VoxEU Column Politics and economics

What makes a terrorist?

To economists, criminals are people with a low opportunity cost and few legitimate opportunities. Terrorism is different. Terrorists and their organisations seek to make a political statement; terrorists arise when there are severe political grievances with no alternatives for pursing those grievances.

My former classmate Tyler Cowen, in his review of my new book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, said, “My only complaint is that the book does not deliver on its title; it tells me what doesn’t make a terrorist, but I still don’t know what does make a terrorist.”  He also wrote that the book was “full of first-rate empirical work” and that it “punctuates many myths about terrorism.”  Since I strongly agree with the second part of his comments, I’ll use this space to respond to the first part.

The first thing I could say in my defense is that my publisher suggested the title.  I originally planned to call the book, Enlisting Social Science in the War on Terrorism, a rallying call for using and generating evidence in the war on terrorism.  But I preferred the pithier title the publisher proposed – as did he.  So this is not much of a defense.

The second and more relevant point is that it is easier to take issues off the table than to identify a small set of factors that motivate ordinary citizens to become terrorists.  As Cowen said, my book establishes that “poverty does not breed terrorism, once you look at the data.”  Furthermore, I show that terrorists are more likely to be drawn from the ranks of the well-educated than they are from the uneducated and illiterate masses. And I find little evidence that terrorism is more prevalent among Muslim nations or nations with low GDP per capita and high infant mortality.

The third point is that these “null” findings say a lot about terrorism itself and the making of terrorists.  I have argued (see page 51 of my book, for example) that terrorists are primarily “motivated by geopolitical grievances.”  They become fanatics willing to sacrifice innocent civilians (and sometimes themselves) because they fervently wish to pursue a grievance, either real or perceived, and because they view terrorism as their best or only means to pursue that grievance.  Another theme of my book is that terrorists are more likely to come from societies that suppress civil liberties and political rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to assemble.  This theme is supported by my analysis of data on the country of origin and the country that terrorists target.  One interpretation of the cross-country empirical results is that people who grow up in a society with little tradition of peaceful means of protest are more likely to turn to terrorism when they seek to pursue a geopolitical agenda.

In related work, Laurence Iannaccone has argued that there are many diverse reasons why people have grievances.  Some are nationalistic, some are territorial, some are religious, some are environmental, and so on.  This is probably why poverty, education and the other “usual suspects” do such a poor job predicting participation in terrorism. There is not one standard grievance or one standard profile of a terrorist. Extremists who are willing to sacrifice themselves for some cause probably exist in every large population.  For this reason, the supply of terrorists is fairly elastic. Remove one perceived source of grievance, and there are still many others willing to pursue their grievances with violent means.  The finite “resource” is the number of terrorist organisations capable of channeling extremists to carry out heinous acts of terrorism.  I argue that the best strategy in this type of an environment is to target terrorist organisations, not the supply of would-be terrorists, by degrading their capabilities and by engaging them on their grievances where appropriate.

Terrorism is not just a random, unpredictable act carried out by psychologically disturbed people.  The psychologist Arial Merari studied Palestinian terrorists involved in failed attacks and concluded that they were unlikely to be psychologically abnormal.  The timing of terrorist attacks suggests that they are often chosen to have maximal impact, both on politics and on the news cycle.  This suggests that the terrorist organisations are, in some sense, rationally deploying extremists to pursue their agenda. 

What makes a terrorist, then, is someone with a fanatical commitment to pursuing a grievance combined with the perception that there are few alternatives available other than terrorism for pursuing that grievance – and a terrorist organisation or cell willing to deploy a would-be terrorist.  This explanation is further developed in my book.  Poverty and lack of education – the explanations commonly cited by politicians including George Bush, Al Gore and Tony Blair – play very little, if any, role.  In fact, education may have the opposite effect than many people expect because more highly educated people are more likely to become involved politically and are more likely to strongly hold opinions.  Increasing educational attainment does many wonderful things for a country and its people, but I do not think the evidence suggests it brings about complete consensus in society.  If we are to address terrorism in part through education, I argue we should focus more on the content of education, not just educational attainment. 

Many people implicitly view terrorism in the same way that economists model crime.  People with a low opportunity cost and few legitimate opportunities are predicted to become involved in property crime.  This model works well in practice. I argue in my book, however, that a better analogy for terrorism than crime is voting.  People who care about issues tend to vote, even though they tend to have a higher opportunity cost of their time than nonvoters.  Terrorists and the organisations that dispatch them seek to make a political statement.  What makes a terrorist will thus depend on the political grievances that terrorists and their organisations are pursuing and the alternatives for pursing those grievances.  This view of terrorism is proposed in my book. 

This column is published in Italian at www.lavoce.info.

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