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Terrorists and Development
Tuesday, 10 May 2011 03:44

Immediately following the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11, many commentators and political figures like George Bush, Al Gore and Tony Blair were quick to argue that economic deprivation and lack of education were the root causes of extreme views and terrorism.  In a speech to the OECD Forum 2002, Laura Bush said that a lasting victory in the war against terror depends on educating the world's children.  The logic of promoting economic development to fight terrorism was one of the driving forces behind the launching, just a few months later, of the Doha Development Agenda trade negotiations, which are still unfinished.

But as we have recently seen highlighted, Osama bin Laden came from a very wealthy family, was far from lacking in education, and was living a very comfortable life in Pakistan.  So is there any link between economic development and terrorism?

Economists' logic regarding the profile of terrorists was based on their analysis of the economics of crime.  People whose lives are worth very little, and who have very few opportunities, get involved in crime.

Surely this same logic must apply to terrorism?  No!  Terrorists are not just criminels.  They are seeking to make a political statement.  Highly educated people are more likely to become involved politically and are more likely to hold strong views.  This is the argument of Alan Krueger in his book entitled "What Makes a Terrorist".

Krueger shows that terrorists are more likely to come from the well educated than the uneducated, illiterate masses.  Pulling off an act of terrorism also requires some skill.  So terrorist organizations select able people to commit acts of terrorism. 

Krueger also finds little evidence that terrorism is more prevalent among Muslim nations or nations with low GDP per capita and high infant mortality.  We often forget that there are many non-Islamic terrorists, like those from Spain, Colombia and in the recent past from Northern Ireland.  In fact, the British even labelled George Washington a terrorist! 

He argues that terrorists are primarily motivated by geopolitical grievances.  They become fanatics willing to sacrifice innocent victims (and sometimes themselves) because they fervently wish to pursue a grievance (real or perceived) and because they view terrorism as their best means to pursue that grievance.  These grievances may be nationalistic, territorial, religious, environmental and so on.  Clearly in the case of Al Qaeda, they bear a grievance against the US, its presence in the Middle East and its relationships with Middle Eastern governments.  Terrorists are also more likely to come from societies that suppress civil liberties and political rights such as freedom of expression and the right to assembly.

Marc Sageman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued that "the appeal of Al-Qaeda was that the group provided a social community that helped them define and resist the decadent values of the West.  The appeal of that community sems to have been especially strong to the men who had been sent abroad to study and found themsleves alone and underemployed".  This is a perfect description of Saudi Arabia.  The evidence also suggests that a cohesive group with a charismatic leader can find people who will do almost anything.

One interpretation that Krueger draws is that people who grow up in a society with little tradition of peaceful means of protest are more likely to turn to terrorism when they pursue a geopolitical agenda.  He also cites evidence that terrorists are unlikely to be psychologically abnormal.  Rather, they are people who are rationally pursuing a vengeful agenda.      

How to combat terrorists?  Krueger argues that we should target terrorist organizations by weakening their capabilities, and also by promoting peaceful means of protest.  We have to recognize however that in every large population there will be extremists who are willing to sacrifice their lives, and those of otehrs, for some cause. 

Another interesting conclusion of Kruger's work is that the economic effects of terrorism are not very large unless public and governments overreact.  As terrible and tragic as events like 9/11 are, the magnitude of lives, buildings and other capital stock lost are not that great.    

This is the great tragedy of 9/11 for America.  In many ways, 9/11 was a "black swan event", a fluke, which found its way through little holes in the US security system.  In response, the US launched itself and many other nations into immensely costly wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and implemented a vast array of crazy new security systems.  Who now enjoys going to airports?  This is the real victory of Al Qaeda, permanently changing the life of America and economically weakening the nation as lots of money is spent on security, rather than education, health, infrastructure or research.

This is evident in the immense sense of relief and joyous sense of victory that the US is experiencing following its killing of Osama Bin Laden.  And as cathartic as this may be, the damage is done, and the US remains on a war footing.   

But even this is a Pyrrhic victory for Al Qaeda!  Like so many terrorist groups before it, Al Qaeda has not succeeded.  The US is more present than ever in Muslim lands, even as it pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan.  And while Arab populations are now rising up against their oppressive leaders, they are not inspired by Al Qaeda, but by the quest for freedom, democracy and good, clean governance -- the very ideals espoused by the US! 

One issue that none of these authors explore is the role of failed states as safe havens for terrorists.  Countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen, are underdeveloped due in large part to a lack of an effective government.  They can thus be easily occupied by terrorist groups which can use them for training, recruitment, hiding, money laundering and everything else which is necessary to maintain a terrorist organization.  To the extent that economic development can eliminate or reduce failed states, this would undermine the operating capacity of terrorist groups.         

References:

What makes a terrorist?  Alan B. Krueger

http://press.princeton.edu/titles/8465.html

 


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