THE typical recruit to Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organisation, is upper middle class, has been educated in the West and is from a professional background, according to a new study.
An analysis of 500 members of Osama Bin Laden’s organisation has revealed that the majority had been in further education and were from relatively affluent families. The recruits also tended to come from the wealthier Arab countries.
Dr Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist who conducted the study, said he assumed it would find that most Al-Qaeda recruits were poor and ill-educated. “The common stereotype is that terrorism is a product of poor, desperate, naive, single young men from Third World countries, vulnerable to brainwashing and recruitment into terror,” he said.
However, his study showed that three-quarters of the Al-Qaeda members were from upper middle-class homes and many were married with children; 60% were college educated, often in Europe or the United States.
Some, like Omar Sheikh, the British-born terrorist, were educated at fee-paying schools before heading for Afghanistan, Bosnia or Chechnya. Sheikh, who has been sentenced to death in Pakistan for his role in the murder of Daniel Pearl, the reporter on The Wall Street Journal, attended Aitchison College in Lahore, Pakistan, and the fee-paying Forest school in east London.
Sageman said most of the terrorists come from a small number of wealthy Arab countries, from immigrant communities in the West or from southeast Asia. Few are from poor Islamic countries such as Afghanistan.
“Al-Qaeda was very selective at first in terms of who it recruited,” said Sageman, a former CIA officer who once worked with anti-Soviet mujaheddin fighters while based in Islamabad. “If you look at the Saudis who have been killed while fighting for the organisation, you find the majority come from Riyadh, the capital, rather than poor rural provinces.”
He says most grew up in caring families who were concerned about their communities. The men in Sageman?s sample joined Al-Qaeda at an average age of 26. About half grew up as religious children, but only 13% – mostly from southeast Asia – attended Islamic schools.
Sageman’s study is backed by Abdullah Anas, a former senior mujaheddin commander in Afghanistan who now lives in London. “There is no question that most of those who came to Afghanistan in the 1980s were from middle-class backgrounds ” teachers, doctors, accountants or imams. Most came with their families,” he said.
Sageman and Anas agree that more recent Al-Qaeda recruits are likely to come from less privileged backgrounds. “After Osama went back to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, the average age dropped and many were less educated,” said Anas.
“Many were drifters who had been radicalised after hearing a preacher in the West. Jihad for them was simply an abstract idea, an adventure.”