Great Seal of the United States National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Third public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States

Statement of Marc Sageman to the
National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
July 9, 2003


Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the National Commission, thank you for inviting me to testify today about al Qaida. The 9-11 tragedy was perpetrated by al Qaida, the vanguard of a violent Muslim revivalist social movement, which I call the Global Salafi Jihad. Al Qaida is shrouded in mystery and does not even take credit for its operations. The following is a summary of the pattern that seems to emerge from multiple sources around the world. However, a note of caution is in order, given the questionable reliability of these sources.


The movement has its roots in Egypt. It is the violent culmination of Muslims' attempts to come to terms with their fallen glory. Just a few centuries ago, Islam was the most vital and dominant religious force in the world. Now, the lands of Islam are under Western political and economic dominance. Western cultural, social and technical achievements have eclipsed past Muslim grandeur and now challenge core Islamic beliefs. Over the past three centuries, revivalist Islamic movements have tried to answer this challenge. One of their answers is to return to pure and authentic Islam, as practiced by the Prophet and his companions. To them, "Islam is the answer" and only a recreation of the practices of the devout ancestors, salaf in Arabic, will bring glory and prominence back to Muslims. Salafists advocate a strict interpretation of the Quran and they view with skepticism any later innovation, for it might be a heretical corruption of the original message. Their main ideologists include Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who forged an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, a local tribal chief of the Arabian Peninsula two and a half centuries ago, Hasan al-Banna, Mawlana Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

There is an evolution to the strategy of bringing about this ideal Muslim community. Traditionally, Muslims are required to defend an Islamic land invaded by an infidel enemy which threatens its religion and practices. When this jihad is sanctioned by a legal opinion (fatwa), it becomes an individual obligation for all Muslims. This was invoked when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Thousands of Muslims from around the world responded and flocked to Afghanistan to take part in this defensive jihad.

A second strategy is dawa, the call to Islam. It consists of peacefully preaching the strict and literal imitation of the Prophet and his companions as the model of Islamic society. This is the strategy of the Tablighi Jamaat, a "born-again" Islamic movement operating informally at the grass roots level. It has been very successful, but because it shies away from undue publicity and stays away from politics, it has attracted little attention.

A third strategy is Salafi jihad advocated by Egyptian Salafists, spearheaded by Qutb and Faraj . They branded present Muslim societies as Jahiliyya, the barbaric state of ignorance that existed before the Prophet's revelations, because modern leaders of Muslim states refuse to impose Sharia, the strict Quranic law and true Islamic way of life. As such these leaders are accused of being apostates, deserving death. These Salafists advocate a violent overthrow of these regimes, because their repressive nature precludes a peaceful means to recreate the true Islamic community and way of life. The priority is to restore Islam at home, the "near enemy," before venturing to defeat the "far enemy," Israel. This jihad is the neglected duty of every Muslim. This strategy is controversial among Muslims because of its advocacy of fighting and killing other Muslims.

The fourth strategy, and primary subject of my research is the Global Salafi Jihad, which was first proclaimed by Osama bin Laden in his 1996 fatwa and reverses the previous strategy. Now the priority is fighting the "far enemy," the West and specifically the U.S. and Israel, before turning against the "near enemy," which survive only because of Western support. This strategy has evolved from ending the U.S.'s "occupation" of the Holy Land to engaging it anywhere, as best articulated by Ayman al Zawahiri . The goal is to establish a Muslim state, reinstate the fallen Caliphate and regain its lost glory. As the United States would never allow this to happen, the global jihad must defeat this country. It needs to "inflict the maximum casualties against the opponent, for this is the language understood by the West" and "concentrate on the method of martyrdom operations" as the most efficient in terms of damages and least costly to the jihad. These victories will inspire and mobilize the Muslim masses to achieve its goal. The Global Salafi Jihad includes all the terrorist organizations implementing this strategy. Al Qaida is not the only one as the recent bombings in Bali and Morocco demonstrate.


The specific origins of al Qaida are still debated. It was created around the time that the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. A small group of Afghan Arabs decided to continue to fight, shifting from the defensive jihad against the Soviet invaders to a Salafi jihad against oppressive Muslim governments. Most of its leaders were Egyptian exiles, who had left their country after the crackdown following the assassination of President Sadat. Its operations in these early years targeted mostly Egyptian officials. Its focus on the U.S. was a progressive evolution during al Qaida's Sudanese exile from 1991 to 1996. At the time, it aimed at getting U.S. forces out of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Somalia. It became official al Qaida policy with Osama bin Laden's August 23, 1996 Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places . On February 23, 1998, he expanded it into a Jihad against Jews and Crusaders, stating, "the ruling to kill the Americans and their allies - civilians and military - is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it." Al Qaida's return to Afghanistan and the backing of the Taliban regime allowed it to dramatically expand the Global Salafi Jihad to support terror operations around the globe, from Algeria to the Philippines, from Tanzania to Central Asia and from Europe to America.

Profiles of Terrorists

I collected data on more than 130 members of the Global Salafi Jihad. They are a heterogeneous group. Three large patterns emerged: about 60% come from core Arab countries, mostly Saudi Arabia and Egypt; 30% from Maghreb Arab countries and 10% from Indonesia. In terms of socio-economic status, two thirds came from solid upper or middle class backgrounds. Most of the rest came from the "excluded" Maghreb immigrants, or second generation in France, as well as Western Christian converts. They came from caring intact families. The Indonesians were uniformly religious as children, 60% of the Core Arab children were, but almost none of the Maghreb Arab children. As a group, the terrorists were relatively well educated with over 60% having some college education. Only the Indonesian group was almost exclusively educated in religious schools. Most had good occupational training and only a quarter were considered unskilled with few prospects before them. Three quarters were married and the majority had children. I detected no mental illness in this group or any common psychological predisposition for terror.

The average age for joining the jihad was 26 years. The Indonesians joined at a later age (30) and the Core Arabs at a younger age (23). Three fourths of the group decided to join as expatriates. At the time, they were living in a country far from family and friends. An additional 10% were second generation, who felt a strong pull for the country of their parents. So a remarkable 84% were literally cut off from their culture and social origins. The majority of the rest were Saudis, on whom there was little information. Compounding their isolation in their new country was the fact that they were underemployed. By the time they joined the jihad, there was a dramatic shift in devotion to their faith. So the only significant finding was that the future terrorists felt isolated, lonely and emotionally alienated; otherwise their heterogeneity precluded the detection of any common characteristic specific to them.

Joining the Jihad

The prospective terrorists joined the jihad through pre-existing social bonds with people who were already terrorists or had decided to join as a group. Affiliation with the jihad was through friendship, kinship, discipleship and worship. In 65% of the cases, pre-existing friendship bonds played an important role in this process. The typical scenario was for homesick young men to drift to familiar settings, like mosques, to find companionship and alleviate their loneliness. There, small clusters of friendship formed spontaneously and they often moved in together in apartments. Another 15% joined the jihad through relatives already in the jihad. The Indonesians were all disciples of Abu Bakar Baasyir. They had first studied in one of his two religious boarding schools and then joined the Jemaah Islamiyah, which he had founded. The last 10% gave religious beliefs as the only reason for joining the jihad.

Whatever the source of their social bonds, these groups underwent a long period of intense social interaction in their apartments and developed strong mutual intimacy, which relieved their previous distress. As they became closer, they progressively adopted the beliefs and faith of their most extreme members. Their new salafi faith distanced them further from their childhood friends and family, leading to increased isolation and loyalty to the group, which in turn intensified their faith. They were ready to join the jihad. The critical factor here was the existence of a human link to the jihad, which could arrange training in Afghanistan. This was usually a peripheral acquaintance of the group and was often a chance encounter. Formal invitation and acceptance to join the jihad was done at the end of their training in Afghanistan after senior al Qaida officers had a chance to evaluate the candidate.


There was no common element detected in all the terrorists studied except, obviously, their link to the jihad. A social network analysis of these links is a useful and parsimonious approximation of the structure and behavior the Global Salafi Jihad and lends itself to computer simulation. Unlike a military organization, the global jihad is structured around popular human hubs surrounded by more isolated human nodes. From the historical data, it appears that the jihad grew haphazardly around these hubs. Examples are the rise of the Indonesian cluster around Baasyir and of the Maghreb Arab cluster first around Fateh Kamel in Montreal and later around Amar Makhlulif in London. Surprisingly, there is no evidence of a comprehensive top down recruitment program in the global jihad. The pressure comes from the bottom up; prospective young men are eager to join the movement. I have detected no dedicated "recruiter" in my search. Nor is there any evidence of any recruitment committee with full staff and its own budget at al Qaida headquarters and nor any evidence of aggressive publicity campaigns to increase membership. This absence of proselytism kept its profile low enough despite its size to avoid raising the appropriate alarm in the U.S. government. On the other hand, the jihad grew spontaneously, through a pattern of preferential attachment, which left it vulnerable to the uncoordinated preferences of potential candidates. This has created huge gaps in the jihad. Specifically, it is without a large pool of members able to operate clandestinely in the U.S., and thus limited in its ability to wage war on U.S. soil. Its only effort to remedy this weakness was to identify trainees already in Afghan training camps, who could travel to the U.S. with a Saudi, European or American passport. I found no evidence of any comprehensive recruitment drive in the U.S. This weakness will deepen with increased U.S. vigilance against the jihad.

The growth of the jihad depends on its ability to gain new members. Anger at U.S. policies may increase the pool of potential candidates, but they still need to establish the crucial link with the jihad to become part of the jihad. If the pool is composed of isolated individuals, growth will be slow because each potential member will need to find his own bridge to the jihad. If the pool is composed of clusters of close knit friends, relatives or students, its growth will be explosive as new members will then serve as efficient links to new potential clusters. The degree of tolerance of the jihad also affects its rate of growth. In a "tolerant" country, where people can publicly advertise their connection to the jihad, potential members can ask them to serve as their link to arrangements for training and recruitment. This was the case in Western Europe, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia and Salafi mosques prior to 9/11/01, when people who had undergone training in Afghanistan could openly boast about their exploits to strangers. With the post 9/11 worldwide policy of clampdown on Mujahedin and threat of incarceration for even peripheral involvement in the jihad, people who could have provided potential links have become reluctant to reveal their affiliation. This will considerably slow down the growth of the jihad. Known places where links to the jihad exist or existed should be closely monitored. They include mosques in Brooklyn, Milan, London, Montreal, Madrid, Hamburg, Roubaix and Khamis Mushayt, in Asir, Saudi Arabia.

The result of this growth pattern of preferential attachment is a topological map of nodes clustered around large hubs, called a scale free network. This has interesting properties. This type of network is robust and resists random attack. Stopping terrorists randomly at our borders will not affect its structure. It may stop terrorists from coming here, but will leave the network undisturbed. However, it is vulnerable to targeted attack, namely against its hubs. If the hubs are destroyed, the system breaks down into isolated nodes. The jihad will be incapable of mounting sophisticated large scale operations like the 9/11 attacks and be reduced to small attacks by singletons. It is of course possible for such nodes to try to become hubs and create their own little networks. Ahmed Ressam tried to recruit new untrained collaborators in the Millennial Plot after his original co-conspirators were unable to travel to the Canada. But such operations have not generally been successful. The hubs are vulnerable because most communications go through them. By following communications back to them, good police work would be able to identify and arrest these human hubs. This strategy has already shown considerable success. The arrests of Baasyir and Ali Ghufron have seriously disrupted the Indonesian cluster. The arrests of Zain al Abidin Hussein (abu Zubaydah), Fateh Kamel and Amar Makhlulif (abu Doha) have broken up the Maghreb Arab cluster. Less is known about the structure of the Core Arab cluster. No doubt that the arrests of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, his nephew Abdul Basit Karim (Ramzi Yousef) and the death of Subhi Mohammed abu Sittah (Mohamed Atef) have significantly weakened it. But the survival of many of its leaders such as Osama bin Laden and his son Saad, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Ibrahim Makkawi (Sayf al-Adl) still makes it a potent threat. Future terrorist operations are most likely to come from this cluster.

Policy Recommendations

I already have sprinkled various policy recommendations throughout this analysis. The United States is already doing many things right. Monitoring of suspicious people and places and good international police work has led to the arrest of many crucial hubs in the network. The threat of incarceration prevents potential human links from freely advertising their connection to the jihad and facilitating the enrollment of new members. The elimination of easily accessible training camp prevents potential candidates from learning terrorist skills and finding resources to carry out operations. Increased vigilance at borders makes it harder for terrorists to come in and freely operate in this country.

The greatest priority now is extensive penetration of the jihad. Recruitment of agents in place is a difficult task because of the strong emotional bonds among members of the jihad, making them reluctant to betray their friends and their faith. The best bet for penetration lies in recruitment from the pool of those, who went through the training but decided not to join the jihad. Although there is no evidence that these people are actively involved in terrorist operations, they are being prosecuted for providing material support and resources to the jihad. Before prosecuting them, all efforts should be made to try to turn them around and have them go back and join the jihad. Their potential ability to operate clandestinely in the U.S. make them attractive recruits for the jihad. However, at present, they are unlikely to volunteer the fact that they have undergone training in Afghanistan for fear of prosecution. Perhaps a program of immunity in exchange for a good faith effort to help fight the jihad may help convince some to volunteer.

The war against global Salafi terror also requires active support from American and other Muslim communities. Interacting with them requires skill and cultural sensitivity. Recruitment and handling of jihad members require similar qualities. I would suggest the creation of a special cadre of case officers, with a strong background in Muslim cultures and perhaps language, to handle these population and agents. This cadre could even be subdivided according to expertise in Indonesian, Core Arab and Maghreb Arab communities. I am concerned about newspaper accounts of strong-arm governmental tactics antagonizing Muslim communities in our country. This will not earn their support in the fight against the jihad. Active measures to restore the previous good relationship U.S. government agencies had with the Muslim community urgently need to be implemented to elicit its support.

Not all Muslim fundamentalists are the same. Just like European socialists acted as a bulwark against Soviet communism last century, peaceful fundamentalist Muslim groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat may help to promote a peaceful message and repudiate terrorist violence. We need to elicit their help for they attract the same clusters of alienated young men as the Global Salafi Jihad and might provide them with a peaceful alternative to terror. Many such organizations are penetrated by the global jihad and we should help them regain their purity by unmasking those that subvert their message.

The Global Salafi Jihad feeds on anti-Western and anti-American hate speech. Such virulent discourse is a necessary condition for the jihad and provides a justification for it. It is important to eradicate it and encourage civil discourse in Muslim communities. I believe that it is necessary to establish an international anti-defamation league to monitor such hate speech and work with the press, religious organizations, governments and their respective justice systems to control and condemn it. This should not be exclusively geared to Muslim radicalism but to any form of extremism. As a government, we should show strong support for such a program to promote universal tolerance and peace. We should make it clear that anti-American or anti-Western hate speech is not acceptable. The British have already adopted this position and banned some extremist imams from preaching. There are indications that the Saudi government is starting to reassess the role of extremist Wahhabi preaching in motivating terrorism after the May 12, 2003 Riyadh bombings. This policy should be encouraged but there is a great deal more to do. This campaign for tolerance should enlist the support of many courageous Muslims, who challenge this extremist Wahhabi interpretation. The firing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi shows that there is still strong resistance to such challenge in the Kingdom. We should strongly protest this firing to the Saudis and encourage them to open up their sterile press to more freedom.

Now that we are in Iraq, it will become the litmus test of our role in the Middle East and will determine the size of the pool of potential young volunteers for the jihad. If we fail, it will be a boost for the global jihad and we must anticipate an increase in terrorist operations against us. If we help Iraq develop a responsive government for its people, allow them to live well in prosperity and regain their past cultural glory, we will provide a model for the rest of the Middle East to follow. Iraq is a great opportunity but also a great danger. These developments will take years to bear fruit. The next few years are critical. Despite some major victories, we have not yet defeated the Global Salafi Jihad. Given the structure of its network, if we relax our vigilance, it will spontaneously reconstitute itself according to its twin dynamics of growth and preferential attachments. We must continue our fight based on an understanding of its network and dynamics. With good police and intelligence work combined with more global measures and international assistance, we should be able to conclusively eliminate it.

Thank you for your attention.

Current News

The Commission has released its final report. [more]

The Chair and Vice Chair have released a statement regarding the Commission's closing. [more]

The Commission closed August 21, 2004. [more]

Commission Members

Thomas H. Kean

Lee H. Hamilton
Vice Chair

Richard Ben-Veniste
Fred F. Fielding
Jamie S. Gorelick
Slade Gorton
Bob Kerrey
John F. Lehman
Timothy J. Roemer
James R. Thompson

Commission Staff

Philip D. Zelikow
Executive Director

Chris Kojm
Deputy Executive Director

Daniel Marcus
General Counsel