Probing the roots of terror
The attacks of 9/11 galvanized a phalanx of scholars to dissect terrorism from every angle. What they've learned so far may surprise you.
It was a bright September day, yet Claude Berrebi felt unsettled, an odd mix of apprehension and exuberance familiar to new graduate students with a lot of decisions to make.Skip to next paragraph
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He was glad, though, to be sure of one thing: His doctoral research at Princeton University would focus on the economic impact of special-education programs. It was a solid subject, Mr. Berrebi knew, but it was to be a short-lived certainty.
While he was eating breakfast, an airliner struck a New York skyscraper 50 miles away - and then another. As he watched on TV, tears welling in his eyes, he began to think: What could he do?
For Berrebi and a growing cadre of academicians, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have acted as a catalyst, giving a new urgency to their research and steering them in unexpected directions.
Though American higher education sports a well-deserved reputation as aloof from current events, some say the ivory towers' research community this time is responding.
In the days and weeks since 9/11, what they have learned about the roots and branches of terrorist organizations has at times buttressed conventional wisdom - and more often defied it.
Who knew, for example, that so many terrorists came from the ranks of the middle class? Or that between 1980 and 2000 the annual rate of suicide bombings multiplied by more than 700 percent?
Early on, the university response was primarily cathartic: campus town-hall meetings, candlelight vigils, forums. Then came courses with "terrorism" in the title. Soon, government dollars began flowing
to hard-science labs on campuses to develop technologies for homeland security. More gradually, terrorism is gaining attention in the "soft sciences" - geography, psychology, economics, political science, history. The focus is the elusive "why" that explains the root causes of terrorism.
Clearly, most researchers have not altered their plans; they are locked into studies that took years to develop. Others have felt terrorism is not fundamental to their studies.
But for Berrebi and others, the shift came quickly. Many of Berrebi's friends on campus knew he was a Parisian who had lived in Israel and lost friends to terror bombings. They pressed him to explain why the terrorists had acted as they did. But he could not explain it, he says. And that void in understanding troubled him.
"After 9/11, I felt terrorism was no longer a problem of distant regions in a state of clear conflict, but a global threat," Berrebi says. "I realized that I might be able to contribute in a field mostly unexplored ... to be one of those who might help understand the factors that motivate terrorism."
One of the questions that most intrigued him: Did a fetid mix of poverty and lack of education drive some people to commit acts of terror, as pundits often claimed on TV? Berrebi hoped to find out.
Within days, he was conferring with his adviser, economist Alan Krueger, about changing his research topic. Dr. Krueger might have discouraged him: Getting data to support a new thesis would be tough.
But Berrebi had an idea for how to get the information. So Krueger gave the go-ahead, and Berrebi began by focusing on Palestinian suicide bombers. Krueger, meanwhile, would do the same, focusing on Hizbullah terrorists.
For almost two years, Berrebi prowled the Internet archives of websites belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. From each, he painstakingly translated from Arabic details about individual suicide bombers, the "martyrs," as the websites called them. Krueger, for his part, culled other data sources for information.
What the two men discovered surprised them both.
Among Hamas and PIJ members, Berrebi found, only 20 percent were poor - fewer than the 32 percent who qualified as poor among a similar slice of the general Palestinian population between ages 18 and 41. But among suicide bombers, the contrast was even more pronounced: Just 13 percent were from poor families.
Educational backgrounds of people aligned with those groups showed similar results. Among suicide bombers, 36 percent had finished at least secondary school. Only 2 percent had not gone past primary school. It looked as if the pundits might be wrong: The suicide terrorists were fairly well educated and were far from being poor.