Book Review: Understanding Terror Networks

I first heard about Dr. Marc Sageman’s book while reading a review of another terrorism book, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat by Louise Richardson. Since I rely heavily on my public library, the Sageman book showed up before the Richardson one. And it was an excellent read, especially if you are interested in social networks!

Dr. Sageman’s book (Amazon) does a couple of things that I thought were extremely useful.  First, he creates a glossary of terms – takfir, jahaliyya – that I found to be useful to understand a world view completely foreign to me.  Then as he put these into context, looking at what data he had available, he discussed the connections between the various fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, including Al Qaeda.  The historical run up to our modern harvest of terrorists is interesting to read:  the start of one group in Egypt, the coalescing of interests in Afghanistan.  Even what is probably more basic, the difference between Muslims following only the Qur’an and hadith, and those that supplement that foundation with fatwas and other interpretations.

The discussion of connections, though, is very interesting and not altogether surprising.  He found these men to be more educated than not, sane, middle or higher class, and often related by blood or close connections.  Horrific acts can make one assume that the perpetrators were insane, but Sageman’s book argues that the Islamic terrorists began from a very comfortable position.  It seems that their nucleus has continued to grow in the same way, gathering in others with similar backgrounds and attitudes.

I enjoyed, shortly after reading this book, hearing the NPR series called Exploring the Language of Post September 11, where the story meanders through why jihadi is a dangerous term to use – and why hirabah is more appropriate – and how the way the West misuses Eastern words or creates new ones (like Islamofascist) causes more harm than good.  Not that everyone agrees!

The book review of Richardson’s book is also an interesting discussion of terrorist analysis.

I was only just able to start Ms. Richardson’s book, before it was due back (and some other reader, likely a reader, had a hold on it) but it looked quite promising.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.