Myths About Terrorism

May 29, 2009

[First published July 8, 2005] There are two myths about terrorism that have gripped commentator’s’ minds and won’t let go. One is that poverty is an engine of terrorism and the other is that Madrassas provide the fuel.

In virtually my whole academic career I’ve had to shoot down the belief that poverty causes one problem after another, whether it is war, internal violence, criminality, or unhappiness. Now, it’s the cause of terrorism. Poverty causes none of this. Until recently, the evidence against this has been anecdotal, a matter of unsystematically looking at the background of terrorists. Now, a systematic empirical analysis has been conducted by Alberto Abadie at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government entitled, “Poverty, Political Freedom, and Roots of Terrorism.”. Its abstract follows:

This article provides an empirical investigation of the determinants of terrorism at the country level. In contrast with the previous literature on this subject, which focuses on transnational terrorism only, I use a new measure of terrorism that encompasses both domestic and transnational terrorism. In line with the results of some recent studies, this article shows that terrorist risk is not significantly higher for poorer countries, once the effects of other country-specific characteristics such as the level of political freedom are taken into account. Political freedom is shown to explain terrorism, but it does so in a non-monotonic way: countries in some intermediate range of political freedom are shown to be more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes. This result suggests that, as experienced recently in Iraq and previously in Spain and Russia, transitions from an authoritarian regime to a democracy may be accompanied by temporary increases in terrorism. Finally, the results suggest that geographic factors are important to sustain terrorist activities.

Then there is the widespread belief that Madrassas breed terrorists. A recent empirical analysis, “The Madrassa Myth” by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey found otherwise. Its abstract is below:

Op-Ed article by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey disputes notion that Muslim religious schools, known as madrassas, are graduating students who become terrorists; says madrassas may breed fundamentalists, but they do not teach technical or linguistic skills necessary to be effective terrorist; says that as matter of national security, United States need not worry about Muslim fundamentalists with whom it disagrees; cites examination of educational backgrounds of 75 terrorists behind some of most significant recent terrorist attacks against Westerners, finding that only 9 of them attended madrassas; says World Bank-financed study raises further doubts about influence of madrassas in Pakistan, country where schools were thought to be most influential and virulently anti-American.

Phillip Carter on his blog Intel Dumpdisputes the above conclusions:

It’s true that the madrassas do not generally produce people like the educated terrorists who attacked us on 9/11. However, the madrassas *do* produce many of the the foot soldiers for Al Qaeda (and its affiliates) who are fighting us now in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who have fought in the Balkans, Chechnya, pre-9/11 Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Link of Note

“Militant Convicted of ‘Propagating Terror'” (6/26/05)

An Algerian militant considered the mastermind of the 2003 kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Sahara desert was sentenced to life in prison for helping to form a terrorist group, but his whereabouts remained a mystery.

Amari Saifi, a leader of the Al Qaeda-linked Salafist Group for Call and Combat, didn’t appear in court even though he was captured by Chad rebels and later turned over to Algerian police last fall. Saifi, a former Algerian paratrooper known by his nom de guerre, Al Para, was convicted by the criminal court of “constitution of a terrorist group” and of “propagating terror among a population.”

This is an amusing example of how the LA Times refuses to call terrorists terrorists, even when their own report has to so identify a terrorist. I fell out of my seat with laughter when I read the headline.

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