WASHINGTON -- Something quite interesting has come out of the July bombings in London: Much of what we had presumed about the modern terrorist is wrong.
The common belief here in Washington, repeated over and over, was that the jihadis, suicide bombers and violent radicals we have found ourselves up against were, first, all Arabs and, second, from the dregs of Arab and Islamic societies. All they had to lose were lives that weren't worth living, anyway.
Then came the London subway and bus bombings on July 7 and July 21, and what did we find?
We found they were second- or third-generation ethnic Pakistanis born in Britain, a British citizen born in Jamaica, a British resident born in Somalia, an Ethiopian posing as a Somali refugee and a British citizen born in Eritrea. Most could be classified as middle class; all had opportunities for education and advancement, had they chosen to grasp them; and at least one came from a rich Pakistani family that had thrived in England. Rather than the bombers being spurned in Britain, blame now points to Britain's lax immigration laws.
The common belief until now was that modern terrorists were deracinated, angry, desperate young Muslims who had lost their identity, or at least had come to posit it against the West, and that they were, in the words of one analyst, "strangers everywhere." These purveyors of violence against everything Western were young men firmly ensconced in an ancient world that they were struggling to defend against careless modernity.
Now, post-London, this analysis is changing. I wrote in this column in June about my talk in Chicago with professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who has done watershed work on the psychology of the suicide bomber across many cultures.
In his book "Dying to Win," he has outlined how the vast majority of them were not inspired by Islam or religion per se, but by the perfervid desire to oust and destroy the foreign occupier of their lands. This is true, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia or Palestine -- and it raises important questions about the continued viability of American troops in Iraq.
Nor are the majority of the radicals and/or suicide bombers poor boys from the villages of the Arab world or the Asian subcontinent.
I saw this quite early, 12 years ago, when I walked into the office of one of the leaders of the radical Islamic Jihad organization in Gaza. Expecting to find some old bearded sheikh from ancient times, I was amazed to find a modern young man in neat Western clothes, his beard carefully trimmed, a Western-trained scientist working avidly at his computer. This picture was to turn out to be the prototype of the modern Islamic radical.
Indeed, confirming Robert Pape's work and that of other analysts such as Dr. Rona Fields of George Washington University, The New York Times just reported on a database of jihadis drawn up by Marc Sageman, formerly of the CIA, showing that about 75 percent of anti-Western terrorists are from middle- or upper-middle-class homes, that 65 percent have some college experience, and that three-quarters have professional jobs, excelling (my Gaza experience, again) in science and engineering.
These new dimensions to the character of these dangerous men, which are reinforced by the discoveries in London, show that they choose terrorism in part because it gives them a palpable sense of power and identity; and, far from traditional village types, with all that means in terms of hierarchical power and loyalties, they are quintessentially modern men with what one analyst has called "the luxury of moral choice." They are also into a "fad."
Indeed, what they and their strangely inchoate Islamic international movement resemble more and more, as we see it unweave across the globe, is the old communist internationale that set out to communize the whole world from the 1920s onward, until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. There is the same universal, collectivist mind-set of the revolutionary, who alone holds absolute truth; the same utopian dream, always ending in nightmare, of one, united, true faith; the same conviction (remember "liberation theology" in the '60s and '70s in Latin America?) of political salvation and victory through "armed struggle."
Universal Press Syndicate