Stereotype doesn't fit Al Qaeda

Study: Most members are educated, middle class

Detroit Free Press/July 2, 2004
By Robert S. Boyd

Washington -- Most Americans are wrong about the makeup of Al Qaeda, according to a former CIA operative who collected the histories of almost 400 members of the deadly movement.

The stereotype that these terrorists are poor, desperate, single young men from Third World countries, vulnerable to brainwashing, is wrong, Marc Sageman told a terrorism conference in Washington this week.

Most Arab terrorists he studied were well-educated, married men from middle- or upper-class families, in their mid-20s and psychologically stable, said Sageman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Many of them knew several languages and traveled widely.

But when they settled in foreign countries, they became lonely, homesick and embittered, he said. They felt humiliated by the weakness and backwardness of their homelands. They formed tight cliques with fellow Arabs and drifted into mosques more for companionship than for religion. Radical preachers convinced them it was their duty to drive Americans from Muslim lands.

Sageman served as a CIA case officer in Afghanistan from 1987 to 1989, running agents against the Soviet occupation.

He described Al Qaeda and its allies as "a violent Islamist social movement held together by an idea: the use of violence against foreign and non-Muslim governments or populations to establish an Islamist state in the core Arab region."

Sageman drew his data from transcripts of legal proceedings against terrorists, unclassified government documents, police wiretaps, scholarly articles and news accounts. He acknowledged that his sources are incomplete and sometimes unreliable.

Nevertheless, his work appears to be the most thorough profile of the members of the terrorist network available outside the walls of government secrecy.

Sageman's findings "sound perfectly plausible," said Jessica Stern, a former expert on terrorism at the National Security Council who is now at Harvard.

Until recently, the central staff or core leadership of the Al Qaeda movement, headed by Saudi native Osama bin Laden, consisted of about 38 members, two-thirds of them from Egypt, with a few Saudis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and others from the Middle East. The Egyptians joined Al Qaeda when it formed in the 1980s.

Since September 2001, about two-thirds of the original leadership has been killed or captured, and replaced by "younger, more aggressive new leaders," Sageman said.

The leadership and the bulk of the members came from comfortable upper- and middle-class homes, challenging the argument that poverty breeds terrorism. Some were doctors, lawyers, engineers or other professionals.

Fewer than one-fifth lacked a high school education. Seventy percent had some college; several had master's or doctoral degrees.

Contrary to the view that terrorists are single men without social attachments, nearly three-quarters of the sample were married. Most had children.

Saudi Militant: Prince Sattam bin Abdel-Aziz, the deputy governor of Riyadh, rejected reports Thursday that a militant killed in a shootout was the chief ideologist for Al Qaeda in the region and among Saudi Arabia's most wanted terror suspects.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the slain man was Abdullah Mohammed Rashid al-Roshoud, citing an unnamed security official and Saudi media. The Interior Ministry identified the slain man as Fahd bin Ali bin Dakhil el-Qaelan.

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