Reviewed by Avery Plaw (University of Massachusettes, Dartmouth) Published on H-Diplo (June, 2017) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
Marc Sageman’s Misunderstanding Terrorism represents his latest effort to cut through the confusion and stagnation he sees besetting terrorism research “by bringing realistic numbers into the assessment of the threat facing the West” (p. 22). The main problem, he suggests, is a disconnect between expertise and data: “Academics understand everything but know nothing, while government analysts know everything but understand nothing” (p. 21). The consequences of this disconnection is a bitterly divided field, vulnerable to “popular hysteria” (p. 21), supporting often ill-judged public policy. Sageman aspires, and I think largely achieves, a salutary corrective. For many readers, including many political leaders and purported specialists, his book will not be a particularly pleasant medicine, but it does hold some promise of improving the overall condition of our understanding of what the author calls “the global neojihadi threat to the West” (p. 24).
Sageman is fortuitously placed to overcome the gap he identifies between analytic expertise and reliable terrorism data. His academic background in political sociology and his professional training as a forensic psychiatrist, combined with his lifelong “obsession with political violence” (p. 1), landed him a series of jobs which permitted him to gather together what he purports is “a database on all global neojihadi incidents in the West since 9/11” (p. 28) and up to September 10, 2011, based in large part on his own field research, interviews with terrorists, and careful review of court documents, classified records, and press reports. This database includes “66 global neojihadi plots or attacks in the West during the post-9/11 decade [which] involved 220 individuals” (p. 29), and Sageman includes a table listing all of the cases along with key details. Analyzing trends in the data, Sageman confirms some of his earlier theses that clashed with prevalent attitudes in the terrorism literature. For example, his data suggests that, contrary to appearances, the threat of terrorist attack was not rising at the end of the decade after 9/11; moreover, contrary to alarmist analyses, al-Qaeda attacks in particular “were not as serious a threat” (p. 42) as in the early years after 9/11, and the great majority of “global neojihadi plots or attacks in the West came from homegrown groups or individuals who had no significant connection to any foreign terrorist organization” (p. 46). Sageman argues that these findings strongly support two controversial claims in his earlier writings–first, that al-Qaeda was “on the run” rather than “on the move” by 2011 and, second, that the evolving global neojihadi threat was “leaderless” rather than “leader-led” (p. 51).