The Extremism Equation: Busting Myths About Terrorism


DOWNINGTOWN, Pennsylvania — Since 9/11, poverty reduction has been on the radar of developed countries as a means to counterterrorism. However, people are still skeptical of the connection between poverty and terrorism. Violent extremism exploits numerous factors and utilizes many variables, much like a mathematical equation. However, there is not one single variable that determines violent extremism. That is why it is important to understand the truths about terrorism and its connection to poverty. Understanding the extremism equation can help dispel myths about terrorism.

Myth #1: Poverty Does Not Correlate With a Higher Incidence of Terrorism

Despite correlations between impoverished countries and violent extremism, there is no concrete empirical relationship between terrorism and poverty. The Borgen Project interviewed American University Law and Criminology Professor Joe Young. Young pointed out that “it’s not as simple as poverty breeds terrorism.” Instead, Young believes that “there is a connection between that relative deprivation and political violence and terrorism.”

For example, an official in Yemen, one of the poorest countries on the Arabian peninsula, discussed how young people have no prospects for life. Violent “fanatics” can often create an “illusion” of comfort. For example, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, an al Qaeda ally, recruited unemployed and uneducated men from the slums. These men ended up being responsible for the attacks in the city of Casablanca in May 2003. In fact, an imprisoned Taliban driver said that he did not know that the Taliban was an enemy of the United States. Rather, he saw the Taliban as a way “to work, to avoid being with no money and to eat.”

According to George Washington University Professor of Transnational Security, Rollie Lal, in “poorer places” there is a “huge incentive to join an insurgency.” In an interview with The Borgen Project, Lal said that “[i]n countries where people have few opportunities to get a job or a few opportunities to get leadership positions given what their economic and political structure is, […] it is a benefit for young men to join [an]insurgency movement because by joining an insurgency, they have nothing to lose.”

New evidence suggests that weak and failed states, which are among some of the poorest countries, are more likely to harbor dangerous terrorists and criminals. In weak states, the governments are unable to regulate border controls, provide education and social welfare. This helps terrorist cells grow. For example, in Pakistan, the lack of funding for schools allows for madrassas to flourish. State weakness, unlike poverty, provides an empirical relationship between such and violent extremism.

Myth #2: Foreign Aid Is Not a Good Counterterrorism Tool

According to a University of Pittsburgh study, foreign aid can be a useful counterterrorism tool if properly initiated. These researchers found a correlation between democratic aid and terrorism reduction. By giving governance and civil society aid, the U.S. can enhance security. For example, one form of this aid comes in community participation programs. These programs increase trust in government institutions and reduce the appeal of violence to voice grievances.

Earl Gast was the USAID Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator for Africa in 2009. Gast stated that “empowering the youth in this way can greatly reduce the feeling of marginalization that feeds recruitment into extremist groups.” Young also emphasized the effectiveness of civil society aid. When the U.S. gives money to civil society organizations, these organizations are “more connected at the local level with the major problems.” In addition, this form of aid reduces the ability of governments to abuse human rights.

The general conclusion of this study suggests that governance and civil society foreign aid is a peaceful counterterrorism method. Lal reinforced this idea. Lal believes that it is important to approach poverty reduction not only “by saying here have some food everybody but [by]empowering people to be able to create economic opportunities where they are.” This can greatly impact those affected by giving them the opportunity to attain “leadership positions to feel that they have control over their lives.”

Myth #3: Poverty Reduction Does Not Enhance U.S. Security

Vincent Ferraro is a professor of International Politics at Mount Holyoke College. Ferraro summarized it best in a publication for the Wilson Center: “The weakness of poor states could destabilize the entire international system.” Today, the most serious security threats to the U.S. come from developing countries as they do not have the capacity to prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. assets. This vicious cycle will push these countries into further economic recession. The economic repercussions of an attack will be too much for these countries to handle, creating more incentive for recruitment.

According to Corrinne Graff, a senior advisor at USIP since 9/11, U.S. foreign policy has been too focused on providing counterterrorism support to these countries. However, little thought has gone into providing development assistance to these countries to jumpstart their economies. For example, “60% of the $10 billion spent on U.S. aid in Pakistan” has gone towards counterterrorism operations instead of assistance programs. But, counterterrorism operations, such as military operations, have proved futile in these regions. For example, in Yemen, there is more focus on military operations without a long-term plan to dissuade youth from joining extremist groups.

Combatting Violent Extremism

In order to provide poverty relief and global security, the World Bank established programs to enhance community development, government and NGO capacity building and microfinance. According to Graff, despite it being too early to tell, these programs will remove the risk factor of poor, weak states for terrorist activity.

These programs increased education enrollment to 67.6%, “increased access to water services in 312 communities” and much more. This will all play a role in the long run in reducing poverty as well as conflict in the area. These programs show promise in slowing the growth of terrorism cells. Therefore, incorporating development assistance into the global counterterrorism strategy is a viable solution.

Other developed countries had already realized the potential benefits of poverty reduction as a tool to combat violent extremism. For example, in Japan, in 2002, the government implemented a campaign against terrorism, including refugee assistance and foreign aid. Programs like these will not only help reduce poverty but will also reduce terrorism.

– Lalitha Shanmugasundaram
Photo: Flickr


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