During an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, Brennan was asked about the “war of ideas” surrounding Islam, which the questioner said many Americans tend to equate with violence.
In the course of his response Brennan said al-Qaeda has “a perverse and very corrupt interpretation of the Qur’an. One of the things that I'm struck with when I travel throughout the Middle East and I meet with leaders, military and civilian – these are individuals who are Qur’anic scholars themselves and they are the ones who are most annoyed at how al-Qaeda has hijacked their religion and how they have really distorted the teachings of Mohammed, you know, for violent purposes.”
“Now, quite unfortunately, though, that ideology, that agenda of al-Qaeda has gained resonance and following in many parts of the world,” he continued. “It’s fed a lot of times by, you know, political repression, by economic, you know, disenfranchisement, by, you know, lack of education and ignorance, so there – there are a number of phenomena right now that I think are fueling the fires of, you know, this ideology.”
Assertions of a link between Islamist terrorism and poverty or lack of education have been called into question by some research.
A Rand Corporation report on counterterrorism, prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2009, found that, “Terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease. Demographically, their most important characteristic is normalcy (within their environment). Terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”
“Terrorists turn out to be more rather than less educated than the general population” according to a number of academic studies, one of the report authors noted.
Far from being impoverished or lacking economic opportunity, some of the most prominent jihadist terrorists have been well-educated. Osama bin Laden was the son of a billionaire businessman, his al-Qaeda successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a physician, and the 9/11 attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has an engineering degree.
In Singaporean study on combating radical ideology over the 2001-2011 decade found that key members of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network were also well-educated. They included Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian former military officer and businessman, who provided lodging to two of the 9/11 hijackers in 2000 and was later involved in a foiled Singapore bomb plot.
JI bomb expert Azahari Husin, who was killed in 2005, had a doctorate in engineering; Noordin Mohammed Top, Indonesia’s most-wanted terrorist until he was killed in 2009, was also a university graduate; and wanted JI fugitive Zulkifli Abdul Hir is a U.S.-trained engineer.