Understanding Terrorism

My review below of What Makes a Terrorist, by Alan B Krueger, appears in today’s Mint.

What causes terrorism? In the post-9/11 world, this question has assumed an urgency that goes beyond academics. All our lives are touched, in some way or the other, by terrorism. Powerful governments base their strategic decisions on what they perceive to the answer, and if they are wrong, they can contribute to the problem instead of finding solutions. What Makes a Terrorist, by Princeton economist Alan B Krueger, is an important book for this reason.

Krueger states early in his book: “The popular explanations for terrorism—poverty, lack of education or the catchall ‘they hate our way of life and freedom’—simply have no systematic empirical basis. These explanations have been embraced almost entirely on faith, not scientific evidence.” He then goes on to present a pile of available data on terrorism that backs up his assertion.

Krueger’s book is drawn from three lectures that he gave as part of the Lionel Robbins Memorial Lecture Series in February 2006. In the first of these lectures, he tackles poverty and education. Looking into the economic background of terrorists, Krueger cites a study that compares “suicide bombers and other militants” from the West Bank and Gaza strip with the entire male population aged 16 to 50, and find that “suicide bombers were less than half as likely to come from families that were below the poverty line.” Krueger gets similar results from studies on Hezbollah and Gush Emunim, an Israeli group. 

Krueger cites public opinion surveys across Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey that show that terrorism finds more support among the better educated than among the uneducated. The biographical details of known terrorists bring him to an identical conclusion.

Krueger examines a few possible reasons for this. One, groups like Hamas recruit “mainly on college campuses,” and the impoverished don’t attend college to begin with. Two, the supply of wannabe terrorists is greater than what terrorists groups can absorb—a Hamas leader once told the New Yorker: “Our biggest problem is the hordes of young men who beat on our doors, clamoring to be sent on suicide missions. It is difficult to select only a few.” These few would be those more likely to succeed—and perhaps consequently, more educated and less poor.

Krueger argues that while poverty may be a factor in street crime, terrorism, which he defines as “politically motivated violence”, draws a different kind of person. He draws an analogy with voting, saying that voters tend to be better educated and wealthier than non voters because “they care about influencing the outcome and consider themselves sufficiently well-informed to want to express their opinions.” He sums it up neatly: “Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so deeply and fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”

Does poverty play a part at the political level then? Perhaps terrorists take to violence to protest at the poverty around them? Krueger’s second lecture counters this view. “[I]nternational terrorists are more likely to come from moderate-income countries than poor ones,” he says. His data throws up an interesting set of factors that countries spawning terrorism have in common: “the suppression of civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of the press, the freedom to assemble, and democratic rights.” Krueger elaborates: “When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed, malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics.” In other words, terrorism as a form of political expression may often be a last resort, when all others are closed.

Krueger’s third lecture evaluates “the economic consequences of terrorist attacks”, concluding that “terrorists only affect the economy if the public lets them, that is, if people and their leaders over-react.” A valuable part of the book comes at the end, where Krueger reproduces the question-and-answer sessions after his lectures, in which he and his audience delve into the nuances of his findings. 

Krueger’s book contains more insight on Middle-Eastern terrorism than on South Asia, but that is a minor quibble, and a constraint imposed by the data available to him. Humans everywhere are essentially the same, responding to incentives and scarcity, as represented by their social conditions. Krueger’s book is a necessary read for anyone who wishes to understand terrorism, especially because many of the popular notions of what causes it are not rooted in reality. One wishes that politicians, especially, would pay attention.