Where Education and Wealth Fails: Demystifying the Causes of Terrorism

[source: Wikimedia]

On September 19th 2001, in response to the 9/11 attacks, the then State Senator Barack Obama wrote in The Hyde Park Herald that the “fundamental absence of empathy on the part of the attackers… grows out of a climate of poverty, ignorance, helplessness and despair.” At the same time, George Bush revealed one strand of his foreign policy in a similar way, stating: “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”

These canonical statements imply that it is economic deprivation and a lack of education that breeds terrorists; fostering bitterness and extreme views in troubled regions. But this is a reassuringly simple answer to an unnervingly complex problem. It fits nicely with a materialistic Western understanding of empowerment, implying that the sociopathic nature of murderous terrorist attacks is a product of ignorance and economic envy. Among the more recent adherents of this viewpoint have been highly regarded figures and organisations, such as Rowan Williams, the Muslim Council of Britain and Muhammad Yunus.

And yet, defining “terrorism” as premeditated and politically motivated violence, terrorists are in fact more likely to be drawn from relatively high-income, well-educated backgrounds. As a 2007 study by Prof. Krueger of Princeton University reveals, terrorism is not a product of inferior education or economic power. Terrorists do not explicitly seek financial rewards for their actions, and rarely cite academic drought as their motive.

Rather, terrorists are often born from an environment in which civil liberties are suppressed. The educated individual becomes willing to pursue a political grievance through violence when there are few alternatives available. Improved education and lifting people out of poverty should be pursued as ends in themselves, but they are in no way guaranteed to prevent fanatical attacks.

Terrorists are more likely to be educated and relatively wealthy.

Two-thirds of the 25 terrorists involved in the planning and hijacking of the four aircraft in the 9/11 attacks had attended university. More recently, would-be medical student Nasser Muthana from Britain appeared in a video filmed in Syria and linked to Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) entitled “There is no life without Jihad”. His heartbroken father described him as quiet, well-educated and intelligent.

If poverty and poor education had a strong motivating relationship with terrorism, we would all be in immediate peril. Almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and nearly one billion people entered the millennium unable to read a book or sign their names. These variables should be regarded as peripheral causes at the very most.

Think about it in a simple supply-demand model. On the supply side, the material opportunity cost of committing suicide implies that terrorists should be drawn mainly from low-income groups. However, committing oneself to fanatical extremism requires an understanding of the wider political issues at stake, and this tends to be more common among the highly educated.  People with less material wealth tend to prioritise physical gains over ideological goals – and terrorism is rarely concerned with fulfilling the former.

On the demand side, many terrorist organizations have no shortage of people willing to end their lives in the name of a political grievance. So they screen participants, favouring those who are less visible to the authorities and most likely to succeed. To avoid predictability, they often adopt a somewhat random strategy in order to escape an easily recognisable profile.

Combined, these trends point to two conclusions. Firstly, better-educated terrorists are generally chosen from a large and varied pool, heightening the likelihood that terrorists will be from affluent backgrounds. Secondly, the supply side is far more difficult to tackle than the demand side. There will probably always be people driven to extremes by a grievance, and the varied nature of these people makes it difficult to profile a ‘typical’ terrorist. The demand side is easier to combat. Demand for terrorism is not reduced through increased wealth or education, but through offering solid alternatives of political expression; which may, in turn, decrease supply.

Terrorism is an atypical form of voting.

So poverty and poor education cannot entirely explain terrorism. Consider terrorism, then, as a particular criminal occupation. The literature on crime sees criminal activity, economic and academic deprivation as intrinsically and positively linked; but only in the instance of property crime. As studies by Piehl in 1998, and Ruhm in 2000, demonstrate, there is no relationship between poverty, education and the likelihood of perpetrating a violent crime. Low-level, petty crime is prevalent amongst the poor as an economic end in order to survive; violent crime is caused by entirely different psychological motives largely unrelated to material gain.

Or instead, analogise terrorism to voting. Terrorism is a vicious and inept form of political expression. Congruously, people with better education vote in larger numbers than the uneducated, because, in spite of higher opportunity costs, the former perceive a greater benefit from participating in the process than the latter (and find it less costly to form views to express). In fact, in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey in 2004, those with higher levels of education were more likely to argue suicide attacks against Americans and Westerners in Iraq were justifiable. Those with a lower level of education were more likely to reply ‘no opinion’.

Terrorism is bred not from a lack of academic or economic opportunities, but from suppressed civil liberties.

Based on a sample of 11,026 data points, with perpetrators and victims from different countries, and using a sophisticated binomial regression, Professor Krueger’s study (mentioned above) drew some useful conclusions. First, that the provision of civil liberties in a given country was negatively related to originating terrorists, and positively related to being targeted. Second, that being an occupier is positively related to being targeted, and being occupied has a positive effect on becoming a terrorist.

International terrorists are more likely to come from nations that suppress civil liberties. The relationships between the number of international terrorists that originate from the country and the nation’s income per capita or illiteracy rate (as a proxy to education) are statistically insignificant. Being home to a large population of Muslims, or a large population of Christians, similarly has no significant effect.  Adding to the complexity, international terrorism was also found to be less likely to occur between pairs of countries with different predominant religious groups.

Suppressing political rights consistently raises the likelihood that citizens of a given country will partake in terrorism. Suicide missions hit Western targets not because they are affiliated with wealth and education, but because the West is influential, and terrorism has a greater chance of success against a democracy than an autocracy.

Terrorists aim to further political goals, such as forcing a foreign power to withdraw, or influencing the result on an election. Often too weak to wage civil war, terrorists spread fear through the population so as to pressure voters into selecting political change. Empirically, terrorism has influenced political outcomes. In Israel, terrorist attacks within the three months running up to an election were associated with a 1.35 percentage point increase in support for right-block parties – a significant margin given the closeness of most Israeli elections. The closer the attacks are to the election, the greater the impact they are likely to have.

What this shows is that preventing terrorism is achieved best by domestic political reform, ensuring the representation of minorities, securing freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the presence of an independent judiciary. Terrorism is political expression when voting or peaceful methods of protest are no longer a means to an end.

A failure to understand the significance of representative politics is central in assisting organisations such as Islamic State in Iraq – or Nouri al-Maliki’s failure.

Maliki ruled as a proto-dictator. Stridently sectarian, he made every effort to marginalize the Sunni minority. Educated Britons and Europeans, as well as those from advantaged backgrounds in Iraq, have joined Islamic State. Most of IS’s many allies in Iraq say they do not seek conquest, but autonomy for Sunnis or a fairer share of representation in a truly united Iraq. Jessica Lewis, at the Institute for the Study of War, points out that “[IS] have shadow governments in and around Baghdad” and an “aspirational goal to govern.”

Powerful enough to capture cities and key infrastructure, IS have demonstrated in Iraq how broader repressions of individual freedoms strengthen a terrorist cause. From random attacks to full conflict, depriving sectors of society of civil liberties increases the supply of terrorists and the demand for willing fighters when peaceful protest fails. The Sunnis of Iraq are not driven to support IS for economic gain. They do not follow the black flag because they are poorly educated. They see IS as allies who can redress the grievances brought by the Maliki government, which at best ignored the Sunnis, and at worst persecuted them.


If favourable economic circumstances go any way to reducing terrorism, it is by raising the likelihood that a country can also sustain civil liberties and political rights. Greater wealth and improved education alone are insufficient. In Obama’s address on counter-terrorism last May, he argued that “foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity.  It is fundamental to our national security and it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism.” Such aid would, he said, create “reservoirs of goodwill that marginalize extremists.” Though politically useful, these solutions fail to address the fundamental causes of terrorism.

Terrorism is an application of the economics of occupational choice, and is intrinsically tied to a country’s political climate. It is used as a tactical alternative to voting when voting is merely a pretence or is absent altogether. It is not viable to continue declaring a war on a tactic, and a “war on terror” cannot be waged by occupying countries with a propensity for originating international terrorists and trying to educate them.

Domestic political reform, and ensuring full representation, is the only path to reduced terrorism. When non-violent methods are verifiable means to achieve political ends, the opportunity cost of terrorism increases, and both supply and demand plummet.

Yet despite plain evidence, governments continually fall into the same trap. We see this in Iraq and Egypt, where suppressing freedom of speech as a vehicle for a political expression will drive citizens to violent alternatives. Similarly, the West continually encourages political and civil repression through its support of detested regimes for largely material purposes—be it indirect or direct backing—and then mistakes the source of terrorism as envy resulting from economic disenfranchisement.

Support for civil liberties should, according to Krueger, provide “the arsenal in the war on terrorism”. Civil liberties, wealth and education often coincide, but the former is the key to stopping terrorism.