Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Princeton economist Alan B. Kruger, in his recently published book What Makes a Terrorist, tries to find an answer to that most asked question since 9/11. He believes that “Participation in terrorism is just a special application of the economics of occupational choice” and that economics can help understand why “Some peo­ple choose to become doctors or lawyers, and others pursue careers in terrorism”.

Kruger carried out a detailed analysis of a number of previous studies which have almost conclusively established that there is no correlation between material deprivation or inadequate education and the lure or rise of terrorism. On the contrary, he found that international terrorists are more likely to come from moderate income countries than poor ones. In addition, the somewhat surprising finding was that poor economic conditions do not seem to motivate people to par­ticipate even in hate crimes, much less terrorism.

Most terrorists, whether Palestinian or those belonging to the Al Qaida, Kruger found, were reasonably well educated and held paying jobs. Some were sons of millionaires. How can one forget that Osama Bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaida, is himself an immensely wealthy Saudi Arabian who gave up a life of luxury to fight in the name of Islam first against the Soviets and later against the US in the harsh and primitive environs of Afghanistan?

For terrorists, Kruger noted, “While consideration of opportunity cost is not irrel­evant, it is outweighed by other factors, such as a commitment to the goals of the terrorist organi­zation and a desire to make a statement”. A person joining a terrorist organization, Kruger rightly observed “holds strong political views and is confident enough to try to impose an extrem­ist vision by violent means”. The diverse motivations that cause people to sacrifice themselves were also mentioned by him.

Despite his detailed analysis, where Kruger failed was in addressing religious terrorism, particularly Islamic terrorism separately, even though data which explained other types of terrorism did not apply to it. For example, he found on the basis of a study that “countries with low levels of civil liberties are more likely to be the countries of origin of the perpetra­tors of terrorist attacks”, and that of the insurgents, “44 percent would have emanated from Saudi Arabia, a nation not known for its protection of civil liberties but with a high GDP per capita.”

The Al Qaida was born in Saudi Arabia, the land of the Prophet, but its fight is not against the lack of liberties there. It is engaged in a ‘Holy War’ against non-believers and their domination of the Islamic world, particularly by the US, which aggressively rubs it in. Similarly, the Taliban was born in a democratic Pakistan to wage its own holy war against the occupation of Muslim Afghanistan by the Soviets. In Bangladesh too, Islamic terrorists have flourished in a democratic set up. Iraq, on the other hand, was not safe for any Islamic terrorist under the dictatorial and oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein. It was the invasion of that country by the US that created one more haven for Islamic terrorists, including the Al Qaida.

India too had seen a variant of religious terrorism in the Punjab in the 80s and 90s, when Sikh extremists used an essentially open and tolerant religion to achieve their political objectives. Sikhs are among the most affluent and powerful of India’s communities and, like other Indians, have always enjoyed the freedom of democracy. Yet, religion temporarily became a handy tool to violently address a few imaginary and real grievances. This terrorism was different from the classic Islamic religious terrorism because the objective of its leaders was essentially secular, being limited to achieving greater political power.

Religious terrorists, like all other terrorists, hold very strong views and, like Kruger says, impose their vision by violent means. Non-religious terrorism for an ideology or a nation etc is relatively easy to handle over a span of time. Ideologies and their leaders fade away and die; nations sometimes disappear or change completely, depending on many factors. The last century is replete with examples of both.

Classic religious terrorism, however, is on a completely different motivational and sustenance level. Here, the Word, as interpreted by leaders, is unquestioned; it is of a God who is considered completely above all rational and civilizational examination. For believers, everything does not end here in this lifetime; there is a promise beyond too, to motivate a believer into willing physical death. There is also a hell for non-believers, which the believer is tasked to deliver to them in this very world, no chances taken! Also, unlike ideologies and nations which keep coming and going, God has been there ever since He revealed himself as the ‘one and only true God’ to his followers.

All that is needed to ignite this combustible combination is a suitably free environment and a leader who can convincingly interpret the Word to motivate people to kill and be killed.

Laden moved to Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia because the strict laws there, permitting few liberties in the Western mould, were not conducive to the growth of his organization of terror. In Afghanistan, he had a free run with the active assistance and cooperation of the government of Pakistan which, with the unsuspecting help of the US, had given birth to the Taliban to achieve its political objectives in Afghanistan. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, Laden and his cadres reportedly moved to Pakistan, where they still are, as the environment, particularly in the Pashtun dominated areas, remains conducive to and supportive of these terrorists.

Notwithstanding the fact that Kruger did not specifically focus on the factors leading to religious terrorism, he has dispelled the long held myth in this part of the world that Islamic terrorists are mostly poor, ignorant and illiterate individuals who are drawn into the world of terror by fundamentalist skull-capped, long bearded religious leaders not exposed to Western liberalism. This belief is leading to the wrong deduction that an increase in levels of Western type of secular education and economic prosperity among Muslims would automatically result in reducing the vulnerability of Indian Muslims to joining the Islamic terrorism network that India has been battling for many years now.

If Kruger is right, as most studies indicate he is, higher levels of prosperity and education may actually have an opposite effect and drive more Muslims towards Islamic terrorism.

How, then, can we tackle religious terrorism specifically?

As long as religions exist, enough combustible material will always be available to motivate people against non-believers and even believers whose practices are at variance with the word of God as interpreted by leaders who want to achieve their objectives through violent means.

This is a constant that has to be accepted.

Therefore, one practical way is to ensure, in the first place, that the environment does not permit terrorist networks to flourish and operate at all. In a democratic state where civil liberties and political rights are guaranteed, religious terrorism can easily take root and grow silently till it attains enough capability to strike devastatingly. This has been demonstrated all over the world. A way has, therefore, to be found within the democratic framework to prevent the menace from growing its roots even as the rights of ordinary citizens are protected. Not an easy task at all.

If such terrorism somehow does take root, as Islamic terrorism has, the ability of the terror network to operate has to be de-capacitated to the point that it finds it very difficult to function and achieve any worthwhile successes. The measures to be taken to achieve this objective have to be dynamic, based on an almost real time analysis of the threat that these terrorists pose. This is necessary not only to ensure optimal response to the perceived threat but also to guard against the danger of temporarily curtailed civil liberties remaining in place even when the situation demands their removal. All affected countries, except India, seem to have put in place various anti-terror mechanisms with precisely this objective.

Kruger is right when he says that it “makes sense to focus on the demand side, such as by degrading terrorist organizations’ financial and technical capabilities”. But he is clearly off the mark in suggesting that even religious terrorism can be tackled “by vigorously protecting and promoting peaceful means of protest, so there is less demand for pursuing grievances through violent means”.