Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer in Pakistan who became a forensic psychiatrist, argues in his book, Understanding Terror Networks, that we are facing something closer to a cult network than an organized global adversary. Analyzing data on 400 jihadists, he found that they weren’t poor, desperate sociopaths, but restless young men who found identity by joining the terrorist underground. The Sept. 11 hijackers weren’t psychotic killers; none of the 19 had criminal records. In terms of their psychological profiles, says Sageman, they were as healthy as the general population.
The implication of Sageman’s analysis is that the Sunni jihadism of al-Qaeda and its spinoff groups is a generational phenomenon, a fire that will gradually burn itself out unless we keep pumping in more oxygen. Nothing in Sageman’s analysis implies that America should be any less aggressive in defending itself against terrorism. But he does argue that we should choose our offensive battles wisely and avoid glamorizing the jihadist network further through our rhetoric or actions.