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September 10, 2005 / Gabriel

The “Root Causes” of Terrorism

On the left, one of the most common refrains is that poverty is a major “root cause” of terrorism, and that by providing more aid to developing countries the threat of terrorism would be significantly reduced.

Ignoring for a moment the assumption that foreign aid actually helps countries out of poverty, which is not borne out by historical experience, this neo-Marxist theory doesn’t stand up to even limited scrutiny.

If poverty causes terrorism, then the poorer the country, the more one should see terrorist activities from that country. But this is simply not the case. Here is a list of the world’s 20 poorest nations, ranked by GDP per capita[i]:

Rank

Country

GDP per Capita

1

East Timor

$      431.68

2

Malawi

$      574.87

3

Burundi

$      606.62

4

Comoros

$      676.48

5

Congo, Democratic Republic of the

$      686.75

6

Ethiopia

$      689.89

7

Afghanistan

$      701.41

8

Congo, Republic of the

$      716.46

9

Eritrea

$      742.02

10

Madagascar

$      743.92

11

Guinea-Bissau

$      765.64

12

Kiribati

$      783.74

13

Niger

$      797.67

14

Mali

$      880.67

15

Liberia

$      961.76

16

Kenya

$   1,031.48

17

Benin

$   1,067.85

18

Burkina Faso

$   1,071.83

19

Central African Republic

$   1,117.70

20

Chad

$   1,118.61

Of these twenty countries, only one (Afghanistan) can be said to have truly produced any kind of serious terrorist activity. (Quick, can anyone name any terrorists from Ethiopia, Mali or the Congo?)

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, with a GDP per capita at $11,157 (higher than Poland, China and Mexico), is one of the top exporters of international terrorism.

Nor are absolute poverty numbers an indicator. After all, one could argue in the case of Saudi Arabia that they have a high average GDP per capita but that the wealth is centralized in the hands of very few people while the majority of the population lives in poverty.

But this doesn’t bear out either. Here are the top 20 countries with the highest percentage of people living with less than $2 per day[ii]:

Rank

Country

% < $2

1

Nigeria

91%

2

Mali

91%

3

Zambia

87%

4

India

86%

5

Burkina Faso

86%

6

Niger

85%

7

Pakistan

85%

8

Rwanda

85%

9

Central African Republic

84%

10

Madagascar

83%

11

Gambia, The

83%

12

Nepal

83%

13

Ghana

79%

14

Mozambique

78%

15

Bangladesh

78%

16

Ethiopia

76%

17

Sierra Leone

75%

18

Laos

73%

19

Mauritania

69%

20

Senegal

68%

Again, with the exception of Pakistan none of these are serious breeding grounds for international terrorism.

So it’s rather obvious that poverty (or at least poverty alone) does not breed terrorism. Therefore logically neither will foreign aid to developing countries eliminate the threat of terrorism.

Now let’s look at the conservative argument: namely, that totalitarianism and oppression cause terrorism (and thus, that democracy and freedom are a key solution to eliminating terrorism.)

Here are 10 countries ranked in 2001 as having the least political and economic freedom in the world[iii] (alphabetically—all had a liberty score of zero):

Afghanistan

Burma

Cuba

Iraq

Korea, North

Libya

Saudi Arabia

Sudan

Syria

Turkmenistan

One will immediately recognize in this list many of the world’s top exporters of terrorism. And without question none of the most free countries in the world are exporters of terrorism (top 10 ranked alphabetically):

Austria

Canada

Denmark

Iceland

Ireland

Norway

Sweden

Switzerland

United States

Uruguay

So the neoconservative answer to terrorism (actively spreading democracy to eliminate the root cause of terrorism) certainly has some very strong factual justification.

But there’s one more, politically incorrect element to factor in. Of the 10 least free countries in the world, four are not major exporters of terrorism: Burma, North Korea, Cuba and Turkmenistan.

What separates these four countries from the other six? Religion.

Burma is Buddhist, North Korea is officially secular (but of a Buddhist tradition), Cuba is Christian and Turkmenistan just came out of 70 years of Russian-imposed secularism. All six other countries, each a known source of terrorists, are strongly Islamic.

Thus, from a purely objective standpoint, the data points to the “root cause” of terrorism as being a combination of Islamic extremism and totalitarian rule. And hence the ideal solution to terrorism is the establishment of freedom and religious tolerance in the Middle East, exactly the strategy that the United States and its allies has been pursuing in Afghanistan and Iraq[iv].


[i] Source: CIA World Factbook, March 2005

[ii] Source: World Bank 2002

[iii] Source: Freedom House 2001. Afghanistan was not rated that year but is generally accepted to have had one of the least free societies in the world—certainly less free than Cuba and Syria.

[iv] Source: National Security Strategy of the United States, 2002 (http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html)

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