Terror Networks and Their Motivations: Sageman’s Approach

Subject: Warfare
Pages: 3
Words: 575
Reading time:
2 min

Sageman explains terrorism as a network structure using so-called social network analysis. He states that a series of terrorist groups dominated in the Middle East were the core of modern terrorism and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. Such violence is especially severe for poorer countries. However, it is not without implications for arms exporting states and the militarized economies they represent. Simply stated, massive investment in the warfare economy drains resources from the civilian side. Conversely, those national economies with a lighter military burden can be expected to advance more rapidly in the development of other economic sectors. The strength of this approach is that Sageman tries to join historical roots and causes of terrorism with modern interpretations and understanding of terror.

To begin to demystify terrorism then is to raise the question of power relations. One might begin simply by noting that powerless groups often employ guerrilla methods to compensate for their military disadvantage; tactics ordinarily decried by powerful forces as uncivilized. All of this is not to argue that powerless groups are incapable of acts of violence that betray whatever causes they claim. The point is that the guerrilla tactics of the powerless are more apt to be labeled terrorist than the martial force on the part of an established state. Second, a focus on power relations goes beyond tactics to ask why some forms of political violence are described as a terrorist, while others that bring greater human loss do not invite that label. If parties in conflict do not have equal standing, a double standard of terrorism may be expected to emerge. “Cliques solve this rationalist paradox. They are the social mechanism that puts pressure on prospective participants to join, defines a certain social reality for the ever more intimate friends.” The strength of the argument is that he takes into account cultural values and religious doctrines dominated in the Middle East.

The weakness of Sageman’s argument is that he does not take into account international relations and differences in power. He rejects the psychological disorders of terrorists and explains their motivations as a part of cultural life. To focus on institutional terror means to critically analyze violent and coercive patterns that coalesce around fundamental human purposes, such as meeting material needs and resolving the questions of political rule. It poses the plausible yet disturbing thesis that people face grinding conditions of fear rooted in the very arrangements that promise to safeguard and better their lives. Such conditions only set the historical stage for the emergence of regime terror. More immediate precipitory factors must of course be included in causal analysis.

The implications of system-wide crises (such as world depression or global-scale combat) are not the same for all national actors. National economies under conditions of marked decline or isolation are in disjunction and hence vulnerable to the emergence of formal structures of domination through fear. Despite some limitations, Sageman proposes a well-thought explanation of jihad and terror groups. “The dynamics described seem to point to a process of social implosion, with the clique as a whole folding onto itself, with no connection to the outside world.” Theoretical attempts in the political economy of terror must address imperial formations. Particularly important is the competitive disadvantage faced by national economies under various conditions of disjunction between such economies and the forces and conflicting states of the global market system.