Un-Stereotypical Profile

Very interesting commentary from William Dalrymple in the Guardian yesterday, in which he challenges the received profile of suicide bombers, and, in particular, the assumption that madrassas are breeding grounds for terrorists. While he concedes that Pakistani madrassas were instrumental in training the Taliban, he also argues that:

But it is now becoming very clear that producing cannon-fodder for the Taliban and graduating local sectarian thugs is not at all the same as producing the kind of technically literate al-Qaida terrorist who carried out the horrifyingly sophisticated attacks on the World Trade Centre. Indeed, there is an important and fundamental distinction to be made between most madrasa graduates – who tend to be pious villagers from impoverished economic backgrounds, possessing little technical sophistication – and the sort of middle-class, politically literate, global Salafi jihadis who plan al-Qaida operations around the world. Most of these turn out to have secular scientific or technical backgrounds and very few actually turn out to be madrasa graduates.

The men who planned and carried out the Islamist attacks on America were confused, but highly educated, middle-class professionals. Mohammed Atta was a town planning expert; Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s chief of staff, is a paediatric surgeon; Omar Sheikh, the kidnapper of Daniel Pearl, is the product of the same British public school that produced the film-maker Peter Greenaway.

Peter Bergen of Johns Hopkins University recently published the conclusions of his in-depth study of 75 Islamist terrorists who had carried out four major anti-western attacks. According to Bergen, “53% of the terrorists had either attended college or had received a college degree. As a point of reference, only 52% of Americans have been to college.” Against this background, the backgrounds of the British bombers should not come as a surprise.

That’s an interesting hypothesis, but one that will be small comfort to Moroccans–all the bombers involved in the Casablanca attacks of two years ago were unemployed young men from a huge slum just outside the city. It could be that what Dalrymple is getting at is that the cadres in these terrorist cells are college-educated, and have the technical know-how, but the execution of the horrendous acts is left to the “cannon-fodder,” as he calls them.


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