People who are just like us

Observations on terrorists. By <strong>Brendan O'Neill</strong>

When you hear someone described as a "member of al-Qaeda", what image comes to mind? A wide-eyed fanatic brought up on the dusty backstreets of Cairo, or in the wilds of rural Pakistan, hell-bent on revenge against the rich, secular, decadent west?

You'd be wide of the mark. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist at Pennsylvania University and counter-terrorism adviser to the US government, has pored over the profiles of some 380 individuals linked directly or indirectly to al-Qaeda. He found that a majority are well-off, well-educated, middle class, cosmopolitan, professional, married and sane - not unlike the average New Statesman reader, perhaps.

Using data from government documents, police wire-taps, news reports, academic publications and transcripts from trials in the US, France, Germany, Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco, Sageman collated biographies of 382 terrorists or suspected terrorists. He included known members of al-Qaeda, such as Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, and members of other groups known to share al-Qaeda's goals, including the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia, Malaysia's Abu Sayyaf and others. He tells me he focused exclusively on the "global Salafi jihad" network, whose aim is to take the jihad to the "far enemy" - that is, to western governments and their populations.

He found that the jihadists are young, intelligent and respectable. Of the 306 for whom he had family background, 17.6 per cent were upper class, 54.9 per cent middle class and 27.5 per cent lower class.

Most had received a good education, too. Of the 264 for whom he had information, 16.7 per cent were educated to a level lower than high school, 12.1 per cent got at least as far as a high school education, 28.8 per cent had some college education, 33.3 per cent had a college degree and 9 per cent had a postgraduate degree. Only 9.4 per cent received a religious education.

Sageman had information on the careers of 268 individuals. Of these, 42.5 per cent worked in professional careers (as doctors, lawyers, teachers and so on), 32.8 had semi-skilled jobs and 24.6 per cent were unskilled. The average age of the jihadists was 25.7 years; 73 per cent were married and most of these had children.

There was little evidence of mental illness or criminality - there were only four cases of possible thought disorder and one case of mild mental retardation. Sageman says that, before turning to terror, the jihadists were mostly "good kids", apart from some from North Africa who lived a life of petty crime.

One thing widely shared among the jihadists was the experience of travel: 70 per cent "joined the jihad" while away from home in a foreign country. Some signed up while living and learning in the west - in cities such as Hamburg, London, Paris and Montreal, rather than in the Islamist hotbeds of Kandahar, Karachi or Tehran. "We're talking about the elite of the country sent abroad to study, because the schools in Germany, France, England and the US are better," Sageman says. He thinks that something about the isolating experience of travelling to the west may have pushed some towards radical Islam. They became homesick, he suggests, "feeling lonely and marginalised and perhaps rejected by their new host society". They drifted to the mosques, "more for companionship and friendship than for religion".

So how did these people become the mass killers of 9/11, Bali and Madrid? Sageman does not pretend he has the answers. However, he is clear that the "war on terror" is misconceived if it concentrates on distant parts of the world.

"We now have this diffuse social movement," he says, "made up of people like us, some of whom have lived among us. The war on terror should be a war of ideas: if we try to understand how they transform from normal people into terrorists, then we can start intervening and perhaps make a difference."

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of Spiked (

Marc Sageman's Understanding Terror Networks is published by University of Pennsylvania Press

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.