(CNSNews.com) – In the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack on a restaurant in the Bangladeshi capital’s diplomatic quarter, the country is struggling to come to terms with the fact that most of the perpetrators were well-educated and wealthy – far from the stereotype of the impoverished and embittered jihadi recruit.
But a regional security expert said the fact people reacted to this with “astonishment” was in itself astonishing, given the documentation that calls into question the terror-poverty link proposition.
“The terrorists were from well-to-do families and were flamboyant young men,” the head of Bangladesh’s elite anti-terror unit, the Rapid Action Battalion, told India’s NDTV network.
“It is difficult to imagine how they were radicalized,” said Benazir Ahmed. “At least four come from very wealthy backgrounds.
Ahmed said only one of the terrorists had been educated at a madrassa. The mostly privately-run Islamic schools have at times been associated, especially in the South Asian context, with radical ideology.
Bangladeshi media reports identified one of the slain attackers as the son a mid-level official in the ruling party. Two reportedly were students at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, while two had studied at an elite English-medium school in Dhaka, Scholastica.
The suspects had gone missing or cut contact with their families months ago.
A 12-hour siege began Friday night local time at the Holey Artisan restaurant and ended with 18 foreigners, including a U.S. citizen, dead, along with four Bangladeshis. Two policemen were killed.
During a Saturday morning rescue operation, six of the seven terrorists who had seized the restaurant armed with bombs, guns and machetes were killed. A seventh was captured.
Thirteen hostages were rescued. Eyewitnesses who survived said the attackers had separated hostages based on whether or not they could cite the Qur’an, sparing and giving food to Muslims, but killing others.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attack, although Police Inspector General Shahidul Hoque told local media the attackers were members of a local banned Salafist group, Jamaa’tul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).
Formed in 1998, the JMB aims to transform Bangladesh – the world’s third-biggest Muslim-majority country after Indonesia and Pakistan – into an Islamic state governed by shari’a.
The degree to which poverty or a lack of opportunities is a key “root cause” of terrorism has long been debated, with the notion often put forward by those reluctant to point a finger directly at Islamic ideology.
Secretary of State John Kerry has blamed poverty, joblessness, corruption, frustration and a desire to belong, among other factors, calling for “more economic opportunities for marginalized youth at risk of recruitment.”
President Obama has spoken of the need to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism – from North Africa to South Asia,” including poverty and repression.
But some of the most notorious terrorists of our era have been well educated and well off, including al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. In South-East Asia, prominent members of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah network were also well-educated, among them university lecturers, businessmen and a U.S.-trained engineer.
Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi, questioned the “astonishment” caused by the privileged backgrounds of the Dhaka terrorists.
“Despite voluminous documentation to the contrary, the fiction that all Islamist terrorists are drawn from madrassas and from impoverished backgrounds, dominates the commentary, and every time numerous exceptions are brought to light (as, indeed, in the case of the Holey Artisan attackers), this information is received with an air of bewilderment,” he said.
“The reality is, there has always been a significant representation of educated and relatively affluent individuals (Osama bin Laden was not brought up in destitution, nor was Ayman al Zawahiri), not only among Islamist terrorists, but in terrorist movements across the world.”
Sahni said the phenomenon went beyond the Islamist terrorism, pointing to leftist terror groups of the past, such as the Baader-Meinhof Gang and Italian Red Brigade.
That this should be even more the case when it comes to ISIS (aka Daesh) should not be surprising, given its effective use of social media for mobilization and recruitment, he argued.
Whereas traditionally Islamist recruitment took place in a face-to-face context, “Daesh’s global outreach is overwhelmingly through the internet, and this creates a natural educational and economic barrier to its mobilization,” Sahni said.
“Unless an individual is sufficiently educated to acquire a certain minimal proficiency in the use of the internet, and has access to a personal or private computer – internet cafes are unlikely to be safe places to try to get into Daesh websites over any extended period – they cannot be targeted by Daesh propaganda and recruitment campaigns.”
“Terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease,” a RAND Corporation report commissioned by Secretary of Defense stated in 2009. “Terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”
The report acknowledged the existence of “root cause factors” but said they affected terrorism “indirectly by contributing to an environment.”
Since early 2013 more than 30 people have been killed in Islamist attacks in Bangladesh, in most cases hacked to death. They include academics, secular bloggers, LGBT activists – including a U.S. Embassy employee – and members of religious minorities.
Both ISIS and a purported al-Qaeda affiliate (Ansar al-Islam) have claimed responsibility but Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government blames local Islamist groups, some of which have links to opposition parties.
The American victim of the Dhaka attack was identified as Abinta Kabir, a student at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. The other victims included nine Italians, seven Japanese nationals, four Bangladeshis – one of whom was also an Emory student – and one Indian, a student at the University of California Berkeley.
Emory University said Kabir, from Miami, Fla., was a rising sophomore at Oxford College, while Faraaz Hossain, a junior from Dhaka, was an Oxford graduate who was headed to the university’s business school in the fall.
UCAL Berkeley named the Indian victim as Tarishi Jain, a sophomore who was intending to major in economics.