What if all the reasons commonly given for the onset of the current age of terror are wrong? If violence against the innocent is not the product of religious fanaticism, reaction to corrupt governance, or a manifestation of the sheer hopelessness and rage that come with perpetual poverty, then what are the real causes? If the received wisdom about terrorism can be challenged, then there is an obligation to look more deeply into its origins.
In the matter of faith-based zealotry, psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman has profiled hundreds of jihadis affiliated with the al Qaeda movement, finding that religion is a lesser included factor in their recruitment. Indeed, a significant percentage of these militants undertook graduate studies -- such study itself a seeming contradiction of fundamentalism -- many outside the Muslim world. For example, 9/11 attack team leader Mohammed Atta studied architecture in Germany. Al Qaeda's deepest strategic thinker, Abu Mus'ab al-Suri is an engineer. Osama bin Laden had a business education and came from a very wealthy family of industrialists -- again giving the lie to the notion of terrorists as unthinking religious fanatics. As Sageman notes in his Understanding Terror Networks, these sorts of secular backgrounds are commonly found. We have misjudged the jihad.
As to terror arising in reaction to government oppression, the Arab Spring provides much evidence -- as do the many "color revolutions" that have come before -- that social uprisings can take the form of, and succeed with, peaceful demonstrations. And on those occasions when armed revolts have erupted, as in Libya and Syria, they have aimed largely at the tyrants and their militaries, not the innocent. If anything, insurrections in the Muslim world seem less prone to the kind of anti-government terrorism that has surfaced from time to time in Europe with such groups as the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, and in the United States in the form of far-right extremists like Timothy McVeigh.
With regard to the belief that poverty and hopelessness spark terrorism, one can only say that many, many countries see endless years of travail of this sort without ever a terrorist group rising up. Why is it that the vast majority of those who suffer in such settings fail to take up arms and commit terrorist acts? The philosopher John Stuart Mill once articulated what he called a "method of difference" by which he held that factors -- such as poverty and hopelessness -- common to many areas, but leading to a particular outcome (in this case, terrorism) in only a few, should not be seen as the true causes of the phenomenon. Thus, persistent economic suffering should not be seen as a prime catalyst for terrorism.
But if the foregoing, widely accepted troika of causes of our current age of terror are all false, then what is this violent plague's true origin? In discussions over the past decade, my colleague Robert O'Connell and I have observed that the desire to prey upon the innocent is rooted deeply in human nature. From the earliest times, bush and mountain tribes, horse archers, and sea peoples all perpetrated acts of symbolic violence against hapless victims in order to shock their families, and their protectors, into states of temporary inaction during plunder raids. This violence also served to intimidate the victims into paying tribute, in the hope of being left in peace later on. In one form or another over the centuries, from piracy on the high seas to steppe raiders, and on to the "business model" of numerous modern terrorist factions, the pattern persists: Symbolic violence or the threat of it, aimed at the innocent, has been used to pursue gains -- material and otherwise.
To be sure, there have been terrorist organizations driven primarily by religious zeal, the Cult of the Assassins in the 13th century being the best example of the use of murder to further belief-based interests. But in the long history of violence against the innocent, the Assassins are far more the exception than the rule. No, it seems instead that terror has flourished when external conditions have allowed, not when ideas have inspired or suffering has impelled. Ideas without opportunity have always withered.