The Poor Terrorists

When a person is asked to visualize a terrorist, the image that often comes up is a person in tattered clothes probably with the desert in the background with a cloth covering his face and clutching a Kalashnikov or a rocket launcher.

Something about him would tell you that he is uneducated, poor and is fighting because he has no money and taking up arms is the only way he can survive. This is also reinforced when we are taught about terrorism in schools and other educational institutions where we are told that poverty and illiteracy is why people become terrorists.

The idea that terrorists are those who take up terrorism because they are illiterate and poor is something I have a few reservations about. Nobody wants to deny that there is a link between poverty and terrorism, which countries which are not experiencing development become breeding grounds and sanctuaries for terrorist organizations. Even then, the whole idea that poverty drives terrorism is not very convincing.

Terrorists are not poor people in the desert and are not illiterate. Terrorism requires skill, education and funds.

Let us start with Osama Bin Laden. OBL was born to a rich family specializing in construction projects all over the Gulf. He is an engineer by profession and was quite educated. He was quite rich. So did he fit the stereotype of a terrorist in the desert picking up weapons to fend for his family? No.

Ayman Al Zawahiri, OBL’s deputy was a physician from Egypt. Did he lack an education or the means to feed his family? Clearly not.

Mohammad Atta, the main hijacker in the 9/11 attacks had a doctorate in Urban planning from the University of Hamburg. In fact, the main hijackers of 9/11 were all studying in Hamburg at the time. They had enough money to study in Germany, frequently visit the US and pay for their flight courses. So they were men of considerable means and education.

Faisal Shahzad, the man who tried to set off a car bomb at Times Square in 2010 was a son of a Pakistani Air Force officer and was educated in the US itself. He never had a shortage of money or education. Yet, he was involved in terrorism.

Now, a counter example is something more close to home. Ajmal Amir Kasab, who was the only person captured alive during the 26/11 attacks fits the clichéd terrorist. The poor, uneducated youth who picked up the gun to support the family. But Kasab was a mere foot-soldier. There were nine others like him that night in Mumbai. They were mere executors of the mission, they didn’t plan it out.

The whole attack was planned out by people with education and money. David Headley provided sufficient intelligence to carry out the attack and it is alleged that ISI officers personally trained the 10 men for the attacks. Creating a plan like this which is so elaborate and takes care of even the smallest details is not the work of men who are wallowing in poverty and illiteracy.

The terrorist is not someone who stands out. The terrorist always seeks to blend in and be covered. Terrorism cannot function without people without education or money. If terrorism was a matter of fair allocation of resources and balanced development, then defeating terrorism would have been so much more easier.

The fact of the matter is that there is much more to terrorism than that. It is about time to move away from the stereotype.


Ashwath Komath
An article by:
Ashwath Komath

One comment on “The Poor Terrorists

  1. Kirish Raj Kirish Raj says:

    Well written article. But there is a logical inconsistency. The skills and capabilities of senior terrorists like OBL or Zawahiri, and their education background is what enables them to plan and guide such terrorist missions of high sophistication. They are few in number, rich in ideology and fanaticism. But for them to get recruits to carry out their plans, they need foot soldiers like Ajmal Qasab, who’re less educated, impoverished and psychologically easy to manipulate. If these foot soldiers were progressively educated and live a decent life, the chances of them believing in such radical thoughts, is limited. So, as long as the society ignores and isolates people like Qasab and as long as the government does nothing to change such attitude – educated and highly motivated people like OBL or Zawahiri WILL find recruits. Such smart people need such less smarter people to carry out their ambitions, and sacrifice their lives in the process.

    That is why the army or the Police forces trains only a select group of talented people to constitute the “Officer Cadre” and makes them smart enough to lead the foot soldiers who’re trained to just obey orders and trust their Officers’ instincts.

    So, yes a vast majority of the terrorists are uneducated / semi-educated, impoverished and forgotten/ ignored by the society. And yes there are very few on the opposite end of the spectrum. Using such people as examples to say that most terrorists are educated and highly skilled is a misconstrued argument. By asking people not to ‘stereotype’ terrorists as uneducated and poor youths and then give a opposite impression that they’re mostly smart is again, a stereotyping act!

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