Abstracted from a piece in today's Washington Post by Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard Law School, a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, and author of Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. Five Myths about Who Becomes a Terrorist [These are NOT direct quotes from the article. This material has been condensed and heavily edited.] We all have some idea of what a terrorist will be like: young, socially alienated, deeply religious, and from one of the 14 countries that will earn him special scrutiny when he boards a U.S. airliner, such as Algeria, Iran and Syria. Yet five young Americans from close, prosperous families and good schools were recently apprehended in Pakistan. The old generalizations no longer hold up. Myth #1: Most terrorists are spoiled rich kids. Many of the prominent ones certainly are, such as the Christmas Underwear Bomber. But of the 25,000 insurgents and suspects detained in Iraq, nearly all were previously unemployed. In a country where economic prospects are bleak, jihad can be one of the few jobs available. Even in a wealthy country like Saudi Arabia, only 3% of the people going through the rehabilitation program come from high-income backgrounds. Myth #2: Al-Qaeda members come from the most repressive Mideastern countries. Al Qaeda's core organization is now based in Pakistan (let the readers decide if that is a repressive country) but affiliates operate in the Islamic Maghreb, Indonesia and Somalia. It has a more amorphous following of independent cells and unaffiliated individuals around the world, even in Texas. No political system reliable promotes or deters terrorism. There are many more terrorist incidents in democratic India than in authoritarian China and Saudi Arabia. The transition to democracy is a particularly dangerous period, e.g. Spain in the 1970s, Russia in the 1990s and Iraq today. Failed and failing states with no strong government at all, like Yemen and Somalia, are especially fertile ground for terrorism. Myth #3. Al-Qaeda is made up of religious zealots. Rank-and-file terrorists who claim to be motivated by religious ideology are often ignorant about Islam. The Saudis have interrogated thousands, and only 5% had formal religious roles, whereas 25% had criminal histories, often drug-related. In Europe, Muslim youths rebel against what they consider the contaminated Islam of their parents, but the form of Islam they find on the internet and other sources is often highly unorthodox and even a do-it-yourself mix of disparate teachings. One popular Syrian imam is self-taught--and a former drug dealer. Many groups linked to Al Qaeda use hip-hop or rap music to build their anti-American messages, even though such music is counter to the extremist version of Islam promoted by the terror network. Indeed most of the world's Muslims insist that it is ignorance of Islam that is more likely to make youth vulnerable to a violent ideology, rather than an understanding and acceptance of the faith. Myth #4. Terrorists are motivated by a strong belief in their cause. Although terrorist movements often arise in response to a perceived injustice (real or imaginary), ideology is not the most important factor in an individual's decision to join. In the author's experience with interviewing terrorists, she found that they often simply want a new identity and are motivated by a feeling of humiliation rather than the group's goals. One Kashmiri founded his group because "Muslims have been overpowered by the West. Our ego hurts . . . we are not able to live up to our own standards for ourselves." Terrorism is a career and the reasons for choosing it are as varied as any other career, including market conditions, social networks, recruitment, education, and sheer individual preference. And as with any job, the motivation for staying with a cause may change with time. Terrorist groups that don't disappear quickly from attrition or mismanagement usually have a flexible ideology that attracts a wide variety of recruits and funding sources. Al Qaeda, for example, is one of the most highly disciplined terror forces, but its goals and its list of enemies changes constantly. U.S. analysts find a lack of clarity in the group's purpose, and one of its leading strategic thinkers equates its constantly shifting goals to "waging jihad like a rhinoceros... stupid and futile." Myth #5. The typical terrorist is an alienated loner. This is an accurate portrayal of the Christmas Underwear Bomber, but for most terrorist recruits the problem is the wrong kind of friends, rather than no friends. This is very similar to the way street gang recruiting works in the United States and Latin America: kids join a terrorist group because one of their buddies is already a member. A survey of Guantanamo detainees revealed that knowing a member of Al Qaeda is a better predictor of who would join than belief in jihad. The Saudi government competes with their convicts' ties to terrorist networks by reconnecting them with their families and communities, and even trying to find wives for them. Although some individuals join terrorist groups out of a misplaced desire to transform society, over time the social and psychological rewards of having something to belong to become prominent. Conclusion Terrorists want to better their own circumstances just as much as they want to improve the world.