Upper Crust Is Often Drawn to Terrorism

Published: December 30, 2009

NEW YORK — That Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, fated to go down in history as the failed underwear bomber, comes from a prominent and prosperous family in Nigeria invites comparison with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who is accused of killing 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November.

Both men came from middle- or upper-class families, went to good schools and would seem to have had much better prospects than to destroy numerous lives, as well as their own, in acts of terrorist mayhem.

Both men seem to illustrate the observation made by historians of violent political extremists from Robespierre to Pol Pot: that they tend more often to be intellectuals with a grievance, a concept, and a thirst for power than the desperate and wretched of the earth on whose behalf they usually claim to have acted.

The way recent Islamic terrorists embody this notion is quite striking. Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to set off a bomb on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, didn’t come from the sprawling, desperate slums of Lagos but from the upper crust of Nigerian society. He went to the elite British School of Lomé, Togo, and to University College London, where he graduated with honors in 2008.

Then, apparently because of a false statement on his a application to continue his studies in London, the British authorities did not renew his visa. He was accepted for a master’s degree program in Dubai, but he told his family that he wanted to go to Yemen to study Shariah, or Islamic law.

Those recruited as suicide bombers are supposedly poor and without prospects. Many are, yet most of the Islamic radicals who have attacked the United States or have tried to in the last decade come, like Mr. Abdulmutallab, from the elite of their countries. Osama bin Laden himself came from fabulous wealth in Saudi Arabia; his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, was — like the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara — a medical doctor from a distinguished family.

Though not from the same elite social class as Mr. bin Laden or Mr. Zawahiri, the operational leaders of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were uniformly from upwardly striving middle-class families. Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, studied architecture and engineering in Cairo. His father was a successful lawyer who had the connections to get his son a spot at the Technical University of Hamburg, which is where he seems to have volunteered for the jihadist cause.

Another of the 2001 attacks’ operational leaders, Ziad Jarrah, came from Lebanon, where his father was a senior government official in the social security administration and his mother a schoolteacher. His family sent him not to a Muslim school but to a private, Christian school in Beirut, because they were more interested in helping him to get ahead than in furthering his religious affiliation.

Whether Major Hasan, accused in the Fort Hood killings, could be a classical Islamic terrorist is a matter of dispute. What is clear is that he was an upper-middle-class Muslim influenced by radical Middle East preachers. His parents, Palestinian immigrants, operated an upscale restaurant in Virginia. Major Hasan got a degree in biochemistry from Virginia Tech, went to medical school at the expense of the U.S. Army and did his residency in psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The one exception to this pattern is the person who otherwise most resembles Mr. Abdulmuttalab. This is Richard C. Reid, the shoe-bomber whose attempt to blow up an airliner in 2001 was, like Mr. Abdulmutallab’s, foiled by what would seem to be a combination of incompetence and quick action by fellow passengers.

Mr. Reid, the son of a Jamaican father and an English mother, grew up on the margins of British society and turned early to petty street crime and drugs. He became a Muslim in prison, and, after he was released, fell under the influence of radical Muslim preachers like Abu Hamzi al-Masri, who was convicted in Britain in 2006 for soliciting murder and racial hatred.

Though their origins are very different, Mr. Reid and Mr. Abdulmutallab ended up on strikingly similar paths, finding meaning in Islamic practice and then traveling to Qaeda-infested regions: Mr. Reid to Afghanistan when Osama bin Laden ran training camps there, and Mr. Abdulmutallab to Yemen, which is now deemed by U.S. intelligence to be a major center of Qaeda recruitment and training.

Mr. Reid admitted to U.S. investigators that he had technical help in making his bomb, and it seems unlikely that the 23-year-old Mr. Abdulmutallab would have had the technical expertise or the access to the bomb material without similar help.

That so many jihadist combatants are from middle-class backgrounds doesn’t mean that the grinding poverty of many Islamic countries — and its contrast with the badly distributed wealth of some of those same societies — plays no role in fueling Muslim anger and desperation. Clearly it does.

But it’s also a measure of that anger and desperation — and of the superheated, paranoid cult that sees the United States as the Great Satan — that it is so often young men with good prospects who are willing to sacrifice themselves to strike a blow for what has become their cause.

It’s a good thing that the two most recent attempts to blow up airplanes were amateurishly bungled. This could, as some commentators have said, indicate that Al Qaeda itself is much less fearsome than we generally believe. But other would-be martyrs could be learning from the mistakes of Mr. Reid and Mr. Abdulmutallab and engage in more effective attacks in the future.

In this sense, ABC News reported Monday on what may be the most worrisome aspect of the Abdulmutallab case. He is said to have told F.B.I. investigators that there are many more like him being trained in Yemen — and they are ready to attack.

E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com.


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