Two people in business attire pass through security at Washington D.C.'s Dulles Airport, armed with the utility knives they will use to hijack an airplane that they fly into the Pentagon. A man steps onto a Spanish commuter train wearing a belt of bombs. Another man calmly parks his car, loaded with plastic explosives and homemade ammonium nitrate, next to an Istanbul synagogue.

What kinds of people so casually commit atrocities, often killing themselves in the process? According to Marc Sageman, MD, PhD, an adjunct psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who analyzed biographical data of more than 400 members of Islamic terrorist groups, these suicide bombers are not brainwashed youth, indoctrinated into religious zealotry at an early age--as is commonly suggested by the media. Nor are they usually disenfranchised and poor, with little to lose, he reported at the June 2004 International Conference on Living with Terror: Psycho-Social Effects, held in Washington, D.C.

Rather, the average al Qaeda-type terrorist is married, in his late twenties, upper-middle class and educated. The men in those airport security camera pictures are what they look like: regular people, according to Sageman's research.

"What we have to understand is that those least likely to do harm individually are sometimes the most able to do so collectively," said Sageman.

Understanding what draws these otherwise "good kids" to Islamic terrorist groups will help the U.S. government construct policies that could choke the flow of potential recruits, noted Jerrold Post, MD, director of the Political Psychology Program at George Washington University, who also spoke at the conference. Sponsored by Israel's University of Haifa and the University of Pennsylvania, the conference's speakers also included Colombian Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno and Monica Gabrielle, whose husband was killed on 9/11.

In particular, the government should discredit the terrorists' belief that countries such as the United States and Great Britain are propping up secular governments and preventing the region from returning to religious fundamentalism, Sageman said. Indeed, these fundamentalists believe a return to theocratic rule is the only way for countries such as Iraq to achieve prosperity and greatness, noted Sageman. This idea, rather than central leaders, is what holds the movement together, he said.

Social organizations

Young Arabic men living as expatriates in countries such as France seem especially susceptible to the idea that foreign governments are preventing the Arabic world from reaching its former glory, said Sageman, whose research appears in "Understanding Terror Networks" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

Sageman discovered this pattern by scouring 20 years of news accounts, transcripts of trials and academic reports for biographical information on people involved in what he terms the "Salafi Jihad"--the violent Islamic fundamentalist movement, of which al Qaeda is a part. By cross-referencing personal data from these sources, Sageman gained insight into the typical ways in which these men became involved in their violent cause.

Among his findings: 70 percent of the terrorists joined the Salafi Jihad while living as expatriates, originally moving in search of jobs and education. Prior to moving away from their home countries, these men were not particularly religious, and most had been educated in a secular environment. While living in foreign lands, they gravitated to mosques and moved in with other expatriate Muslims. And in some cases, they happened to become fast friends with existing members of the jihad, who then recruited the recently uprooted men to the cause.

A full 68 percent of Sageman's sample joined the fundamentalist movement because their friends were already involved in it. Others became acquainted with the movement through a family member--about 20 percent. And only a fraction joined the jihad because of a religious leader, such as Indonesia's Abu Bakar Ba'asyir.

"There is no evidence of brainwashing," said Sageman. "They simply acquired the beliefs of their friends."

These social networks provide the backbone for the jihad's organization, said Sageman. And this makes it very tricky for intelligence officers to differentiate between friends chatting or friends planning a suicide attack, he noted.

The Salafi Jihad's informal organization is unlike any other suicide-terrorist campaign, said conference speaker Ami Pedahzur, PhD, a political science professor at Israel's Haifa University and an expert on Palestinian terrorist organizations. A centralized and well-known leadership operates the Palestinian Hamas group and coordinates, for example, suicide bombing campaigns with such goals as derailing peace talks or attracting fame and funding, said Pedahzur.

"Suicide terrorism occurs in waves that rarely last more than three years," said Pedahzur. "Someone makes a decision to start a campaign and to end a campaign."

In comparison, al Qaeda-type terrorists operate through small groups of friends, which make their own plans for suicide bombings, said Sageman.

There is no one in the Salafi Jihad who has the authority to call off the terrorist campaign, because of the movement's organization into independent, local groups with local leaders, said Sageman.

Social solutions

The closest the Salafi Jihad has come to a central command capable of calling off attacks was destroyed by U.S. forces along with the Afghanistan's Taliban government in 2001, Sageman noted. But the time for military strikes has passed, he said. Now it's up to Western governments to change the belief that they are the enemy of Islam and the Middle East, he noted.

"Combating fuzzy, idea-based networks requires idea-based solutions," Sageman said.

This could be done by keeping tabs on hate speech and working with local religious organizations and government leaders to condemn it, he said.

And, because Salafi Jihadists organize as groups of friends, government agents could promote dissension among these social groups, perhaps by advertising amnesty deals for those who leave the movement, suggested Post.

But the most potent way for the United States to undermine the conceits of this global movement, said Sageman, is to successfully reconstruct Iraq. The creation of an open and thriving Islamic country would prove that prosperity can be obtained without fundamentalism, said Sageman, and also show that the United States is a friend to the Arabic world.

If the United States fails, the number of potential Salafi Jihad recruits will greatly increase, said the psychology professor.