USC Price School of Public Policy

Sageman CREATE Lecture

Global Reach:

Expert Addresses New Trends in Neo-Jihadi Terrorism

By Matthew Kredell

Marc Sageman Terrorism expert Marc Sageman lectures at Tutor Campus Center as part of CREATE Distinguished Speakers Series. Watch full presentation »
Photo by Tom Queally

Recent non-violent uprisings in North Africa could mark the beginning of the end for the wave of neo-jihadi terrorism sparked by the 9/11 attacks, Marc Sageman said April 19 during the Distinguished Speaker Series offered by USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE).

The overthrow and ousting of the long-time regimes of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, change created by campaigns of civil resistance rather than terrorist attacks, undermined the appeal of the form of terrorism practiced by Al Qaeda. Sageman fears the turbulent period could trigger terrorist activity in the next five years, but he believes 2011 will mark a turning point in the long term.

“The success of this new secular movement showed the bankruptcy of this ideology that preaches violence in order to trigger a mass uprising to overthrow the government,” said Sageman, speaking at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center at USC. “The mass uprising was there without the violence. … They’ve overturned two very strong regimes in one month. The terrorists have never been able to do that in 23 years of trying.”

CREATE is the first university center of excellence funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Based at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, CREATE’s mission is to improve national security through the development and application of tools for calculating the dangers and effects of terrorism.

Sageman, a former CIA operations officer who spent three years in Pakistan, is an independent researcher on terrorism and serves as special adviser to the U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence. He is also a forensic psychiatrist and a counter-terrorism consultant through his company Sageman Consulting. Following the speech, he signed his book, “Leaderless Jihad,” for USC faculty, students and local security officials in attendance.

“We were privileged to have Marc Sageman as our most recent CREATE Distinguished Speaker,” said Erroll Southers, associate director of CREATE and adjunct professor at SPPD. “His operational and academic accomplishments represent the embodiment of today’s interdisciplinary academicians. Most importantly, Dr. Sageman challenges conventional wisdom about terrorism, observing that the key to mounting an effective counter strategy against future attacks requires a thorough understanding of the networks that allow these terrorists to proliferate.”

Neo-jihadi terrorism, as defined by Sageman, is the use of violence by an individual or group not sanctioned by a government against non-combatants in the West in pursuit of neo-jihad.

Since 9/11/01, there have been 59 attempts of neo-jihadi terrorism against the West — which includes the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia — injuring 210 people. Only seven were successful, meaning that not a single injury occurred in 52 of the attempts. Al Qaeda was only behind 14 of the plots, with Al Qaeda affiliates behind eight. Nearly two-thirds of the plots (37) were inspired by but not sponsored by Al Qaeda.

Sageman’s background in forensic psychiatry is particularly useful in understanding how and why someone becomes a terrorist. Sageman describes a two-step process in this turn to violence. First people join a political protest community, often online. These people see themselves as a cool jihadi youth counter-culture that rejects parents as being old-fashioned, values being Muslim as personally relevant, believes Muslims are unfairly discriminated against in the West and thinks collective action can reduce these injustices. Secondly, the person rejects the group as pointless and useless, often because something happened that the group couldn’t prevent, and separates from the group with others who have a desire to go further.

“I thought it was really informative,” Alex Mishkin, a first-year MPP student at SPPD, said of Sageman’s speech. “He had a lot of personal insight into the mentality of these young terrorists-to-be. I’m really interested in the psychological aspects, how we can step in at an earlier stage and stop that development rather than stepping in and intercepting them when they are looking to blow up a structure.”

The Internet has had a significant impact on these groups by allowing unlimited space and time limits to help diffuse propaganda. Online, Sageman said, people tend to be more open and honest but also more abusive in their discourse. People who are shy in person often are more aggressive in front of the keyboard and sometimes gain positions of leadership.

Once would-be terrorists cross the line and begin thinking of themselves as soldiers, they travel to Pakistan or Yemen for training. When they return, they are seen as heroes with street credibility. They drop out of regular activities like school or work and hang out only with others who have violent intentions. Yet Sageman said that, even in the advanced stage of planning, most of these conspirators simply give up because they run into so many obstacles and opposition from family and friends that they lose their early enthusiasm.

“It was really well thought out and put together,” Robert Florkowski, an army veteran who served in Iraq and is now a first-year MPA student at SPPD, said of Sageman’s speech. “I had never heard that conclusion before, that terrorism is on a downward slope and will eventually be extinct, which is good news. I hope he is right.”

Sageman was the third speaker in CREATE’s Distinguised Speaker Series. The program hosts a renowned counter-terrorism expert at USC each semester. The next speaker is scheduled to be Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, author of “My Year Inside Radical Islam,” on Aug. 4.