Are 'Freelancers' Co-Opting Al Qaeda's Name?

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Attacks in Egypt and London may illustrate a shift in the way terrorists operate. University of Pennsylvania professor Marc Sageman tells Jacki Lyden "freelancers" carry out some attacks that are not always endorsed by al Qaeda.


Authorities in both Great Britain and Egypt have been pursuing leads in separate terrorism investigations over the weekend. Police in England announced today they've arrested a third man in connection with the July 21st attempted bombings in London. They're also looking into links between London's bombers and terror cells in Somalia and Ethiopia. Professor Marc Sageman with the University of Pennsylvania has been studying al-Qaeda since its inception in 1988. He says connections between al-Qaeda and terrorist cells in countries around the world are indirect. I spoke with him earlier today.

Professor MARC SAGEMAN (University of Pennsylvania): This whole terrorist threat has evolved because of our success in destroying the training camps and the communication between al-Qaeda central and their followers. But the social movement--a violent Islamist, born-again social movement--has increased. And so what we have now is randomly distributed attacks all over the world for free-lancers who want to make a name for themselves. And the old al-Qaeda is now in a position to retrospectively accept the gift of these free-lancers. These free-lancers, of course, do this operation in the name of al-Qaeda, and al-Qaeda then can pick and choose which one they accept. For instance, they will not accept any operation that kills children, so they rejected Beslan. And I think they rejected last week's killing of about 25 Iraqi children.

LYDEN: What support, if any, do you think that the smaller free-lancers, if you will, get from the established networks?

Prof. SAGEMAN: Well, I think that they want to be part of this whole movement, this jihad. And they get that from al-Qaeda central because they access the Web sites anonymously. And, of course, the leadership can post goals, documents, directions on this these Web sites. So the command and control is indirect through the Internet, and what they want to do is they just want to create a better world. It's very much like young people 30 years ago became Communists for similar ideals. They wanted to build a better world. They wanted to build a utopia. And they thought that joining the Communist Party would be that method. Now they turn to militant Islam.

LYDEN: You did a psychological assessment of the Madrid bombers. Can you tell us a little bit more about the kinds of family these people came from?

Prof. SAGEMAN: Madrid was actually a mixture of several groups. You had the students who came from foreign countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, who felt homesick and went to the mosque to find other Muslims and got into a group of militant people. And then you have a group of drug dealers who became religious and joined them, and they, of course, were the one who had the contacts to get the dynamite to do the horrors of March 11th in Madrid.

LYDEN: What would you say are the implications of this looser network on the entire movement of suicide bombing and terror?

Prof. SAGEMAN: Well, that forces us to really fight it in two ways: One is that we actually do have to eliminate the people who are currently terrorists because we're not going to change their mind; the much harder task is to prevent the next generation from becoming terrorists. And this is very much becoming a geological warfare.

LYDEN: Marc Sageman is an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict.

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