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Three generations of Al Qaeda terror

The third generation terrorists are younger and radicalised by media and internet, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2006 15:52 IST

Soon after 9/11, a bespectacled and bow-tied US psychiatry professor, Marc Sageman, was asked by the CIA to profile an Al-Qaeda member. Using a database of 400 “global network terrorists” Sageman came to some startling conclusions.

A pan-Islamist jihadi, he said, isn’t poor; Al-Qaeda attracts middle class if not upper crust Muslims. He isn’t very religious; mosque regulars won’t walk the Osama Bin Laden path. He isn’t ignorant; an engineering degree is almost a prerequisite to become a terrorist. He isn’t single, but he’s ready to mingle – Al-Qaeda recruits are normally married, have plenty of kids and see nothing wrong in backing football clubs, watching movies and otherwise making merry.

But pan-Islamic terror has moved on since the spectacular events of 9/11. Today, the children of Osama are more likely to be blowing up Iraqi Shias or European commuters than knocking down a New York skyscraper. They are likely to encounter Bin Laden through the Internet rather than in the flesh at an Afghan training camp. Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al-Qaeda, says, “The original Sageman profile covered the first generation of Islamic terrorists.”

This was the generation of the stereotypical Al-Qaeda member: an Arab veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan who probably knew Bin Laden in person. When US officials say they’ve killed or captured “70 per cent” of Al-Qaeda’s leadership they’re talking about these founding fathers.

The second-generation pan-Islamic terrorist, say most experts, has minimal experience of Afghanistan. “In their case, Al-Qaeda is a source of inspiration but not much more,” says a former R&AW terrorism expert, B Raman. They are more likely, says Gunaratna, to be trained by “disparate groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Middle Eastern groups ranging from the Libyan Islamic Fighters to the Tawhidi-al-Jihad in Iraq.” This has automatically made second-generation Islamic terror more cosmopolitan. “There has been a dilution of the Arab element in Islamic terror,” says Raman. “Outside the Middle East, in the attacks on London or cells found in Australia, international jihadis are more often Pakistani, occasionally Bangladeshi.” He argues that Bin Laden simply did not recruit non-Arabs.

Generation three is here

It also makes it potentially more violent. Sidney Jones, an expert on Southeast Asian terror for the International Crisis Group, argues that the Afghan veteran, once at the heart of global network terror has been replaced by a war veteran in Iraq, Kashmir or the Philippines. “This makes cells even more violence prone. Many Afghan veterans didn’t actually experience much combat,” she says. “They’re pretty old too now.”

Pan-Islamic terror’s Generation Three is now upon us. Gunaratna says the recent abortive terror plots in the UK and Canada are an indicator of what the future holds. The new terrorist cell is likely to be wholly homegrown, operationally clumsier but technically more savvy than its predecessors.

In contrast to the original Sageman profile, third-generation terrorists are younger (average age 22 as opposed to 26) and radicalised by local media and the internet (80 per cent of Sageman’s examples picked up their militant Islamicism overseas).

This homegrown terrorist, says Dr Tanveer Ahmed, an Australian psychiatrist who works with Muslim immigrants in the West, “is likely to be of South Asian background – especially Pakistani, tertiary educated, very interested in foreign affairs – notably the Arab world and Palestine – and sees himself as Muslim alone, without nationality.”

Even Sageman, who two months ago described the conclusions of an updated version of his profile in an article, says terror cells are now more akin to a Bronx street gang than an Afghan guerrilla brigade. The third-generation cell now has about eight members, usually a group of male friends between 15 and 30, and is self-radicalised. He argues his basic profile remains unchanged: there is no link to poverty, ignorance or even religiosity. “No broad ‘root causes’ generate terrorists,” he says – a conclusion all terrorism experts agree on.

One fortunate consequence, says Gunaratna, is that pan-Islamic terrorism’s new generation are “forensically less aware.” They have the ideology but not the discipline of Bin Laden’s original mujahideen. One reason they have fallen easy prey to old-fashioned police work.

India has been fortunate. While there has been no dearth of Islamic militancy in India, it has been driven solely by domestic issues and limited in its tactics. Raman says there is a distinction between the radical Indian Muslim and the pan-Islamic militant. “Indian Muslims are radicalised by events like Ayodhya, but they are still uncomfortable with talk of a global Islamic caliphate,” he says.

But the relationship between Indian Muslims and pan-Islamic terror is entering its dangerous decade. The Mumbai bomb blasts of 2006 and 1993 seem to show Indian Muslim militants more willing to inflict mass casualties than before, an echo of Bin Laden’s decree that jihadis should not worry about killing innocents. Raman no-tes that “60 per cent” of those arrested after the Mumbai blasts were Indian Muslims and the Pakistanis involved “did not assist in a leadership role.”

Sageman, who now has a private counter-terrorism consultancy, says he tells governments not to worry about Muslims who are part of the pious mainstream. The would-be terrorists “are the guys who find the mosque not radical enough. When they leave the mosque and start praying in their living rooms, that is a red flag.” Gunaratna agrees. “India must proactively and preventively work with its local Muslim community – they are the country’s biggest asset in countering terrorism.”

First Published: Oct 23, 2006 15:52 IST