Terrorism, poverty and education

A number of people I spoke to yesterday were surprised to find out that all eight terror suspects detained in relation to the failed car bombings in the UK had links to the National Health Service (NHS), most being doctors or medical students. That surprise mostly stemmed from a popular belief that terrorists in general, and suicide bombers in particular, tend to hail from the poorest, least educated, most deprived strata of society. Christina Paxson (free access) of Princeton quotes a number of Nobel Laureates on the links between education, poverty and terrorism:

“What is it that seduces some young people to terrorism? It simplifies things. The fanatic has no questions, only answers. Education is the way to eliminate terrorism.” (Elie Wiesel)

“If the mind is more open, that will automatically bring less fear. Education can narrow the gap between appearances and reality. The reality is that we and 'they' are not different.” (Dalai Lama)

“At the bottom of terrorism is poverty. That is the main cause. Then there are other religious, national, and ideological differences.” (Kim Dae Jung)

Thinking of terrorists, and especially suicide bombers, as people with 'nothing to lose' is intuitive. It is also very likely wrong. Alan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova (free access), in an extensive review in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, show that the available evidence do not support the myth:

Any connection between poverty, education and terrorism is indirect, complicated and probably quite weak. Instead of viewing terrorism as a direct response to low market opportunities or ignorance, we suggest it is more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration.

It is difficult to build an economic model of the link between poverty, education and terrorism, especially suicide bombings. Furthermore, we thankfully lack the depth of empirical evidence that would allow us to test these theories and draw more robust and universally valid conclusions. That said, there are plenty of factors that suggest wealthier and better educated individuals may indeed be more likely to support and participate in terrorism:

1. Wealthy and well-educated individuals may stand to gain the most from a change in the political order. A landowner in the West Bank stands to gain significantly from the creation of a free and prosperous Palestine, and so does a Palestinian doctor or architect. It is more difficult to extend this hypothesis to account for suicide bombings, but there may be a link to the degree that people care about the welfare of their families.

2. Education and wealth are positively correlated with drive. Whatever it is that pushes people to achieve academic excellence or business success is probably also a factor behind their pursuit of political/religious/national aims.

3. We may only observe more educated/wealthy suicide bombers. From Krueger and Maleckova: Nasra Hassan, a relief worker for the United Nations, interviewed nearly 250 militants and associates of militants involved in the Palestinian cause. One Hamas leader Ms. Hassan interviewed claimed, “Our biggest problem is the hordes of young men who beat on our doors, clamoring to be sent [on suicide missions]. It is difficult to select only a few.” In cases such as these, education may be a signal of higher ability to carry out successful attacks, or of a more solid commitment to the cause. In the case of 'self-starts', where no organisation is involved in recruiting candidates, wealthier and more educated individuals may be more capable of putting together a plan, gathering the necessary resources and successfully executing a terrorist strike.

4. Those with the higher levels of education are likely to have also received more religious or nationalistic education - and hence are likely to be placing more value on religious or national goals.

5. Education in general may also make people become more involved in the political process, even if that is by means of terrorism. For example, stydying history may make individuals place more value on posterity. History also allows students to see that drastic geopolitical changes have happened in the past and so could happen in the future. Less educated individuals, on the other hand, may find it difficult to believe that such changes do happen: 'it has always been the same around here'.

6. Societal pressure may be higher on the brightest, richest and most educated individuals. Much like a star athlete is expected to return with an Olympic medal and is deemed a failure if she doesn't, the 'best' of a society are expected to contribute disproportionately to that society's welfare. Dying in the name of a national or religious cause can achieve exactly that.

I have recently had a request for a post on what economists have to say about terrorism. The short answer is, quite a lot. I am falling awfully behind with these on-request-posts, but please be patient: I intend to answer to all of them in due time.

Disclaimer: 'The term “terrorism” is used to describe premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine
agents, usually intended to influence an audience.' No other meaning is ascribed to the term for the purposes of this text.


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