sold Salafi books and tapes. Ressam, who still liked to dress well and go to nightclubs, befriended several of them and got involved in petty crime as well. He met Mustapha Labsi, who had come to Canada on April 30, 1994, also asking for refugee status on the basis of a made-up story. The two became best friends and accomplices in crime. They were first arrested in August 1994 when they tried to grab an elderly woman''s handbag. Ressam pled guilty and was sentenced to pay a fine to a charity. He and Labsi continued their careers in crime and specialized in stealing tourists'' suitcases from hotel lobbies, taking money, passports, and credit cards. Ressam was arrested four times in four years. He was convicted, fined $100 to $500, put on probation, and ordered to leave Canada. He never appeared at his deportation hearing. In October 1996, he was arrested again for pickpocketing, fined $500, and released on probation. He maintained his lifestyle of dressing well and going to nightclubs.

In early 1996, Labsi and Ressam moved into an apartment rented by Adel Boumezbeur and were joined by Said Atmani. The four were now part of a small group of thieves, organized by Mustapha Kamel, who used the proceeds to support the global jihad. Atmani, also known as Karim, was of Moroccan origin and had fought in Bosnia as part of the al-Mujahedin Brigade in Zenica, where he had met Kamel. After the brigade disbanded in compliance with the Dayton Accords, Kamel invited Atmani to come to Canada. He arrived as a stowaway on September 26, 1995, and reconnected with Kamel. He became a skilled forger and was eventually described as Kamel''s right-hand man in Montreal.

When they were not robbing tourists, Ressam and his roommates spent their days idly. They played soccer, smoked cigarettes, and decried the corrupt culture of Canada and the West, especially its immoral dress, music, and godless pursuit of wealth. Their apartment on Place de la Malicorne became the central meeting place of Kamel''s group. Regular visitors included Boumezbeur''s brother and their childhood friends from Algeria, the Ikhlef brothers, Kamel, and Mokhtar Haouari, who bought Kamel''s trinket shop and sold the stolen goods. Sometimes strangers, such as Laifa Khabou, who was connected to the French Roubaix gang and acting as a courier to transport false passports to colleagues in trouble in other countries, stayed at the apartment. Unbeknownst to the occupants, the Canadian federal authorities had placed listening devices in the apartment and were monitoring their conversations, which consisted largely of anti-Western fantasies and plots. The police referred to the group as BOG, "bunch of guys," more pathetic than dangerous--unemployed, no girlfriends, living on welfare or thievery, and crammed into an apartment reeking of cigarette smoke.

Although the authorities did not take them seriously, they would talk about Muslim affairs. The most respected members of their circle were men who had undergone military training in Afghan camps and had actually fought the jihad in Bosnia, like Kamel, Atmani, and Abderrauf Hannachi. Hannachi was a Tunisian of little education, who had also arrived in Canada in 1994. He was a regular at the Assuna Mosque, where he liked to entertain with stories and jokes. He would loudly proclaim his hatred for Western and U.S. culture. In the summer of 1997, he returned from military training in al Qaeda''s Camp Khalden in Afghanistan, bragged about what he had learned and declared that he had found meaning as a "warrior." Labsi and Ressam decided to try it out for themselves and asked Hannachi to arrange for their training. Hannachi did so via Hussein (abu Zubaydah) in Pakistan.

Ressam and his friend left for Afghanistan on March 17, 1998. They stayed there for eleven months, during which they learned small caliber weapons tactics at Camp Khalden and took an advanced course in explosives at Camp Toranta. They formed a small five-member cell with Fodail, abu Ahmed, and Hakim. Atmani was to be the sixth member of the cell. Fodail was to be in charge in the field. They discussed several operations with the camp commandant, Makhlulif (abu Doha), Hussein, and abu Jaffar, his deputy for Algerian mujahedin. The plan was for them to meet in Canada and conduct operations against the United States from there. Ressam received $12,000 from abu Jaffar and returned safely to Canada via the Pacific, landing at Los Angeles International Airport on February 7, 1999. He took the opportunity to scout the airport, the objective of an attack planned to coincide with the millennium celebration. Meanwhile Atmani had been arrested in late October 1998 in Niagara Falls in possession of stolen credit cards. He was deported to Bosnia, which deported him to France, where he was facing charges connected with the the 1996 wave of bombings in France carried out by the Roubaix gang. Labsi planned to return to Montreal via Europe, but was prevented from going on to Canada at Heathrow Airport. Labsi stayed in London with Makhlulif, who had been sent to London to oversee al Qaeda''s operations in the Western world. Fodail was likewise detained in Europe and unable to fly to Canada. Nor could Ressam turn to Kamel for help; Kamel had been arrested in Jordan in April 1999 and deported to France for charges in connection with Roubaix gang bombings.

The unraveling of his network did not discourage Ressam. He decided to carry out the operation on his own. People who knew him before his trip to Afghanistan noticed a change. He seemed more confident, a man willing to risk his freedom or his life for God. He elicited the help of his friends. Mourad Ikhlef, one of the regulars at the Montreal apartment, had been implicated in a 1992 bombing at Algiers airport, which killed eleven and injured more than one hundred. Ikhlef helped Ressam with the planning of the Los Angeles airport bombing. Haouari provided some money, false credit cards, and logistical support. Samir Ait Mohamed helped as well. Abdel Majid Dahoumane, a friend since his first days in Montreal, promised help in building the bomb. He asked Ressam for help in joining the jihad and getting to Afghanistan for military training. Haouari also had a childhood friend, Abdel Ghani Meskini, who wanted to join the jihad and train in Afghanistan. Meskini might help Ressam deliver the bomb, for he was already living in Brooklyn, New York. Ressam had never met Meskini but Haouari vouched for his trustworthiness, as they had grown up together. Ressam called Makhlulif, who apprised him of the others'' in

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