Going by the reported profile of the terrorist in custody, Ajmal Amir Kasav, the myth that poverty and deprivation makes for a terrorist is yet again being perpetuated. The 21-year-old is believed to have come from an impoverished family in Faridkot village, Pakistan. This sort of background suggests that the lure of upward mobility made him take up arms for ‘the cause’. Unfortunately, these details don’t quite gel with the fact that Kasav is fluent in English and tech-savvy.
But what makes a terrorist? The answer to this question is complex and varies from case to case. But it is generally observed that terrorists as a group are better educated and from wealthier families than the typical person from where they originate. This was mostly true for the Japanese Red Army, Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang and Italy's Red Brigade. A Kasav could be an exception, as the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba does deploy people who don’t quite fit this profile.
Alan Krueger of Princeton University, however, argues in What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism: “The evidence is nearly unanimous in rejecting either material deprivation or inadequate education as an important cause of support for terrorism or of participation in terrorist activities. The popular explanations for terrorism — poverty, lack of education, or the catch-all ‘They hate our way of life and freedom’ — simply have no systematic empirical basis.”
Addressing the American Economic Association in 2007, Krueger showed this was true also of the foreign opposition to US forces in Iraq, which emanated from nearby Muslim countries with repressive regimes rather than specific economic factors. Relatively better-off and educated people join the ranks of terrorists as they seek to influence political outcomes, much as they do when they vote in elections. So to understand what makes a terrorist we should ask: who holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose their extremist vision by violent means? “They are people,” says Krueger, “who care so fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”