Who Are Terrorists?

The debate on terrorism is often dominated by polarities. Within the American ideological landscape there are two prevailing views. This binary is composed of – loosely-speaking – a liberal perspective, which asserts that terrorism stems from unemployment, lack of education, and desperation, versus the conservative contention that religion is the predominant, unwavering factor. Both miss the mark.[1]

Let us first unravel and deconstruct the established liberal position. Chronicled in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, the book examines the foundational figures of modern-day Islamic fundamentalism: Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, and the lesser known Sayyid Qutb. What is a remarkable overlapping theme connecting these men is there economic status and educational achievements: Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor; bin Laden, a scion of a Saudi Arabian conglomerate; and Qutb, a teacher and scholar. These men were not the disaffected and downtrodden, but the educated and well-off. The 9/11 hijackers further substantiate such conclusions. Mohammed Atta, the mastermind behind the attacks, came from a middle-income family and completed his graduate studies in Germany. Terry McDermott’s account in Perfect Soldiers explains that most of the hijackers “were from families headed by tradesmen and civil servants, well-off, but not wealthy”.

Sayyid Qutb, whom many consider to be the founding father of modern Islamic fundamentalism. (Credit: Redrawn to A Hard-Liner?, Page B02)
Sayyid Qutb, whom many consider to be the founding father of modern Islamic fundamentalism. (Credit: Redrawn to A Hard-Liner?, Page B02)

Other global figures of terrorism evince similar stories. Yasser Arafat, attended the University of Cairo graduating as a civil engineer. Khaled Mashaal, the political chief of the terrorist group Hamas, enrolled at Kuwait University and taught physics after completing his studies. Likewise, Hezbollah’s founding father, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah was described as a “remarkable student” and studied at a seminary in Iraq and later became a teacher. The misconceived narrative that terrorists are unemployed, uneducated, and desperate is not very compelling.

That being said, this does not preclude that terrorist groups do not prey on such people. Maajid Nawaz, a foremost scholar on radicalization and a former fundamentalist himself, identified four elements of ideological recruitment: “a grievance narrative, whether real or perceived; an identity crisis; a charismatic recruiter; and ideological dogma.” Undoubtedly, there are low-income, poorly-educated people who will be drawn to such causes as the Islamic States (ISIS). But to suggest that the ingredients for fundamentalism are ‘no money, no schooling’ is dangerously misleading and will lead to a misdiagnosis of the problem. Take for example the African American community. Although occupying the lowest stratum of household income in American society (which many argue is the product of outdated legal codes, racially-motivated policing policies, etc.), why is it that their frustration has not manifested itself in terrorist activities? Why are African Americans not expressing their grievances by directing attacks against civilians and incendiary religious rhetoric? Something else must be at play here.

Radical-cum-activist Maajid Nawaz was once a member of Hizb ut-Tahir and imprisoned in Egypt. (Credit: Vice News, 2013)
Radical-cum-activist Maajid Nawaz was once a member of Hizb ut-Tahir and imprisoned in Egypt. (Credit: Vice News, 2013)

Shifting our gaze to the conservative approach to terrorism, what becomes clear is the inchoate and rudimentary analysis. The Republican Party and Fox News are visible examples of Islam being the only explanation. Delving into the GOP debates is unnecessary and rather unhelpful at this point, but it is suffice to say that terror attacks are perceived as singularly religious attacks: economic, educational, sociological, and nationalistic interpretations are ignored. While there is merit in examining Islam’s influence on the perpetrators of such attacks, the public is left largely in the dark. The best challenge to this model is the kaleidoscope of Palestinian terrorist organizations. While Hamas and Islamic Jihad are religiously inspired, to dismissively label the Popular Liberation Front for Palestine (PLFP), a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group, and likewise, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) which embraces similar ideological leanings, as religious is empirically incorrect.

The appearance of ISIS has only smothered a diverse study of terrorism. In rallying around the ‘blame Islam flag’ we ignore indispensable elements of fundamentalism. Why do they radicalize? Why is it mostly young men who fill the ranks of foreign fighters? What explains the transition from secular or conservative religious upbringing to orthodox and fundamentalist? Where are the hotbeds for radicalization? What attracts young and capable people to such nihilistic rhetoric? All is lost in translation once we descend down this road with tunnel-vision.

Participants of the first GOP debate. (Credit: Fox News, 2015)
Participants of the first GOP debate. (Credit: Fox News, 2015)

So what are we missing? What model or indicators may we consult to explain and understand the motivations for would-be terrorist. Religiosity can be a strong indicator. As well, we may eliminate the dragnet explanation that low-income low-education are the culprits. What is missing from the debate on terrorism is the sociological element, the internal pressure societies exert upon there people. This methodology emphasises the importance societies hold in fostering and cultivating certain behavioural patterns.

A temporally relevant and powerful case is the recent surge in terrorist attacks throughout Israel. Remarkably, what aspect of these attacks distinguishes itself above all others is age. The proximity of Palestinian youth (the youngest being an 11 years-old) to the terror wave of 2015 – and now unfortunately leading us into the New Year – is exceptional. To date, there has been: two 13 year-olds, a 14 year-old, two fifteen year-olds, and four 16 year-olds, that have been directly involved in perpetrating attacks. The obscenity of having children and teenagers on the frontlines dutifully motivated begs the question, how? How could these children be so callous and anti-Semitic as to perpetrate murder without batting an eye?

A host of factors can explain such behaviour, but the earlier dichotomic model presented cannot adeptly address this dimension. What is missing here is the pressures within Palestinian society which justify such actions. The Palestinian Authority (PA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, the representative head-of-state for the Palestinian people provides our ammunition. “They [the Jews] have no right to desecrate the mosque [the Temple Mount] with their dirty feet”. Furthermore, in an embarrassing public snafu, Abbas released a pre-recorded video testifying that Israeli forces had “executed” a Palestinian boy responsible for a stabbing attack, when, in fact, the boy received medical treatment at an Israeli hospital. The deleterious comportment of the PA does not end there.

2013 Pew poll of Muslim-majority country views of suicide bombing. (Source: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, 2013)
2013 Pew poll of Muslim-majority countries’ views of suicide bombing. (Source: The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, 2013)

The transgressions abound. The PA’s UN representative claimed Israel was harvesting dead Palestinians organs; the municipality of Surda-Abu Qash named a street after Muhannad Halabi after he killed two men, and wounded a mother and child; and lastly, the military wing of Fatah (the Al-Aqsa Brigade), the party which Abbas chairs, welcomed an attack which targeted a family car killing the parents while the children were in the backseat, “a worthy response to the crimes of the occupation and the murder of the Dawabsheh family.”

The Dawabsheh family was a Palestinian family targeted by Israeli terrorists resulting in the destruction of the family’s home and the death of a baby and his parents. Equally despicable as the attacks perpetrated against Israelis, the communal reaction within Israeli society could not have been more different. Israelis vociferously condemned the arsonists, Israeli politicians across the spectrum joined the chorus in labelling the attack “terrorism”, and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu enacted new legislation to combat such actions, reiterating: “We are determined to vigorously fight manifestations of hate, fanaticism and terrorism from whatever side, our policy toward these crimes is zero tolerance.”

In an utterly grotesque instance of judicial miscarriage, the arsonists have since been released. While this is unspeakable and must be addressed immediately, the communal differences cannot be understated. The public denunciation throughout Israel and the institution of new legislation are concrete examples of the efforts to combat such developments. By comparison, the PA has consistently remained ambiguous, non-committal, and overtly prone to incitement throughout the ordeal. More telling is that such events are extremely rare within Israeli society. One would be hard-pressed to find proportionality between Israeli and Palestinians terrorism: in 2002, alone, there were 47 suicide bombings targeting Israeli civilians.

Mahmoud Abbas speaking at the United Nations. (Credit: Justin Lane, EPA)
Mahmoud Abbas speaking at the United Nations. (Credit: Justin Lane, EPA)

Returning to our original dilemma of interpreting terrorism, one thing should remain clear. By informing ourselves of the societal dynamics which permit and cultivate such behaviour to prosper can we disentangle the complexity of terrorism. Terrorism is not a manifestation of a single issue, so we ought to disregard any model which supports such claims. Rather, we should strive to develop a multi-faceted, non-diluted formula for terrorism; one which is adept at addressing revolutionary, nationalistic, and religious terrorism, alike.

[1] Although the terminology ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are both broad and imprecise, construing different meanings based upon your country of origin. Here, liberal refers to people who ascribe to politically left-leaning ideologies and vice-versa for conservatives.

About the Author
Ari is a Masters of Global Affairs student at the University of Toronto's Munk School. Previously, he received an MA in History from Western University. As well, he blogs for The Jerusalem Post.
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