The Pantybomber and the middle-class nature of terrorism.


The case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (nicknamed ‘The Pantybomber’ by wags) has been analysed in various ways.

Some focus on what the development of exploding underwear means for airport security and the travel industry. Others look at the significance of what appears to be Al Qaeda’s ongoing desire to blow things up in American skies. I’m sure there’s a terrorism expert getting excited about this wannabe-suicide bomber coming from Nigeria.

What I find interesting is that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his alleged crime present further evidence that terrorism is an essentially middle-class endeavour. Perhaps even upper-middle-class, if we are going to get specific about it.

Abdulmutallab is an extreme example in that his background is especially wealthy and privileged. Not quite at the same level of spoilt bratness as Osama bin Laden, but getting there. However, research suggests that most recruits to terrorism come from relatively well-off families and are educated to at least degree level, which makes them decisively middle-class.

Of course, it depends on how you define terrorism and class exactly. Definitions need to be taken into account, but let’s not get bogged down in this for now. Trust me – there is a lot of interesting stuff that has been written about the relationship between individual terrorists and social class. 

Victoroff’s review article ‘The Mind of the Terrorist’ has a handy table on page 8 showing the reported demographics of terrorists from the mid 20th to early 21st centuries. Terrorism expert Martha Crenshaw came up with the memorable phrase: “Terrorism is the resort of an elite when conditions are not revolutionary”. Scott Atran looked at the data about suicide bombers in the Middle East and came to the conclusion that, despite the stereotypes made by terrorists’ supporters and opponents, “sucide terrorists are neither poor nor ignorant”.

In conclusion: academics writing about how terrorists tend to be poshos will now be able to use Abdulmutallab as another example supporting their hypothesis.


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