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Stanford Report, November 20, 2002

Vantage Point: Getting at the roots of terrorism


Perhaps the greatest mistake of the Bush administration has been its utter failure to take any steps to reduce the factors that inspire terrorists to attack us.

One factor, of course, is rich-world attempts to control oil flows, as exemplified most recently by Bush's apparent plans to take control of Iraq's vast petroleum reserves. Oil also explains the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which enrages some Muslims, especially Osama bin Laden. But demographic and socioeconomic factors -- especially poverty, inequality and large numbers of young men facing dim economic prospects -- also are likely contributors to such terrorism.

The United States and its allies have responded to the heinous attacks of Sept. 11 with a short-term campaign focused on the necessary but insufficient task of bringing the perpetrators to justice. It did not respond by instituting a sane energy policy emphasizing conservation and renewable sources. That would doubtless have reduced the threat of terrorism, but it would also have menaced America's love affair with gas-guzzling SUVs.

Origins of terrorism

But oil geopolitics alone can't explain the atrocity of the 9/11 attacks. Sadly, an integrated framework that explains the origins of terrorism in general, and terrorism against the West based in Islamic fundamentalism in particular, is still lacking. For instance, why Arab nations have not maintained the enormous cultural and economic lead they once enjoyed over the Christian West is poorly understood. It seems unlikely that cultural disappointment over these long-term trends would make Muslims more prone to terrorism than any other militarily impotent group. The persistence of non-democratic governments in Muslim nations certainly might help generate resentment against the West to the degree that Western intervention in aid of corrupt, autocratic rulers is perceived as a factor.

In the November issue of Population and Environment, Jianguo "Jack" Liu of Michigan State University and I define 9/11-type terrorism as actions carried out by militarily weak sub- or trans-national groups from developing nations to gain political ends through violence against private citizens or public property of militarily powerful developed nations. Certain persistent socioeconomic and demographic factors seem to help create this kind of terrorism and make it easier to recruit terrorists, but the Bush administration seems not to recognize these factors, and the press all too often ignores them. Widespread poverty is obviously one of the most important, especially because of the severely unequal distribution of wealth between and within nations. Others include a lack of gender equity; substandard public health, education and communication capabilities; and frequent exposure to violence.

In our report, Liu and I examined social indicators in a sample of developing countries that seem likely sources of terrorists, the majority of which contained substantial Muslim populations. On average, a substantial gap in all of those indicators was found between the poor countries and a sample of developed nations, with only a very few overlaps.

We concluded that, at the very least, these factors can be important to the motivations and recruitment of terrorists, even when those terrorists are relatively prosperous and well educated individuals as were the 9/11 Saudis and Osama bin Laden himself. The socioeconomic and political conditions in their nations provided a good basis for both moral indignation and grassroots support. And sadly, what projections can be made give little hope that this salient set of socioeconomic differences between the developing and developed nations in our sample will be substantially reduced in the near future.

For example, population growth projections indicate that the economies of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt will need to grow by about 100 percent, 75 percent, 70 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in the next quarter century just to keep per capita purchasing power from falling. Furthermore, the very strictness of religious fundamentalism makes many people in these countries extremely resistant to change and promotes a willingness to die for beliefs.

Gender, poverty and violence

The vast majority of terrorists are young adult males. This is hardly surprising; after all, most violent anti-social behavior is generated by young men, often unemployed or underemployed.

In the first half of this century, the proportion of young men in developing nations will continue to be substantially larger than in developed countries. Huge numbers of boys now under 15, many in Muslim nations acquiring a hatred for the United States, will soon enter their high-crime years; and the effects of this young population will persist. Job opportunities for the disproportionate numbers of young men in poor economies are relatively scarce now. But high population growth rates are expected to continue in many developing nations, and in the face of that growth, job opportunities may become much rarer. Many believe population growth itself now retards development, widening the rich-poor gap and increasing the distress to those left behind.

Why, then, have many countries (e.g., in Latin America) sharing some socioeconomic and demographic conditions with the countries in our sample not generated the same sort of terrorist threats against the rich countries as have originated in the Middle East? One answer might be that the United States' exceptional support of Israel coupled with its oil profligacy as a clear single-resource root of policies have served as triggers in the Middle East but not in other regions. The active suppression by national governments of guerrilla movements such as the Shining Path in Peru is probably significant as well.

Prudent course

I am convinced that the prudent course for the United States and other rich nations is to work to ameliorate social and economic rich-poor disparities while trying to unravel the complex root causes of terrorism. After all, we would reap many other benefits from improving conditions in developing nations even if the efforts did not significantly reduce terrorism.

The United States should play a central role in improving demographic and socioeconomic conditions in developing nations. It is one of the stingiest rich nations in terms of development assistance -- ranking 15th by donating only one-tenth of 1 percent of its gross national product.

Without dramatic action, however, the demographic and socioeconomic conditions that prevail in much of the world will help provide a substrate on which 9/11-type terrorism can thrive into the foreseeable future. Exacerbating terrorist tendencies are policies of the developed nations designed to expand their consumption and maintain their access to natural resources in less developed regions -- including waging war on anyone who we decide might impede the flow of oil into American SUVs and dollars into the pockets of George Bush's friends.

The United States and other rich nations should then move as rapidly as possible toward an energy-efficient economy that works to minimize dependence on oil (and coal), while putting much more effort into limiting wasteful resource consumption and closing the rich-poor gap. In the process, the rich could create brand new markets for the outputs of the new economy and speed the reduction of their own population sizes to more satisfactory and sustainable levels while helping to protect the environment. The United States also could increase its pathetic level of foreign aid and carefully target that aid on, for example, increasing employment and lowering fertility rates in developing countries. Aid to develop labor-intensive enterprises and to education, particularly of women, are two examples. This effort will require innovation, care and tough diplomacy, and will not happen overnight. That is all the more reason for announcing our good intentions and changing our attitudes right now.

Paul Ehrlich is the Bing Professor of Population Studies and president of the Stanford Center for Conservation Biology.

Paul Ehrlich