About this blog...

I am a former leader of a Human Terrain Team in Iraq. My intent with this blog was to identify relevant, open-source materials on Iraqi culture, society, politics, religion and economics - just about anything on or about the Iraqi population in general.

I am continuing the blog now only sporadically, as a means of information distribution in support of efforts to improve a vital program hamstrung by failures in execution.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The psychology (and economics) of terrorism

An article in the current issue of The American discusses the origins of terrorism -- or more specifically, the origins of terrorists. The conclusion? The popular belief that terrorism is a nihilistic act born of poverty-induced desperation is not quite it. Specifically,

"the available evidence is nearly unanimous in rejecting either material deprivation or inadequate educa­tion as important causes of support for terrorism or participation in terrorist activities. Such explana­tions have been embraced almost entirely on faith, not scientific evidence."

Actually, most terrorists really are committed true believers, willing to die for their cause. Within the Muslim world, the researcher found a positive relationship between level of education and support for terrorism -- the higher your level of education, the more likely you are to support terrorism against Western (including Israeli) targets. Suicide bombers also tended to be better educated than the average population. He didn't find any strong correlation at all with wealth or poverty, although some evidence even suggests that suicide bombers had a slight tendency to come from a higher average socio-economic background than the rest of society.

What does this mean? That addressing terrorism is about more than addressing poverty, or putting military-aged males to work. (Although these things never hurt.) Fortunately, efforts are underway to address more than just poverty as a source of terrorism. Normally, I'd be a little leary of an American effort to introduce "religious enlightenment," but we've reached the point where it's time to give just about any innovative approach a try. Maybe we can just take a page from the Saudi's book, and distract them with Playstations...

These are important issues to address since another recent study finds that as a military tactic, the suicide bomber is increasingly "effective, numerous, adaptable and sophisticated."

Two things are important to remember with all of this, though. First, like any other social science, it's grossly oversimplistic to try and reduce a social phenomenon to one singe cause (such as economics or religious beliefs). You're doing great to even get a primary cause...

Second, and more important, is to recall that these studies are about global terrorism, and not an Iraqi insurgency. There might be significant overlap between these two phenomena, but then, there may not be. It's recently been suggested that little of the violence in Iraq (even little of the Sunni-insurgent violence) is related to the Salafi/Takfiri-type Al Qeada attacks. There may be something to this, since there's plenty to indicate that violence in Iraq has much more to do with political, religious or personal conflicts, or even plain old, racketeering-style profits.

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