Given the recent atrocious events in Nice and Orlando, I have decided to delve into the topic of terrorism’s root causes, examining the research.
Needless to say, the issue polarizes opinion. To generalize, liberals argue that poverty causes terrorism, while conservatives think that religiosity, particularly of the Islamic kind, propels terrorist acts. Academic research suggests that both sides are mistaken. Terrorism is, rather, due to geopolitics.
Contrary to John Kerry’s fanciful notions, there is no clear link between poverty and violent extremism. I can cite a number of studies to that effect (here, here, and here), but shall just summarize one: Krueger and Malečková’s (2003) cross-country analysis fails to find a correlation between GDP per capita and terrorist incidents. Furthermore, data on individual terrorists reveal them to be better educated and wealthier than the broader population.
This is hardly surprisingly. Poor people have fewer resources to devote to ideological violence, the payoff from which is marginal at best, while the risk is high. It is much more lucrative for an impoverished Third World farmer to join a cocaine trafficking ring, rather than a nationalist terror group.
Tackling the Right’s claim of religiosity and terror is more difficult, since the layperson lacks intuition for conditional probabilities. To simplify, the evidence is that today’s terrorist is more likely to have a religious affiliation. However, this is not true historically, and in fact, religiosity itself has no positive impact on support for radical violence (see here and here). A religious Muslim, if anything, is less likely to side with Islamic terrorism.
Politics, rather, is the typical terrorist’s clarion call to martyrdom. Princeton economist Alan Krueger writes in his book What Makes a Terrorist that terrorists are primarily “motivated by geopolitical grievances.” Marshalling scores of data, Krueger concludes,
[T]he best strategy in this type of an environment is to target terrorist organisations… by degrading their capabilities and by engaging them on their grievances where appropriate.
This is clear with defunct groups such as the Irish Republican Army and the Tamil Tigers, but holds true even with a religious organization like al-Qaeda. Among al-Qaeda’s main goals, two are political: to drive Western influence from Muslim lands, and to defend Muslims’ rights.
Of course, I doubt much good would result from bartering with such ignoble groups as al-Qaeda or ISIS. I doubt much good would result anyway, since policymakers refuse to listen to research.