Rethinking the Relationship Between Poverty and Terrorism
U.S. Policymakers have generally accepted as essential and uncontested fact that poverty and terrorism are directly and causally linked. The current U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy, for instance, explains that al-Qaeda must be confronted with a “CT strategy embedded within an overall strategy of enhanced U.S. economic and political engagement with Southeast Asia that fosters peace, prosperity and democracy in the region.”[i] Yet, a substantial amount of scholarship casts doubt on the purported nexus between poverty and terrorism, or what is often referred to as the poverty-terrorism hypothesis.
In fact, the truth is more complicated. Poverty does not cause terrorism, but neither is it irrelevant. Numerous empirical and anecdotal studies demonstrate that there is no direct connection between poverty and terrorism. However, poverty can still have an important, if indirect, role in contributing to an individual or group’s predisposition to participate in terrorism. Poverty can help spur radicalization by reinforcing other sources of disaffection and can also increase opportunities for terrorism by hampering the ability of governments to effectively employ counterterrorism measures.
Poverty as Causation?
In attempting to elucidate the relationship between poverty and terrorism, scholars have applied multiple levels of analysis, but have come to the broadly similar conclusion that no direct link exists. At the individual level, a variety of empirical and anecdotal studies exist. For example, after surveying 250 members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Nasra Hassan observed that “None of them were uneducated, desperately poor…two were the sons of millionaires.”[ii] In another study, Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova compared 129 members of Hizballah to a similar age cohort in the Lebanese general population and found that the Hizballah members had a lower unemployment rate.[iii] Indeed, their analysis actually suggests an inverse relationship between poverty and terrorism; a thirty point percentage increase in poverty is correlated with a ten percent reduction in the likelihood of joining Hizballah.
Other studies have set aside the question of poverty’s relationship with radicalization at the level of the individual and considered instead whether economic disparities among different regions within a country predispose poorer areas to terrorism. Analyzing terrorism across different states in India, James Piazza concludes that economic factors are less important than political issues, noting that high levels of terrorist activity can be found in both wealthy and poor states. On the other hand, he observes that states suffering from unresolved, long-term political crises have a higher degree of terrorist activity.[iv]
Finally, a number of studies have focused analysis at the national level, evaluating cross-country measures of poverty and the relative predisposition or resistance to terrorism of poorer and richer countries. In one of the most widely cited of these studies, Alberto Abadie broadly agrees with Piazza, assessing that political oppression is positively correlated with terrorism, but that there is no “significant association between terrorism and economic variables such as income once the effect of other country characteristics is taken into account.”[v] Taken together, the body of scholarship on poverty and terrorism- encompassing numerous regions and employing a broad array of methodologies- indicates that regardless of whether the poverty-terrorism hypothesis is considered at the national, regional, or individual level, there is no demonstrable empirical link between terrorism and poverty.
If empirical studies largely reject a causal relationship between poverty and terrorism, supporters of the hypothesis have turned to theory for their most compelling arguments. Indeed, the argument that poverty breeds desperation and desperation begets terrorism is powerfully and intuitively compelling. But even the stronger theoretical arguments for the poverty-terrorism hypothesis weaken under stricter scrutiny. For instance, while it is often accepted prima facie that poverty is at least consistent in theory with a higher predisposition to participate in terrorism, Krueger and Maletckova point out that Hassan’s interview subjects emphasize political grievances and argue that not only is eliminating poverty unlikely to allay these feelings, but higher levels of wealth may actually aggravate them if those who are well off perceive them more acutely.[vi]
To be sure, many scholars reject the conclusion that poverty and terrorism are unconnected. In support of this position, they point to a number of studies indicating a direct and substantial link. However, these studies are undermined by important weaknesses.
One popular and intriguing argument employed by supporters of the poverty-terrorism hypothesis has focused on biases introduced by the recruitment regimes employed by terrorist organizations. According to this argument, organizations favor recruits of higher socioeconomic status first, because they’re likely to be better skilled and more educated, and second because by voluntarily abandoning material comforts otherwise available to them they have demonstrated a high level of commitment to the cause.[vii] Consequently, even if the pool of potential terrorists is predominantly poor, the selection process obscures this fact by disproportionately choosing among the few wealthy recruits while largely ignoring the many poor options. However, if this argument is correct we should expect a positive correlation between poverty and support for terrorism; even if impoverished individuals are less likely to be accepted by a terrorist organization, they should still be more likely to support it. On the contrary, one study examining this question found that Palestinian support for armed attacks against Israeli targets actually fell among the unemployed.[viii]
Another flaw in studies supportive of the poverty-terrorism hypothesis is an emphasis on economic factors where political or other issues may be equally salient. Pinar Derin-Gure has challenged the findings of Krueger and others by drawing a distinction between separatist terrorism and other types of domestic terrorism under the hypothesis that impoverished separatist regions may be especially prone to terrorism. He considers the economic conditions of a variety of separatist regions that have seen heightened rates of terrorism and confirms his hypothesis, concluding that “separatist terrorists tend to originate from poorer areas.”[ix] Yet, while isolating separatist terrorism from other forms of domestic political violence offers an intriguing new perspective, it fails to consider that separatist regions typically experience socioeconomic deprivation alongside a multitude of other grievances, including political repression and racial or ethnic discrimination. To establish that economic factors are causal, they need to be isolated from these other plausible grievances.
Poverty as a Contributory Factor?
Ultimately, the many studies assessing terrorism and poverty demonstrate that socioeconomic deprivation does not have a direct, causal relationship with terrorism. However, this does not mean that poverty is irrelevant. Indeed, by contributing to radicalization and expanding opportunities for political violence, poverty still bears on terrorism in three important, if indirect, ways.
First, even if absolute levels of poverty are unimportant, socioeconomic deprivation relative to the expectations of a group or individual can be a significant grievance. As Neal Smelser notes numerous studies have demonstrated that “strains could not be identified solely as objective conditions, such as absolute level of poverty, but always had to be assessed relative to some kind of expectation.”[x] According to Smelser, this principle of relative deprivation is “a universal feature of disaffection.”[xi] It’s important to distinguish the concept of relative deprivation from the claim that poverty directly fuels terrorism because it is the perception of inequality, rather than poverty itself, that fuels alienation. As Smelser argues, awareness of this socioeconomic disparity serves to “make other, remaining foci of exclusion more visible and aggravating.”[xii] Lending support to this theory, a report prepared by the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI) finds that “it seems clear that large socio-economic inequalities are more conflict generating if…they are reinforced by other grievances of a more political nature, such as ethnic discrimination.”[xiii] Notably, the economic factors by themselves are less important than their role in substantiating and reinforcing existing grievances.
Beyond its theoretical appeal, the principle of relative deprivation has empirical support. For example, Piazza has studied the relationship between economic discrimination against minority groups and terrorism. He concludes that “minority economic discrimination is a significant predictor of domestic terrorist events in countries and that absence of and remediation of minority economic discrimination are significant negative predictors of domestic terrorism.”[xiv] Again, he emphasizes the importance of socioeconomic deprivation as just one component of a confluence of mutually reinforcing grievances. “Minority economic discrimination – which usually involves some combination of employment discrimination, unequal access to government health, educational or social services, and lack of economic opportunities available to the rest of society – is a catalyst for the development of minority group grievances.”[xv]
Second, economic deprivation can also indirectly foster radicalization by producing and emphasizing status dissonance. As Matthew Venhaus argues, unrealized expectations of success often drive radicalization by compelling young men with limited opportunities to seek status through participation in terrorism.[xvi] Unemployment is often a particularly potent trigger for feelings of status dissatisfaction. For example, Muhsin Hassan interviewed 15 former al-Shabaab members and concluded “although personal poverty is not a reason for joining violent extremism, the cases of these youth show that the effects of poverty, such as idleness and low self-esteem cannot be ignored in this discussion. The fact that many Somali youth are unemployed and rely on relatives for sustenance…dampens their self-worth such that when an opportunity to fend for oneself arises, they are quick to take advantage.”[xvii]
Finally, poverty can contribute to terrorism by increasing opportunities for violent political action. Smelser points out that radicalization alone is insufficient for the incidence of terrorism. Instead, this radicalization must occur in the context of what he terms the “opportunity structure.”[xviii] If opportunity can be restricted, terrorism can be deterred. But there is a significant disparity between the capacity of poor and wealthy countries to respond to terrorism. While the governments of rich countries will have sufficient financial resources to train, pay, and equip a strong police and army, poor countries will generally be beset by ill-equipped and poorly trained security forces. Worse still, the security forces in poorer countries are more likely to be corrupt and often attempt to mask any shortcomings in training or equipment with exceptional levels of brutality, meaning that their response may not be merely ineffective, but outright counterproductive. Finally, economic discrimination against minority populations can also exert an important influence on the opportunity structure. As Piazza points out, aggrieved minority populations will likely be less willing to cooperate with the government on security operations.[xix]
The question of whether or not poverty causes terrorism is complex and refuses to lend itself to a categorical yes or no answer. On one hand, a review of the literature suggests that poverty is not a direct and immediate cause of terrorism. At the same time, it can have an important, albeit indirect, role in producing political violence. Most importantly, it can promote radicalization by reinforcing other sources of disaffection or facilitate terrorism by weakening state capacity and offering greater opportunity for violent political expression.
Policymakers should bear these lessons in mind when designing counterterrorism strategies. Broad poverty reduction programs, while admirable in their own right, are unlikely to be an effective counterterror tool. On the other hand, more targeted assistance- including measures aimed at reducing discrimination against minority groups, promoting positive paths to self-esteem for potential terrorist recruits, or bolstering indigenous counterterrorism security forces –may have a more significant impact. Such narrowly tailored aid programs connected to specific objectives should replace broad poverty reduction measures in future counterterrorism strategies.
[i] “National Strategy for Counterterrorism,” Office of the President of the United States (June 2011), 16.
[ii] Nasra Hassan, “An Arsenal of Believers,” The New Yorker, November 19, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2001/11/19/011119fa_FACT1?currentPage=all.
[iii] Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, “Education, Poverty, Political Violence, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2002), 9.
[iv] James A. Piazza, “Economic Development, Poorly Managed Political Conflict and Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 32, No. 5 (May 2009), 416.
[v] Alberto Abadie, “Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 96, No. 2 (May 2006), 57.
[vi] Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, “Education, Poverty, Political Violence, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2002), 9.
[vii] James A. Piazza, “Poverty, minority economic discrimination, and domestic terrorism,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 48 (March 2011), 340.
[viii] Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, “Education, Poverty, Political Violence, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” National Bureau of Economic Research (July 2002), 16.
[ix] Pinar Derin-Güre, “Does Terrorism Have Economic Roots?” Boston University (May 15, 2009), 6.
[x] Neal Smelser, The Faces of Terrorism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 15.
[xii] Ibid, 16.
[xiii] Brynjar Lia and Katja Skolberg, “Causes of Terrorism: An Expanded and Updated Review of the Literature,” Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 27.
[xiv] James A. Piazza, “Poverty, minority economic discrimination, and domestic terrorism,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 48 (March 2011), 349.
[xv] Ibid, 341.
[xvi] Matthew Venhaus, “Why Youth Join al-Qaeda,” US Institute of Peace Special Report (2010), 9.
[xvii] Muhsin Hassan, “Understanding Drivers of Violent Extremism: The Case of al-Shabab and Somali Youth,” CTC Sentinel, Vol. 5, Iss. 8 (August 2012), 18.
[xviii] Neal Smelser, The Faces of Terrorism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 29.
[xix] James A. Piazza, “Poverty, minority economic discrimination, and domestic terrorism,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 48 (March 2011), 341.