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A False Martyr

10:30 AM, Apr 25, 2011 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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Instead of getting into any of this, however, Sageman pretends to “quickly dispatch the scientific reliability of Dr. Welner’s…arguments based on deradicalization programs and recidivism rates,” saying “it is obvious to me that [Welner] knows very little about them.”

But Sageman has it backwards.

With respect to Saudi Arabia’s rehabilitation program, Sageman writes (emphasis added):

I have spent several weeks’ time there discussing their program. Their recidivism rate is about ten percent after release, and is not confined to former Guantanamo detainees.

Sageman appears to be including all recidivists from the Saudi program in his “ten percent” metric. But this is not representative of the ex-Guantanamo population, which has a much higher recidivism rate. The State Department’s 2009 Country Reports on Terrorism notes (emphasis added):

The [Saudi Ministry of Interior] estimates recidivism rates for former Guantanamo detainees to be 25% and for all other program participants to be less than 10%.

Therefore, according to the Saudis, who are deeply embarrassed by recidivist stories, the recidivism rate for ex-Gitmo detainees is more than double the rate cited by Sageman. Informed sources have told me that the Saudi recidivist rate for ex-Gitmo detainees is actually in the thirty to forty percent range currently – that is, three to four times greater than the rate cited by Sageman.

While Sageman couldn’t get this basic fact right, Welner correctly highlighted the troubling and increasing Saudi recidivism rate in his testimony.

Sageman argues that there “is no data on dangerousness of released jihadis, except for the Department of Defense [sic] periodically released claims that a certain percentage of released former Guantanamo detainees have rejoined the jihad.” He then adds (emphasis added):

“These claims give no hints as to who might be at a higher risk of recidivism and they have come under a great deal of academic criticism.”

Sageman cites two sources to support this sentence but neither of the sources qualifies as “academic criticism.” One of the two is a report authored by advocates for Guantanamo detainees – this is hardly an “academic” source. That report also suffers from numerous flaws and dated information.

The other source is a report by Peter Bergen and others at the New America Foundation (NAF). Ironically, in his latest book (The Longest War), Bergen gives the reader good reasons to reject Sageman’s “Leaderless Jihad” thesis. The NAF report’s authors don’t have access to the government’s classified data on Guantanamo recidivism (nor does Sageman) and they make a clearly erroneous assumption.

The NAF study’s authors assume that Guantanamo recidivists are usually announced for propaganda purposes and so the data on their identities should be mostly available to the public. They then count up all of the instances of Gitmo recidivism they can find in open sources, find that this number is less than the number generated by the government’s analysis, and then claim that they have debunked the government’s study.

But this is plainly wrong. Sources familiar with the content of the government’s recidivism analysis have told me that an overwhelming majority of the information it relies upon is classified – and not open to the public. Obama administration officials have similarly explained that the study is carefully compiled using “all source” intelligence. And contrary to what the NAF authors assume, most Gitmo recidivists do not announce their return to jihad because they are too busy plotting and have no desire to jeopardize operational security.

Thus, the NAF methodology significantly underreports the number of Gitmo recidivists. A few quick examples show how. 

The latest study released by the Director of National Intelligence’s office in December 2010 estimated that there are 150 total Gitmo recidivists. This includes 81 who are “confirmed” and 69 who are “suspected.” A “preponderance of information” is necessary for a former detainee to be considered a “confirmed” recidivist, while less evidence is necessary to be considered a “suspected” recidivist.

The total number of recidivists found by NAF using open sources is just 49 – less than one third the number claimed by the DNI. (And, by the way, the latest DNI estimate was released in December by the Obama administration, which has no interest in hyping the recidivist threat as it has sought to close Guantanamo. Sageman seems to be ignorant of the fact that multiple intelligence agencies compile the recidivism figures, as he claims that the numbers are released by the Department of Defense. Again, the latest estimate, released before Sageman sent his letter, comes from the DNI.)

The NAF study also includes less recidivists (49) than the government says are “confirmed” recidivists (81).  The NAF study’s authors even found less Gitmo recidivists than the total number who have been killed or captured. The DNI says that “54 are in custody” and “13 are dead” – a total of 67, which is 18 more than the NAF’s list. Presumably, the U.S. government can count dead and jailed recidivists.

The Obama administration has conceded that five (three confirmed, and two suspected) of the detainees it has transferred are recidivists. These five are not on the NAF list because all of their identities are not publicly known. (Only one of the five is publicly known, but even he isn’t on the NAF list.)

These are just some of the ways that we can identify the NAF report’s shortcomings. I will have a more detailed analysis of the NAF report’s problems in the near future. Needless to say, Sageman did not address any of these problems in his letter.

Welner convincingly argued that the DNI’s analysis underestimates the total number of recidivists for a variety of reasons. The defense team could come up with no evidence to dispute his testimony, and neither could Sageman.

The ‘Go-To Guy” on Terrorism?

Sageman likes to portray himself as the “go-to guy” on counterterrorism issues, but that is hardly the case. And since Sageman has inserted himself into the Khadr proceedings, a brief review of his work will provide some context for his self-aggrandizing claims. 

Sageman is famous for his “Leaderless Jihad” theory, which maintains that the threat of “homegrown” terrorists exceeds that of organized terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. It is demonstrably false.

The West clearly faces a homegrown terrorist threat. In fact, al Qaeda Central in northern Pakistan and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seek to inspire an atomized jihad with no links to the mother ship. However, they have been trying to accomplish this for years and have had only marginal success. The empirical evidence shows – overwhelmingly – that al Qaeda, its affiliates, and like-minded terrorist organizations remain the principal threat to international security.

A “bunch of guys,” as Sageman calls them, getting together to orchestrate their own jihadist attacks have not come close to matching the work of the professionals. Still, Sageman persists in his belief.

In a 2008 op-ed in the Washington Post, for example, Sageman argued that “homegrown young wannabes who dream of glory and adventure” but “for the most part…can no longer link up with al-Qaeda Central in the Pakistani badlands” are the “the main terrorist threat to the West.” The West was “fighting the wrong foe” by concentrating on al Qaeda, Sageman argued, because it “is now largely contained.”

Sageman has long played this game. In January 2005, PBS quoted Sageman as saying that al Qaeda is “operationally dead.” Sageman added: “There is no Al Qaeda anymore.” Terrorist training “is no longer necessary” and new recruits no longer have the “luxury” of seeking out al Qaeda’s expertise in terrorist camps, Sageman argued.

Several months later, on July 7, 2005, al Qaeda showed just how wrong Sageman was. Four suicide bombers detonated bombs on three London commuter trains and a bus. Fifty-two people were killed and hundreds were injured. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack. The investigation revealed that the plotters had received terrorist training in northern Pakistan, where two of them also met with Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, a top al Qaeda lieutenant who tasked them with the operation.

In 2006, Sageman was proven wrong again. Authorities broke up a massive al Qaeda plot against airliners traveling over the Atlantic. Hundreds would have been killed. The plotters received training in northern Pakistan and the attack was coordinated by al Qaeda leadership there as well.

Sageman’s belief that al Qaeda was operationally irrelevant was, quite simply, wrong. But even in January 2005 it was an odd theory. Al Qaeda had been especially active during the previous two years. Sageman, however, had difficulty seeing al Qaeda’s hand. The “guys who did Madrid, Casablanca and Istanbul were not Al Qaeda,” PBS quoted Sageman as saying in 2005. “They were people who were doing operations on behalf of Al Qaeda, but they were not Al Qaeda. The old Al Qaeda is hiding away in caves someplace.”

Here, Sageman simply misunderstands how al Qaeda’s affiliates operate. Each of the three attacks he listed as not being orchestrated by al Qaeda -- Madrid, Casablanca and Istanbul – were in fact carried out by al Qaeda’s affiliates – not just a “bunch of guys” who happened to get together.

The 2004 Madrid train bombings were carried out by the remnants of top al Qaeda operative Imad Yarkas’s Spanish cell and the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (commonly referenced by its French acronym, the GICM), a known al Qaeda affiliate that has since merged into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The May 16, 2003 Casablanca bombings were primarily carried out by the GICM and Salafiya Jihadia (a GICM splinter group). As the State Department’s 2003 Patterns of Global Terrorism notes, “[I]nvestigators learned that many of those involved in orchestrating the attacks were Moroccan extremists who had trained in Afghanistan and had links to North African extremist groups—mainly the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and al-Qaida.”

The same State Department report lists the November 15, 2003 bombings at two synagogues in Istanbul, as well as the bombings at the British consulate and HSBC bank headquarters several days later, as al Qaeda attacks. Indeed, a local al Qaeda affiliate claimed responsibility for the attacks.     

There is ample additional evidence showing al Qaeda’s ties to each of these attacks.

In the years since, of course, al Qaeda has remained operationally active, oftentimes working through organized affiliates or with like-minded jihadist groups to accomplish its goals. From the heart of Europe to Southeast Asia, al Qaeda and affiliated organizations have launched numerous large-scale, mass casualty attacks. All the while, the jihadist terror network has also played a crucial role in insurgencies in Pakistan (where suicide bombings are now the norm), Iraq, Afghanistan (where al Qaeda acts as a force multiplier for its allies), Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere.

Recounting the death toll from all these attacks, launched by disciplined jihadist organizations (not mere networks of jihadist-inspired friends), would require much more space. It’s sufficient to say that the “homegrown” terrorist threat, while real, hasn’t come close to matching the work of the jihadist terrorist organizations.

Sageman has moderated his talk of al Qaeda’s operational irrelevance over time, writing in 2008 that: “Al Qaeda Central is of course not dead, but it is still contained operationally...”

This reversal from his comments in 2005 (when he stated that al Qaeda is “operationally dead” and “[t]here is no Al Qaeda anymore”) is an improvement, but his insistence that homegrown terrorists pose a greater threat is simply not backed up by actual evidence.

The chief reason that al Qaeda and its affiliates have not successfully launched more attacks against the U.S., in particular, is that intelligence and law enforcement officials by and large ignore Sageman’s admonition that they are fighting the “wrong foe.” Luck also plays a large role.

Since January 2009, for instance, America has faced plots from: al Qaeda (2009 NYC subway plot); AQAP (Christmas Day 2009, 2010 cargo plane bomb plot); and the Pakistani Taliban, which is deeply allied with al Qaeda Central (May 2010 car bomb attempt at Times Square). During this same timeframe, there have been homegrown terrorist plots, but nothing as serious or as advanced as al Qaeda and its allies had plotted. And, by the way, in each of the instances listed immediately above the terror plotters traveled to al Qaeda safe havens abroad to receive training – something Sageman told us was unnecessary in 2005.

Even the most successful “homegrown” act of terrorism in recent years – Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s shooting rampage at Fort Hood – involved an al Qaeda component. Hasan repeatedly contacted top al Qaeda cleric Anwar al Awlaki for spiritual advice in the months leading up to his attack.

This is by no means intended to dismiss the threat of homegrown terrorism. But Sageman’s work has greatly confused the issue, not clarified it.

A False Martyr

Omar Khadr has been turned into something of a martyr in the left’s imagination. He supposedly stands for all of the excesses of the U.S. military and the “war on terrorism.” The truth is the opposite. While Khadr killed an American medic, other American medics saved his life after a prolonged shootout.

That does not matter to Khadr’s legion of supporters, however. Anyone who stands in the way of Khadr’s complete exoneration deserves to be slimed. The defense team has no compunction about making things up. Marc Sageman was more than happy to join their effort. And so a highly-respected forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Welner, is attacked online. 

Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

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