A new study by Queen Mary University of London concludes that there is not a strong link between terrorism and poverty, lack of education or mental instability. In fact, terrorists are more likely to be highly educated and financially secure. The survey adds to the mountain of proof that violent radicals, especially Islamist ones, are motivated by an ideology that is not born out of inequality.
The study strikes at the heart of the debate about Islamist terrorism.
One camp sees the root cause as a mixture of inequality, desperation and anger over Western foreign policy. This camp usually legitimizes some of the Islamist causes while condemning their methods. Both Presidents Obama and Bush were influenced by this camp.
While President Bush said that Islamic extremists were opposed to Western freedoms, he also said in 2002, “We fight poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” In 2005, Bush said that alleviating poverty will “strike a blow against the terrorists who feed on anger and resentment.” Like his successor, he did not usually use terms like “Islamist” to identify the ideology.
Similarly, President Obama said in this year’s State of the Union address that U.S. military deployments “may ultimately feed extremism.” In 2008, he said as a candidate that the U.S. needs to convince Hamas and Hezbollah that violence “weakens their legitimate claims.” In January, Secretary of State John Kerry said “this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism…”
A great example of this mindset affecting policy is the Obama Administration’s long-delayed decision to label Boko Haram, a Nigerian affiliate of Al-Qaeda, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. He incorrectly stated the group is an example of what happens when “countries are not delivering for their people and where there sources of conflict and underlining frustrations that have not been adequately dealt with.”
The Queen Mary University study boosts the standing of the second camp. This one blames the Islamist ideology, arguing that its outlook on the world cultivates those political grievances. After all, the natural response to U.S. troops in Afghanistan (where they protect Muslims) is not to institute Sharia governance, engage in violent jihad and perpetrate human rights abuses. Those are symptoms of Islamism, not anything the West did.
The researchers completed detailed interviews with over 600 Muslims in the United Kingdom of Pakistani and Bangladeshi background, asking for their opinions on 16 different terrorist tactics. This smart approach prevented someone who opposes suicide bombing (for example) but supports other violent acts from being considered moderate.
The conclusion was that only 2.4% directly justified acts of terrorism and violence. Another 6% were neutral, refusing to either support or condemn the tactics. The study found no connection between pro-terrorist sentiments and anxiety, depression, lower socioeconomic status, lack of education or even being a foreigner.
In fact, the study found higher levels of extremism among students and those in the income brackets above $125,000. It also found that immigrants and those that speak a foreign language at home are less likely to support extremism. The implication is frightening: Extremism has a stronger pull among those born inside the United Kingdom than those that moved there.
Two other studies support Queen Mary University’s conclusion.
“Native-born Muslims express overwhelming support for the notion that mosques should express their views on social and political matters. By contrast, a large majority of foreign-born Muslims—many of whom are from countries where religion and politics are often closely intertwined—say that mosques should be kept out of political matters.”
In 2004, former CIA case officer and forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman studied the biographies of over 400 Al-Qaeda terrorists. His findings were that most of them were not very political or even very religious before they became radicalized, though half grew up religious.
Most of their college degrees are not in theology or political science, but technical sciences like engineering. The adoption of Islamism as a belief system precedes or coincides with the adoption of their religious and political views.
Sageman found in his study that the Al-Qaeda recruits are motivated by a Salafist brand of Islamism that seeks “the creation of a pure Islamist state, which would create the conditions for the reestablishment of such a community, where justice and fairness would reign…”
He, like Queen Mary University, found no connection between terrorism and mental disorders, poverty, lack of education and unemployment.
Over 60% have some college education, putting them in the upper tier of their societies. He also found no connection between extremism and sexual abstinence, as 73% were married and most of them had children.
He found that the most common denominator was a lack of assimilation. About 80% of Al-Qaeda members were isolated from society and 70% became jihadists after moving away from their birth country. About 20% had family connections to jihadists.
A very common factor is being lured into terrorism by social circles. Nearly 70% were friends with radicals before adopting their viewpoints. A “perhaps chance encounter with a formal member of the Global Salafi Jihad is the critical element leading to the enrollment into the Jihad,” Sageman said.
Another source agrees with these studies: The Islamists themselves. Time and time again, the Clarion Project has pointed out the stated long-term ambitions of Islamists, which is to create a state (and eventually a planet) based on Sharia governance. The Western policies don’t motivate them in-and-of themselves; it’s the fact that these policies stand in the way of the long-term goals.
In The Al-Qaeda Reader, Raymond Ibrahim quotes from Bin Laden:
“In fact, Muslims are obligated to raid the land of the infidels, occupy them, and exchange their systems of governance for an Islamic system, barring any practice that contradicts the Sharia from being publicly voiced among the people, as was the case at the dawn of Islam.”
“Our talks with the infidel West and our conflict with them ultimately revolve around one issue—one that demands our total support, with power and determination, with one voice—and it is: does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporally if not spiritually?”
Bin Laden continues:
“Yes. There are only three choices in Islam: either willing submission [conversion]; or payment of the jizya, though physical though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam; or the sword—for it is not right to let him live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die.”
The Queen Mary University study rightly concludes that counter-radicalization efforts need to focus on the “pre-radicalization” stage when initial sympathies develop for terrorist causes. It is not enough to only focus on the last stage when the bomb is being built. By then, the clock has almost run out on the time to foil the plot and the focus is on a tactic, not the underlying ideological cause.
The bottom line is that the Islamist narratives need to be countered so it fails to gain traction in the first place. Otherwise, we’ll be caught in a never-ending contest to stop increasing number of Islamist terror plots.
Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.