What Makes a Terrorist?

Thursday, March 4th, 2004

What Makes a Terrorist? by James Q. Wilson starts with a brief history of terrorism — “until the nineteenth century, religion was usually the only acceptable justification of terror” — then explains Professor Jerrold Post’s division of terrorists into two (ambiguously named) categories: anarchic ideologues (either right- or left-wing anarchists) and nationalists (either nationalistic or religious terrorists).

Anarchist or ideological groups include the Red Army Faction in Germany (popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof gang), the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Weathermen in America. The German government carried out a massive inquiry into the Red Army Faction and some right-wing terrorist groups in the early 1980s. (Since it was done in Germany, you will not be surprised to learn that it was published in four volumes.) The Red Army members were middle-class people, who came, in about 25 percent of the cases, from broken families. Over three-fourths said they had severe conflicts with their parents. About one-third had been convicted in juvenile court. They wanted to denounce ?the establishment? and bourgeois society generally, and joined peer groups that led them steadily into more radical actions that in time took over their lives. Italians in the Red Brigades had comparable backgrounds.

Ideological terrorists offer up no clear view of the world they are trying to create. They speak vaguely about bringing people into some new relationship with one another but never tell us what that relationship might be. Their goal is destruction, not creation. To the extent they are Marxists, this vagueness is hardly surprising, since Marx himself never described the world he hoped to create, except with a few glittering but empty generalities.

A further distinction: in Germany, left-wing terrorists, such as the Red Army Faction, were much better educated, had a larger fraction of women as members, and were better organized than were right-wing terrorists. Similar differences have existed in the United States between, say, the Weather Underground and the Aryan Nation. Left-wing terrorists often have a well-rehearsed ideology; right-wing ones are more likely to be pathological.

Interestingly, Post groups nationalistic terrorists with religious terrorists:

By contrast, nationalistic and religious terrorists are a very different matter. The fragmentary research that has been done on them makes clear that they are rarely in conflict with their parents; on the contrary, they seek to carry out in extreme ways ideas learned at home. Moreover, they usually have a very good idea of the kind of world they wish to create: it is the world given to them by their religious or nationalistic leaders. These leaders, of course, may completely misrepresent the doctrines they espouse, but the misrepresentation acquires a commanding power.

Marc Sageman at the University of Pennsylvania has analyzed what we know so far about members of al-Qaida. Unlike ideological terrorists, they felt close to their families and described them as intact and caring. They rarely had criminal records; indeed, most were devout Muslims. The great majority were married; many had children. None had any obvious signs of mental disorder. The appeal of al-Qaida was that the group provided a social community that helped them define and resist the decadent values of the West. The appeal of that community seems to have been especially strong to the men who had been sent abroad to study and found themselves alone and underemployed.

A preeminent nationalistic terrorist, Sabri al-Bana (otherwise known as Abu Nidal), was born to a wealthy father in Jaffa, and through his organization, the Fatah Revolutionary Council, also known as the Abu Nidal Organization, sought to destroy Israel and to attack Palestinian leaders who showed any inclination to engage in diplomacy. He was hardly a member of the wretched poor.

Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova have come to similar conclusions from their analysis of what we know about deceased soldiers in Hezbollah, the Iran-sponsored Shiite fighting group in Lebanon. Compared with the Lebanese population generally, the Hezbollah soldiers were relatively well-to-do and well-educated young males. Neither poor nor uneducated, they were much like Israeli Jews who were members of the ?bloc of the faithful? group that tried to blow up the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem: well paid, well educated, and of course deeply religious.

In Singapore a major terrorist organization is Jemaah Islamiyah. Singaporean psychologists studied 31 of its members and found them normal in most respects. All were male, had average to above-average intelligence, and held jobs ranging from taxi driver to engineer. As with al-Qaida and Hezbollah members, they did not come from unstable families, nor did they display any peculiar desire toward suicidal behavior. Though graduates of secular schools, they attached great importance to religion.

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