When examining the sources of terrorism, analysts rank poverty at the top of the list. Recent studies show that the 'terrorism-poverty nexus' may not be as clear as once thought. Here, Marc-Olivier Cantin argues for a more nuanced understanding of the effects of poverty that may lead to radicalization. 

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, world leaders turned to poverty to explain the attacks on New York City, identifying economic deprivation as critical cause of terrorism. From George W. Bush claiming that the world should strive to eradicate “poverty because hope is an answer to terror” to James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, declaring that “we won’t win the war against terror without addressing the problem of poverty” it seems indeed that the causal relationship between terrorism and poverty has been, for many years, taken for granted within the international community. Yet, as investigations of recent terrorist attacks revealed that perpetrators often come from relatively affluent backgrounds, discourse about the “terrorism-poverty nexus” shifted among policy-makers and scholars.

While many voices challenged the alleged connection between terrorist behavior and economic circumstances, other analysts suggested that this relationship shouldn’t be discarded altogether, but should be re-evaluated under different parameters. In this context, it is essential to assess whether economic factors are relevant when seeking to understand processes of radicalization or terrorism. I contend that, while individual poverty seldom represents the paramount cause of one’s radicalization, poverty on a societal level can often create “enabling environments” in which the receptivity to terrorist narratives and the popular support for radical organizations can considerably increase. First, I argue that imputing radicalization to an individual’s poverty is indeed inconsistent with available evidence.  Later I will advocate for a broader understanding of poverty and will posit that, on a societal level, precarious socioeconomic conditions can significantly enable the spread of terrorism.

The feeble link between individual poverty and terrorism

While the relationship between poverty and terrorism received a great deal of attention in the post-9/11 era, under the impetus of Alan Krueger’s seminal work, it seems that many scholars have arrived at similar conclusions on that matter: that no systematic correlation links individual economic circumstances and the recourse to terrorism. Many of these scholars have surveyed global trends, examining the fluctuations of international poverty in relation with the incidence of transnational terrorist attacks and, for the most part, have found that “global rates of terrorism are out of sync with changes in global poverty rates”. 

In an influential study comparing worldwide incidents of terrorism with percentages of the global population below the poverty line between 1981 and 2006, James Piazza showed that the number of transnational terrorist episodes has largely fluctuated over these years while the world poverty rate has remained mostly constant, following a slight decline (see Figure 1). Hence, the asynchrony between these two trends indicates that there is no meaningful correlation between the share of the world’s population under the poverty line and the prevalence of terrorism.

Figure 1. Trends of Transnational Terrorism and Global Poverty from 1981 to 2006

Figure 1. Trends of Transnational Terrorism and Global Poverty from 1981 to 2006

Likewise, another study, after examining the profiles of more than 350 terrorists across the globe, that over two-thirds “of those individuals […] came from the middle or upper classes in their respective nations” and that their incomes had no clear connection with their participation in such activities. These findings were corroborated by Christine Fair and Husein Haqqani, and by Claude Berrebi who even showed that economically affluent individuals are sometimes over-represented in terrorist ranks.

Yet, of all the authors that have confronted the alleged relationship between poverty and terrorism, Alan Krueger has been the most influential. After investigating the question across numerous articles and monographs, Krueger concluded that “any connection between poverty […] and terrorism is indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak” and that a thorough examination of available evidence “provides little reason for optimism that a reduction in poverty […] would meaningfully reduce international terrorism.” Hence, like all the authors mentioned above, Krueger claimed that income is an unreliable indicator of an individual’s potential terrorist proclivities.

To substantiate the argument that individual poverty has no meaningful connection to terrorism, some authors have also juxtaposed the Global Terrorism Index (see Figure 2) with different rankings of the world’s poorest countries (see Figure 3). It has been argued that if, like many policymakers have suggested, poverty indeed causes terrorism, these rankings should essentially overlap and, logically, the world’s poorest countries should also be the most highly afflicted by terrorism. Yet, Somalia is the only country that has consistently ranked in both of these lists in recent years while most of the other states on the Global Terrorism Index have been predominantly lower middle income or upper middle income countries. Undoubtedly, this discrepancy further reinforces the rationale of scholars like Krueger that seek to refute the alleged causal link between poverty and terrorism.

Figure II. Nine Countries Most Affected by Terrorist Activity in 2016

Figure II. Nine Countries Most Affected by Terrorist Activity in 2016

The abundance of “scholarly evidence is […] daunting for those who argue that poverty is a cause of terrorism.” Yet, while all of the arguments outlined above are undoubtedly compelling and appear to confirm that “terrorism is not a direct by-product of economic factors”, these analyses tend to be undermined by common agential and theoretical flaws. A broader understanding of poverty, one that encompasses societal factors, can help us to a more nuanced comprehension of the “terrorism-poverty nexus.”

Figure III. Ten Poorest Countries in GDP per Capita in 2016

Figure III. Ten Poorest Countries in GDP per Capita in 2016

Broadening the scope of the terrorism-poverty debate

Examining the relationship between poverty and terrorism on the sole basis of individual economic circumstances unduly narrows the scope of the question; this truncated perspective ultimately undermines the counter-terrorism efforts of policymakers. Indeed, even though it seems to be largely agreed upon that a person’s precarious economic situation will seldom represent the only cause inciting him to perpetrate a terrorist attack, it seems clear that poverty, considered on a societal level, can create a favorable environment in which terrorist organizations might flourish and in which the receptivity to their extremist narratives might significantly increase.

Before examining how this occurs, it is imperative to define what we mean by a broader understanding of poverty. To get a more comprehensive understanding of that relationship, it seems significantly more fruitful to consider these economic determinants alongside “social, cultural and political aspects”. Amongst these sociocultural and political aspects, it is clear that the availability of various social services such as health facilities and education infrastructures, the prevalence of social exclusion and the incidence of various forms of inequality should all be included in this enlarged understanding of poverty. Undoubtedly, this multidimensional definition should also encompass multiple layers of analysis, considering simultaneously individual, domiciliary and national poverty. Thus, by acknowledging the multifaceted nature of poverty, it is clear that a broader framework will allow us to unearth some of the linkages between terrorism and poverty that might not be immediately perceivable, but that are nonetheless highly significant.

One of the most apparent ways in which terrorist groups can capitalize on poverty is by exploiting the lack of social safety net that characterizes impoverished countries. By administering a vast array of social services, terrorist organizations have in many cases “been able to significantly broaden their appeal” and have considerably “expanded their influence in their constituencies because of this assistance”. In recent decades, manifestations of this “welfare terrorism” have been numerous, from Hezbollah establishing schools, medical facilities and agricultural schemes, to Hamas investing in educational, health and sociocultural infrastructures. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have also employed such tactics by financing madrassas and educating the impoverished youth. Clearly, these various forms of “Islamist social welfare” have played a central role in the “growth and enduring popularity” of terrorist organizations in poor countries across the globe.

Moreover, by filling this social service void, terrorist groups erode the legitimacy and power of the states in which they operate. This has often created a political landscape in which governmental institutions were to weak to halter the exponential rooting of these organizations. Unable to provide the most elementary services to their populations, certain impoverished countries have indeed been entangled in a spiral of delegitimization exploited by organizations like Al-Shabab in Somalia or the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Therefore, while poverty doesn’t play a direct role in inciting a particular individual to perpetrate an attack, it creates the conditions in which terrorist organizations can acquire credibility and legitimacy, establish enduring foundations and develop a network of “support structures” that will allow them to flourish. Hence, the unavailability of social services represent one of the multiple faces of poverty that, when exploited by opportunistic radical groups, can significantly facilitate the spread of terrorism while considerably enhancing popular support for the objectives it pursues.

Social exclusion has also been identified as one of the constitutive parts of poverty that is likely to fuel terrorism. The United Nations defines social exclusion has been defined by an individual’s “lack of participation in decision-making [processes] in civil, socioeconomic and cultural life” and as a systematic denial of an individual’s fundamental rights and opportunities that impedes his integration into communal life. By being relegated to the very margins of society, these excluded individuals or communities are particularly likely to develop potent sentiments of disenfranchisement and of alienation that might ultimately foster a feeling of identity vacuum.

Many scholars have identified this lack of sense of belonging has a meaningful cause of radicalization in marginalized segments of societies and have suggested that this social segregation can often play a decisive role in one’s decision to subscribe to extremist narratives. Consequently, becoming involved in a terrorist organization provides a feeling of self-importance and of inclusion that attracts socially and politically secluded individuals. Hence, it seems clear that exclusion in all its forms represents one of the inherent components of poverty that offers a fertile ground of recruitment for terrorist organizations.

Finally, socioeconomic inequality is one of the aspects of poverty identified as having decisive influence on the spread of terrorism. “Horizontal inequalities” seem to have the most meaningful impact on the triggering of extremist behaviors. The concept of “horizontal inequalities” was defined by Frances Stewart as “inequalities between social groups, where one social group is marginalized compared to others”, as opposed to “vertical inequalities”, a notion referring to “inequalities as measured on a societal level between individuals”. Horizontal inequalities are a particularly fertile source of grievances that can, in many cases, trigger violent behaviors and desperate means of action. While Stewart primarily applied her theory to civil war contexts, certain scholars have employed her framework to examine terrorism and have argued that these horizontal inequalities are genuine “breeding grounds” for terrorism and often trigger processes of radicalization in countries where they are particularly acute.

The effects of horizontal inequalities on terrorism have been especially conspicuous in Syria. The country ranks as one of the most unequal Middle Eastern countries in terms of income distribution (GINI index), its Sunni majority has suffered from political marginalization for decades under the Alawite regime of the Al-Assad family, and its different regions are very unevenly developed. It has been reported that, amongst these marginalized populations, numerous Syrians have engaged in terrorist activities as a last resort attempt to rectify these injustices.

The Syrian example demonstrates that “global measures of absolute levels of [poverty] bear a different relationship to […] terrorism than relative measures, even though [the tendency is to] lump both of them together.” Hence, it is clear that it is mostly relative deprivation rather than absolute poverty that has the most meaningful impact on the prevalence of terrorism.

Thus, it is undeniable that inequalities of all kinds (social, political or economic) and especially the ones that disproportionally afflict a particular group, constitute yet another expression of poverty that has a significant effect on the triggering of terrorist behaviors. While they have been largely overlooked in the works of Krueger and others, these perceived relative deprivations create potent sentiments of grievances that can prompt certain individuals to succumb to terrorist narratives.  Here again, the link between poverty and terrorism might not be an immediately perceivable one, but it remains fundamentally consequential.

A lack of social services, social exclusion and the incidence of horizontal inequalities, can thus create an enabling environment in which terrorists often thrive. Broadening the understanding of poverty reveals some of the linkages that bind deprivations of all kinds with terrorism and that are very likely to go unnoticed when one examines the question focusing solely on material determinants.

Marc-Olivier Cantin is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Montreal. His research focuses on political violence and foreign policy.