TERRORISM SALON: Greg Djerejian on Poverty, Ideology, US Foreign Policy and Occupation


(Greg Djerejian is a financial services professional and publishes the popular blog The Belgravia Dispatch).
I certainly believe there are links between poverty and terrorism, but particularly in terms of the West’s so-called Global War on Terror, I believe more important are other variables such as the ones mentioned in the prompt, e.g. perceived humiliation, grievances with U.S. foreign policy, radical ideology etc.
For instance, certain of the key 9/11 hijackers were reasonably middle (or lower-middle class) young adults residing in European cities. And while others in this salon discussion far more knowledgeable than me might correct me, the 15 or so Saudi hijackers (of the 19 total) I don’t recall having had hugely impoverished backgrounds, though certainly they were not enjoying the fruits of the petro-dollar gusher as are their local elites.
Still, I’d think, these terrorists were not the hugely impoverished peasants inhabiting the border-lands of South Waziristan and Afghanistan, say. (Incidentally, to mount “A Team”” style sophisticated attacks in the West, almost as a tactical ‘gating-item’, once must enjoy a modicum of education and ‘Westerness’ to evade heightened security measures, pointing to those most dangerous potential terrorists not necessarily being those mired in the worst of endemic third world poverty).
Meantime, and putting aside the famous example of Mohammed Atta and Co., one might query too whether the Madrid train bombers (mostly young Moroccans) or the July 7th London attackers (mostly home-grown and by the accounts I’m familiar with not desperately poor either), were primarily driven to action by poverty. I suspect not, but for avoidance of doubt, please note this is not to argue a key part of our overall anti-terror strategy mustn’t include economic development initiatives in critical areas like the Maghreb, Pakistan, etc, as doubtless poverty alleviation (not least given the demographic boom through MENA and South Asia of younger citizens) will become an increasingly critical challenge for policy-makers in the coming years/decades. I view poverty therefore as a tremendously unhelpful variable in all of this, but not necessarily a primary cause.

Indeed, I’d argue in this Internet and global cable age where IDF airstrikes in, say, southern Lebanon inflame televised opinion in the Islamic World from Tangier to Jakarta, it is more foreign policy actions of various powers, particularly those stoking feelings of humiliation, that create the impetus for (mostly) young Muslim males to join the jihadi cause. This said, local autocracies frustrating freedom of expression are a major part of this toxic brew as well, of course.
Related, I believe there is a ‘hard-core’ of ideological true-believers for whom radical ideology–and radical ideology alone–provide the requisite motivational impulse towards terror (say restoration of the much discussed caliphate). But I believe there are a good number of ‘fence-sitters’, some perhaps even tempted towards the faux romance of terrorism by boredom and feelings of alienation while residing in the West, who end up pursuing violent tactics not as much because of ideology per se necessarily, but ‘hot topics’ like the foreign policy of the U.S., which in turn lead to occasional feelings of perceived humiliation, leading them towards acts of terrorist horror.
Last, I would say the most underestimated cause (per the question prompt) is very likely the occupation of Islamic lands by foreign powers. This has historically been a major cause of Palestinian terrorism (see, over the years, the PLO, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, DFLP etc), and see too Chechnya, Lebanon (Hezbollah notably), and more. This being said, the transnational al-Qaeda variety of terrorism has sought to conflate festering conflicts/occupation/humiliation — and then somewhat fuse same w/ ‘purist’ ideology — so as to thereby be immunized some to the ebbs and flows of localized disputes, the better so there appear to perennially be ‘near’ and ‘far’ enemies, the scope of the jihadist playing field is global, and progress in the Middle East peace process, say (were we ever to see any again), would not be a reason to lay down arms.
— Greg Djerejian
This week long terrorism salon will continue to be hosted by The Washington Note and UN Dispatch.


4 comments on “TERRORISM SALON: Greg Djerejian on Poverty, Ideology, US Foreign Policy and Occupation

  1. pauline says:

    I read this today and wept.
    “It isn’t just Afghanistan, however, that provides a clue as to Obama’s future development as a wartime president in the tradition of Bush, Truman, and FDR: the appointment of Dennis Ross as his principal Middle East adviser is good news for the War Party, specifically for that crucial branch of it that specializes in promoting Israel’s ambitions over America’s national interests.
    No matter which president Ross worked for, Democrat or Republican – and he’s worked for both – his interventionist agenda and his sympathy for the interests of a certain Middle Eastern nation were no secret. His sympathy, too, for poor, persecuted Scooter Libby prompted him to endorse that convicted felon’s defense fund. And he was right in there with Bill Kristol and the Project for a New American Century in agitating for war with Iraq.
    In a future Obama administration, the so-called liberal hawks will have their chief factotum in Ross, who is presumably up for a major role in the Obama administration – perhaps national security adviser, or even secretary of state. That is good news for the tiny yet influential Joe Lieberman wing of the Democratic Party, and very bad news indeed for Obama’s anti-interventionist supporters, or even just ordinary war-weary Americans. As Leon Hadar points out:
    “Another contingency of liberal hawks occupies positions of influence in Washington think-tanks, including the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, where such scholar-practitioners as former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and Kenneth Pollack have been cheerleaders for the Iraq War and have approved of Bush’s policies on Iran and Israel. In fact, one does not have to be a veteran political observer to predict Indyk, Pollack, and other experts on the Middle East, like former peace negotiator Dennis Ross, would probably play a major role in influencing the policy of a future Democratic administration. In that case, the Democratic Party activists who rallied against Joe Lieberman should not be surprised if Bush’s Democratic successor ends up pursuing policies that might be described as neoconservatism with a smiling Democratic face.”
    Ross acted as a front man for the government of then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Clinton-era Oslo negotiations, poses as a “peacemaker,” shamelessly promotes Israel’s interests, and works for AIPAC and AIPAC-affiliated organizations yet strenuously denies there’s such a creature as the Israel lobby. He is virtually the living embodiment of business-as-usual insofar as U.S. foreign policy is concerned, and his closeness to Obama – the two stood side-by-side during the candidate’s Mideast tour – bodes ill for the antiwar voter shopping around for a viable candidate.
    This isn’t “change” – it’s the same old B.S., rooted in some pretty basic misconceptions. The idea that the U.S. can “solve” – permanently and decisively – the terrorism problem is an illusion ingrained, perhaps, in the American psyche, which is fond of applying metaphors like “get the job done” to complex realities barely comprehensible to the Western mind. It’s as if the making of foreign policy were like plumbing, and it’s merely a matter of “fixing” things that somehow got broken. That our own policies caused this breakage in the first place, often directly, is almost never acknowledged, and when it is, the proposed “solution” is guaranteed to worsen rather than alleviate the original problem.
    The mistakes of the past cannot be undone, but if we learn from them we can minimize the amount of “blowback” that continues to come at us from all directions. Alas, it appears that, no matter who wins the White House this November, a foreign policy made by those who have learned nothing and regret nothing will remain in place.”
    source —


  2. erichwwk says:

    Glad to see TWN again address the “root causes of terrorism”. The previous effort that Steve Clemons and NAF helped organize in Sept. 2005 (Terrorism, Security and America’s Purpose) was a outstanding, and the sort of event that earned my lasting respect.
    As I recall, the conclusions from that conference seemed to suggest that poverty worked through injustice and unfairness, a finding that has been replicated in many other contexts and studies.
    There seem to be many causes worth dying for, but most seem connected to decency, respect, truth, fairness, justice. As such poverty may be a proxy for these injustices, but are not identical with it.
    In any case, kudos for asking the right questions, before jumping to silly McCain type conclusions such as “I know how to win wars.”


  3. questions says:

    There’s been work done (by Robert Pape among others) that suggests issues of cross-cultural irritation (Saudis come to the US to study, are torn between liberal/libertine behavior and traditional behavior and feel somewhat sickened by the internal dialogue), peer pressure (all my friends are blowing things up), and egging on by instigating cultural figures (clerics’ hate tapes, lectures and the like).
    It might be instructive to see how racism is passed on in the US and how, say, teens can convince each other to engage in gay-bashing or beating homeless people. It’s not poor kids who do these things, it’s conflicted kids in groups who might even be motivated by radio personalities. Of course, the scale is different, but the psyches might be similar. Does a homeless person REALLY humiliate a “homed” person? Well, there’s always a threat of “there but for the grace….” And there’s always the sort of talismanic effect of beating up on others to prove you’re not one of them. But this isn’t direct humiliation. And that is where the peer pressure enters. These crimes are committed for audiences.
    If we ever figure out how to stop hate crimes here, we might have a handle on stopping them elsewhere.


  4. Mr.Murder says:

    Ethnic cleansing in southeast Europe the decade prior inspired many from outside the perceived recruiting base. Certain groups were working in that and they’d later become even more infamous.
    Also, we helped establish the Mujahadeen which in time patterned an example to Al Qaeda, through a network of shared benefactors.
    The ability of these groups to gain traction, tolerance, or at worst, indifference to their purpose within a populace, that’s where economics can transform the mindset.


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