The Roots of Terrorism

Economic Injustice Downplayed as a Cause

NEW YORK, JULY 12, 2003 ( Some commentators argue that terrorism is stimulated by conditions of economic and social misery, and they call for greater economic aid to poor countries to prevent further problems. Scott Atran doesn’t agree with that view.

In a May 5 opinion article for the New York Times, Atran, a research scientist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and at the University of Michigan, noted that a U.S. State Department report, issued on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, said that development aid should be based “on the belief that poverty provides a breeding ground for terrorism.”

But, argued Atran, numerous studies show that suicide attackers and their supporters are rarely uneducated or impoverished. He cited a study published last year by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and others, who compared Lebanese Hezbollah militants to other Lebanese of the same age group. Research showed that the Hezbollah members were less likely to come from poor homes and more likely to have a secondary school education.

He also cited U.S. Army officials who have interrogated Saudi-born members of al-Qaida detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The officials told him that the detainees, especially those in leadership positions, are often well educated and come from high-status families. Atran further argued that suicide terrorists tend not to be socially dysfunctional, or to act out of despair.

Krueger returned to the theme in a May 29 opinion article for the New York Times. “Most terrorists are not motivated by the prospect of financial gain or the hopelessness of poverty,” he said. New research on the background of Palestinian suicide bombers, for instance, found that 13% came from impoverished families, compared with about a third of the Palestinian population that lives in poverty. No fewer than 57% of suicide bombers have some education beyond high school, compared with just 15% of the population of comparable age, Krueger noted.

He also analyzed the data the State Department collects on significant international terrorist incidents. It turns out that more terrorists do come from poor countries than from rich ones. But this, he argued, is because poor countries tend to lack civil liberties. Once a country’s degree of civil liberties is taken into account, he explained, income per capita bears no relation to involvement in terrorism. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which are the homes of many terrorists, are rich economically but lacking in civil liberties. By contrast, poor countries with a tradition of protecting civil liberties are unlikely to spawn terrorists.

“Evidently, the freedom to assemble and protest peacefully without interference from the government goes a long way to providing an alternative to terrorism,” Krueger contended.

Middle-class phenomenon

Walter Laqueur also thinks poverty is not a major factor behind today’s terrorism. Laqueur is the author of many books on terrorism and a professor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has just published the book “No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century.”

His latest book notes that many have held terrorism to be a response to injustice, and that terrorists are people driven to desperate actions by intolerable conditions. In the past — in czarist Russia, for example — this argument had some justification. However, while some European and Islamic terrorists have professed to act on behalf of the poor, Laqueur notes that hardly any terrorist activity occurs in the 49 countries designated by the United Nations as the least developed.

In the more-developed countries, he observes, the Irish Republican Army has traditionally drawn its members from the lower middle class and working class. But the Basque terror group ETA is mainly middle class in its composition. Likewise, the Latin American terrorists of the 1970s, along with their extreme-left contemporaries in Europe, were known for drawing their members from the well-educated middle class.

Some terrorist groups, Laqueur admits, do draw the greater part of their members from impoverished classes. This is the case of the Algerian Islamic terrorists, and the Shining Path group in Peru. However, the leadership has always come from the elite.

In the Middle East, many members of terrorist groups are from a poor background, but the leadership is strictly middle class. Egyptian and Saudi suicide bombers come from middle- or upper-middle class families. And many of the members of the Osama bin Laden network are university graduates. Radical Islamic terrorism, observes Laqueur, “is not a movement aiming at social revolution.” Though support for al-Qaida is strong among the poor in Pakistan, the militants must necessarily come from a privileged background, operating as they do outside their own countries without drawing undue attention.

One economic factor that might stimulate terrorism is the high population growth in the Arab world, combined with the incapacity of governments to find jobs for young people leaving or graduating from school. This factor certainly operates in Saudi Arabia, the source of many terrorists. However, argues Laqueur, the same problem exists in countries such as Jordan and Syria, not known for producing many terrorists. Youth unemployment as such is not the source of terrorism, he explains. The real reason, he thinks, is twofold: The education system has fallen into the hands of Islamists; and there is a lack of secular entertainment for young people.

Laqueur certainly does not write off the need for economic development. “The present distribution of wealth between nations and within many nations is not conducive to social and political peace,” he comments. He notes the common belief that misery in the Third World is the result of past imperialism or current exploitation by the First World. But, he warns, we should not fall into the error of seeing poverty as the principal cause of terrorism.

Terrorism, he contends, occurs not so much in conditions of poverty, but rather when various political, economic and social trends coincide. Poverty can be a contributing factor to the emergence and spread of terrorism, but other factors, such as ethnic and national tensions, are “of considerably greater relevance.”

Religious fanaticism

Another factor Laqueur points out is that there is more violence and aggression in Muslim societies than in most others. Hardly any of the 22 member states of the Arab League and the 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have been free of major political violence in the last 20 years.

Terrorism, explains Laqueur, is a complex phenomenon that has undergone many changes over the past decades. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a worldwide decline in terrorist action. Then came an upsurge, characterized by the role of Islamic terrorism. “Religious and nationalist fanaticism is the predominant feature of terrorism at the current time,” concludes Laqueur.

Pointing out the religious source of terrorism does not mean that Islam as a whole should be considered as extremist. In his recent book, “The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror,” Bernard Lewis observes: “Most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and most fundamentalists are not terrorists, but most present-day terrorists are Muslims and proudly identify themselves as such.”

Lewis points out that many of bin Laden’s statements and actions directly contradict basic Islamic principles and teachings. Moreover, all the main extremist Islamic groups are highly selective in their choice and interpretation of sacred texts. However, Lewis clearly shows that the extremists are driven by religious, not economic, motivations. Which means putting an end to the current rash of terrorism will take more than just an economic response.

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