“The reason the World Trade Center got hit [on 9/11] is there's a lot of people living in abject poverty out there who don't have any hope for a better life,” CNN founder Ted Turner opined during a lecture at Brown University in 2002. Many other luminaries in the media, in academia, and in politics share Turner's opinion. Among these are former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former President Bill Clinton, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Their claims, however, are controverted by hard evidence.
Both before and after the 9/11 attacks, numerous studies have looked at the economic and educational backgrounds of Islamic terrorists. One investigation by Princeton-trained economist Claude Berrebi analyzed 335 members of the Palestinian terror groups, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The terrorists surveyed were mainly shahids, or "martyrs," who had died while waging jihad against Israel between 1987 and 2002. Berrebi discovered that 16 percent of those terrorists could be classified as poor, compared to 31 percent of the male Muslim population (between the ages 18 and 41) in the Palestinian territories as a whole. Conversely, 33 percent of the terrorists could be considered “well off,” compared to only 20 percent of Palestinian adult males in that same age group. And another 10 percent of the terrorists were “very well off” according to the survey, as opposed to virtually 0 percent of Palestinian males overall who fit that same description. The study also indicated that the Palestinian terrorists were generally more highly educated than the typical male in the Palestinian population at large.
Given the evidence, Berrebi concluded: “If there is a link between income level, education and participation in terrorist activities, it is either very weak or in the opposite direction of what one intuitively might have expected.”
Another study by terrorism expert Marc Sageman examined 102 Islamist radicals involved in global jihad. Like Berrebi, Sageman could find no correlation between poverty and terrorism; only about a quarter of the jihadis he looked at hailed from impoverished backgrounds. “[M]embers of the global Salafi jihad,” Sageman writes in his book Understanding Terror Networks, “were generally middle-class, educated young men from caring and religious families, who grew up with strong positive values of religion, spirituality and concern for their communities.”
The relative affluence of Islamic terrorists is by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, a much earlier study -- of Islamist radicals in Egyptian prisons (and elsewhere) -- was conducted in the late 1970s by the Egyptian sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim; his findings were consistent with the more recent ones discussed above. “The typical member of the militant Islamic groups,” Ibrahim discovered, could be “described as young (early 20s), of rural or small-town background, from the middle or lower-middle class, with high achievement and motivation, upwardly mobile, with a scientific or engineering education, and from a normally cohesive family.” Ibrahim went on to conclude that the Islamist radicals he analyzed “were significantly above the average of their generation” in education, financial background, and motivation. Other studies further buttress these conclusions.
The anecdotal evidence is also overwhelming. Osama bin Laden, for instance, inherited the extraordinarily large fortune of his Saudi family. Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a trained physician. Mohammed Atta, ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, was a graduate student in Germany when he became radicalized. One of the 2005 London bombers left behind an estate valued at more than $150,000. The 2007 terrorist attack at Scotland's Glasgow International Airport was carried out by a medical doctor and an engineer. Nidal Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people and wounded at least 31 others (at Fort Hood, Texas) in November 2009, was highly educated and financially well-off. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian terrorist who attempted to detonate explosives aboard a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009, was a child of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, one of the richest men in Africa (and the former Nigerian Federal Commissioner for Economic Development).
Moreover, scholar David Meir-Levi notes that there are many cases where poverty does not lead to terrorism:
"The most poverty-stricken areas of the world (South American indigenous peoples, sub-Saharan Africans, impoverished minorities of East Asia, and the destitute minorities of India) have produced no terrorists, or almost no terrorists."
"The most poverty-stricken populations in the Arab world reside in countries where the rulers live in luxury and keep 90% of the nation's revenues to bankroll their own luxurious lifestyles, or for the enhancement of their own WMD and conventional arsenals, while their people starve (Arabia, Syria, Sudan, Libya, pre-Saddam Iraq). If poverty were the cause of hatred and the terrorism that it purportedly spawns, we would expect the poor of these countries to fly airplanes into the palaces of their oppressive rulers."