May 24, 2019

The Myth of the Poor Terrorist

“Last week’s Easter Sunday bombing, targeting Christian worshipers in Sri Lanka, was one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in modern history. The massacre, in which some 250 people were killed, showed signs of sophisticated coordination and planning and was quickly linked to the Islamic State, a group that, whatever role it is ultimately found to have played, is known to possess the technical expertise and operational network necessary to carry out this kind of attack. The bigger surprise for many has been the background of the nine Islamist terrorists, including one woman, who carried out the suicide bombings. Far from the common image of hardscrabble terrorists driven to desperate acts by their desperate lives, the Sri Lankan bombers were members of their country’s elite. “Most of the bombers are well-educated [and] come from economically strong families. Some of them went abroad for studies,” Sri Lanka’s junior defense minister, Ruwan Wijewardene, told a press conference. One suspected attacker went to law school in Australia while two others, brothers, grew up sons of a wealthy and well-established businessman.

Contrary to persistent myths surrounding terrorism, the background of the Sri Lankan attackers is closer to the norm than the exception. Researchers have been demonstrating for years that most terrorism is committed by individuals who are, on average, wealthier and better educated than the median level in their respective society. But going back to Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 radical Islamic terrorists from al-Qaida hijacked four commuter planes and attacked the United States, a false consensus began to form among American politicians and experts scrambling to confront this new threat, that linked terrorism to poverty, ignorance, and hopelessness. In 2002, President George W. Bush declared that America “fights against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.” His secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, agreed. “The root cause of terrorism does come from situations where there is poverty, where there is ignorance.” The Bush administration’s perceptions about terrorist roots was soon echoed by rival American politicians and leaders around the world.

Nearly two decades later, Americans still view terrorism as a serious threat, and terrorist attacks occur almost daily: in Sri Lanka, in the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict and elsewhere across South Asia and the Horn of Africa. Major terrorist operations have also been carried out by jihadist groups acting in the West who have attacked France, Germany, Spain, United States, United Kingdom and Holland among others. In the years between Sept. 11, 2001, and last week’s attack in Sri Lanka, most politicians have tempered their views on the roots of terrorism, but the idea that the phenomenon is based in poverty and ignorance persists.”

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