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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Terrorists Are Rich and Smart: A Long Post on a Longer Research Paper

posted by on November 15 at 12:18 PM

It’s one of those ideological litmus-test questions that’s unwise to ask at the Thanksgiving dinner table: Is terrorism caused by problems than can be socially engineered away, like ignorance and poverty?

Or is terrorism caused by, you know, evil?

Fascinating new research by Alan Krueger, an economics professor at Princeton, says neither.

So all that popular guff about fighting terrorism with economic development? Not so much.

Here’s some of Kreuger’s evidence.

From a survey of 1,300 Palestinian adults, regarding armed attacks against Israel:

while 26 percent of illiterates and 18 per cent of those with only an elementary education opposed or strongly opposed armed attacks, the figure for those with a high school education was just 12 percent. The least supportive group turned out to be the unemployed, 74 percent of whom said they support or strongly back armed attacks. By comparison, the support level for merchants and professionals was 87 percent.

(To distill from his slightly tortured economist’s prose: Opposition to armed attacks is higher among illiterates; support for armed attacks is lower—although 74 percent hardly seems low—among the unemployed.)

He also finds that suicide bombers come from wealthier families and that almost 60 percent of them have “more than a high school education, compared with less than 15 percent of the general population.”

The same kinds of wealth-and-education statistics hold for Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents—most of them wealthier and better-educated than their non-terrorist peers.

These aren’t just the strategists and the figureheads like Bin Laden—these are the foot soldiers, the cannon fodder.

So what gives? Why are the wealthier and more educated—the people with more to lose, from an economist’s point of view—becoming suicide bombers and terrorists?

On the supply side: Terrorism, Krueger says, is less like crime (more popular among the poor) and more like voting or protesting (more popular among the rich).

On the demand side:

… terrorist organizations want to succeed. The costs of failure are high. So the organizations select more able participants—which again points to those who are better educated and better off economically.

What isn’t surprising: Terrorists aren’t starved for money, they’re starved for civil liberties.

Using data from the Freedom House Index, for example, I found that countries with low levels of civil liberties are more likely to be the countries of origin of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks. In addition, terrorists tend to attack nearby targets. Even international terrorism tends to be motivated by local concerns.

So how to fight terrorism, Professor Krueger?

That suggests to me that it makes sense to focus on the demand side, such as by degrading terrorist organizations’ financial and technical capabilities, and by vigorously protecting and promoting peaceful means of protest, so there is less demand for pursuing grievances through violent means.

The answer still isn’t “invade Iran.”

RSS icon Comments


Excellent post, thanks.

I took the liberty of reposting it on a small forum I am a part of (with full credit to authour and Strager/Slog of course).

Posted by K X One | November 15, 2007 1:29 PM

Fascinating. Also somewhat disturbing.

Posted by Greg | November 15, 2007 1:31 PM

Considering al-Qaeda gets more than 90 percent of it's funding and volunteers from Saudi Arabia, it follows that we need to stop subsidizing oil usage.

Or the terrorists win.

Posted by Will in Seattle | November 15, 2007 1:35 PM

we also need to stop supporting "our bastards" as Truman referred to these "allied" dictators.

do you think the situation in Pakistan would be happening if the US hadn't supported the person who oppressed their civil liberties? maybe, but there is no question that it isn't helping the people of pakistan

Posted by vooodooo84 | November 15, 2007 1:41 PM

kinda like leninism, they are the vanguard working on behalf of what they think are the 'oppressed'

Posted by Jiberish | November 15, 2007 1:46 PM

I actually find this kind of thing fascinating.

I don't believe in "evil" in a religious sense. But it is also obvious that it isn't just ignorant dorks blowing themselves up. Terrorists are fanatics. Fanatics are not necessarily stupid. Some of them even learn to fly jetliners. To dismiss terrorists as ignorant can be our undoing.

I would also agree that simple education and economic status isn't the solution. A fanatic with more money and a better education is still a fanatic.

I agree with Krueger's premise that one way to fight terrorism is through protecting civil liberties.

We joke about the religious right in the US as being the "American Taliban". And there is some correlation. Both are fanatic. Both are religiously based. However, the huge difference is that the religious right in the US don't blow themselves up to achieve their goals. They rarely even commit extreme acts of violence. Blowing up a federal building or shooting abortion doctors are an exception, not the rule. Why? For the most part, they believe they can further their causes peacefully. They have a voice (Fox News, anyone?).

For terrorists, violent lashing out is seen as the best means of expressing their grievances, or even the only means. Trying to suppress that through the presence of a huge military force doesn't change that dynamic. It only changes the tactics. That is why waging a "war on terror" though military means isn't working, and cannot work, in the long run.

Posted by SDA in SEA | November 15, 2007 1:48 PM

See also work by Scott Atran.

Posted by RonK, Seattle | November 15, 2007 3:31 PM

There will be religious fanatics in any society. And there will be poor and unemployed who feel oppressed. But there is also a middle class of professionals and merchants who tend to be the backbone of a stable society. In much of the Arab world, Iraq and Palestine in particular, these people have been disenfranchised. Saddam may have been a brutal dictator, but day to day, professional people and merchants had a passably comfortable life so long as they kept a reasonably low profile. But in occupied Palestine, they've been driven into refugee camps and had their houses and olive groves bull dozed. In Iraq the reconstruction funds went to Halliburton and Bechtel, not to the local business and professional class. So a large, well educated group, who rightly expected to share in whatever economic well being there was available under Saddam, have been cut out of the picture. And they're understandably pissed. The American middle class would be too if it happened here. Our fatal mistake in the Iraqi occupation was not fostering an indigenous middle class who had an interest in supporting a stable society. Instead we got greedy and wanted it all for ourselves. Now we reap the whirlwind and wonder why they hate us.

Posted by dreamflying | November 15, 2007 4:34 PM

If 74% of the unemployed support the attacks, how can they be characterised as less supportive than the illiterates, of whom we only know that 26% oppose attacks? Doesn't that mean a MAXIMUM of 74% of illiterates are in support? Sheesh...

Posted by banjoboy | November 15, 2007 7:34 PM

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