Does Economic Deprivation Create Terrorists?

When senior figures from governments and civil society comment on terrorism, they almost always raise the issue of economic policy: if young, unmarried men had jobs and a bright economic future, they would not be tempted by violence. Counterterrorism policy should therefore go beyond security measures to include economic reforms. This view makes sense, but is it based on an accurate understanding of how terrorists are made?

Understanding why people behave in a certain way is the first step to formulating countermeasures, and social scientists have been studying all forms of deviant behaviour for decades.

There are many ways to understand what drives people toward deviant behaviour, but surely the most valuable is having the opportunity to observe individuals over an extended period of time, and to repeatedly interview them in depth. This approach has provided social scientists – most notably criminologists and psychologists – with great insight into why people act in a way that harms society.

The problem with terrorism, however, is that this method of inquiry is rarely available, especially in the most high-profile cases of transnational terrorism. Terrorists often die carrying out their operations, and when they are apprehended, they are held in high security facilities. Giving social scientists access to such individuals is very low on the authorities’ priority list. In fact, since terrorists usually operate as part of larger organisations, authorities will be keen to isolate the terrorist to extract information about fellow conspirators and systematic support. Allowing an academic to interview a terrorist would potentially undermine efforts at preventing his collaborators from causing further damage.

As a result, academics have extremely limited direct evidence on what motivates terrorists; instead, they have to rely on indirect sources, including: what socio-demographic characteristics do terrorists usually have? What grievances do they express in their own media appearances? To what extent do terrorists have access to alternative economic opportunities?

Before we review what the data suggest, we need to point out another fundamental difficulty in analysing terrorism, which is that terrorists’ motivations seem to be highly specific to the conflict that they are engaged in. A policymaker considering solutions to the problem of Islamist terrorists bombing mosques in the Middle East would probably benefit from speaking to those who tackle secessionist terrorists bombing trains in Europe. But there is a limit to how many insights carry over from one conflict to another.

Despite these challenges, what have we learned about economic deprivation and terrorism? Overall, the evidence is mixed, and sometimes yields inconsistent conclusions.

When we look at evidence based on looking at the characteristics of individual terrorists, economic factors seem to play no role. Terrorists are often highly educated and have good jobs. If this seems counterintuitive, then it is because you are only looking at one aspect of the decision to be a terrorist: having a good education and job means that you have much more to lose by engaging in violence; but it also means that you are far more likely to be politically aware, and to have the intellect required to identify with a political cause. Moreover, from the perspective of terrorist recruiters, an well-off educated individual is very attractive as an operative, and likely to be more effective than an individual with limited skills and means.

In light of this finding, some counterterrorism specialists argue that economic reforms are an ineffective tool in the fight against terrorism. Instead, they promote focusing on undermining the financial and organisational support that terrorists rely upon.

Country-level studies sometimes deliver a different picture. In several countries, including Algeria, Sri Lanka and Turkey, there is evidence that domestic terrorism increased sharply when the economy began to deteriorate, suggesting that economic reforms do have a role to play in a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.

How can economic policymakers reconcile these disparate conclusions? In fact, the most salient recommendation emerging from the scholarly literature is that there are insufficient data on terrorism, especially on the Middle East, where there is an overdependence on data from Israel and Palestine, a very unique conflict with limited insights for the rest of the region. Security authorities need to establish stronger relationships with social scientists, including granting them access to terrorists.

Moreover, in the case of the Middle East, the research needs to be led by local Arabs and Muslims. Too often, those unfamiliar with the regions’ nuances are charged with formulating solutions to terrorism. This is because those who suffer the most from violent conflict, and who see its genesis first hand, have the strongest incentive to find effective solutions. Once the under-contribution by Middle Eastern scholars is addressed, we can look forward to a definitive understanding of the role of economic deprivation to terrorism in the Middle East.

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