Explaining the Enabling Environment: The Terrorism-Poverty Nexus Revisited

In the years following the September 11th attacks, much political debate has focused on the professed causal connection between terrorism and poverty. To a considerable extent, this focus has extended to policy and academic studies as well. In a speech in Monterrey, Mexico in 2002, President George W. Bush announced that “we fight against poverty because hope is the answer to terror.”[1] Addressing the Woodrow Wilson School in 2007, then-Senator Obama echoed this approach: “We know where extremists thrive…Freedom must also mean freedom from want, not freedom lost to an empty stomach. So I will make poverty reduction a key part of helping other nations reduce anarchy.”[2] The notion that poverty causes terrorism, however, is inconsistent with the results of most literature on the economics of conflicts. Notably, the work of political scientist James A. Piazza fails to see any discernable relationship between poor economic development and terrorism.[3] While these studies promise to help reshape public discourse, they suffer from their own shortcomings. By focusing on the insufficient empirical database regarding international terrorism—a relatively new phenomenon that accounts for only a fraction of terrorist activity—they have neither taken into account the socioeconomic dynamics of the communities in which terrorists operate nor the motivations for low level cadres in terrorist organizations to perpetrate terrorist acts. Most terrorists may not come from poverty but their radical movements gain influence when the communities they purport to represent view them as “the only party that provides security and services while remaining transparent.”[4]  Thus while poverty may not directly generate terrorism, it still provides a key context in which radicalism and other support structures of terrorism may profit.

Examining whether there is such a correlation between poverty and terrorism, Piazza concludes that most of the investigations have shown that terrorism is not a direct by-product of economic factors. Viewed from the perspective of global poverty, it is apparent that global rates of terrorism are out of sync with changes in global poverty rates. What is more, economic privation in the poorer world regions does not necessarily lead to the greater levels of terrorist activity popular wisdom might expect. Collectively, only 2 percent of all transnational terrorist attacks from 2000 to 2006 were committed by nationals of the least developed countries.[5]

Somewhat counterintuitively, statistical studies have demonstrated that the individuals more likely to engage in terrorist activities are likely to come from more affluent backgrounds. The demographic profile of the September 11th hijackers as well as the leadership of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, Baader-Meinhof, and Hamas reflect the new necessities of modern terrorism: terrorists must often perform complex logistical and technical tasks. Al-Qaeda, for instance, operates as an elaborate, highly skilled and transnational entity not that unlike present-day multinational corporations; therefore, the group tends to attract recruits who are “reliable, adaptable, and polished,” such as the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is a U.S. educated mechanical engineer.[6]

Still, a broader view of poverty suggests a partial and nuanced connection between economic deprivation and terrorist activity. As opposed to an exclusive concentration on poverty, a focus on the multiple facets and effects of socio-economic exclusion can help draw out the reasons why some protest movements turn radical. Following Karin von Hippel, while poverty is not the primary cause of terrorism, particular socioeconomic conditions can explain the appeal of radicalism and its growing support structures. For von Hippel, socioeconomic conditions help us understand so-called “enabling environments,” which significantly broaden terrorist influence.[7] For example, the centrality of Islamic social welfare to the broad agendas of organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda has contributed to their increasing popularity amongst the populations they claim to represent. Osama bin Laden’s philanthropy in Afghanistan and Sudan made him a household name; Hezbollah sponsored charities and provided cash to families that had lost their homes, whereas the governments of their host countries were considerably slower off the mark.[8] This could lead one to conclude that whoever gets to the region first and delivers social goods will shape the political trajectory of that region and possibly realign community allegiance, which would otherwise be ideologically ambivalent, in the direction of radicalism. Moreover, in “Al Qaeda’s New Front,” FRONTLINE investigates the realities of “Eurabia,” the 18 million-strong community of Muslim immigrants in Europe that has largely failed to integrate into Western societies. High unemployment, cultural ostracism and the ubiquity of perceived injustices in the Muslim world has created a social and psychological climate in which Islamism and other radical sects thrive. In this context, the linkage between poverty and terrorism may be indirect, but it remains significant.

Concentrating on the motivations for low-level recruits in terrorist organizations can also reveal significant economic factors. In addition to ideology and grievances, suicide bombers are often further incentivized by financial rewards offered by their terrorist organization to their families, a fact that should not be seen as a crude market motive but as one that relieves prospective suicide bombers of competing obligations to provide economically for their families and that may even exceed their own capacities to do so. Suicide bombers are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of the poor, as the wealthy “would rather donate their money than their sons to the cause.” A study of suicide attacks in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2007 conducted by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) concluded that the young people recruited “may be uneducated, ignorant, impressionable, brainwashed, and seeking money for their families” and that “poverty and lack of education figure in all but one [sic] the interviews of the confessed perpetrators.”[9]

The same is not necessarily true for more peripheral terrorist organizations. Outlaw groups such as the Maoist Shining Path (SP) in Peru, composed of mainly privileged terrorists using the plight of the poor as the justification for committing violence, have been largely rejected by the peasantry. Many formed peasant rounds to resist the SP insurgency in the early 1980s. Furthermore, the suicide bombers of the September 11th attacks are unlikely to have been motivated by financial gain for their families; all were well-educated young men with middle- and upper-middle class family backgrounds. None of them fit the profile of the ignorant, impoverished and ostracized terrorist that UNAMA found in Afghanistan. In this case, impoverished backgrounds did not lie behind the terrorist acts, an important qualifier to broad-based claims of causality between poverty and terrorist recruitment. Poverty exists only in the pantheon of causes that can be linked to terrorism—it can be a factor in some contexts but not in others.

In a world of greater terrorism, and especially in one shocked by dramatic terrorist activities in major Western cities, there has been considerable focus on trying to explain such actions so as to reduce or eliminate them. A connection to poverty, while motivating development aid and official rhetoric, has been sharply criticized but in some cases unfairly. Poverty, and particularly the broader context of socio-economic marginalization, is an important consideration in accounting for domestic terrorism and even for the low-level recruits of international terrorist groups. At its core, terrorist activity is a multi-causal phenomenon, but the preceding analysis suggests that economic assistance done properly may ameliorate it somewhat. However, the terrorism it is most likely to reduce are the types unlikely to occur in Western countries, though that of course does not mean such aid is not a worthwhile project and perhaps makes it an even more noble and generous one.


[1] “Statement by United States of America at the International Conference on Financing for Development; Monterrey, Mexico; 22 March 2002.” Welcome to the United Nations: It’s Your World. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.un.org/ffd/statements/usaE.htm>

[2] Obama unveils comprehensive strategy to fight global terrorism. Wilson Center, 1 Aug. 2007. Web. 28 Feb. 2010. <http://www.wilsoncenter.org/events/docs/obamasp0807.pdf>.

[3] Piazza, James A. “Poverty is a weak causal link.” Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism. [hereinafter Piazza], Washington DC: CQ, 2010. 47.

[4] Von Hippel, Karin. “Poverty is an important Cause.”[hereinafter Von Hippel,] Id. at 54.

[5] Piazza, supra note 3, at 39.

[6] Id. at 48-49.

[7] Von Hippel, supra note 4, at 52-53.

[8] Gunaratna, Rohan. Inside Al Qaeda global network of terror. New York: Berkley, 2003, 21-47.

[9] Von Hippel, supra note 4, at 58.

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