It has been long believed that the root causes of terrorism lie in poverty, unequal growth and lack of opportunity. Traditional wisdom seems to suggest that poor, discontented youth are the likeliest candidates for recruitment into the wrong side of the law. The logic flows something like this: All things remaining equal, poor neighbourhoods contain ingredients such as lack of educational facilities, lower quality of parenting, dearth of opportunity, exposure to violence and disregard for the law.
The logic that economic discontent breeds the conditions for terrorism has manifested into the belief that addressing poverty and economic deprivation would lead to reduction of people adopting the path of terror. This view has had many proponents. Muhammad Yunus, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2006, said that it is essential to put resources into improving the lives of the poor to reduce the root cause of terror. There is a penchant to link terrorist movements all over the world to economic deprivation and lack of opportunity.
But facts indicate otherwise. On 7 July 2005, four young men exploded bombs in three trains and a bus in London, injuring around 700 and killing 52. In March the previous year, Madrid was rocked by a series of blasts that were far more fatal, killing 191 and injuring 2,050 people. In both the cases, the perpetrators were not from poor backgrounds or lacking educational opportunities. One of the Madrid bombers owned a mobile telephone shop and the London bombers had university education.
Socio-economist Alan Krueger, in his Lionel Robbins Memorial lectures, argued that motivations for terrorism and crime are often confused with each other. The motivation for committing an act of crime is largely economic gain, but for blowing oneself up, a very likely outcome of a terrorist attack, is hardly an economic incentive. If poverty or illiteracy alone were to be the drivers for terrorism, then half the world’s population that lives under $2 a day or 800 million illiterate adults would have torn the world apart with several terrorist acts every single day.
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While some participants in acts of terror may be driven by financial incentives, these are usually naïve foot soldiers rather than senior or even middle-rung personnel. Empirical data has proved that although poverty has a strong correlation with crime, it doesn’t influence terrorism. And, therefore, a strategy to combat terrorism needs to go beyond just economic measures. It needs to address some fundamental drivers that create and fuel terrorism.
The first driver—the core philosophy of terrorism—is also manifested in the terror act itself; the need to achieve an effect far greater than what the actual event warrants. The deaths of 163 people in the Mumbai attacks over three days pales in comparison with an estimated per day deaths caused by suicides (275), or traffic accidents (273). But suicides and traffic deaths don’t get the publicity that terror attacks do. Terrorism 24x7 beamed live into the living room was a key factor during the Mumbai attacks. The driver is an attempt by a faction to exert an influence far beyond its legitimate numerical capability by spreading fear of violence beyond the immediate victims. The key word here is spreading.
The second driver is that terrorism is often economic greed cloaked in ideological causes. The start of the rainbow might have been ideological but the end of certainly has an element of material gain.
The third, and possibly the most deep-rooted driver, is angst at not being able to voice dissent by any other means. Terrorism is a tactic of politically motivated violence.
A national realization and commitment of its citizenry is essential to addressing these three drivers. When the anguished demands of a terrorized people start to influence the judgement of leaders, they are actually playing into the hands of the terrorists.
Terrorists and their criminal nexus use public and private infrastructure to conduct the preparatory aspects of their trade. All too often, most citizens diminish the need for their involvement or civic responsibility. Given the integrated nature of our social structures, these points of contact can serve as excellent early warning systems. Unfortunately, most inputs needed or sought by law enforcement are seen as a chore rather than an active contribution.
Addressing the third driver is possibly the best return on investment. The need to voice an opinion through violence is often preceded by several attempts at peaceful but ineffectual expressions. Legitimacy, unlike beauty, is seldom in the eye of the beholder. And it is truly ironic that we often learn of a new geography, its people and its problems, only when that place or issue has been put on the map with a stamp of terrorist violence.
Whether we like it or not, the world is one family and the problems of one region, country or even continent are unlikely to remain confined to that place. To that extent, it is the responsibility of a nation’s people to be cognizant of issues and viewpoints that could eventually find expression in violence, whether in their own nation or elsewhere. Because, ultimately, it does not matter if you are not interested in terrorism. Terrorism is definitely interested in you.
Raghu Raman is an expert on homeland security. Respond to this fortnightly column at firstname.lastname@example.org