'Economic strain' does not cause terrorism
In an interview on CBS-TV’s “This Morning” last week, President Obama outlined his theory of the causes of terrorism: climate change is straining natural resources around the world, and “when people are not able to make a living or take care of their families,” they become “desperate,” and “as human beings are placed under strain, then bad things happen.”
The next day, a middle-class Muslim couple who were not under any evident financial strain and were perfectly capable of taking care of their six-month old daughter, decided to massacre fourteen people in San Bernardino, California.
The terrorist Syed Farook was not “desperate.” He was a graduate of California State University and an environmental health specialist who worked for the San Bernardino County heath department, with an annual salary of $53,000. His wife and co-terrorist, Tashfeen Malik, was also a college graduate (Bahuddin Zakri University in Pakistan). They lived in a two-story townhouse in a nice neighborhood.
The idea that the cause of terrorism is poverty has long been promoted by officials of the Obama administration. Recall what State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told MSNBC’s “Hardball” host Chris Matthews on Feb. 16 of this year: “We cannot kill our way out of this war. We need in the medium to longer term to go after the root causes that leads people to join these groups, whether it’s a lack of opportunity for jobs, whether we can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance. We can help them build their economies so they can have job opportunities for these people.”
Yet study after study of the motives of Arab and Muslim terrorists during the past two decades has found exactly the opposite.
Between 1996 and 1999, relief worker Nasra Hassan interviewed nearly 250 Palestinians who either attempted to carry out suicide bombings, or trained others for such attacks, or were related to deceased bombers. She reported (in The New Yorker): “None of [the bombers] were uneducated, desperately poor, simple-minded, or depressed. Many were middle class and, unless they were fugitives, held paying jobs... Two were the sons of millionaires.”
The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, focused new attention on the causes of terrorism. The New York Times reported that the personal details concerning the hijackers had “confounded the experts.”
“They were adults with education and skill, not hopeless young zealots,” the Times said of the attackers. “At least one left behind a wife and young children... They were not reckless young men facing dire economic conditions and dim prospects, but men as old as 41 enjoying middle class lives.”
Three important studies of this question were carried out after 9/11.
In 2002, Prof. Alan Krueger of Princeton and Prof. Jitka Maleckova of Prague’s Charles University studied the lives of 129 Lebanese Hezbollah terrorists who were killed while carrying out attacks on Israel. The professors found that the Hezbollah members were less likely than “other Lebanese, to come from poor families and were significantly more likely to have completed secondary education.”
That same year, the Muslim writer Hala Jaber spent four days with Fatah’s Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, which has organized many suicide bombings. She found that their members were “educated [and] middle class.”
In 2004, Prof. Alberto Abadie of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government undertook a study of terrorists’ motives. When he began his research, he thought that “it was a reasonable assumption that terrorism has its roots in poverty.” By the time he was done, Prof. Abadie had concluded there is “no significant relationship” between the economic conditions in a given country and the rise of terrorists there.
The facts are clear, even if they soundly refute President Obama’s politically correct worldview.
Poverty does not cause terrorism; if it did, the hasidim of Brooklyn and Meah Shearim would be the world’s most active terrorists. Climate change or food shortages or other types of economic strain do not cause terrorism either.
Radical ideology—in this case, radical Islamist ideology—is what causes terrorism.
Benyamin Korn, chairman of the Philadelphia Religious Zionists, is former executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent and the Miami Jewish Tribune.