The “Indecisive Terrorist” and the Link Between Poverty, Education and Terrorism
By Fiorenzo Conte
Part of the conventional wisdom considers conditions of extreme poverty as breeding ground for terrorism. A previous post discussed the fallacy of such an argument which is not supported by empirical data. In particular, evidence show that terrorists are more educated and less poor than the average in their respective countries. Another argument is that inequality within a country fosters a sense of injustice thus creating a sense of revenge. However, when one looks at the income distribution within countries there is no evidence that inequality or a stagnant economy are associated with a propensity to produce terrorists. On the basis of the available evidence the only plausible statement which can be made about the link between poverty, education and terrorism is that creating employment in developing countries could make terrorism less effective insofar as more talented and skilled individuals would be less likely to be recruited by terrorist organizations.
The story of Ziad al-Jarrah (London Review of Books 8 September 2011), who crashed United Airlines Flight 92 in Pennsylvania on 9/11, offers some interesting insights in the link between poverty, education and terrorism. Firstly, Zaid came from a secular and well off Lebanese family: to get an idea they bought him a Mercedes when he was 16. The family background of Zaid is in sync with the first finding i.e. terrorists are not very poor or uneducated.
The rest of his story however points to the omissions of those analysis which look exclusively at the country of origin and its level of poverty/education to determine the likelihood of becoming terrorist. Zaid in fact studies abroad in Germany where he enrolled for medicine with excellent initials results. In the town of Greifswald where he studied he started attending the local mosque which was presided over by an Imam locally known to be the “enforcer” of the moral Islamism and actively involved in raising funds for Hamas. This initial contact led Zaid to enter the more established radical Islamic network in Hamburg where he will then be recruited for the attacks in the US. An analysis which looks only at the internal dynamics of the country of origin (in this case Lebanon) would miss one of the turning point in the life of Zaid i.e. his embrace of and enrollment in a radical organization. In other words, the factors and people which tipped Zaid towards becoming a terrorist are to be located in Germany rather than in Lebanon where he had led a very secular life.
Lastly, his story counters somehow the plausible conclusion that employment opportunities might steer the most talented and skilled individuals away from terrorism. Zaid was in fact an excellent student who performed outstandingly both in medicine and aeronautic engineering, where he enrolled later on. In all probability he could have had to chance to practice any jobs he would have like to. Yet he chose another option. Why he did so still remains a dilemma.