(Matthew Levitt is a Senior fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy).
Here’s my first two cents:
Poverty, in and of itself, does not lead to terrorism. But it can be part of the problem, as the case of disenfranchised Muslim communities in Europe make clear. In the words of one European official I recently interviewed on this issue, “poverty is rarely one of the key radicalizers, but unemployment can be, especially when combined with
engaging in criminal activity and being exposed to a radical narrative.”
Radical ideologies are better able to take root when discrimination and the lack of opportunity for economic growth are put in terms of a global narrative that weave personal experiences in the suburbs north of Paris together with the plight of fellow Muslims in Bosnia, Chechnya, Palestine or Iraq to personalize far away conflicts and paint a global, ideological struggle. That global narrative is where foreign policy becomes one part of this larger tapestry as well, especially when presented through a radical ideological lens. To my mind the ideological component is the most critical and overlooked component here.
As several studies have demonstrated, organized radicalization and recruitment (let alone training and the provision of funds and weapons) has long been central to the formation of a terrorist–that is, someone who is not only angry but willing to act on that anger in a violent manner. Today, that organizational function is in some cases carried out more passively via exposure to ideas and, perhaps more critically, a sense of belonging to a group of like-minded followers, on the Internet.
But even among the increasing number of “homegrown” terrorists, European officials stress the importance of pre-existing personal vulnerabilities that serve as “push factors”as well as exposure to “radicalizers” — in person or online — over a period of time.
No single psychological profile describes the wide variety of “push factors” that make individuals vulnerable to the kind of radicalization that can eventually lead them to become terrorists. One study, by Tel Aviv University researchers Shaul Kimhe and Shmuel Even, developed a series of prototypical categories that combine both clinical and social psychological causes among Palestinians who resorted to terrorism. A telling corollary to their primary findings, however, is that whatever the typology of the potential terrorist–“religious fanatic,” “nationalist fanatic,” “avenger,” or “exploited”–every type requires “a social environment that is supportive of such an attack; media that disseminates the information among the supportive population; spiritual leadership that encourages such attacks; and financial and social assistance for families of suicide terrorists after their death.” Together, these conditions create a “comprehensive social environment [that] may be referred to as the ‘culture of suicide terrorists’ that has been created within Palestinian society.”
Social preconditions by themselves do not make a suicide bomber. While poverty, humiliation, occupation, personal suffering, shame, or loss of a loved one can all be powerful radicalizing factors, they almost always require an organized element to channel that anger and frustration — actively and in person or passively on the Internet — into a desire to kill and maim random civilians (as opposed, for example, to a desire simply to kill oneself). It is for this reason that groups subscribing to a radical ideology invest so much time, effort and money in media campaigns aimed at radicalizing and directly or indirectly recruiting future members.
— Matthew Levitt
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.