The New York Times Magazine (March 12) reports that counter-terrorism specialists, both in the government and academia, are using a theory known as network analysis to identify potential Islamic extremists.
Network or “link analysis” involves searching for associations and other connections between seemingly disparate individuals and groups. Terrorists may be located by identifying “network hubs” or centers where links between them are the most numerous, or by connecting individuals engaged in similar activities. While such analysis is still in its infancy, it may help outsiders understand Islamic jihadist or militant behavior and growth, according to sociologist Randall Collins.
In a recent lecture at the New School for Social Research in New York attended by RW, Collins noted that it was the convergence of different Islamic networks in Afghanistan in the 1980s that allowed militants to meet each other in large numbers. Like the Bay Area of the countercultural 1960s, Afghanistan became a “place where emotional enthusiasm built up….It led to the formation of super-networks initially in competition with each other…From this came Al-Queda, which means `the base’– a self-conscious hub for a loose network of far-flung militants in many places.”
Citing the research of colleague Marc Sageman, Collins adds that it is impossible to predict who will become an al-Queda member (or terrorist) by their personal or demographic backgrounds. “Many are intensely religious, but their religiosity appears to be more an effect than a cause; it grows over time, especially after they made contact with militant networks.” Collins theorizes that these self-propagating networks thrive through having ritual techniques which are “emotional attention attractors, which are stronger than those of rival ritual centers of attention.”