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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Terrorism and Terrorists

In the wake of the Christmas Day attempt by a terrorist to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253, we immediately wanted to take a look at the whole issue of terrorism. What do we know? What have we learned about it since 9/11? It seems that academic writers in psychology and economics have learned a lot and that some of these ideas are very different than we expected. In a brief summary, we'll talk here about the terrorists themselves and where they come from. The other side of it, the national security issues faced by the U.S. and other target regions, makes a separate discussion for another time.

What is terrorism?
Here's the U.S. State Department's definition: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."[1]

What do terrorists want?
In the main, social science researchers argue, terrorists have two objectives: (a) inflicting economic harm on rich countries and (b) getting occupying powers to back out of prized territories.

(a) Terror groups are minority organizations who attack rich countries and try to inflict economic harm on them. In a 2004 appearance on al-Jazeera television, Osama Bin Laden was quite clear that al-Qaeda wants to "bleed" the U.S. into bankruptcy. Here are four other examples, identified by the professors who conducted the research:
1. In a tally of trans-national terrorist events, Krueger & Laitin show a concentration of targets among rich democracies.
2. In a widely cited study of Basque terrorism in Spain in the 1960s, Abadie & Gardeazabal show that the main harm was the damage done to the local economy.
3. In Israel from 2000-2003, GDP per capita is estimated to have been cut 10% as a result of terror attacks, according to econometric work by Eckstein & Tsiddon.
4. Describing another variation of "harm", Berrebi & Klor tabulated the hit to the stock market valuation of companies whose operations were targets. They calculate that the companies' capitalization was decreased by $401 million per firm per attack.[2]

Much of the harm the terrorists inflict comes from the psychological blow to confidence in the target economy that follows in the aftermath of a nasty attack. In a sense, the terrorists take their action because it's profitable. This is a reverse profitability, where they can spend a relatively modest amount of money compared with the magnitude of the hit the target economy takes. Note that "success" in the specific action is not necessary to achieve at least some of the economic objective; the mere attempt or threat inflicts costs and distress – and " influences an audience".

(b) Terrorists want to "liberate" "occupied territories". The most prominent example is the goal of Hamas and neighboring organizations to "liberate" the Israeli territory. Others include an Islamist organization in Pakistan called Jaish-e-Mohammed which "advocates the liberation and subsequent integration of Jammu and Kashmir from Indian control into Pakistan." Among the Kurdish people, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) desires the liberation of Kurdistan from areas presently part of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, whose governments are deemed "foreign occupiers" by the PKK. At present, far from the least important is an old group, ETA, the Basque separatists in Spain. They are of current concern since many believe they will stage some action during the next six months when Spain holds the Presidency of the EU. This list could go on at length.

Our basic source here is a book Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together, published just a year ago by the National Defense Research Institute of the RAND Corporation, where it was prepared specifically for the Secretary of Defense. Chapter 5 on "The Economics of Terrorism and Counterterrorism" by Claude Berrebi is a broad review of recent research in this burgeoning field.[3]

Two Major Perceptions Questioned
This resource and other material bring us two important points about terrorism that make it all the harder to get a grip on. First, as the list in the above paragraph indicates, far from all of the terrorist organizations are related to religion. The Kurdish group, for instance, has collectivist political and economic reform goals. Moreover, even among those that have religious ties, the role of religion and theology is ambivalent. I have been surprised to notice this and have learned that the role of religion is one of the biggest questions among scholars at present who are trying to fathom the motivations of terrorists and thereby fashion effective counterterrorism policy recommendations.

Second, the Christmas Day terrorist from Nigeria is a wealthy man with considerable education. In the main, this is the background for most terrorists: they are not poor and not uneducated, even though many of us have believed in this stereotype. Some TV analysts have mentioned this distinction in recent weeks, but some public officials continue to argue that the terrorists' extreme actions come out of poverty and frustration and that they are recruited out of some kind of innocent ignorance.

On the religion question, although it is still open to considerable ambiguity, the distinction is probably centered on the difference between religion and theology. For instance, in a quick read of some of the social science research, we saw no evidence that proselytizing for Islam was an objective. Destroying Israel, yes, but it's hard to separate the political and territorial issues from the religious ones. Further, it's not clear that the religion itself is inspirational. Economists and sociologists point out that religious organizations can evoke the deep devotion and commitment needed to perform terrorist acts, even and especially including suicide. But it's hard to find any sense that the theology was the driving force, over and above the social "glue" of the group. For example, in one study that included interviews with Palestinians who had not succeeded in such assignments, none of the would-be perpetrators said that they had been motivated by actual religiosity or promises of rewards in the afterlife. In another study, Marc Sageman, a consultant and psychiatrist, indicates in material published in 2006 that very few terrorists he has interviewed are religiously active: "The vast majority of the al-Qaida terrorists in the sample came from families with very moderate religious beliefs or a completely secular outlook. Indeed, 84 percent were radicalized in the West, rather than in their countries of origin. Most had come to the West to study, and at the time they had no intention of ever becoming terrorists." [4]

Indeed, this finding about where and when radicalization occurs goes along with some of the study on the family background and income of individual terrorists. A significant number of them are radicalized when they go from their native countries to study in, for instance, Europe. According to psychologist Todd Helmus, these people gather together in the foreign country to socialize with their own people – that's not hard to understand – and in the case of Muslims, perhaps simply because they want to keep to the Halal dietary laws. Helmus argues that, while they are obviously not poor and uneducated, they are strangers in a strange land, feeling disorientation and alienation and sometimes discrimination.[5a] However, others surely may also go to Europe for schooling and not come away with some new radical worldview. So there is much complexity here that prevents much generalization. Other writers, especially Eli Berman and David Laitin, explain that many Muslim terrorists come from regions where, even if their families are not financially deprived, the government of their country may be dysfunctional and not providing basic services or feature significant corruption. [5b] Nigeria, despite its oil resources, may currently fit these criteria.

In more quantitative analysis of the relationship between terrorists and their economic status, economists have found that among terror incidents in the last 25 years or so, there is no measurable correlation between the number of terrorists who come from a specific country and its per capita income. So a nation's wealth doesn't impact any buildup of terrorist organizations there. What is correlated with the number of native terrorists are measures of political and/or civil rights. Notably, terrorism tends to emerge in countries where there is some amount of freedom, but which freedom may be limited or unpredictable. There has been little incidence of international terrorism from fully democratic countries or from countries where political power is held in an absolute dictatorship in which all dissent is successfully suppressed. It's countries in a kind of twilight or transition away from authoritarianism that seem most susceptible to spawning those groups.[6]

The definitive study on this issue was conducted by Alan Krueger, a professor at Princeton who currently serves as the Obama Administration's Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Economic Policy. Until his work on terrorism was first circulated in 2002, that is, not long after 9/11, the conventional wisdom had remained – with exceptions among specialists who knew better – that terrorists were poor and unlearned. On the contrary, as Krueger's and numerous other studies now explain, the people who bring off these elaborate, undercover attacks have to be smart, dedicated and intensely trained. And these individuals have to be calm and cool-headed; they can hardly be psychotic or otherwise mentally ill, as had been thought before much of the recent study of these issues took place.[7]

Does this help? Do these guys sound something like the Weather Underground and other 1960s groups? Hear me think out loud here. Do their attitudes resemble this description from Wikipedia? "Anti-Establishment became a buzzword of the tumultuous 1960s. Young people raised in comparative luxury saw many wrongs perpetuated by society and began to question 'the Establishment.'" What do you think?

[1] From U.S. Department of State, "Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2000". April 30, 2001. Accessed January 5, 2010. Cited by Alan Krueger and David Laitin, "Kto Kogo?: A Cross-country Study of the Origins and Targets of Terrorism", p. 6. See footnote [7] below.

[2] Paul Davis and Kim Cragin, Eds. Social Science for Counterterrorism: Putting the Pieces Together. Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation. 2009. Available online here: Hereafter referred to as Social Science for Counterterrorism.

[3] Claude Berrebi. "The Economics of Terrorism and Counterterrorism: What Matters and Is Rational-Choice Theory Helpful?" Chapter 5 of Social Science for Counterterrorism, pp. 151-208.

[4] Berrebi, op.cit., page 165.
[5a] Todd C. Helmus. "Why and How Some People Become Terrorists". Chapter 3 of Social Science for Counterterrorism, pp. 71-111.

[5b] Eli Berman and David Laitin. "Religion, Terrorism and Public Goods: Testing the Club Model." Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper 13725, January 2008. Available at

[6] Alberto Abadie. "Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism". Harvard University, unpublished paper, October 2004.

[7] Alan Krueger and David Laitin. "Kto Kogo?: A Cross-Country Study of the Origins and Targets of Terrorism". Several versions, especially unpublished paper, January 18, 2007. Earlier from November 2003. Also published in Keefer and Loayza, eds., Terrorism, Economic Development, and Political Openness. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 148-173. See also Krueger's What Makes a Terrorist? Economics and the Roots of Terrorism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 2007.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of the things that I find quite interesting and I believe should not be overlooked. Terrorism cannot be stopped simply by helping poorer countries with development. The fact that so many suicide bombers are well educated and from well-off families is significant. Jihadists are more complex than we may at first think. I view terrorist organizations as cults, where rank and respect are earned through acts of loyalty, charity, and learning/embracing the ideology. As individuals become more established within a group, the ultimate act of loyalty to the organization is a suicide attack against the enemy.

1/13/2010 10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The taking of one's life for a cause seems to me to be a profoundly religious act that has to do with the terrorist's view of the nature of God and life after death. This view also must influence the terrorist's attitude about the value or rights of the others that are killed in the process. These views may or may not have to do with membership in a specific religious organization or movement but are implicitly a theology of sorts.

1/16/2010 11:52 AM  

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