Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Terrorist Stereotypes and Misconceptions

Understanding Terror NetworksConventional wisdom has it that most Islamic terrorists are ignorant, religious fanatics whose childhoods were mired in poverty and whose education consisted of memorizing the Qur'an. The conventional wisdom is wrong, however. Marc Sageman discovered in his 2004 study of terrorist groups ("Understanding Terrorist Networks") that most Islamic terrorists come from a middle-class backgrounds, attended secular grade schools, weren't terribly religious as children, and have attained a higher level of education than average person from their respective countries of origin. Of course, we probably shouldn't get too wound up about one study, but other studies have confirmed what Sageman found. To wit:
  • Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that there is little evidence that terrorists are poor or poorly educated
  • Claudia Berrebi of the RAND Corporation compared the characteristics of of suicide-bombers recruited by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the West Bank and Gaza to the general Palestinian population and found that almost 60% of the suicide bombers had a high school education, which is a higher percentage than the general Palestinian population (approximately 25%) 
  • Berrebi also found that they were less than half as likely to come from an impoverished family as a typical man from the general population
  • The 2004 Pew Global Attitudes Project surveyed adults in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey and discovered that there is no evidence that sympathy for terrorism is greater among economically deprived individuals -- instead, more schooling correlated with more sympathy
Is there anything that correlates with terrorism? Yes. Countries that deny or severely limit civil and political rights to their citizens produce more terrorists than do those that grant them.  We probably can't do too much about this, which means that we may need a few more Egyptian revolutions . However, as we have seen in Libya, such revolutions can be hard to come by.

A summary of these and other findings can be found in the December 18, 2010, issue of the Economist ("Economic Focus: Exploding Misconceptions"). They suggest at least two things. One is that if we treat terrorist organizations as if they're run by ignorant fools, then we'll probably lose the war on terrorism -- or, it will last a lot longer than it has to. A second is that focusing solely on economic development in poorer countries will probably not reduce terrorism's appeal. Instead, what we probably need are multifaceted strategies that address the complex problem that it is.


  1. A helpful analysis. But, in view of the complexity of this problem, I wonderful if it is useful to continue referring to it as "the war on terrorism."

  2. Well, the war on terrorism is certainly one aspect, but it probably could be expanded to include other "wars."