Holy War and the Professions

Paul Cruickshank writes about al-Qaeda’s love of technically skilled professionals:

Jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda have particularly focused their recruiting efforts on attracting highly skilled individuals, like doctors, as operatives. Such recruits are more likely to have the technical skills needed in assembling explosive devices and the discipline required to carry off an operation. Al Qaeda’s standardized application form, discovered by the U.S. military in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, required candidates to specify their precise educational achievements and to list their “intellectual” and “professional skills.” This helped Al Qaeda recruit only the most promising operatives from the thousands of jihadists present in Afghanistan.

He also mentions in this regard an article by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey (PDF) which looked at the biographies of a sample of the 79 participants in the five biggest anti-western terrorist attacks and saw that “more than half of the group we assessed attended a university, making them as well educated as the average American.” Marc Sageman makes similar points in his 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks.


In my view, this shouldn’t really be all that surprising. Political movements of all sorts tend to be led by relatively well-educated middle class professionals. That’s true of the major social reforms of American history and the major nationalist movements of the decolonization era, and also of the Khmer Rouge, the Jacobins of the French Revolution, and, as best one can tell, al-Qaeda.