Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Roots of Terrorism

I recently came across this Slate article discussing comments made by President Obama, when he was still a Senator, about the causes of terrorism. At the time of the 9/11 attacks, Obama argued that extremist violence “grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance.” The Slate article gives a really good analysis of these claims and the wider academic debate surrounding the idea that terrorism is caused by poverty and ignorance - go give it a read.

I think this is a really interesting topic of debate! Terrorism is often associated with poverty because it is compared with crime. The extensive literature on the economics of crime offers some reason to believe that poverty and lack of education are linked to illegal activity. However violence crimes, such as murder, are generally unrelated to economic opportunities. And anyway, terrorism isn’t really comparable to crime.

The Slate article mentions the fantastic article by Krueger and Maleckova (2002) entitled ‘Education, Poverty and Terrorism’. In their article, Krueger and Maleckova argue that terrorism may actually offer greater benefits for those with more education. Well-educated individuals may participate disproportionately in terrorist groups if they think they will assume leadership positions or if they identify more strongly with the goals of the terrorist organisation than less educated individuals.

It’s also important to consider the demand side of the equation, not just supply. This is a point elaborated on by Pape in his fascinating article ‘The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism’. Terrorist organisations may prefer better-educated individuals since a high level of educational attainment is probably a signal of one’s commitment to a cause as well as determination and ability to prepare for, and carry out, an assignment.

Krueger and Maleckova also make the excellent point that there needs to be a distinction between suicide terrorists and other terrorists. Suicide bombers are obviously less motivated by personal gain (although promises of larger payments to their families may be a factor) and thus their primary motivation derives from their passionate support for their movement. Eradicating poverty and improving education is unlikely to change these feelings.

This is just a brief summary of the debate. You should really check out the Slate article, then click on the links and read all of those articles too! When you’re done reading all those articles… check out the books and articles below…

Chapter 5 of Barkawi (2005) 'Globalisation and War' has an interesting discussion on terrorism

Pape (2003) 'The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism'

Crenshaw (2007) 'Terrorism and Global Security'

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