Tillerson: Many ISIS Terrorists ‘Come From Middle-Class or Even Upper-Class Backgrounds’

By Patrick Goodenough | March 23, 2017 | 4:17am EDT
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis attend the ministerial plenary of the anti-ISIS coalition at the State Department in Washington, on March 22, 2017. (Photo: State Department/Public Domain)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that many ISIS terrorists are not attracted to the terrorist group because of impoverished backgrounds, but by “a radical and false utopian vision that purports to be based upon the Qur’an.”

It was up to Muslim leaders to combat that “perverse ideological message,” he told a gathering in Washington of representatives of the anti-ISIS coalition – adding that many have or were ready to do so.

Tillerson’s questioning of the notion that poverty and a lack of opportunity draws recruits to radical Islamic groups stands in contrast to the view expressed by his predecessor. John Kerry argued the point frequently even though some studies have challenged the notion of links between terrorism and poverty

In doing so, Kerry played down or ignored altogether religion as a factor. Obama administration officials explicitly avoided terms like “radical Islamic terrorism,” variously depicting them as inaccurate, unnecessary, and/or unhelpful as a time when Muslim cooperation against terrorists was seen as crucial.

Tillerson told the anti-ISIS coalition it was necessary to “look this enemy’s ideology in the eyes for what it is: A warped interpretation of Islam that threatens all of our people.”

He quoted Jordan’s King Abdullah as saying – at the National Prayer Breakfast leaders’ lunch in Washington last month – that “everything they are, everything they do, is a blatant violation of the teachings of my faith.”

ISIS fighters are not all from poor or impoverished communities,” Tillerson continued. “Many come from middle-class or even upper-class backgrounds, drawn to a radical and false utopian vision that purports to be based upon the Qur’an.”

“Muslim partners and leaders of their faith must combat this perverse ideological message. And we are grateful that so many have and are ready to take up this responsibility.”

Later in his remarks, Tillerson stressed again the need for Islamic religious leaders to play their part.

“Counter-messaging efforts should continue both in the online arena and on the ground in countries where religious leaders have opportunities to speak out against radicalization,” he said.

“Our Muslim partners, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have important roles to play in combatting the message of ISIS and other radical Islamic terrorist groups.”

Saudi Arabia’s king acts as “custodian” of the two most sacred sites in Islam, while Egypt is home to Al-Azhar, an institution established in the 10th century that is widely regarded as the top seat of learning in Sunni Islam.

Wednesday’s meeting brought together ministers or ambassadors from 65 countries, as well as representatives of the Arab League, European Union, Interpol, NATO, the United Nations and the World Bank.

Participants discussed progress in the campaign against ISIS on the ground in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Chad.

A statement afterwards referred to the need to address “factors underpinning [ISIS’] emergence and continued appeal,” but made no reference to poverty, lack of jobs or related issues.

It did speak of the importance of “strengthening social cohesion and enhancing the resilience of communities – including teachers, social workers, religious leaders, women and youth – to recognize and respond constructively to these challenges.”

“We will intensify our efforts to confront ISIS in the digital battlespace and reshape the public narrative around ISIS to one of failure,” the statement said. “Members will continue their collaboration to discredit ISIS’s propaganda, emphasizing credible, authentic voices that provide alternative narratives to challenge ISIS’s world view.”

Elsewhere the coalition statement underlined the need to resolve the civil war in Syria through a negotiated political resolution, saying doing so was “essential to bring about the defeat of ISIS.”

Similarly, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi earlier in the day said that regional conflicts and differences were “one of the main reasons” for the rise of groups like ISIS.

Poverty, no jobs or opportunities, oppression, climate change

In a speech last April, then-Secretary of State Kerry said religion does not necessarily play a role in radicalization of Muslims. He also said that “you don’t have to be poor or repressed” to become an ISIS recruit, but listed factors like political repression and denial of rights, as well as the lure of “regular meals” and “companionship.”

In 2014, Kerry said ISIS terror was not linked to Islam, and instead cited poverty, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and climate change. On another occasion, he attributed terrorism to young people feeling oppressed, and not having opportunities, enough education or jobs.

The previous year, Kerry told a meeting of the Global Counterterrorism Forum that it was important to provide “more economic opportunities for marginalized youth at risk of recruitment,” arguing that “getting this right isn’t just about taking terrorists off the street.”

Also in 2013, President Obama spoke of the need to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism – from North Africa to South Asia,” including poverty, repression and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry’s spokeswoman Marie Harf in 2015 said it was important “to go after the root causes that leads people to join these [terror] groups,” and cited “a lack of opportunity for jobs.”

Some of al-Qaeda’s most senior leaders have been wealthy businessmen, doctors, engineers or other professionals.

“Terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease,” a RAND Corporation report commissioned by Secretary of Defense found in 2009. “Terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”

The RAND report agreed that “root cause factors” do affect terrorism, but said they do so “indirectly by contributing to an environment.”

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