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Terrorists' backgrounds defy conventional wisdom

Expert: Not all al Qaeda poor, uneducated, devout

By Henry Schuster

Editor's Note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on the people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism and efforts to combat those.

Sageman cites misperceptions about al Qaeda members, like 9/11 hijacker Abdulaziz Alomari shown here.
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(CNN) -- With his penchant for bow ties and sport jackets, Dr. Marc Sageman looks every inch the psychiatrist and professor that he is -- not the spy he used to be, nor the agent provocateur he is now.

Sageman has emerged as something of an intellectual bomb thrower, producing a groundbreaking study about Islamic terrorists and their terror networks that challenges conventional beliefs.

His research shows that many of these terrorists -- including the September 11 hijackers and other al Qaeda members -- tend to be fairly well educated and affluent, and don't come from deeply religious backgrounds.

After the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, Sageman says he saw a void in knowledge about Islamic terrorists, at that point deciding to help fill it by building on his first-hand experience with in-depth research.

"There were a lot of talking heads, I just didn't think they knew what they were talking about," he recalls. "There were no real facts."

Sageman got his first glimpse inside the world of jihadis between 1987 and 1989, when he lived in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Officially, he worked as a political officer at the U.S. Embassy. But Sageman's real job was with the Central Intelligence Agency, working with members of what was then known as the mujahideen in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Sageman left the CIA in 1991, having previously earned a medical school degree and Ph.D. in political sociology. He then trained as a forensic psychiatrist, saying that he eventually interviewed close to 500 murderers.

That background -- examining killers' psychiatric profiles, working for the CIA and living in the combustible and terrorist-heavy region of South Central Asia -- gives him the skills and perspective to study the September 11 hijackers and their ilk, he says.

Sageman began by compiling biographical information -- using material from public sources, including court documents and investigative news reports -- on the hijackers and the few associates named in the press.

"Even at the small number of 25 [terrorists], I realized the conventional wisdom was wrong."

The conventional wisdom, he says, being that these were poor, uneducated young men who had a long-term exposure to fundamentalist religious beliefs.

Cliques becoming terror cells

While teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Sageman expanded on his research to include 162 terrorists and turned it into the groundbreaking book, "Understanding Terror Networks." He came across some compelling numbers:

  • About two-thirds of the terrorists went to college, in an area of the world where only about 10 percent of young men get a post-secondary education
  • About 87 percent came from generally secular backgrounds (most of the other 13 percent, who studied at the Muslim schools known as madrassas, were Indonesians)
  • Most came from middle or upper-middle class households
  • Sageman calls "kinship and friendship" the main reasons young men join al Qaeda, claiming that friends and relatives brought more than 90 percent of the membership into the fold.

    This means recruitment is much more personal than previously thought, he says.

    He cites several cases, including that of September 11 hijacker Mohammad Atta and the so-called Hamburg cell, consisting of a group of like-minded young men. As their religious views became more extreme, they cut themselves off from the outside world and became involved in terrorist activity.

    "They are very ordinary," he said. "They form cliques and radicalize each other.

    Invariably, most of the groups that became al Qaeda followed that trajectory."

    Sageman says when he consults with government agencies, he tells agents to pay special attention to those who have fallen outside the Muslim mainstream.

    "Those [radicals] are the guys who find the mosque not radical enough," he says. "By explaining all of this, [the government agents] have a very different conception of the threat."

    Madrid attack
    Sageman says he expects more small-scale attacks, like this 2004 bombing at a Madrid train station.

    "When they leave the mosque and start praying in their living rooms, that is a red flag."

    Foresees more small-scale attacks

    Sageman has found himself in great demand as his ideas have begun to take hold in the counterterrorism community. So much so, he says, that he's giving up his job as a professor to concentrate on consulting and research.

    Sageman's mantra these days is that "we're more likely to see 3/11's rather than another 9/11" -- "3/11" being a reference to the 2004 Madrid train bombings.

    That plot was put together on much shorter notice than the September 11 attacks by men who met in a variety of ways, including over the Internet, Sageman says.

    Al Qaeda as we used to know it no longer exists, he says, calling Osama bin Laden and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, more propaganda figures than actual ringleaders.

    Instead, several smaller, more loosely affiliated groups are at work -- the most prominent, active and violent being that led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.

    So what poses the greatest threat to the mainland United States?

    Not al Qaeda sleeper cells in this country, Sageman says. A recent FBI-CIA assessment agrees that such cells don't exist. Instead, he says he believes the biggest danger comes from Western European jihadis, the same sort who were responsible for the Madrid attack.

    Sageman's work is not over, with attacks like "3/11" and smaller taking place all around the world.

    And as his database of terrorists -- now at more than 500 names -- grows, his efforts continue to analyze and better understand these young men and the threat they pose.

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