The Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka that killed more than 250 people sent shockwaves around the world, not only for their brutality, but also because of who carried them out. The bombers weren’t impoverished, uneducated or clearly disenfranchised in any particular way. Rather, they were affluent, well-educated and, in some cases, even extremely wealthy. Two were sons of a millionaire spice merchant with connections to the country’s political and social elite.
“It’s not surprising,” terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman said. “Throughout history, key members of terrorist organizations and persons with operational responsibility have often come from comfortable middle-class or upper middle-class backgrounds.”
This challenges the prevailing wisdom that terrorists are driven by poverty and lack of opportunity — a narrative that many experts say oversimplifies a complex phenomenon.
Hoffman, a professor at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains that individuals from more well-to-do backgrounds have the education and skills that terrorist groups seek. They are usually the ones best-suited to articulate a group’s goals and ideology. And ironically, the very economic freedom they enjoy gives them the “luxury” to devote their time and energy to a terrorist cause.
“When you’re faced with the day-to-day reality of survival, of just figuring out how to put food on the table for your family, you don’t have the time or opportunity to pursue grievances or the more intellectual things that can potentially lead to violence,” Hoffman said. Terrorism, by its very nature, relies on the resources of time, money, education and ideas.
Hoffman points to the familiar facts of the 9/11 hijackers. Of the 19 involved, nearly three-quarters had higher degrees. The lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, was studying for a Ph.D. in Germany. Then there is the “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is the son of a wealthy Nigerian banker and was studying at the prestigious University College London at the time of his bombing attempt in 2009. And everyone knows that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was the privileged son of a Saudi construction millionaire.
Hoffman said similar types of profiles — if not as extreme as bin Laden — can be found among members of the Red Brigades in Italy in the 1970s, terrorist groups in West Germany during the Cold War and even early members of the Irish Republican Army. In our own hemisphere, the celebrated Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara was a trained medical doctor from a middle-class, intellectually oriented Argentine family.
“The implicit assumption is that poor people are more disposable, so it surprises us when we see affluent people participating in [terrorism],” said Jessica Trisko Darden, a professor in the School of International Service at American University and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “I think this really says more about our own value system than about terrorism. We have a hard time understanding non-material motivations.”
Trisko Darden stresses that terrorism and terrorist recruitment must be understood as context-specific. What drives either in Turkey or Latin America may be quite different from what drives them in Nigeria or Sri Lanka. But regardless of geography, common factors can include limited economic opportunities for young people, systematized discrimination and corruption on a governmental or societal level.
“We have a mismatch in our understanding of terrorism,” Trisko Darden contends, “because we want to understand an individual terrorist’s background, but not the country-level factors driving their disenfranchisement. The Sri Lankan bombers were very well-off people, as was bin Laden and many 9/11 attackers. Why wouldn’t we expect them to engage in political violence? We have to start by looking at what’s going on in the places they come from.”
Saudi Arabia, home to bin Laden and many of the 9/11 hijackers, is an affluent country with a government known to have little tolerance for dissent. Recently, it has come under attack for its possible connections to the murder of Washington Post columnist (and Saudi dissident) Jamal Khashoggi. On the other hand, Trisko Darden says there is “lots of evidence” that economic incentives drive participation in African terrorist groups. As an example, she cites Nigerian-based Boko Haram, which offers small business start-up loans in return for participation in, or support of, their movement.
Trisko Darden and other experts point to the groundbreaking work of the late Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who was among the first to apply the tools of economics to the study of terrorism. In his 2007 book “What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism,” Krueger, former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, argued that contrary to the popular stereotype, “the uneducated, impoverished masses are particularly unlikely to participate in political processes, through either legitimate or illegitimate means.”
Rather than looking only to economics to explain the phenomenon of terrorism, Krueger suggested that “to understand what makes a terrorist we should ask: Who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose their extremist vision by violent means?” Most terrorists, he argued, “are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead they are people who care so deeply and fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”
Is Religion the Problem?
Another common refrain is that religious extremism is behind most terrorist attacks. The 9/11 attackers were famously (or infamously) given a set of religiously themed instructions and encouraged to see their deadly mission as a form of religious martyrdom. The Muslim perpetrators of the recent bombings in Sri Lanka, which included attacks on three churches, were immediately identified as religious extremists by that country’s defense minister. Although the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for those attacks, the exact nature of its relationship with the bombers has yet to be determined.
However, Georgetown University terrorism expert Daniel Byman urges caution when ascribing labels or profiles to terrorists. Byman, who also is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, has written that war, rather than religion or economics, may be “the richest soil” for growing terrorists and their organizations. War is violent, disruptive and opportunistic; it creates the social and political vacuum, as well as the social and political motivators from which terrorism can arise.
In an opinion piece on the dynamics of terrorism, Byman writes that, “
adorn themselves in the regalia of religion” and adopt “a superfluous religious-canonic rhetoric” so as to mask “what are often highly political or worldly aims.”
In America, for instance, the theological illiteracy of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen was widely publicized when it was revealed that he apparently did not know the difference between the theologies espoused by the various terrorist groups that he claimed to represent.
professor of communication and Middle East studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, suggests a link between terrorism, ideology (religious or otherwise) and the hard sciences. She too looks to the work of Alan Krueger for context in the debate about where terrorists come from.
“His argument is that people are drawn to the hard sciences, things like engineering, because they have a right answer and a wrong answer,” Bloom said. “Jihadi violence likewise offers a black-and-white solution. It isn’t shades of gray. People attracted to simple answers might be attracted to ideology that doesn’t permit ‘on the other hand, on the third hand,’ etcetera. That’s part of why we see a high correlation with the hard sciences.”
Bloom noted that many al-Qaeda leaders were trained in engineering or in medicine, as was the current head of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who received training as a surgeon. Knowledge and specialized skills such as these are and always have been very attractive to terrorist recruiters, she says, going back to the 19th century. “You can see these groups really calculating things in a very rational way: ‘We’ve got these very educated people who can do special things. Let’s use them,’” she said.
What About the Poor?
Bloom and Hoffman both emphasize the need to distinguish between terrorist leaders and operatives and the rank and file. “What happens is that terrorist leaders choose the more educated individuals to plan and carry out their [attacks],” Bloom said. “An educated Palestinian probably speaks Hebrew and can get through the checkpoints. An educated Saudi can learn how to fly a plane. It’s partly about access and who is best-suited to complete the mission.”
Bloom adds that the “operative,” usually the individual or individuals identified by name with an attack, “are just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the support network is ‘under the water.’” The latter may be drawn from “the teeming poor in places like refugee camps” who are, often erroneously, most identified with global terrorism.
Hoffman observes that recruitment from the ranks of the poor usually coincides with periods of growth in the life of a terrorist organization. “That’s when they need foot soldiers,” he said. “They’re looking for people from poor backgrounds to supply their cannon fodder.”
Hoffman asserts that the notion of poverty causing terrorism is a “prejudice” borne out of “the American idea of doing good — that if we can find the reason for a problem, then we can fix it.” But “as a means to combat terrorism, it will sorely disappoint.”
“This is what has sustained terrorism over the centuries,” he added. “That terrorist organizations, like the societies they come out of, draw people from all walks of life.”
All In the Family
Hoffman, like other terrorism experts, says there is no single profile for a terrorist, and that the reasons a person might join a terrorist organization are usually “deeply personal and often very idiosyncratic.”
But the recent spate of family-related terrorist attacks should give analysts and counterterrorism experts pause. The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka were carried out by a group that included two brothers and a wife; the 2015 San Bernardino shooters were husband and wife; the 2013 Boston Marathon bombers were brothers; and before any of these were three pairs of brothers among the 9/11 hijackers.
“This is really a new phenomenon,” Hoffman said, “and that’s one thing that stands out now. Entire families are willing to lay down their lives.”
Hoffman suggests that family recruitment — and the recruitment of bourgeois families in particular — is a new tactic that the Islamic State has begun to employ. As its caliphate in the Middle East has all but disappeared, the terrorist group has sought new ways to frustrate security forces.
“It’s hard to interdict terrorist communications if they’re all within a family,” Hoffman said. “There’s not even much need to communicate.”
He believes that family recruitment has now become “an operational profile” that the Islamic State is pursuing because of its proven effectiveness. “There’s really no easy answer to it,” Hoffman acknowledged. “It shows us not only that the terrorist threat is not going away, but that it’s actually becoming more complex.”
Trisko Darden agrees that the new threat of family-related terrorism is serious. The real news out of the Sri Lanka attacks, she says, is not that the bombers were wealthy, but that they were connected by family.
“We haven’t been good at looking at family ties,” she said. “When you suspect someone of being a terrorist, we assume you’ll call the FBI. But what do we do with radicalization when it’s happening within the family? We tend to only look at individuals and at terrorist groups, not at what’s in between.”
Is There a Solution?
Just as there is no single terrorist profile, there is no single solution to the problem of terrorist recruitment. Most experts suggest a multipronged strategy that may vary from country to country. Bloom would like to see a “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East that would address many of the root causes of conflict there, and thus, some of the drivers of terrorism in that region. But she does not see much appetite in America today for such big solutions.
Specifically, she believes that the way to combat terrorism, especially the kind with roots in the Middle East, is by better systems of law, governance and accountability in the countries that give rise to terrorists.
“If you do that,” Bloom argued, “then these university-educated kids in those countries, if they’re unhappy, they can vote for change and socially channel their energies. Right now, they feel that the only way to channel these energies is through subversive activities, because the governments have shut down political opposition.”
Trisko Darden, who recently authored an American Enterprise Institute report on combating the terrorist exploitation of youth, suggests that what is needed is a combination of education, social media outreach, community building strategies and better targeting of potential terrorist recruits.
She says that the education systems in many nations have failed to teach critical thinking skills essential to distinguishing between propaganda and real facts, although the United States is supporting efforts to change that. Also important is a better understanding of how social media platforms can be used to share messages of tolerance and understanding, rather than hate and division.
Trisko Darden believes that many of the gang prevention strategies successfully employed in the U.S. can be applied to youth populations in countries vulnerable to radicalization. These might include the development of new sports leagues, poetry slams or arts classes.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she argues that better targeting of vulnerable youth populations is needed. “A big piece of the challenge moving forward is to define what portion of the youth in each country is most likely to be recruited by terrorists,” she said. That, too, differs from country to country, whether it is college-educated Bangladeshis frustrated by limited opportunities at home or Albanians in Kosovo attracted to online content in their native language, which was formerly supplied by the Islamic State.
One thing Hoffman believes is that “throwing bottomless amounts of money” won’t resolve the more complex issues that underlie the challenge of terrorist recruitment. Hoffman believes we must “fully absorb” the disturbing changes apparent in the recent Sri Lankan attacks. First, that small and seemingly inconsequential extremist groups now have the ability — through external support from the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or other organizations — to quickly become consequential and lethal. And second, that the face of terrorism may be changing and becoming harder to recognize. It’s not just the face of a single, disenchanted and angry young man, but also his father, his brother, his sister or his wife.
The highest priority for a terrorist group, Hoffman concludes, is survival. Unfortunately, the recent attacks in Sri Lanka, and the revelation of the identities of the attackers, reminds us that the scourge of terrorism is both constantly evolving and stubbornly resilient.
About the Author
Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and an adjunct professor of drama, literature and film at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.