What Doesn't Cause Islamist Terrorism

The suicide bombers in Sri Lanka were affluent and well educated. That should tell us something about the war on terror.

Aftermath of terrorist attack in Sri Lanka / Getty
April 24, 2019

In 2015, then-State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf suggested that potential terrorists would not join the Islamic State if they had better job opportunities. "We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium- to longer term to go after the root causes that lead people to join these groups, whether it's lack of opportunity for jobs," Harf said on MSNBC. "We can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people."

Harf is actually right—well, in the narrow sense that combatting Islamist terrorist groups is about more than military strikes. She is woefully—and dangerously—wrong, however, about more jobs being a solution. Yet the view she articulated is not hers alone. Her former boss, Barack Obama, similarly claimed that "extremely poor societies … provide optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism, and conflict." Indeed, the Department of Homeland Security's program on "countering violent extremism," or CVE, which the Obama administration established to counter radicalization within vulnerable communities, adheres to the same belief. How? CVE treats jihadists like members of street gangs or the mafia—as disgruntled, perhaps defenseless individuals who traveled down a dark path but can return to the light. And creating a better quality of life—a decent job, a reliable income, more responsibilities—is key to that return. In many cases, this framework would, for example, help gangsters who grew up poor with few opportunities. Not so much for the people who join ISIS.

Recent events show why this approach is misguided for Islamist terrorists. On Wednesday, Sri Lankan authorities revealed that most of the suicide bombers who murdered more than 350 people in coordinated attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were affluent and well educated. "They're quite well educated people," Ruwan Wijewardene, Sri Lanka's state minister of defense, said of the attackers, adding that many came from "middle class" backgrounds. "We believe that one of the suicide bombers studied in the U.K. and then later on did his post-graduate in Australia before coming back to settle in Sri Lanka."

Two of the brothers who carried out the bombings came from one of the wealthiest Muslim families in the capital, a family that, according to a neighbor, was "very well connected, very rich, politically connected as well." The Daily Mail reports they are "the sons of millionaire spice trader Yoonus Ibrahim and were privately educated in Colombo." Another terrorist had a law degree, and two others were married—not the hopeless loners that one often imagines as suicide bombers.

And yet, the attackers' "thinking is that Islam can be the only religion in this country," according to Wijewardene. Indeed, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, although authorities are still investigating whether the terrorists had any links to the group, and whether the group had provided training or financing. Regardless, it is clear that the bombings were a coordinated act of Islamist terrorism.

How could people with comfortable lives and strong formal educations do something so heinous? Finding the answer warrants its own book, or 50, but the fact that affluent, well-educated people turned to extremism should not be surprising. Studies have shown that those with seemingly nothing to lose are often not the ones who become jihadists. In 2016, for example, the World Bank found that foreign recruits to ISIS are well-educated and relatively wealthy individuals. Even more striking, the report found that those aspiring to become suicide bombers ranked among the more educated. "These individuals are far from being uneducated or illiterate," the report states. "Most claim to have attended secondary school and a large fraction have gone on to study at university."

Months before the report was published, disaffected members of ISIS released a cache of 22,000 documents that included basic information of nearly 4,000 foreign recruits who joined the terrorist group between 2013 and 2014. According to the data, 69 percent of recruits received at least a secondary level education, while 15 percent left school before high school and less than 2 percent are illiterate.

In other words, as the World Bank put it, "poverty is not a driver of radicalization into violent extremism." Nor is poor education.

Several other studies have echoed the same findings: that a reduction in poverty or an increase in formal education will not reduce terrorism. Put differently, terrorists are not poor, hopeless people who need jobs to become upstanding citizens.

Jihadists are motivated by an ideology, or a theology, indoctrinated to believe in Islamic supremacy and fundamentalism. To be clear, individuals need a cognitive opening, for lack of a better term, to embrace this ideology. Perhaps they feel like outcasts and want to be part of something "important"—there are several personal and psychological factors that can create such an opening. Indeed, many of the foreign fighters from Europe who traveled to join ISIS in the Middle East were not particularly knowledgeable of Islam. But many opened their minds to a poisonous ideology that took root and grew, like a virus. That is the problem with treating Islamists like regular street gangsters: it misses the importance of Islamism, the ideology that animates their violence.

So the United States obviously needs to counter this Islamist ideology, and not just kill Islamists on the battlefield. Many experts and commentators have already made this point, but apparently not enough times. Plenty of people in Washington have still not embraced this idea, to make the war on terror, or the war on Islamist extremism—whatever your term of choice—fundamentally a war of ideas. That means creating a comprehensive strategy to wage an ideological battle, which means working with the Muslim community and foreign, Muslim leaders who denounce extremism in the name of their religion. But that also means not encouraging leaders to drive their people toward that same extremism with brutal authoritarianism.

In 2014, the former chief of the Australian army, Peter Leahy, warned his country that it is engaged in a century-long war against radical Islam. That is the mindset that the entire Western world needs to have. And while the war extends far beyond the battlefield, giving the jihadists more job opportunities is probably not going to achieve victory.