"Since 9/11, there have
been over 2,300 arrests connected to Islamist terrorism in Europe in
contrast to about 60 in the United States." Thus writes Marc Sageman in
his influential new book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press).
This one statistical
comparison inspires Sageman, in a chapter he calls "The Atlantic
Divide," to draw sweeping conclusions about the superior circumstances
of American Muslims. "The rate of arrests on terrorism charges per
capita among Muslims is six times higher in Europe than in the United
States." The reason for this discrepancy, he argues, "lies in the
differences in the extent to which these respective Muslim communities
are radicalized." He praises "American cultural exceptionalism,"
admonishes European governments "to avoid committing mistakes that risk
the loss of good will in the Muslim community," and urges Europeans to
learn from Americans.
Sageman's argument rehashes what Spencer Ackerman wrote in a New Republic
cover story of late 2005, when he found that "Europe's growing Muslim
culture of alienation, marginalization, and jihad isn't taking root" in
the United States.
Sageman's entire case is premised on the figures of 2,300 and 60
arrests. Aside from possible other causal explanations for these
differences, such as the European legal system
permitting more latitude to make terrorism-related arrests, are those
figures even correct? He supports them with only a brief, vague
footnote: "Updating Eggen and Tate, 2005; Lustick 2006: 151-52 agrees
with this estimate." Here, "Eggen and Tate, 2005" refers to a two-part newspaper article and "Lustick 2006" sources a discredited extremist screed.
Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (University of Pennsylvania Press).
In fact, Sageman's numbers are scandalously inaccurate.
European arrests: His European number is inflated. The European Police Office (Europol) issued statistics showing that in 2007,
201 Islamists were detained in the European Union (other than the
United Kingdom) on terror-related charges, compared to 257 in 2006.
Earlier Europol statistics are less clear, but a close review of the
evidence conducted for me by Jonathan Gelbart of Stanford University
shows 234 arrests made in 2005, 124 in 2004. and 137 in 2003. In all, the total West European terrorism-related arrests appear to number less than 1,400.
U.S. arrests: According to the U.S. Department of Justice,
Sageman's American figure is too low by a factor of almost ten.
Department spokesman Sean Boyd indicated, according to a Fox News
report, that "527 defendants have been charged in terrorism or
terrorism-related cases arising from investigations primarily conducted
after Sept. 11. Those cases have resulted in 319 convictions, with an
additional 176 cases pending in court." Plus, as I documented at "Denying [Islamist] Terrorism" and its follow-up blog),
politicians, law enforcement personnel, and the media are loathe to
acknowledge terrorist incidents, so the real number of
terrorism-related arrests is substantially higher.
Given that the Muslim population in the United States is about 1/7th
size of its West European counterpart (3 million vs. 21 million), using
the figures of 527 arrests for the United States and 1,400 for Europe
suggests that the Muslim per-capita arrest rate on terrorism-related
charges in the United States is 2.5 times higher than in Europe, not,
as Sageman asserts, 6 times lower. In fact, Sageman (who was offered a
chance to reply to this article but declined) is off by a factor of
His error has major
implications. If the United States, despite the much better
socio-economic standing of its Muslims, suffers from 2.5 times more
terrorism per capita than does Europe, socio-economic improvements are
unlikely to solve Europe's problems.
This conclusion fits into a larger argument
that Islamism has little to do with economic or other stresses. Put
differently, ideas matter more than personal circumstances. As I put it in 2002,
"The factors that cause militant Islam to decline or flourish appear to
have more to do with issues of identity than with economics." Whoever
accepts the Islamist (or communist or fascist) worldview, whether rich
or poor, young or old, male or female, also accepts the ideological
infrastructure that potentially leads to violence, including terrorism.
In policy terms,
Americans have no reason to be smug. Yes, Europeans should indeed learn
from the United States how better to integrate their Muslim population,
but they should not expect that doing so will also diminish their
terrorism problem. It could, indeed, even worsen.