poverty doesn’t breed terrorism

Posted on July 6, 2007

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The revelation that most of the terrorists detained and involved in last week’s UK and Glasgow car bombing plots being doctors put paid to the conventional wisdom that poverty and lack of education are the crucial factors that drive many a desperate young man towards extremism by blowing themselves and others up.

After all, the “biggest” terrorist of them all is Osama bin Laden, and he is no poor boy. The man comes from one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia, billionaires that are also well-connected to the Saudi royal family.

Not that the rest of the other terrorists are billionaires too, but a substantial majority of them are fairly well-educated, coming from middle-class families by and large.

Similarly, the members of the Southeast Asian arm of the al-Qaeda-connected group, Jemaah Islamiah, though halfway around the world, also had well-educated operatives, such as engineers and lecturers.

It is shocking and hard for most of us to understand why people who should theoretically be more able to reason and have more to lose, would willingly put themselves in harm’s way. But economic circumstances is a poor indicator that radicalism would take hold.

Princeton economist Alan Krueger told the Wall Street Journal that his research showed that as a group, terrorists are usually from “wealthier families than the typical person in the same age group in the societies from which they originate”.

He has a good point — most of the September 11 attackers were from relatively wealthy families. Being Saudis, they’re not your typical poor either.

Krueger and his team had also come up with other statistics to back their theory up. They found that research on 148 Palestinian suicide bombers showed that they were not from impoverished families, but were more likely to have graduated from high school than the general Palestinian population. Similar findings cropped up when they researched Hezbollah and Israeli terrorists.

More disturbingly, Mr Krueger and his team discovered that when public opinion polls were held in countries like Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey, the better-educated ones from there were the ones likelier to reply that suicide attacks against Westerners in Iraq are “justified”. Conversely, Palestinian polls demonstrate no visible difference in the opinion between the educated and uneducated about support for terrorism as a way to reach political objectives.

On the other hand, the theory that terrorists spring from poverty hardly has data to back it up. It is an attractive theory though, that most people can easily wrap their heads around. Witness the Bush administration’s statements about fighting poverty in hot spots around the world to combat terrorism.

The Wall Street Journal points out that the 9/11 Commission itself came to the conclusion that terrorism is not brought on by poverty. Instead, Mr Krueger suggests that the suppression of civil liberties and political rights are more plausible causes. That perhaps makes things more alarming, given how many countries suffer from those factors.

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