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Sageman vs Hoffman: The new war of ideas

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10 June 2008 15:04

For months now an intense debate has taken place amongst jihadists over the future strategy and tactics of international jihad. Now that debate has an important Western echo in a heated disagreement between two leading terrorism scholars, Bruce Hoffman and Marc Sageman. It was sparked by a scathing review of Sageman’s new book by Hoffman in Foreign Affairs. Sageman shoots back (and Hoffman returns fire) in the forthcoming issue

The dispute was summarized recently in the New York Times. It boils down to the question of whether al-Qaeda central still matters. Hoffman thinks it does, and that bin Laden and his merry band have been busy re-building their capacity to launch terror attacks against the West. Sageman argues that the threat has shifted to leaderless jihadists – self-organising ‘bunches of guys’ emerging spontaneously, inspired by the al-Qaeda message (or their interpretation of it) but without links to its leadership.

So given the great mass of disputation and polemic that has surrounded the terrorism issue since 9/11, does this particular debate matter?

It’s pretty clear from the exchange that there is a lot of personality-driven heat in this debate. More substantively, Hoffman and Sageman’s analyses are not mutually exclusive, and at least on paper, not much seems to separate them in policy terms (Sageman argues that their practical recommendations are not that far apart). In practice, however, it is easy to see how their respective analyses will become ammunition for proponents of different policy positions on terrorism (and not always for positions that the authors themselves would agree with). 

For example, if al-Qaeda central is still important, then the war in Afghanistan and the West’s fraught relationship with Pakistan should remain Western priorities. By contrast, if local leaderless jihadists have become the main threat, the focus should be on local policing, intelligence, community relations and social integration.

Of course, in theory there is no contradiction between hunting al-Qaeda abroad while rooting out leaderless jihadists at home. But it is almost 7 years since 9/11 (and since there was a terrorist attack on US soil), and in a little over six months there will be a new US President who faces new pressures and priorities in framing counter-terrorism policy, not least a decelerating US economy.

Indeed, it is interesting how some proponents of the ‘existential threat from terrorism’ narrative have themselves begun to shift. The most interesting thing about neo-conservative thinker Robert Kagan’s argument for the ‘The End of the End of History’ is the subtle down-shift in priorities from Islamists as foes to the challenge posed by authoritarian states, notably China and Russia.

In short, unlike immediately after 9/11 when anything could be done and any amount of money spent, some tougher intellectual, policy and resource choices confront not just a future US administration, but other Western governments as well. Against this background, Hoffman vs Sageman could, insofar as it helps define the nature of the threat, become a touchstone for how those strategic and counter-terrorism policy and resource choices will be made.

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