Where the terrorists come from

In the wake of the Christmas attempt to bomb an airliner heading to the US, the BBC’s North America correspondent Matt Frei writes about the background of suspected bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as well as those involved in other recent acts of violence: “None of the recent suspects are high school drop-outs or desperate refugees who have nurtured hatred of the West in the frayed lining of an empty stomach.”

The common factor that he explicitly identifies among these suspects is their university education. What he also discusses, but is left more implicit, is their broader background for which higher education is just a proxy: (relative) affluence.

On the face of it, this shouldn’t be surprising, or “fascinating”, as Frei describes it. After all, those who are better-off have the time and resources to not only come up with planned attacks but to also actually act upon them. It is people who have access to international travel, the cursory technical and scientific knowledge to flesh out plans, and some degree of financial independence, which are the ones that the security bureaucracy should be paying attention to. The wretched of the earth, on the other hand, will normally be unable to travel nor have the capabilities to come up with bomb plots, suicide attacks and hostage schemes. Their attention will be focused on survival – for even if they have nothing to lose in participating in an attack, I suspect that it is a bit of a tall order for them to get from a refugee camp or megaslum to packing explosives onto themselves and getting onto a plane.

So the social background of those perpetrating international acts of violence reminds us, that ‘international terrorism’ of the sort that captures headlines is primarily also elite terrorism. I think the reason that Frei described the background of terrorists as “fascinating” is because we’re often lead to make the link between poverty and socioeconomic grievance – and acts of terror. Initially, this is an intuitive one to make – those envious of the bright lights are the have-nots, the people who have the most to be angry about, whether it is ‘America’, ‘the West’, ‘globalization’ and so on. Dashed expectations lead to frustration and a sense of entitlement and being wronged – but the outcome isn’t terrorism, but revolution. And the latter is quite different to the former, being a mass rather than elite activity.

That intuitive link between violence and poverty in the way described above should, therefore, be just an initial intuition. One upshot should be to question national security arguments about the value of international development aid. There are many reasons that those well-off should contribute assistance to those lesser-off, but the grounds that it will enhance security in rich countries and acts as a preventative measure against terrorism is a rather weak one.

The link, rather, is more indirect in providing a ready pool of justifications for elite violence and acts of terror. Bombers, for instance, can point to the continuing US presence in Iraq as a motivating reason for their action, even if they are not Iraqi or have even ever been to Iraq. Thus a litany of grievances follows from al-Qaeda, bin Laden or any copycat group: Palestinian statehood, US troops in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Afghanistan, secularization, a pan-Arab caliphate, whatever. This sort of rhetorical tool will often be a fairly powerful one, but it obscures the difference between an attacker coming from Iraq itself or someone else now living in the West acting on the percieved injustice of occupation. The reality is that there will be very few of the former who leave Iraqi borders, and many more of the latter who are in a position to act based on whatever they pick as the cause to motivate them.

One of NYT columnist Thomas Friedman’s more catchy observations was that no two countries with a McDonald’s had ever fought a war against each other – a McD’s being an indicator of affluence and economic prosperity. But while revolution or interstate conflict may be negatively correlated with affluence, perhaps through disaffection and radicalization affluence gives rise to a different sort of violence, that lies behind contemporary acts of terror.

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