The Causes of Terrorism: It's Not about Money
by Daniel Pipes
In a 1995 op-ed, "It's Not the Economy, Stupid," that I expanded in early 2002 as "God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?" I took issue with the widespread assumption that socio-economic distress drives Muslims to radical Islam, finding that this "is not a response to poverty or impoverishment …. The factors that cause militant Islam to decline or flourish appear to have more to do with issues of identity than with economics."
It has been gratifying to see that several studies have since confirmed this conclusion, though they tend to look more at terrorism than at militant Islam. The most recent entry is Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova in "Does Poverty Cause Terrorism? The economics and the education of suicide bombers," in the New Republic. There, they state:
(June 24, 2002)
June 15, 2003 update: In "Seeking the Roots of Terrorism," Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckov conclude more forcefully that "any connection between poverty, education, and terrorism is, at best, indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak."
Marc Sageman, author of "Understanding Terror Networks."
Marc Sageman, author of "Understanding Terror Networks."
Oct. 1, 2003 update: Scott Atran summarizes his research, reaching similar conclusions, in Discover. In reply to the question, "what's the root cause of suicide terrorism?" he replies: "As a tactical weapon, it emerges when an ideologically devoted people find that they cannot possibly obtain their ends in a sort of fair fight, and when they know they're in a very weak position, and they have to use these kinds of extreme methods." Throughout the interview, he stresses the sanity, education, and high-status of suicide bombers.
Oct. 3, 2004 update: Marc Sageman concludes in book Understanding Terror Networks – reports the Los Angeles Times – from the study of 172 case studies of mujahidin (fighters of jihad), and that social bonds have more of a force than religion in molding extremists. One excerpt:
I would argue that ideas play a more important role than Sageman allows, but the key point is that economics are next to irrelevant in the formation of terrorists.
Oct. 13, 2004 update: I have now seen the Sageman book myself and note that he finds that three quarters of his sample of Al-Qaeda members are from the upper or middle class. Moreover, he notes, "the vast majority – 90 percent – came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that's usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways." Nor were they unemployed or isolated. "Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children.... Three quarters were professionals or semiprofessionals. They are engineers, architects and civil engineers, mostly scientists."
Nov. 4, 2004 update: Alberto Abadie, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has found – contrary to his expectations – that terrorist violence, both international and domestic, is not related to a country's economic advancement and is related to it political freedom. He reached this conclusion in a research paper that examines the connection between terrorism and such variables as wealth, political freedom, geography, and ethnic fractionalization.
He noted two other points of interest. (1) Terrorism is less frequent in truly free and truly repressive societies. It is those in the middle, such as Iraq and Russia at present, that experience this scourge the most. "When you go from an autocratic regime and make the transition to democracy, you may expect a temporary increase in terrorism," Abadie told the Harvard Gazette.
(2) Geography matters. "Failure to eradicate terrorism in some areas of the world has often been attributed to geographic barriers, like mountainous terrain in Afghanistan or tropical jungle in Colombia." This correlation does not surprise Abadie: "Areas of difficult access offer safe haven to terrorist groups, facilitate training, and provide funding through other illegal activities like the production and trafficking of cocaine and opiates."
Jan. 26, 2005 update: The Middle East Media and Research Institute (MEMRI) published a survey of three Arab columnists today, all of whom argue that terrorists are motivated by cultural and religious factors, not poverty. The three (Muhammad Mahfouz, in the Saudi Gazette; Abdallah Rashid, in Al-Ittihad, and Abdallah Nasser al-Fawzan, in Al-Watan) cite the role of cultural and religious factors in motivating terrorism, and particularly the incitement by sheikhs who encourage young men to conduct terror operations.
August 1, 2005 update: An extremist British Muslim, Hassan Butt, rejects the economics argument in an interview, "A British jihadist." Asked if the rise of Islamic extremism among British Muslims is rooted in economic disadvantage, he replies:
Jan. 6, 2006 update: Elegantly confirming Hassan Butt's view is the news that Shehzad Tanweer, a 22-year-old 7/7 suicide bomber who killed eight Londoners, left an estate worth £121,000 after loans, debts and funeral costs had been paid. The origins of his fortune are a bit of a mystery, given that he had worked part time in his family's chip shop in Beeston, Leeds.
Nov. 6, 2006 update: Claude Berrebi of Princeton University summarizes his 76-page research study, "Evidence about the Link Between Education, Poverty and Terrorism Among Palestinians," as follows:
Dec. 6, 2006 update: Broader research by Jean-Paul Azam and Alexandra Delacroix in the Review of Development Economics, "Aid and the Delegated Fight Against Terrorism," finds "a pretty robust empirical result showing that the supply of terrorist activity by any country is positively correlated with the amount of foreign aid received by that country." Taken out of jargon, they are saying that an increase in foreign aid means an increase in terrorism.
Aug. 28, 2007 update: Alan B. Krueger, Bendenheim professor of economics and public policy at Princeton University, has turned his essay (see the June 24, 2002 entry above) into a book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (Princeton University Press). From its introduction:
Sep. 7, 2007 update: Steven Stotsky of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America shows an uncannily close relationship in "Correlating Palestinian Aid and Homicides 2000-2007" between foreign funding to the Palestinian Authority and numbers of homicides. He is cautious about drawing a causal connection from this pattern ("These statistics do not mean that foreign aid causes violence; but they do raise questions about the effectiveness of using foreign donations to promote moderation and combat terrorism") but it sure does look like giving the PA another each US$1.25 million means an additional death within the year.
Oct. 1, 2007 update: Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog put another nail in the poverty-made-them-do-it thesis. Here is the abstract of their impressively researched 90-page paper, "Engineers of Jihad":
Sep. 10, 2009 update: More on Steffen Hertog, professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, who discussed his research findings at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He noted that Islamist terrorists are generally better educated than the population as a whole, with engineers and engineering students making up about 40 percent of those involved in high-profile attacks. "There is a positive correlation between the degree of education and the level of extremism," Mr. Hertog said. Engineers made up about a third of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists and two thirds of the Bali attack. His research will appear in a book titled, Engineers of Jihad.
By way of explanation, Marc Sageman suggested that engineering, as an especially prestigious career in the developing world, attracts "action-oriented" types. "Engineers are more action-oriented than, for example, lawyers. We don't see any lawyer getting involved in a radical extremist group."
Feb. 7, 2010 update: Eli Berman, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, has written a dissent to the prevailing not-economics school of thought. In a new book, Radical, Religious, and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism (M.I.T. Press) he argues that Islamist terrorists are economically rational actors. Excerpts from an article by Devin Leonard in the New York Times
On this basis, "radical Islamic groups extract sacrifices from their members that have economic consequences." He offers specifics:
Berman draws a policy conclusion from this: "we need to do more to stop their revenue streams. He recommends that we discourage gulf states from contributing money to Hamas and cut off the Taliban's inflows of cash from illegal activities." Also, he believes the U.S. government should compete with the terrorist organizations by offering social services in Iraq and Afghanistan. "In the long run, those constructive approaches may well be cost-effective for the United States and other developed countries that are subject to international terrorism."
Comment: Berman's interpretation makes no sense to me. Indeed, it sounds like an academic version of the notorious 2002 statement by Sen. Patty Murray (Democrat of Washington State), explaining Usama bin Ladin's appeal in the Middle East and Africa: "He's been out in these countries for decades building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day care facilities, building health care facilities and people are extremely grateful. He's made their lives better. We have not done that."
May 23, 2011 update: Interestingly, a parallel assumption that crime increases when the economy slides also seems to be incorrect, judging by an article today, "Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts," by Richard A. Oppel Jr. Excerpts:
Mar. 16, 2013 update: The Economist summarizes Clerics of the Jihad by Richard Nielsen of Harvard University. He
From Nielsen's book abstract: "Clerics who are central in the network are substantially less likely to adopt Jihadi ideology than their less-networked peers."
Mar. 18, 2013 update: Sultan Mehmood, an advisor to the Dutch government on macroeconomic policy, offers an important analysis. He begins with a theoretical point: Because Gary Becker and others have established a correlation between poverty and crime, many have assumed a similar link between poverty and terrorism. He cites Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, King Abdullah of Jordan, the archbishop of Canterbury, Tony Blair, and Jessica Stern as subscribing to this view. Indeed, I add: it is well-nigh universal.
But, Mehmood notes, neither the START Global Terrorism Database nor researchers have validated such an assumption. Indeed, a recent review of the literature by Martin Gassebner and Simon Luechinger of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute, established this absence of a link:
Mehmood then turns to Pakistan which, he argues, has a unique importance because the death toll from terrorism there "exceeds the combined terrorism-related deaths for both Europe and North America." Hence, understanding terrorism means understanding its dynamics and causes in Pakistan. He finds several indications that the same lack of linkage between poverty and terrorism holds there:
So, what moves individuals to adopt terrorism?
Mehmood cites Alan Krueger of Princeton University who
The solution to terrorism, writes Mehmood, "is not more growth but more freedom."
(1) This conclusion comports generally with my view that terrorists are motivated by politics rather than economics. But if freedom is the key, why do Muslims living in the West disproportionately engage in terrorism? I would argue that there is no single key, that taking up terrorism results from an unquantifiable mix of personality, outlook, and circumstances beyond the reach of social scientists.
(2) Read again this phrase: "the poor are actually 23 times more averse to extremist violence relative to middle-class citizens": that decisively sums up the topic.
Apr. 4, 2013 update: The Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. has just published a 56-page study, The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death that looks at 917 biographies of Lashkar members killed in combat. It provides important insight into the characteristics of Pakistani terrorists. Looking into their educational background, it finds:
Then, about employment, the study's authors make three points:
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