Smackdown! Sageman vs. Hoffman

That’s how the New York Times sets up the Sageman/Hoffman argument today: Two powerful academics are feuding over whether al-Qaeda is a leaderless movement (Sageman) or a hierarchical terrorist organization (Hoffman). There are billions in federal dollars hanging in the balance. And best yet, the two guys can’t stand each other.

There’s a lot more agreement between Sageman and Hoffman than the Times piece portrays. Both men accept that there are grassroots Jihadi groups popping up without any operational connection to AQ and both men believe that AQ Central (Bin Laden, Zawahiri, et al) is alive and well in the FATA region of Pakistan. The main difference is over how strong AQ Central is and what relationship it has to those who fight in its name. In his latest book, Sageman says AQ Central is not that strong outside of Pakistan/Afghanistan and that it doesn’t have any operational links with groups or individuals outside the region. Hoffman disagrees, arguing that AQ Central does have these links and that it is planning and financing global operations again. My money is on Hoffman’s thesis; Abu Ubayda’s shenanigans should be proof enough.

The problem with Sageman’s thesis is that it is four years too late. It works very well in 2004 when AQ Central was on the run and grassroots groups were popping up. But it is incomplete today when we have both grassroots activism and a powerful AQ Central. What makes things difficult now is that the grassroots groups are reaching out to the mother ship.

As for Sageman’s why-me? posture in the Times article, puh-lease. In his books, Sageman dismisses entire fields of study with a flick of the pen, excoriating colleagues for their lack of scientific rigor. His fulminations would be tolerable if his own scientific practice were rigorous, but it’s not–his datasets are not easy to obtain, his coding of the data is idiosyncratic, and some of his strongest conclusions rest on weak evidence. This is what Hoffman is reacting to in his review of Sageman’s latest book and it is long overdue.

Sageman has a lot of very useful ideas, but they are hard to talk about when he is standing in the way:

Maybe he’s mad that I’m the go-to guy now.


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3 Responses

  1. Having been on the receiving end of a Sageman “dismissal,” I can relate to the frustration. He’s a nice enough guy in person, and I respect his work. It’s fine on the localized, individual level but his insights fall apart on a global, strategic scale.

    I don’t know why this fight needs to occur in the first place. There’s room enough for more than one CT theory to explain everything.

  2. I really have no clue how you guys can swing support to a guy who has men such as Peter Bergen “in doctor Hoffman’s camp.” That astoundingly stupid man said (quoted from the NYT’s article I read this morning) that “if it’s a leaderless jihad, then I can find something else to do because the threat is over.” Not satisfied with being just incompetent and ignorant, Bergen continued to say “leaderless things don’t produce big results.”

    On what evidence can Bergen claim these things?! Is he not privy to what appears to be a very obvious shift to decentralized groups that provide a unified vision and an agile and flexible core. To say that small groups cannot provide results is to, for instance, ignore MEND in Nigeria.

    However, I agree with the common consensus that both smaller, decentralized groups and Al Qaeda both pose a large threat. We must not create false dichotomies (which it seems many academics are guilty of).

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