Terrorists and Education: The Brutal Link


David Wessel in the Wall Street Journal reports on economist Alan Krueger's controversial claims about what breeds terrorism:

"As a group, terrorists are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from which they originate," Mr. Krueger said at the London School of Economics last year in a lecture soon to be published as a book, "What Makes a Terrorist?"

"There is no evidence of a general tendency for impoverished or uneducated people to be more likely to support terrorism or join terrorist organizations than their higher-income, better-educated countrymen," he said. The Sept. 11 attackers were relatively well-off men from a rich country, Saudi Arabia.

As it happens, this analysis runs contra to many others:

Less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, President Bush said, "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror." A couple of months later, his wife, Laura, said, "Educated children are much more likely to embrace the values that defeat terror." Former World Bank President James Wolfensohn has argued, "The war on terrorism will not be won until we have come to grips with the problem of poverty, and thus the sources of discontent."

More here (I'm not sure if this is a free or pay article).

NEXT: Simbanese Liberation Army

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  1. Uh, the 9/11 hijackers were the cream of the crop of al-Qaeda. That was their Super Bowl, they were only going to send their best to it. Now, if your garden variety bomb-belt wearer or truck-bomb driver was wealthy and educated, he might have a point, but I doubt that’s the case.

  2. From today’s Boston Globe:


    Money quote: In any militant cause the leaders and activists are usually better educated and better off financially then the mass of people they claim to represent.

    Revolutionaries like to call them the vanguard.

    The famous British traitors of the Cold War, many of whom met at Cambridge University, joined the Communists not because they themselves were oppressed by capitalism. But they were deeply affected by what they saw as the great inequalities in Western democracies that the Great Depression of the 1930s intensified.

    Many of the early leaders of Irish resistance to British rule were Protestants rather than part of the majority Catholic population. Why? Because Protestants were allowed more participation in British political professional life than were Catholics, and were therefore in a better position to effectively organize for the Irish cause. The early Bolsheviks were seldom from the peasant or worker classes.

    Many terrorists, revolutionaries, and mass-movement leaders have been professionals. Mahatma Gandhi, although he dressed in peasant clothes, was a lawyer. Yasser Arafat was an engineer. Che Guevara was trained as a doctor.

    Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s number two and said to be the brains behind Al Qaeda, is a doctor.

    Bin Laden himself was a successful businessman from a rich Saudi family.

    When you are on the bottom rung of society you are not in a position to do much more than survive. But if you are educated and able to look around, you can relate to the poverty and oppression of your particular group, even if you are not yourself poor and oppressed.

    And no, pointing out that you disagree with either the motives of these activists or their tactics is not a refutation of Greenway’s point; one doesn’t need to be personally suffering from poverty, injustice, or some other harm to be motivated to join a political cause dedicated to fighting those things.

  3. Not really much of a shock. Terrorism is a political activity, and the educated tend to be more politically active.

  4. I don’t think its that wealthy elites are turning on us and becoming terrorists, but that people are being funded to reach good positions and be seen as respectable in society so they can mask their true identities. They may start out a small village kid, but they are ingrained into the terrorist groups for a long time and are disciplined enough to become what they are in society so they can carry out their agenda. Disruptions we are doing to terrorism now will be evident in 20 years when they can’t organize as well.

  5. No surprise.

    The activists have almost always come from the educated middle and upper classes. Their motives seem to range from cynical opportunism – Publius Clodius and Stalin – to extreme idealism – Ghandi and Martin Luther King.

    This is partly because the uneducated poor are not able to articulate their ideas and partly because the poor are too busy trying to survive to go hareing off after “noble causes.”

  6. One thing I have noticed, is that many of the terrorist leaders tend to be trained in the hard sciences rather than the humanities. Bin Laden is an engineer, Zawahiri is a doctor, the Iranian presidet is an engineer also. Somebody should see if there is a link there.

  7. Nick’s argument is aking to saying that eminent domain isn’t really something that motivates libertarians, because very few libertarian activists have personally had their homes taken.

  8. It has been known since the time of Sparta that the higher ranks of the lower classes are more likely to resent being part of the lower classes. The Spartans targeted the Helot elite for regular purges for that reason.

    The better-educated in the wealthiest of poor countries (that describes the middle east, and al-Qaeda terrorists) can be expected to harbor the most bitterness.

    I find this unsurprising.

  9. Political terrorists like Joe is talking about tend to fight for what they see are underprivilaged groups, with a specific aim for achieving some improved conditions. The current crop of al Queda religious based terrorism are fighting against change, trying to preserve their beliefs against encroaching people and ideas, but with vague purposes.

  10. Also, before you start fearing engineers and doctors, look at the differences between what western culture and mideastern culture consider engineers and doctors. The educational difference is vast. Also, look at the crudeness of the British doctors attack vs. Timothy McVeigh’s and consider how much education it really took to accomplish what the Brotosh terrorists did.

  11. I have also be hearing about how the problem is polygyny….but this also seems to be contrary to the back grounds of the 9/11 terrorists many of whom where married and had prospects for work.


  12. He rightly states that there’s no evidence for a direct link between poverty and terrorism. But it’s very hard to take him seriously when he asserts his own completely baseless link between civil liberties and terrorism. Oh really, Mr. Krueger? On what data, and when should we expect to see Chinese and N. Korean terrorists?

    I like civil liberties as much as the next person, but Krueger has as much as ideological axe to grind as the hacks he criticizes.

  13. This is partly because the uneducated poor are not able to articulate their ideas and partly because the poor are too busy trying to survive to go hareing off after “noble causes.”

    Well that and any would be tyrant can claim ownership of this group as a means to power.

    just look at Stalin or the democrats

  14. Orwell’s observation about upper class English Communists seems appropriate here – Communism (real, pro-Moscow Bolshevism, not Free False Teeth) didn’t really gain any ground until after evidence of Stalinism’ violence and repressiveness seeped out.

    We’re talking about people who want a reason to rebel, and to joint a movement that gives their resentments meaning.

    If the most radical terror groups that grew out of Middle Eastern anti-imperialism were advocating Arab Socialism or Anarchism, the same 19 people would probably have launched the 9/11 attacks, except they would have beeng screaming “Power to the People” or “Down with the State” instead of “Allah Akbar!”

  15. Or, joshua, the “ordinary Americans” and “silent majority” that certain Republicans have claimed ownership over.

    Partisanship often amounts to the assumption that the universal pitfalls of politics don’t apply to your own team. You should be careful of that.

  16. OK, DA, “implication.”

  17. Lost-

    That is true, but it is worth pointing out that in the 20th century, Arab dictators completely neutered the humanities departments in their universities (including religion classes) turning them into complete jokes while pushing the hard sciences since such subjects are non-political. Two generations of this, and now you have a complete lack of religious or philosophical education in the arab world, and I wonder how that contributes to violence and extremism.

  18. It fits the simpleton’s approach to terrorism. They attack us because they a dumb.

    They are dumb and they hate us. Yeah right, that’s the problem.

  19. I have also be hearing about how the problem is polygyny….but this also seems to be contrary to the back grounds of the 9/11 terrorists many of whom where married and had prospects for work.

    Perhaps they resented the fact that having only one wife made them relative losers.

  20. Bad things happen when the riffraff studies economics.

  21. This is neither controversial nor new. Much terror research has been drawing this link for probably a couple of decades now. Off the top of my head Bruce Hoffman (was at RAND, don’t know if he is still there) has been drawing this link since at least the mid 1990’s. For those who have studied terrorism and terrorist groups/networks have known this for a long time (I think even Bibi Netanyahu drew this out in the book he edited in the early 1980’s.)


  22. My low rent profile of a terrorist had always been:

    Guy who blows himself in the middle east – uneducated, poor, and angry Islamist.

    Guy who blows himself up overseas in front of a lot of cameras – educated, wealthier, angry Islamist with maybe a daddy complex.

    Guy who convinces others to blow themselves up for greater glory but never seems to get around to it himself – power broker cleric who isn’t angry except that he doesn’t run things.

  23. Why hasn’t anybody mentioned our Founding Fathers? Revolutionaries, terrorists–what we are discussing is the recurrent conflict between those who have power and those who desire it, merely manipulating the ‘common man’ to support their respective causes. When Al Qaeda rails against the West, that’s for their supporter’s consumption: in the end, the Caliphate will never reach these shores, but the Saudis better worry.

  24. AntiHumanist,

    That may explain bin Laden, but Atta?

  25. Joe,

    If by Atta you mean why somebody would kill himself in the name of al Qaeda, thus sacrificing his attainment to power… Simple–the same reason that any other soldier dies for ‘God and country’: my sacrifice will benefit my ‘kin’ (family, countrymen, co-religionists, etc.). The leader must remain on earth to further the Caliphate (while I experience an eternity of heavenly pleasures). Not a bad trade-off.

  26. Islam is what breeds terror, period, end of discussion.

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