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Al Qaeda: jihadi country club

by Brad A. Greenberg

August 4, 2008 | 5:25 pm

“Country club fundamentalism.” That’s how Jeff Sharlet described the right-wing Christian organization The Family. If you know the right people, you can join; if not, you’re outta luck.

Not equating Christian fundamentalism with the most notorious terrorist organization of our time, but there appears a a similarity between the power and privilege brothers in The Family and in al Qaeda receive from their group membership. In the Washington Post, two political scientists argue that the exclusive-club model helps explain why so many prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, like Salim Ahmed Hamdan, at left, have refused to offer valuable information the U.S. government would gladly pay for:

“The generic problem is the question of why people having useful knowledge can’t be bribed to reveal it,” said David Laitin, a political scientist at Stanford University who has studied why terrorist groups that specialize in suicide attacks are so rarely undermined by defectors and turncoats.

Along with Eli Berman, a political scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Laitin has developed a theory to explain why the Hamdans of the world tend to stay loyal to the bin Ladens.

Laitin and Berman argue that it is because a group such as al-Qaeda is really an exclusive club.

Most people think of clubs as recreational groups, but Laitin and Berman are using a more subtle definition. Clubs are groups that tend to be selective about their members. Unlike political parties and book-reading groups, which allow anyone to join, clubs make it difficult for people to sign up. And once admitted, members must make personal sacrifices to stay. In the case of an exclusive golf club, the sacrifice might involve paying sizable dues. In the case of some religious orders, would-be members might have to go through lengthy periods of initiation.

The “club model” of terrorism explains why cogs such as Hamdan stay loyal. Across all kinds of clubs, when members make sacrifices, they are much more likely to become intensely loyal to fellow members. Berman and Laitin think this is because the sacrifices that members make to join a club reduce their value outside the club. If you devote years to learning a religious text, that knowledge can give you social cachet within your club, but your effort counts for little outside the club.

“If you have to spend your life reading the Talmud, you are not very good at software,” Laitin said. “The sacrifices get you social welfare, but if you took a bribe, your value outside of that club would be minuscule.”

Indeed, it seems jihadis become much more valuable to the Great Satan (their words, not mine) when they renounce the movement than when they are captured.

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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