Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

What Makes a Terrorist *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th August, 2018

What Makes a TerroristTerrorists, like revolutionaries, tend to come not from the impoverished masses but from the middle class, and usually have an above-average level of education. This was the shock central finding of Alan B. Krueger’s What Makes a Terrorist when it was published a decade ago, thus challenging the widely-held assumption that poverty is the root cause of terrorism. A 10th anniversary edition of the book has now appeared (Princeton University Press. £22), with the addition of a new Prologue, in which Professor Krueger points out that despite the high level of publicity surrounding terrorist attacks, the risk of being a victim of such an outrage is minimal and has not increased since 2008, notwithstanding blanket coverage of incidents in the media, including social media. In the 15 years between 9/11 and 2016, for example, 123 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks, whereas 240,000 were murdered.

9 11The main body of this book comprises three lectures that Dr Krueger (Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton) gave at the London School of Economics, snappily entitled Who Becomes a Terrorist? Where does Terror Emerge? and What Does Terror Accomplish? As a regular commentator in mainstream media in the United States, the author is adept at explaining things in layman’s terms, while sacrificing none of his academic rigour. The unique quality of his work rests on the fact that he approaches the subject from the perspective of an economist (statistics and all, though there is only one mind-boggling equation to daunt the non-specialist). He draws on useful examples, not least from Iraq and the Basque Country, as evidence to support his theories and certain quantifiable patterns do emerge. While most of us may find it impossible to imagine a situation in which we would deliberately kill random people in an act of violence, probably sacrificing our own lives, it is maybe useful to understand why some youths — and they are overwhelmingly young men — do and what they hope to achieve. Anger about a situation of poverty and injustice, such as the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza, can be a motive, even if the perpetrators are not poor themselves. But I found particularly intriguing Professor Krueger’s assertion that there is a correlation between the origin of terrorists and the lack of civil liberties in that country. So although there is probably still substance to the argument that reducing poverty and injustice could reduce the incentives for terrorism, improving civil liberties and good governance could be at least as effective. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, please take note.

 

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