It’s not the poverty in the Middle East that’s driving terrorism—it’s the politics

Does ISIL ride for poverty, or for politics?
Does ISIL ride for poverty, or for politics?
Image: Reuters
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Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose data on worsening inequality in advanced economies has captivated the public, makes a compelling—if not original—argument that economic disparities in the Middle East are a key motivation for terror attacks, including the recent ISIL murders in Paris.

“It is obvious that terrorism feeds on the Middle Eastern powder keg of inequality we have largely contributed to create,” Piketty wrote in Le Monde on Nov. 24, building on his research into inequality in the region.

His thinking wouldn’t be out of line with what then-US president George W. Bush told the United Nations in 2002, that “we fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”

Such a conclusion affirms a basic intuition we have about people who would perform abhorrent suicide missions in the name of a cause—that they must be desperate—and our hope that throwing money at this problem can solve it.

But empirical studies suggest that poverty and inequality aren’t behind terror attacks. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Alan Krueger, the Princeton economist and future Obama administration official, examined databases of terror attacks to identify trends among the participants. Surprisingly, he found most were well-educated and not poor.

A quick summary:

  • Studies of lynchings in the United States from 1882 to 1938 show no correlation between economic conditions and where these crimes occurred; contemporary studies of hate crimes in the United States and Germany show no correlation between violence against minorities and economic conditions
  • A study of Hezbollah fighters in the 1980s and 1990s found that they were likely to be wealthier and better educated than the general Shi’a population of Lebanon at the time.
  • An analysis of Palestinian terror attacks in Israel and the West Bank between 1987 and 2002 found that the poverty rate among suicide bombers was half that of the general population (15% versus 30%) and they were far more educated than average. A study of Israeli terrorists active in the 1970s and ’80s found that they, too, were wealthier and better educated than their peers.
  • Finally, Krueger and his co-author assembled a data set of major terrorist attacks from 1997 to 2001, and found no correlation between poor economic performance and terrorism: “Once one accounts for the fact that poorer countries are less likely to have basic civil liberties, there is no difference in the number of terrorists springing from the poorest or the richest countries.”

Later studies confirmed these effects: A 2006 study (pdf) using a broader time range also found that poor countries did not produce more terrorists. By 2007, Krueger had also looked at 311 foreign combatants captured by the US in Iraq, and concluded “that countries with a higher GDP per capita were actually more likely to have their citizens involved in the insurgency than were poorer countries.”

Anecdotally, this lines up with what we know about the Paris attacks, which appear to have been perpetrated largely by radicalized European citizens. Two conspirators in the Paris attacks owned a bar, while the alleged planner’s family appears to be middle class, owning a clothing store and a home in Belgium. And the mechanism of radicalization for many terrorists—traveling to the Middle East to fight alongside armed groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda in Iraq, or today ISIL—demands funds that would be beyond the reach of the truly impoverished.

This seems to confirm what Krueger has written: “Most terrorists are not so desperately poor that they have nothing to live for. Instead, they are people who care so fervently about a cause that they are willing to die for it.”

It’s possible, of course, that the dynamics of terror are evolving. Organizations like ISIL blur the lines between terrorist groups and insurgent movements; ISIL’s foot soldiers in Syria and Iraq may be motivated differently than its terror operatives. But the data we have suggests that in blaming terrorism on inequality, Piketty has the mechanism wrong.

However, we can still draw one connection between Piketty’s arguments and the data about terrorists. He notes that Middle East economies with high inequality are typically the semi-or-outright authoritarian regimes backed by the West, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the Gulf States.

Inequality is a very real factor in these corrupt countries, but so too are crackdowns on civil liberties and political participation. The studies cited here find that terrorism has a significantly tighter correlation to states without functioning political processes (due mainly to dictators or political collapse) than to poverty. The linkages Piketty sees between terrorists and Western foreign policy in the Middle East may very well exist, not just because it has led to economic disparities but because it has contributed to the political dysfunction that appears to drive radicalization.