Two dreaded Indian terrorists—Abdul Karim Tunda and Yasin Bhatkal—have been apprehended recently near the Indo-Nepal border. Both of them had developed significant Pakistani connections; in fact they were roaming abroad with Pakistani passports. But, then the Pakistan-factor behind rising incidents of terrorism in India has been wellknown. Therefore, this column this week is going to focus on one of
the underplayed aspects of terrorism—what motivates one to become a terrorist.
Let us take the examples of Tunda and Bhatkal. Tunda came from a very humble background, whereas Bhatkal hailed from a middle class family and was well-educated. A friend of mine is not surprised that Tunda chose the path of terror, but he is shocked that Bhatkal turned out to be a dreaded radical. He thinks that the country has a very dangerous future ahead as educated and intelligent young men like Bhatkal are now guiding the movements of terror. While I agree with him over his prophesy, I was amazed to find him under the impression that if one is educated, he or she will not be a terrorist as usually terrorists, according to him, are those who are oppressed, poor, uneducated, gullible, and religiously motivated to carry violence.
But then my friend cannot be faulted to think that way. After all, it is a popular explanation everywhere that economic deprivation and lack of education caused people to adopt extreme views and turn to terrorism. In other words, so the argument goes, extremism and fanaticism are the fallouts of appalling forms of poverty and lack of opportunities. Most of our Left-dominated academia, media, human rights activists and jhoola-wallas harp on this theory day in and day out and blame the “State” for being responsible for terrorism in the country.
However, what is popular is not necessarily true. For, the unpleasant truth is that neither material deprivation nor inadequate education is an important cause of support for terrorism or participation in terrorist activities. Such explanations have been embraced almost entirely on belief or hearsay, not on scientific evidence. Let me prove this point by citing serious and painstaking research findings by scholars specialising on terrorism.
After examining the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners, Peter Bergen, the author of “Holy War Inc.,” and Swati Pandey, a research associate at the New America Foundation, found that a majority of them are college-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering. In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators’ educational levels is available—the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the 9/11 attacks, and the Bali bombings in 2002—53 per cent of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree.
The 1993 World Trade Center attack involved 12 men, all of whom had a college education. The 9/11(destroying the New York’s World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001) pilots, as well as the secondary planners identified by the 9/11 commission, all attended Western universities, a prestigious and elite endeavour for anyone from the Middle East. Indeed, the lead 9/11 pilot, Mohamed Atta, had a degree from a German university in, of all things, urban preservation, while the operational planner of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, studied engineering in North Carolina. Bergen and Pandey also found that two-thirds of the 25 hijackers and planners involved in 9/11 had attended college.
The same was the conclusion of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project that conducted public opinion surveys in February 2004 in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey, involving about 1,000 respondents in each country. The clear finding was that people with a higher level of education are in general more likely to say that suicide attacks against Westerners in Iraq were justified.
There is also the example of Nasra Hassan, a United Nations relief worker in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who, after interviewing with 250 militants and their associates who were involved in the Palestinian cause in the late 1990s, concluded that “none of them were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, or depressed. Many were middle class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs. Two were the sons of millionaires.”
Let us take the examples of Osama Bin Laden, Al-Jawahiri, Sabeel Ahmed, Kafeel Ahmed, IBM Software Engineer of SIMI in our country. They are (were) all highly educated, very rich people and from very ‘modern’ family backgrounds. Osama was from a billionaire family of Saudi Arabia and he spent large part of his life in the USA as a fashionable young lad till 1970s. Al-Jawahiri, now chief of the al-Qaida, is a doctor by profession. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who orchestrated the 2002 kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, in Pakistan (He was released from captivity by the Vajpayee government in 1999 and provided safe passage into Afghanistan with the support of Taliban in exchange for passengers aboard hijacked Indian Airlines Flight 814) also enjoyed a very similar upbringing and attended an exclusive—and expensive—private school in Great Britain. He later was admitted to the world-renowned London School of Economics (LSE), where he studied applied mathematics, statistical theory, economics, and social psychology.
Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger and his Australian colleague, Jitka Malecková have debunked the conventional wisdom that links poverty and lack of education to terrorism and insurgency. Surveying American white supremacists, members of the contemporary Israeli (right-wing) underground, Hezbollah fighters, and Palestinian suicide bombers, and using a variety of data and different methodological approaches, they concluded that not only is there little evidence for this causality but in fact persons with higher incomes and more education are more, not less, likely to join terrorist and insurgent groups.
It is worth mentioning that studies have revealed that quite a few of the leading terrorists in recent years have been either engineers or doctors. Sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog ,whose databases of terrorism perpetrators evidences this trend, collected records on 404 men who belonged to violent Islamist groups active over the past few decades. They found out that nearly 20 per cent of the militants had engineering degrees. In fact, according to Gambetta and Hertog, of the militants who all studied beyond high school, close to half (44 per cent) had trained in engineering.
As regards the doctors, it may be noted that the popularity of medicine as a terrorist vocation surfaced in connection with the botched attempt to bomb a nightclub in central London and the dramatic, but largely ineffectual, attack on Glasgow’s International Airport in June 2007. Six of the eight persons arrested were either doctors or medical students; the seventh person was employed as a technician in a hospital laboratory; and the eighth member of the conspiracy was neither a medical doctor nor in health care, but instead had earned a doctorate in design and technology.
What all these examples prove is that terrorism has usually attracted reasonably well educated, financially comfortable and, in some cases, quite well off; and, often gainfully employed people. This is not to suggest that poverty is not connected with the deadly phenomenon. But the important point is that whereas the poor actually turn out to be foot soldiers or motivators like Tunda, the leadership is usually in the hands of those who are well educated like Bhatkal.
But then the key question is: Why is it so? According to Professor Krueger, terrorism is a market, with a supply side and a demand side. On the supply side, the economics of crime suggests that people with low opportunity costs will become involved in terrorism. Their costs of involvement are lower—that is, they sacrifice less because their prospects of living a rich life are less. However, in the case of the supply of terrorists, while consideration of opportunity cost is not irrelevant, it is outweighed by other factors, such as a commitment to the goals of the terrorist organisation and a desire to make a statement. Some are motivated by nationalism, some by religious fanaticism, some by historical grievances, and so on.
On the demand side, terrorist organisations want to succeed at any rate, argues Prof. Krueger. Because, the costs of failure in terrorism are high. So the organisations select more able participants—which again points to those who are better educated and better off economically. The idea here is that if you have more educated and intelligent people in your ranks, there are greater chances of success for terror incidents.
The moral of the story, thus, is clear. Fighting terror in the coming days is going to be a complex affair. Because, terrorists are now highly motivated, wealthy, intelligent and well educated.
By Prakash Nanda