There is data to show that relatively better-off people are likely to take to terrorism.
Young Nibras Islam couldn’t contain his excitement after shaking hands with Bollywood actress Shraddha Kapoor. Without wasting much time, he announced it on social media. The quiet teenager was an enthusiastic football player in Turkish Hope School in Dhaka, where many of the elite families of Bangladesh send their children. Islam went to Malaysia for higher studies, but returned home a few months later. Then he disappeared.
When Islam appeared in public next, he was leading a group of over half a dozen gun-toting youngsters into Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka’s Gulshan neighbourhood, which many of those terrorists used to visit occasionally until a few months ago.
According to investigators, Islam was directing the group as they went about murdering people, mostly by slashing throats of those who couldn’t recite verses from the Quran.
Except for probably a couple of madrasa students from Bogra, the rest of the attackers were all English-speaking elite from Dhaka who studied in some of the finest English medium schools, frequented the Gulshan café, listened to pop music and longed to meet celebrities.
Why the surprise?
The fact that the Dhaka attackers were mostly from privileged backgrounds is not surprising at all. There is enough data available in various academic studies to show that more educated, and relatively better off, people are more likely to take to terrorism than their poorer compatriots. That statistic is a stark warning to Indian law enforcement agencies that, of late, they might be searching mostly in the wrong places for potential terrorists — in poor Muslim ghettos and among the weakest of them.
Economist Alan Krueger of Princeton University who has done pioneering terrorism studies, argues in his book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, that to understand who joins terrorist organisations “instead of asking who has a low salary and few opportunities, we should ask: who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extremist vision by violent means?”
Prof Krueger points out that most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for: “Instead, they are people who care so fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”
Look at South Asia. While the region has had innumerable insurgencies, only few have produced suicide terrorism, the highest form of sacrifice for the aggrieved mind.
The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of Sri Lanka produced almost 200 suicide bombers. Many recruits were beneficiaries of secular education. Among the suicide attackers were a few Christians, no Muslims, and the rest were Hindus. Religion was not a mobilising factor — an extreme sense of grievance against the Sri Lankan establishment was. In contrast, the Kashmir militancy did not witness suicide attacks until 1999, when a local boy drove a car packed with explosives into the 15 Corps headquarters. However, a vast majority of the suicide terrorists were from across the border.
There is a commonality between the two insurgencies. In both Sri Lanka and Kashmir it was a generation of educated youth who began armed movements in response to their perceived grievances.
The more educated are more susceptible to disappointment with the prevailing situation. And their outrage would be far higher too, compared to their contemporaries who are less educated.
This is a reality very visible within Indian insurgencies too, but our security and political establishment is not willing to accept that fact. Because the moment you accept that grievances of an educated and relatively better off person are the root cause of such a perverted response, then there is more pressure on you to initiate steps to address those grievances.
In the Kashmir Valley the new wave of local militants, primarily from four districts of South Kashmir — Pulwama, Anantnag, Kulgam and Shopian — are mostly from middle class families and have had a good education.
Not different is the story of the Islamic State sympathisers intercepted by the Indian agencies in the early phase of their operations. They were mostly educated and relatively affluent. Cuddalore-born, Singapore passport-holder Haja Fakkrudeen, who went to Syria, and his friend Gul Mohamed Maracachi Maraicar, who is in jail, fall into this subset.
Not very different is the story of Bengaluru resident Muhammed Abdul Ahad, a U.S.-educated computer professional who took his wife and children along to join the IS, but was intercepted at the Syrian border.
The stories of numerous others tracked by Indian agencies across the country as the IS fervour gripped West Asia a couple of years ago are similar.
Signs of trouble
However, of late there is a different narrative emerging, which is both disconcerting and portends trouble. This May in Delhi, and a few days ago in Hyderabad, the local police had to let off many of the so-called suspects they had arrested as IS sympathisers. Such irresponsible arrests by the security establishment will only add to the grievances that fuel modern-day terrorism.
If available data point towards the educated lot taking to terrorism much before their poor cousins, then India’s Central and State governments have a lot of steps to take, from reining in ministers given to making polarising statements as well as countering blatantly communal leaders across political parties. But addressing these real reasons to contain terrorism is to challenge the modern-day political playbook.