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Jamie Weinstein: Most terrorists are privileged terrorists

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For much of Christmas weekend, the Drudge Report’s headline was “The Privileged Terrorist.” The link, with enlarged letters cast in red to signify its importance, took readers to an article in the UK’s The Independent newspaper detailing the privileged life of the man alleged to have attempted to blow a Northwest Airlines flight out of the sky on Christmas Day.  

The explicit meaning of Drudge’s headline was certainly accurate. By all indication, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was fortunate. Born to an influential Nigerian family, Abdulmutallab reportedly lived in a plush London apartment while attending an elite UK university.  

But the implicit meaning of the Drudge headline was that the “privileged terrorist” is a rare specimen. Not so.   

It is a common myth that poverty creates terrorists, but this caricature doesn’t bear out. To the contrary, members of radical Islamist terror groups tend to be better off economically and more educated than their demographic cohorts.   

This is easy to support anecdotally. The world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, comes from an immensely wealthy Saudi family. His top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a trained doctor from an upper-middle class Egyptian family. The leader of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mohammad Atta, was a graduate student in Germany. One of the 2005 London bombers left an estate valued at over $150,000. The list goes on.

Empirically, the evidence is even more compelling. In a study of Palestinian Islamist terror organizations from 1987 to 2002, Princeton economist Claude Berrebi discovered that members of these organizations were frequently better educated and better off economically than the Palestinian Arab population as a whole.  

“If there is a link between income level, education, and participation in terrorist activities,” Berrebi concluded, “it is either very weak or in the opposite direction of what one intuitively might have expected.”  

In his book Understanding Terror Networks, terrorism analyst Marc Sageman documented 102 Islamist radicals involved in global jihad. Roughly three quarters of these men could be classified as “upper class” or “middle class.” From the information he was able to glean, Sageman concluded that “members of the global Salafi jihad were generally middle-class, educated young men from caring and religious families, who grew up with strong positive values of religion, spirituality, and concern for their communities.”  

Desperately poor individuals they were not. And other studies have come to similar conclusions.  

In 2005, for instance, Reuven Paz examined the biographies of 154 Arab jihadists who died in Iraq. From his study, Paz was able to determine that many of the jihadists “came from wealthy or middle class families.”  

Back in the late 1970s, Saad Eddin Ibrahim came to a similar conclusion after interviewing radical Islamists in Egyptian jails. From his interviews, Ibrahim concluded that if the Islamist radicals he interviewed were out of the ordinary in any way, it was “because they were significantly above the average of their generation” in education, financial background, and motivation.   

While politicians and even many academics continue to propound the supposed connection between poverty and terrorism, the actual evidence doesn’t support this convenient link. If there was such a strong connection, the phrase “Cambodian suicide bomber” would be quite familiar instead of unheard of.   

Drudge was right. The alleged Christmas Day bomber does appear to have had a privileged upbringing. This is little different, however, than many of those engaged in global jihad, even if Abdulmutallab may have been a little more privileged than some of his terrorist peers.   

Jamie Weinstein holds a master’s degree in the history of international relations from the London School of Economics and is a columnist for The North Star National. He can be reached through his blog, www.JamieWeinstein.com

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