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Poverty and Terror

09/07/2010

It has become something of an article of faith to say that poverty and economic misfortune are not drivers of terrorism. This seems a sensible conclusion to reach when one considers the volume of poverty and misery in the world and the relatively small volume of terrorists that emerge from it. Were poverty truly a determinant of a predilection for terrorist radicalization then theoretically speaking there would be far more terrorists in this world than there are.

But at the same time, it seems clear that there is some sort of correlation between social deprivation and radicalization – even if only from the perspective that it often appears as a constant in communities where radicalization seems able to take root (though of course this is not always the case). This is a difficult correlation to understand as it is not one that appears to exist on a steady or universal gradient, but it is clearly plays some sort of a role in the radicalization picture.

Understanding this question, however becomes increasingly salient as we enter ever tighter economic times, as theoretically speaking we are increasing one of the possible drivers. The core point is: are we are going to see an increase in radicalization amongst communities as they feel the economic squeeze?

One possible vision of the consequent trends can be seen in the recent annual Europol report on terrorism trends in the EU (which I wrote about for the Jamestown Foundation). Amongst other things, it highlighted a growing level of concern about left-wing and anarchist radicalization: “In 2009, the total number of left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks in the EU increased by 43% compared to 2008 and more than doubled since 2007.”

These trends are discernable at a wider level too: the emergence in the UK of far-right groups like the English Defence League appears to at least in part be the product of social disaffection stirred up by disenfranchisement. Rioting in Greece has taken an increasingly violent turn and there has also been a more general increase in anarchist violence and extremist activity. And German officials have expressed concern about the discovery of an 80-page pamphlet entitled “Prisma” which offers ideas for bomb-making, avoiding detection by police and other tips for urban guerrillas. They have also marked a 53% jump in left-wing attacks in 2009 which has included some large scale acts of vandalism and violence.

All of which would point to an increase in radicalization amongst communities that do not appear to be so directly influenced by the Al Qaeda narrative. So does this mean that the poor economic climate is directly contributing to radicalization in general: youths are becoming angry at the system and fighting against it, is the free time they are left with due to their economic disenfranchisement giving them the time to indulge in such activity? Well, possibly, but it seems as though it would be best not to leap to any conclusions about this quite yet or any draconian reactions. Anyway, what exactly would be the abrupt security reaction be: pour security funding into economic stimulus packages?

At the end of the day what we might assess as the underlying causes of some of the increase in right/left/anarchist violence may indeed be the economic crisis, but care must be paid to not exaggerate our response to this particular cause over others. As previous experience has shown, an exaggerated response leads to mistakes the impact of which is impossible to measure.