NYPD hires scholar to review threats

Monday, July 7, 2008

NEW YORK -- He was a flight surgeon with the Navy and a CIA officer in Pakistan. He has also earned a doctorate in sociology and written two books.

Now Marc Sageman can add a new entry to his resume: terrorism guru for the New York Police Department.

Sageman, billed by the NYPD as its first-ever "scholar in residence," has become a key player in a debate over whether the greatest terror threat America faces comes from inside or outside its borders.

His assignment: to teach terrorism workshops to investigators and be a sounding board for a team of NYPD analysts formed after the Sept. 11 attacks to assess future threats against the city.

"I think I bring a new voice, a new way of looking at things," Sageman, 55, said in a recent interview at police headquarters.

Sageman's way of looking at the terror threat emphasizes local, loose-knit cells of alienated young men -- what he calls "bunches of guys" -- over established international networks like al-Qaida.

In the post-Sept. 11 terror plots that have emerged in Britain, Spain, the United States and elsewhere, "It was just a bunch of guys getting together and then getting radicalized over time locally," he said. "It wasn't an outside organization coming in and brainwashing them. ... People get radicalized at home and go out and look for al-Qaida, not the other way around."

Though not as sophisticated as the Sept. 11 brand of terrorist, the wannabes pose a grave risk, he said.

"A lot of those guys are not the brightest guys around," he said. "The vast majority get arrested. But some of those guys get lucky. And they can kill lots of people."

That perspective recently sparked an open feud with Georgetown University professor Bruce Hoffman.

In a scathing review of Sageman's latest book, "Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-first Century," Hoffman called Sageman's analysis lazy and his conclusions flawed. Hoffman has argued that the most serious threat to the West remains a resilient al-Qaida, and that wiping out its leadership is crucial.

Among Hoffman's broadsides in his Foreign Affairs magazine piece: "Sageman's impressive resume cannot overcome his fundamental misreading of the al Qaeda threat."

Sageman countered in a written response that what his book "actually says is that the threat from this core group is still substantial and will grow if vigilance is relaxed."

Asked about the exchange, Sageman shrugged it off -- "There's many ways to look at the problem. What's not valid is insults" -- and moved on to other subjects, including his surprise at becoming part of the city's law enforcement establishment.

Sageman was born in Poland, but spent most of his early youth in France. His family moved to Brooklyn when he was a teenager.

After earning degrees from Harvard and New York University and his stint in the Navy, he joined the CIA in 1984. He had postings in Islamabad and New Delhi until 1991, when he became a clinical and forensic psychiatrist.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, he studied the motivations of hundreds of murderers. After, he looked at the mindsets of terrorists and warning of an emerging homegrown threat in his books, speeches at universities and at law enforcement agencies across the country and abroad.

Sagemen caught the attention of the NYPD's deputy commissioner of intelligence, David Cohen, also a CIA alum, and other NYPD brass when he participated in an in-house lecture series on terrorism and foreign relations that has featured Henry Kissinger, Jordan's King Abdullah II, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey and Lawrence Wright, author of "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11."

The department decided to ask Sageman to stick around.

"We began with a lecture series, but the scholar-in-residence program is a way to make such talent fully available to NYPD personnel, year-round," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. "Dr. Sageman brings vast experience and knowledge to the post."

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