Think Again: Islamist Terrorism

Pundits and politicians of all stripes are quick to offer their wisdom on what fuels Islamist terrorism. It just so happens that much of what they say is wrong. Poverty doesn’t produce terrorists, a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem isn’t a cure-all, and young Muslim men aren’t the most likely to turn to terror. If we are going to fight a war on terror, the least we can do is understand who we are fighting.

Fixing the Israel-Palestinian Problem Will Make Terrorism Go Away
Hardly. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important, but it is by no means the only issue inspiring the ideology of global jihad. There are several pivotal conflicts around the world that animate militant Islamist ideology, from the Caucasus and the Balkans to the Southern Philippines and the intractable Kashmir conflict. Militant Islamists also see a connection between their local issues and global politics. To them, Muslims are victims in every conflict and the West is responsible for Muslim suffering and powerlessness.

That is to say nothing of the fact that the significance of each regional conflict varies from one jihadi group to the next. For Algerian jihadists, their war, provoked by the refusal of the pro-Western Algerian military to accept the results of elections won by Islamists in 1991, is as significant as Palestinian resistance to Israel. Pakistani and Kashmiri jihadists spew the greatest amount of venom in their publications against Hindu India, not Jewish Israel. Russia also sits high on a jihadists hit list, when the jihadist in question is Chechen.

Radical Islamists want nothing less than the restoration of Islamic sovereignty to all lands where Muslims were once ascendant, including Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Hungary, Sicily, Spain, and even parts of France. Yes, a resolution of the Palestinian issue would remove a key irritant in Western relations with the Muslim world. But these ambitions are unlikely to be satisfied by an Israeli-Palestinian settlement.

Poverty, Unemployment, and Lack of Education Make Terrorists
Prove it. Poverty, unemployment, and lack of education are serious problems in some of the worlds most populous Muslim countries. There is, however, no evidence of a correlation between these social and economic ills and terrorism. Terrorists are not always poor and prosperity does not end terrorism. In fact, in the worlds 50 poorest countries, there is little terrorism. It is too soon to dismiss socio-economic conditions completely, but studies have generally found that terrorists tend not to be from societies most deprived groups. Instead, terrorists are generally well educated and unlikely to be poor. In India, for example, terrorism has occurred in one of the countrys most prosperous regions, Punjab, and its most egalitarian, Kashmir (where the poverty rate is less than 4 percent, compared with a national average of 26 percent). The sub-continents poorest regions, such as North Bihar, have not produced any terrorist activity. In Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as in North Africa, terrorists do not originate in the poorest and most neglected areas, but in some of the wealthiest regions and neighborhoods.

Terrorist groups, like other employers, impose standards of quality in their recruitment efforts. Research shows that terrorists tend to be of higher qualitymore educated or accomplished in other jobs and pursuits. These individuals are more likely to turn to terrorism when the economy is weak and jobs are in short supply. When the economy is good, high-quality persons generally have access to lucrative jobs relative to their low-quality counterparts, and the cost of leaving a good job in order to participate in a terrorist movement is relatively high. That helps explain why engineers and other technical persons with a history of underemployment get involved in terrorism. They are both available and desired by terrorist organizations, particularly during periods of economic stagnation and downturn.

Young, Unmarried Muslim Males Are the Most Likely to Become Terrorists
No. It is de rigueur to suggest that young, unmarried, Muslim males are the most likely population to become terrorists or to support terrorism. But from the perspective of the global supply of terrorists, this claim is false. Consider the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka. They are the worlds single largest group of suicide bombers. Their cadres are not Muslim, but Hindu by religion and nearly 40 percent are female.

Even on the issue of support for terrorism, there is reason to be skeptical about the popular convention that young males are leading the pack. In a recent survey of 6,000 Muslims in 14 countries published in Studies in Conflict Terrorism, females were more likely to support terrorism than were males. Whats more, married and unmarried persons are equally likely to support terrorism. Age matters less than one may think at first blush. In the same survey, some 47 percent of 62-year-olds surveyed were inclined to support terrorism. That percentage was only 10 points higher for 18-year-olds.

Other factors, such as perception of a threat to Islam and opinions about the role of religion in government, have a significantly greater impact on support for terrorism than age or gender. The bottom line? Ideology and beliefs matter more than social or economic status, age or gender. Focusing outreach and counterterrorism efforts on young, unmarried Muslim males will only overlook enormous sections of Muslim populations who support terrorists.

Madrasas Are Terrorist Factories
Thats an exaggeration. Do madrasas (ultra-conservative religious schools) produce students who are less tolerant towards other religions, opposed to the rights of women, and more likely to support militant means for resolving disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims? Definitely. But this is not tantamount to training for terrorism. None of the 9/11 hijackers attended a madrasa. And there is no evidence that any of the terrorists involved in major international terror attacks during the last four years ever enrolled as regular students in a madrasa, though they may have passed through madrasas on the way to terrorist training camps.

Given their total lack of Western education, madrasa students are not particularly useful to any modern day employer, including terrorist groups. They cannot blend into a Western nation or mount sophisticated operations requiring technical expertise. They lack linguistic ability and competence in even basic forms of technology because such skills are not generally taught at madrasas. Some madrasa students do not even have basic mathematical skills, necessary for mounting even moderately sophisticated terrorist operations.

The media and policy communitys obsession with madrasas began with the Talibans rise to power in Afghanistan. Their rise and fall may have drawn international attention to the culture and curriculum of madrasas, but such schools are nothing new. Madrasas have existed throughout the Muslim world since the 12th century. Their core curriculum in South Asia, to take one example, has not changed since the 19th century. Nor are they widely popular. In Pakistan, for instance, less than 1 percent of all students enrolled in schools attend madrasas. Some suggest the number could be as low as 0.7 percent of all school going children.

Officials in the Arab world exaggerate the significance of madrasas possibly to deflect attention from the real problem: public school curriculums that inspire young men to jihad and focus on Muslim victimhood. Studies of public school curricula in Saudi Arabia, for example, confirm that incitement of hatred against the West, Jews, and non-Muslims is hardly limited to madrasas.

People Support Terrorism Because They Are Poor and Lack Opportunity
Doubtful. Little work thus far has been done on the effect of socio-economic factors upon the demand for terrorismthe support that it enjoys among the people on whose behalf terrorists claim to operate. In other words, no one knows why some people support terrorism and others do not.

The survey of 14 Muslim countries found that respondents who reported having inadequate money for food were the least likely to support terrorism. By contrast, the study found that individuals with cell phones or computers (who are presumably more affluent) are more likely to support terrorism than those who do not own these items.

It is possible, of course, that addressing socio-economic concerns such as poverty and education in Muslim countries would decrease the support that terrorists enjoy there. It is also possible that support for terrorism might hinge more upon differences in economic status across time than upon the level of poverty at any given moment. Either way, it is too early to draw conclusions. Development agencies and advocates should collect more data on the support for terrorism among the poor.

Perceived Threats to Islam Create Support for Terrorism
Absolutely. There is tremendous hesitance to admit that Muslim populations, on whose behalf terrorists claim to operate, have grievances or concerns that need to be addressed as a means to minimizing public support for terrorism. For some, this is the moral equivalent of negotiating with terrorism. This is unfortunate, because these grievances matter.

In some countries, including Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan, and more than 70 percent of the population believes that Islam is under threat. Support for terrorism feeds on the belief that large segments of the Muslim world are victims of ongoing injustice. Some experts argue, with justification, that the perception of threats to Islam is deliberately cultivated by Islamist political groups and authoritarian Muslim governments to generate support for their agenda. But support for terrorism is unlikely to decline without addressing that perception, whether the perception is the product of propaganda or the result of legitimate political grievance.

Disenchanted, Angry Muslims in Europe and North America Are Potential Terrorist Recruits
Increasingly. Muslims living in North America and Europe are attractive to international terrorist organizations because they already possess language skills, Western passports, and are at ease working and interacting in these countries. And terrorism is attractive to some within these diasporas.

The reasons for this phenomenon are numerous and varied. Many North American and European Muslims found Islam while spending time in prison. The prislam (prison Islam) phenomenon disquiets analysts on both sides of the Atlantic. Although there are just 2 million Muslims living in Britain2.5 percent of the total populationmore than 8 percent of Britains prisoners are Muslim. Prisons have proven to be a recruiting and training ground for a variety of criminal activities, including organized crime and terrorism. Moreover, radical Islamist teachers have long had access to Britains incarcerated Muslims.

Diasporas have long been a source of ethnonationalist extremism and activities. Something about the state of diasporas motivates people to understand their identities in new and sometimes disturbing ways. Examples of that abound: Vietnams Ho Chi Minh, Irans Ayatollah Khomeini, Indias Mohandas Gandhi, and Pakistans Mohammad Ali Jinnah all began to reformulate national identities when they were abroad.

The freedom of speech and association allowed in Europe and North America enables radical Islamists to publish and organize without government intervention, a right they are denied in most Muslim countries. Western countries are going to have to try harder to understand why it is that some populations do not integrate into society and why it is that some engage in violence. Increasingly, people who are born and raised in one country, seek militant training in another, and carry out terrorist attacks in a third country on behalf of people they have likely never met.