A poor argument to explain terrorism

The hostage taking and massacre at a Dhaka cafe in Bangladesh is over.  More than 20 innocent people were slaughtered by Islamist extremists, although exactly which terrorists were behind this heinous act is still unclear (Islamic State has claimed responsibility but the Bangladeshi government vehemently, and incredulously, denies IS has a presence in the country).  There are reports that the assailants divided the patrons into two groups, Bangladeshi and foreigners, and further narrowed their murderous intent to those who could not cite a verse from the Quran.  Unlike many other attacks where terrorists did not discriminate before killing, this band carefully sought to determine who was not Muslim before taking lives.

There are many aspects of this attack that want analysis and much has already been written in the short time since the incident. I will focus my remarks on an interesting fact that will strike many as counterintuitive but which has enormous implications for how we see terrorism and how we confront it.

Reports have suggested that the six terrorists who stormed the cafe were educated and from well-to-do families.  The Home Minister went so far as to say that it has become “fashionable” to become a militant.  Whatever the reason, there is no doubt that Bangladesh has a very, very serious problem with Islamist extremism, whether it comes from foreign or domestic actors.

The importance of the backgrounds of the Dhaka cafe terrorists cannot be underestimated. We have been assured by all kinds of experts that poverty and lack of opportunity drives terrorism, not that any substantive, data-rich studies have been produced to back this position.  The link between poverty and violence calls to mind US political scientist Ted Gurr’s classic argument about “relative deprivation” which essentially states that people resort to violence when they see that others have more than they do.

While there is probably some truth to this, it comes apart quickly when you look at those who become terrorists. There are enough historical examples that clearly show that many terrorists are not poor (Usama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, the Baader Meinhof gang in Germany, Aum Shinrikyo in Japan) and little to support the supposed causal role poverty plays in driving people to join violent extremist groups.

Two points are essential here.  In cases where it is clear that terrorists emerge from economically deprived situations, setting aside the difficulty in differentiating between causation and correlation, it is important to look at the whole picture and not focus on one individual.  If the majority of people in a given community are poor and some opt for terrorism, but most don’t, what have we learned?  If poverty is a critical driver, why do the majority not make the same choices?

Secondly, terrorism is a special kind of violence: it is ideologically motivated.  To understand ideology it certainly helps to come from a privileged, educated background.  Of course it is true that manipulative ideologues can take advantage of those less capable, but recent history shows that terrorist movements, especially those in the West, are filled with the privileged, not the underprivileged.  The attack in Dhaka by wealthy men, in a desperately poor Muslim country with millions of potential candidates, merely underscores the fact that there is no explanatory link between poverty and terrorism.

If we continue to associate poverty with terrorist violence we will adopt counter measures that are not relevant.  Yes, anti-poverty policies and programmes are good and they should be increased.  But they have little to do with terrorism.  The more we misdiagnose the “root causes” of terrorism the less we are doing to actually confront it.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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