It is one of the widespread assumptions of the war on terrorism that the Muslim
religious schools known as madrassas, catering to families that are often poor,
are graduating students who become terrorists.
Last year, Secretary of State Colin Powell denounced madrassas in Pakistan and
several other countries as breeding grounds for "fundamentalists and terrorists."
A year earlier, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had queried in a leaked memorandum,
"Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every
day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying
While madrassas may breed fundamentalists who have learned to recite the Koran
in Arabic by rote, such schools do not teach the technical or linguistic skills
necessary to be an effective terrorist. Indeed, there is little or no evidence
that madrassas produce terrorists capable of attacking the West.
And as a matter of national security, the United States doesn't need to worry
about Muslim fundamentalists with whom it may disagree, but about terrorists who
want to attack it.
We examined the educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of the most
significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners. We found that a majority
of them are university-educated, often in technical subjects like engineering.
In the four attacks for which the most complete information about the perpetrators'
educational levels is available - the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the
attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the Sept. 11
attacks and the Bali bombings in 2002 - 53 percent of the terrorists had either
attended university or had received a university degree. As a point of reference,
only 52 percent of Americans have been to university. The terrorists in our study
thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans.
The 1993 World Trade Center attack involved 12 men, all of whom had a college
education. The 9/11 pilots, as well as the secondary planners identified by the
9/11 commission, all attended Western universities, a prestigious and elite endeavor
for anyone from the Middle East.
Indeed, the lead 9/11 pilot, Mohamed Atta, had a degree from a German university
in, of all things, urban preservation, while the operational planner of 9/11,
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, studied engineering in North Carolina. We also found that
two-thirds of the 25 hijackers and planners involved in 9/11 had attended university.
Of the 75 terrorists we investigated, only nine had attended madrassas, and all
of those played a role in one attack - the Bali bombing. Even in this instance,
however, five university-educated "masterminds" helped to shape the
Like the view that poverty drives terrorism - a notion that countless studies
have debunked - the idea that madrassas are incubating the next generation of
terrorists offers the soothing illusion that desperate, ignorant automatons are
attacking the West rather than university graduates, as is often the case. In
fact, two of the terrorists in our study had doctorates from Western universities,
and two others were working toward Ph.Ds.
A World Bank-financed study that was published in April raises further doubts
about the influence of madrassas in Pakistan, the country where the schools were
thought to be the most influential and the most virulently anti-American.
Contrary to the numbers cited in the report of the Sept. 11 commission, and to
a blizzard of newspaper reports that 10 percent of Pakistani students study in
madrassas, the study's authors found that fewer than 1 percent do so.
While madrassas are an important issue in education and development in the Muslim
world, they are not and should not be considered a threat to the United States.
The tens of millions of dollars spent every year by the United States through
the State Department, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, and the Agency for
International Development to improve education and literacy in the Middle East
and South Asia should be applauded as the development aid it is and not as the
counterterrorism effort it cannot be.
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