One way to explain why Islamic terrorists are so often Arabs and Moslems is to look at culture. Like most ancient cultures Arab history is full of “strong men” who surrounded themselves with ferocious fighters who remained loyal and helpful as their boss built a kingdom or empire. Thus the explosive growth of Islam in the 7th century rested not just on a new religion but also on the ability of the early leaders of Islam to recruit and organize the most effective fighters. While the all-conquering armies of early Islam contained a lot of preachers and missionaries, these were protected and often preceded by skilled and fanatic fighters. It didn’t last and that was due to human nature and culture.
The fatal flaw in this “strong man” form of government is that to succeed it required someone who could not just recruit the skilled and effective warriors but also maintain their loyalty. As many kings and emperors discovered, often too late to survive it, once these “royal guards” turn against you the empire is, if not finished, subjected to years or decades of civil war and devastation. Thus ended the Moslem caliphate (an empire united in terms of religion and government). Eventually there were disagreements and the empire fractured. Many efforts to put it back together have failed.
Other cultures came up with ways to overcome the inherent self-destructiveness of totalitarian rule. By the 20th century the modern police state (communists, Nazis and so on) was, if not perfected, rendered a lot more efficient and destructive. This was done in part by developing more efficient methods for recruiting and training the “royal guard” but with one critical difference. Modern police states relied more on the balance of power. That is, multiple intelligence, secret police and “security” agencies who not only kept the police state in power but also kept an eye on each other so internal rebellion would not bring down the entire edifice. This “divide and conquer” method was ancient but modern technology made it possible to build a better police state. This turned out to be a very destructive and expensive (in lives and money) process. The communist and fascist dictatorships of the 20th century ended up killing over 150 million people (internally via democide and externally with wars) and out of that came a curious mutant, modern Islamic terrorism.
Like tribes, kingdoms and ideologies in the past, post caliphate Islam also generated periodic outbursts of organized fanaticism perpetuated by young men who were not just willing to kill for the cause, but were willing to die for it. This Islamic fanaticism has, for centuries, been harnessed, temporarily, by extremist (and usually fundamentalist) clerics, some of them also nobles or tribal leaders. But by the late 20th century more and more of these radical clerics found it easier and more effective to recruit, motivate and control their fanatic followers with modern communications and organizational tools and techniques.
All this was made possible by some unique cultural customs. For example most Arab cultures tend to have excessive (by Western standards) paranoia and aversion to cooperation with other groups (even if they are Arab and Moslem). This has been a major reason for the decline of Arab military power over the last thousand years. The resulting factionalism also explains why after more than a thousand years of Islamic terrorism none of these outbreaks turned into anything lasting and usually self-destructed because of factionalism or offending someone (Moslem or otherwise) who was able to wipe them out. There are several examples of this in the last century, the most famous one being the creation of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia was very much the creation of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. Born in 1876, his father Abdul Rahman (1855-1928) and the rest of the Saud clan were driven from the Saud hometown of Riyadh in 1891 by a rival clan. Taking refuge in Kuwait, Abdul Aziz eventually organized a small group of followers and retook Riyadh in 1902. This pleased his father immensely and Abdul Aziz was given more power and control over the family’s fortunes. Abdul Aziz not only acted like the founder of a kingdom, he also looked the part. Standing nearly two meters (over six feet) tall, he had an athletic build, a hypnotic gaze, and an endearing demeanor. His hospitality, bravery, and diplomacy were legendary. He dispensed justice in a fair and wise manner. He was the kind of leader the Bedouin had little trouble following. Abdul Aziz also had a knack for turning enemies into allies. More importantly, in that part of the world, Abdul Aziz was a devout Moslem. This was his key asset in uniting the many tribes and clans of Arabia. Islam was the only thing all these, often antagonistic, groups could agree on. Moreover the Sauds had been followers of the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam since the 1700's and Abdul Aziz was strict enough in his religious practices to win the approval of the most orthodox, and fanatic, Moslems.
Among the more orthodox were a warrior brotherhood called the Ikhwan. This group had been prominent in the early history of Wahhabism (and throughout the history of Islam) but had died out by the late 1800's. The original Ikhwan was drawn from settled Arabs in Arabia. The early 20th century revival was among the nomadic Bedouin. When the new Ikhwan came to Abdul Aziz's attention, he first checked them out to make sure they were the real thing (and not just bandits or a warlord pretenders) and then provided money, weapons, and other aid. With the support of the powerful and popular Abdul Aziz, the Ikhwan became the Saudi shock troops. The royal guard, so to speak. The Ikhwan warriors were fierce and disdainful of death. They behaved as if they were reincarnations of the 7th century Arab warriors who spread Islam from the Atlantic to the Pacific. By furnishing land (or, rather, oases and their invaluable water) for the Ikhwan warriors to build their fortified mosques, Abdul Aziz soon had (by 1917) 200 Ikhwan settlements populated by 250,000 people (60,000 of them warriors). But the fervor of the Ikhwan eventually got out of hand. The orthodoxy of the Ikhwan rejected most modern devices. Everything that was not mentioned in the Koran was suspect and subject to destruction by the Ikhwan zealots. The rifle was a curious exception. The Ikhwan provided the glue that kept the Saudi alliance together during the 1920's as the Saudis conquered the remaining independent tribes and clans of Arabia but then made it impossible for the Sauds to rule what had been conquered.
Abdul Aziz proved himself once more when it came time to tame the Ikhwan. By 1926, the Saudi forces had defeated all those who stood in the way of Arabian unification (at least in terms of Saudi Arabia’s current borders). The holy cities of Mecca and Medina were taken, along with the Red Sea coast. Abdul Aziz judged it imprudent to attempt the conquest of the more populous Yemen, or the British protected emirates along the Persian Gulf coast. Kuwait was left alone because of the aid the Kuwaitis had provided when the Saud clan was in need.
The British also guaranteed (and guarded) the borders of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. The Ikhwan cared nothing for these British rules and promises. In response to that problem (with a much more powerful and ruthless threat from Britain) Abdul Aziz spent two years fighting the Ikhwan, eventually bringing them to heel without leaving lasting tensions within the kingdom. One of the principal means of keeping the orthodox Muslims on his side was to continue enforcing a strict brand of religious and cultural orthodoxy in the kingdom. The "religious police" Westerners hear about are the modern day Ikhwan. But instead of riding off, rifle in hand, to destroy the non-religious, the modern day Ikhwan swing canes at anyone rash, or careless, enough to appear irreligious in public. These latter day are becoming more troublesome and very unpopular with most Saudis. If the Sauds decide to act, after consulting religious and tribal leaders, they will suppress the “Ikhwan” once more. In the meantime, the Saudis have placed more limits on the power of the religious police while still relying on more religious and devout tribesmen to keep the Saud family in power. This is done via a private army (the National Guard) that replaced the Ikhwan.
In 1932 Abdul Aziz declared the Saudi controlled lands to be the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For the first time in over a thousand years Arabia was, more or less, firmly united. Yemen and the Persian Gulf emirates, protected by the British, were acknowledged as free from any further attempts at Saudi conquest. For the next twenty years Abdul Aziz prepared his 20 sons (eventually to number 43, including those who died as infants) to carry on his work. This work, then as now, consisted primarily in safeguarding the Moslem holy places and keeping the Saud family in power.
“Ikhwan” means brotherhood in Arabic and such military brotherhoods are common throughout human history. It’s ironic that the most lethal foes of Islamic terrorists are the elite military “Ikhwan” invented by the British during World War II and expanded on by the United States after World War II. These are what we now call commandos.
The U.S. Army came out of World War II with a new attitude towards these “special operations”. Many of the founding members of the U.S. Army Special Forces got their first experience working with World War II guerilla forces (while serving the predecessor of the CIA, the OSS, or Office of Strategic Services). But where the Special Forces, as an institution, got its core competence was in Vietnam. There, the post-World War II operators performed outstanding work, an effort that is largely ignored outside the Special Forces community. In Vietnam the Special Forces learned a lot about culture and military capability.
In the late 1950s, South Vietnam was increasingly embroiled in a civil war with communist groups and a lot of American Special Forces personnel were soon serving as advisors in Southeast Asia. This went from about 1,100 in 1961, roughly half of all US personnel in Vietnam to over 4,000 by 1970. The Special Forces presence grew steadily through the 1960s and spent most of their time in the Central Highlands of Vietnam (an area that extended into both North and South Vietnam). There the Special Forces operators formed a highly effective force of fighters recruited from the many tribes that lived in the area.
The Special Forces soon discovered that not all Montagnard (as the tribes of the area were called) groups had the same military potential. Several tribes were outstanding soldiers, however. These included the Hre (110,000 people in the tribe), Renago (10,000), Rhade (120,000), Sedang (70,000), and, arguably the best of all, the Nung (15,000, with more in North Vietnam). All were originally from south China, except the Rhade, who were Malay-Polynesian (Pacific Islander). Rarely did more than ten percent of a tribe join Special Forces organized units, so the outstanding reputation of the Nung --they were the most likely to be selected for particularly difficult assignments?was formed by a virtual handful of fighting men.
Many of the Montagnards were in it for the money as much as for the adventure. Their own jungle economy made little use of money, so the Special Forces often had to pay them in gold or goods. But this was still cheap. The highest paid Montagnard warrior made less than the lowest ranking U.S. soldier (you could put ten Montagnards in the field for what it cost to send one American out to fight). However, the Montagnards were not comparing themselves to Americans, but to Vietnamese, and they could not but notice that Uncle Sam paid them more than what South Vietnam officers earned. In the elite "Prairie Fire"/ SOG scouts the lowest paid Nung received about $60 a month, more than what a South Vietnamese captain made. The Montagnards were paid in piasters (the South Vietnamese currency), but there were always plenty of traders bringing in goods for the Montagnards to spend their new wealth on. The Montagnards thought this was a most accurate and fair pay scale. The South Vietnamese generally kept their mouths shut. This method of recruitment, organization and management was actually quite ancient but was once more being reinvented.
After Vietnam, many of the thousands of Special Forces operators who served there, wrote down what they had learned, largely in official reports and training materials, but also in books and articles published publicly. In the next three decades leading up to September 11, 2001, the Special Forces operators went around the world working with the armed forces of over a hundred nations. They found that what the Vietnam era operators had discovered, was true all over. Some cultures produced better soldiers, some were easier to work with, more trustworthy, more reliable.
Of course, the British could have told (and sometimes did) the Special Forces that they already knew this. Britain had discovered this in India (and elsewhere) centuries earlier. The British learned to recognize some cultures (and there are hundreds of them in South Asia) as "martial races" (good soldiers). Thus, after two centuries, the British still recruit mercenary soldiers from the Gurkha tribes of Nepal. Like the Nungs of the Vietnam, the Gurkhas make very good soldiers. Some cultures do not.
It's not politically correct to mention that, in general, the Arabs, at least for the last few centuries, have not made very good soldiers. But this was a reality that the Special Forces in particular, and American troops in general, had to deal with. But in Iraq, there's another problem, and that's the decades of tyrannical rule of Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. This created a situation similar to what West Germany encountered when it absorbed East Germany in 1990. After 55 years of Nazi and communist dictatorship, the population was ill-prepared to deal with democracy and a market economy. Americans encounter the same thing in Iraq. Too many people are passive and lack entrepreneurial spirit. The latter is needed to create economic activity and jobs. In Germany, the younger East Germans were more prone to take advantage of their new freedoms. But the older generation was stuck in the "wait for orders from above" mentality. Decades of state terrorism has a lasting impact. All this provided the kind of well- educated but warped (by religion and growing up under tyrants) people needed to create ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). In the 1980s a similar atmosphere in Saudi Arabia provided the manpower and talent needed to get al Qaeda started.
The Iraqi terrorism campaign of 2003-8 was driven largely by the Sunni Arab minority. This group had run Iraq, even when it was part of the Turkish empire (until 1918), for centuries, and had a lock on entrepreneurial and military opportunities. This also demonstrated the presence of one of the local "Martial Races" in the region. That's the Bedouin tribes. Many of the people in southern and western Iraq (both Shia and Sunni) are Bedouins, or were before they moved in and settled down. To the west, the Bedouins in Jordan took advantage of British military training, and the training of competent officers and NCOs, to create one of the most formidable (according to both the British and the Israelis) Arab armies in the region. Thus during the Sunni Arab effort to retake control of Iraq via a terrorism campaign, it was the bad guys who had the most fierce and effective fighters. The Shia Arabs, suffering from centuries of economic and military suppression, had a less useful tradition to draw on. Once the Sunni tribes were convinced to turn against the Sunni terrorist movement (which included al Qaeda), the terrorists were finished.
Up north, the Kurds also had a fighting tradition. Until 1918, the Iraqi Kurds were part of the Turkish homeland. But the British added Mosul province to the newly created Iraq in the 1920s, to deny Turkey the oil fields in northern Iraq. But the Kurds (who are ethnically related to the Iranians) had a tradition of serving capably in the Turkish army (the Turks liked to call them "Mountain Turks," a tag the Kurds tended to reject, despite the complement the Turks were paying to Kurdish military prowess.) Many notable warriors in Arab history, like Saladin, were actually Kurds. Naturally, the Kurds also had an entrepreneurial attitude that Saddam was unable to suppress.
Afghanistan has a similar mosaic of cultures, although most of them are very "martial." But most also have a hard time adjusting to the modern world, as witness the medieval minded Taliban. But the Special Forces has seen it all, and has spread their knowledge and cultural skills throughout the American military, and allied forces as well. Thus when U.S. troops enter a foreign country, they not only try to find out, "who will fight," but also, "who can fight."
Thus the reason who so many young Moslems are attracted to Islamic terrorist groups is because every generation contains a small percentage of men who, despite education and economic opportunities, are drawn to the concept of violent change, especially via a violent and ruthless Ikhwan.