A recent paper titled Engineers of Jihad by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog of Oxford University finds that militants often have university degrees, more frequently in engineering and medicine. The Atlantic picked this news up by saying that "the stereotype of the poverty-stricken terrorist has been dispelled by
studies showing that militancy and high levels of education go hand in
hand". The EETimes picked the engineer angle in its article: Holy War: Researches say EEs have a terrorist mindset. This was also discussed on Slashdot.
Higher studies mean more intellectual
Let us think of the education factor for a bit.
If one looks at recent terror leaders in Muslim countries, one will find that it is true: Osama Bin Laden is said to be a civil engineer, Ayman al-Zawahri is a medical doctor.
If we examine the leaders of the 9/11 attacks, those who piloted the planes, they were either university graduates, or post-graduate students (at least Mohamed Atta - architectural engineer and Ziad Jarrah - aerospace engineering). No information on what Marwan Shehhi studied, and Hani Hanjour did not seem to have a university degree. Among the remaining 15, some were university graduates, but by and large, they were just muscles, recruited to keep the passengers at bay by force.
In Arab countries, Egypt included, there is considerable parental and social pressure for getting a university degree, with Engineering and Medicine being the most desirable. They also come with some social status. So, youth are pushed hard to go into one of these fields. Consequently,
The guy that blows himself up in a suicide bombing is only occasionally one of higher education. An example is the 2007 bombing attempts in the UK which were by medical doctors. But most commonly, it is the foot soldiers with little education who do that, while the planning is done by the intellectuals.
So, the activists and planners tend to be the educated ones, while the execution can be to anyone.
Social status and terror activists
Rhetoric in many Western countries, specially the USA, has been reduced to the "because they are evil" or "because they hate freedom". But among those who dig deeper for causes, it is acknowledged that terror is fuelled by legitimate and complex grievances. Among those is the period of colonialsim, the the chaos that followed it in Arab and Muslim countries over the 20th century.
It is not unheard of that activist/radical leaders (terrorism included) in recent history come from well to do families, or were educated. Examples are plenty: Nelson Mandela was from royal blood. Ghandi was a well to do lawyer. Che Guevara was a doctor. Despite the fact that they were not being directly affected by the respective powers of oppression of the time, they have seen the plight of the masses and taken on the cause,
So, direct poverty and opperssion is not a reason, but reaction to the poverty. As it is said: it is not injustice that causes revolutions, but the feeling of injustice that does.
The methods of terror are definitely unsavory, but the underlying reasons are complex, and need to be addressed if terror is to be eliminated.