MONTEREY, Calif. — What if all the reasons commonly given for the onset of the current age of terror are wrong? If violence against the innocent is not the product of religious fanaticism, reaction to corrupt governance, or a manifestation of the sheer hopelessness and rage that come with perpetual poverty, then what are the real causes? If the received wisdom about terrorism can be challenged, then there is an obligation to look more deeply into its origins.
In the matter of faith-based zealotry, psychiatrist and former CIA case officer Marc Sageman has profiled hundreds of jihadis affiliated with the al Qaida movement, finding that religion is a lesser included factor in their recruitment. Indeed, a significant percentage of these militants undertook graduate studies — such study itself a seeming contradiction of fundamentalism — many outside the Muslim world. For example, 9/11 attack team leader Mohammed Atta studied architecture in Germany. Al Qaida's deepest strategic thinker, Abu Mus'ab al-Suri is an engineer. Osama bin Laden had a business education and came from a very wealthy family of industrialists — again giving the lie to the notion of terrorists as unthinking religious fanatics. As Sageman notes in his "Understanding Terror Networks," these sorts of secular backgrounds are commonly found. We have misjudged the jihad.
As to terror arising in reaction to government oppression, the Arab Spring provides much evidence — as do the many "color revolutions" that have come before — that social uprisings can take the form of, and succeed with, peaceful demonstrations. And on those occasions when armed revolts have erupted, as in Libya and Syria, they have aimed largely at the tyrants and their militaries, not the innocent. If anything, insurrections in the Muslim world seem less prone to the kind of anti-government terrorism that has surfaced from time to time in Europe with such groups as the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, and in the United States in the form of far-right extremists like Timothy McVeigh.