Carol Lancaster. 

Imagine the following advertisement for Al Qaeda: “Wanted: Educated individuals (preferably with a graduate degree in a technical field) who have foreign-language skills (preferably fluency in English) as well as a deep antipathy to their own and others’ political leaders. Must be comfortable with violence and available for training and important assignments in foreign countries during a period of months or years.”

The terrorists of Al Qaeda were educated, from well-off families, and mostly from countries that have long ago graduated from the category of the world’s poorest. It was not poverty that motivated them. Indeed, we do not know for certain what led them to terrorism—perhaps disgust with their own often-corrupt governments; a sense of humiliation by the West; religious fanaticism, boredom, and alienation; or perhaps dim prospects for a fulfilling career. But their motivation was not fighting poverty. Nor, as far as we know, were they reacting to the vast disparities (both in wealth and in numbers) between the very poor and the very rich either in their own societies or in the world at large. The poor do not have the time, the resources, or often even the physical health to get an education, to experience ennui, or to fly airplanes into tall buildings. For the just over one billion people who each live on $1 per day, it is simply often an exhausting task to get an adequate meal or two every 24 hours.


Poverty does not produce terrorists. And eliminating poverty—something dearly to be desired by all civilized beings—is not likely to eliminate terrorism. Consider some of the world’s well known terrorist groups in recent years: the Irish Republican Army; the ETA in Spain; the Red Army and Aum Shinrikyo in Japan; the Bader-Meinhof Gang in Germany; Timothy McVeigh and militia groups in the United States; Hamas in Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon; the FARC in Colombia; the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka; the Pakistanis in Kashmir; and the Chechens in Russia. Few if any of these groups are rooted in poverty or have the goal of its elimination. In some circumstances, reducing poverty could well increase the pool of potential terrorists—if educated young people who are angry because they lack job or life prospects buy into ideologies or religious movements that urge them to violence.

This commentary first considers the causes of terrorism in the world today. Then it inquires into the precise relationship between poverty and terrorism. Finally, it asks what we can do to eliminate terrorism and insecurity.

Causes of Terrorism

The three elements common to all terrorism are: (1) a grievance that the terrorists are protesting and perhaps trying to resolve; (2) an ideology or set of beliefs that identify and explain the grievance and what to do about it; and (3) a belief that terrorism can contribute to that grievance’s solution. (I am including neither criminal and drug networks nor warlords in my collection of terrorists. Although categories may blur at times, these latter groups operate primarily for their own gain rather than to address a real or perceived societal wrong.)

Terrorist grievances are often over land, assets, or other resources—in essence, who should control them. Grievances can also be over values—for example, the perception that an ethnic, religious, or political organization is encroaching on others’ rights or that a society is flawed in some fundamental way and must be reformed. These grievances may be real (as in Kashmir or Israel) or imagined (as in the case of Timothy McVeigh or Aum Shinrikyo).

Terrorist ideologies may be based on ethnicity, nationalism, religion, or the worldview of a charismatic terrorist leader. And terrorists act because they think they can achieve their goals—usually in the hope that the state in which they act will be too weak to apprehend them or prevent such acts in the future.

Poverty And Terrorism

Despite the assumptions often made in the wake of the attacks of September 11 that world poverty was somehow a source or motivation for those attacks, terrorist grievances almost never include poverty. Others (especially in Europe) argue that poverty breeds the discontent that leads to terrorism. This argument is much like one heard during the Cold War—that poverty bred discontent and discontent increased the allure of communism, or led to chaos that opened opportunities for communist gains. Eliminating poverty was, therefore, important to eliminate the causes of discontent, violence, radicalism, and (now) terrorism. But if either of these causal chains were true, much of the world would surely now be communist-dominated or engulfed by terror and violence.

So the relationship between poverty, terrorism, and ultimately U.S. national security is not a simple and direct one. Might there be more subtle and indirect ties between poverty in the world and security in the United States? Certainly, the vast differences in wealth, education, health, and life prospects among and within countries can feed a general sense of social injustice and righteous anger on the part of those—often youth—who are sensitive to such issues. But while this sense of social injustice may trigger anti-globalization protests, it does not appear to be sufficient by itself to promote organized violence against symbols of wealth.

In some cases there does appear to be an indirect relationship between poverty and the poor governance (corruption, exclusion, and repression) that can lead to civil violence and state collapse. These conditions, in turn, can spread throughout a region, producing widespread insecurity and possibly creating havens for terrorists or criminals who can organize and attack targets elsewhere, including in the United States. These conditions of civil violence and state collapse do tend to concentrate in poor countries (especially in Africa) such as Somalia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. However, not all cases of civil violence and state collapse occur in the poorest countries (see Colombia, Algeria, and Chechnya), and not all poor countries suffer from such violence—suggesting that poverty is far from being a direct trigger of these problems.

But it may be difficult to hold governments accountable in places where populations lack education and information and poverty is widespread. Such countries are vulnerable to crime and thuggery, to the evaporation of rule of law and political institutions, and to the repression of dissident groups (which are often ethnically or religiously distinct)—all factors which may provoke internal violence and chaos. Reducing poverty and improving education, health, and the economic well-being of a population may, all things being equal, lead to better governance over time and fewer opportunities for terrorist or criminal elements to operate in these countries. But there is still much we do not know about the interrelationships between poverty, governance, civil violence, and international terrorism and criminality.

The risk in justifying U.S. global anti-poverty policies and programs as anti-terrorist or as in the interests of national-security initiatives is that such labeling could ultimately be counterproductive for those policies and programs. If the United States spends more on foreign aid to help reduce poverty in the world in order to reduce terrorism and the threat of terrorism fails to abate, support for foreign aid (which can help promote growth, poverty reduction, and many other desirable changes) could well erode in Congress and among the public.

So if poverty is not a major or direct cause of terrorism, and if eliminating poverty will not eliminate terrorism, is there anything outside of military or intelligence options that the United States can do to fight terrorism?


Short of the use of force, policymakers have several options for addressing the underlying conditions that feed terrorism. The first is to address the disparate issues that are triggering terrorist activities. The United States and other countries can act as mediators for agreements between governments and discontented ethnic, religious, and other groups (as in the case of Northern Ireland). But such diplomatic efforts take time, energy, and resources—items things in scarce supply for United States and other governments.


A second approach is to press and persuade governments to relax their repressive policies, eliminate corruption, open up their political processes, and finance activities aimed at strengthening the rule of law, civil society, democratic political institutions, and elections. If this sounds like pie in the sky, it was U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s—and that policy now appears to have contributed to improved security and human rights in the region. But policies promoting democratization and improved governance also take time, patience, and resources.


A third approach is to help strengthen the internal security of countries plagued by terrorist activities. It is clear, unfortunately, that no country is immune to such activities—not even the United States with its home-grown, violence-prone groups such as the Aryan Nation. When such groups sense that security is inadequate, they will act. Of course, when a government’s own corruption and repression has provoked civil violence and terrorism, strengthening the security forces of that government can exacerbate the underlying causes of dissent. But fortifying national security forces in selective cases can be an important and effective way to fight terrorism.


One further approach to reducing the underlying causes of terrorism and insecurity involves addressing stalled development instead of poverty per se. Societies that educate their youth but cannot provide them with jobs or the possibility of fulfilling lives create pools of vulnerable young men (and in some cases, young women) who can be drawn into terrorist networks. Algeria is an excellent example of this problem: while that country has made impressive strides in educating its young people, decades of economic mismanagement have resulted in large-scale youth unemployment. Other countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Latin America show similar problems. All they lack are militant ideologies that might energize youths without purpose to violence. Policies and programs aimed at steering the educated-but-unemployed young—both in poor and not-so-poor countries—toward productive activities must be part of the strategy against terrorism. But Western governments and development agencies are in only the earliest stages of thinking about what these policies and programs should be.


In sum, the United States should and must work to eliminate poverty in the world. But U.S. policymakers and citizens should not fool themselves that reducing poverty will eliminate terrorism. Attacking terrorism is another important task we must address—but it is not the same task as poverty reduction.