The “typical” terrorist—the alienated, pious loner—is becoming less typical. What really motivates terrorists may surprise you. By Jessica Stern.
By now, nearly nine years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, we should be better at plucking a terrorist out of an airport security line. After all, we have some idea of what he will be like: young, socially alienated, deeply religious. And he will come from a country like Afghanistan, Algeria, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen. (Under the new Transportation Security Administration rules announced in January, people bearing passports from these fourteen countries will undergo special scrutiny before boarding a plane.)
Or will he? What if he comes from northern Virginia, as did the five young men who were arrested in Pakistan in December and who have been accused of planning “terrorist activities,” according to Pakistani newspaper reports? The bottom line is that we can no longer assume that terrorists will come from any particular country or fit any particular profile. The more we learn about what makes people vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist organizations, the less any of the old generalizations hold up, including these:
1. Most Terrorists Are Spoiled Rich Kids
Many prominent jihadists are indeed well off and well educated. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the failed Christmas Day airline bombing, comes from one of the wealthiest families in Nigeria. After the 2001 attacks, much was made of the engineering backgrounds of some of the hijackers, and Osama bin Laden famously hails from a wealthy family with close ties to the Saudi royals.
But terrorists come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. For poor people in countries where economic prospects are bleak, jihad can be one of the few available jobs.