NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 6, 2007

The idea of fighting poverty in hopes of winning the war on terror is appealing because it bolsters the case for the worthy goals of ending destitution and ignorance.  But systematic study -- to the extent possible -- suggests it's wrong, says David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal.


  • Backgrounds of 148 Palestinian suicide bombers show they were less likely to come from families living in poverty and were more likely to have finished high school than the general population.
  • Biographies of 129 Hezbollah shahids (martyrs) reveal they, too, are less likely to be from poor families than the Lebanese population from which they come.
  • The same goes for available data about an Israeli terrorist organization, Gush Emunim, active in the 1980s.

Further, terrorism doesn't increase in the Middle East when economic conditions worsen; indeed, there seems to be no link:

  • One study finds the number of terrorist incidents is actually higher in countries that spend more on social-welfare programs.
  • Slicing and dicing data finds no discernible pattern that countries that are poorer or more illiterate produce more terrorists.
  • Examining 781 terrorist events classified by the U.S. State Department as "significant" reveals terrorists tend to come from countries distinguished by political oppression, not poverty or inequality.

So what is the cause?  Suppression of civil liberties and political rights, according to Princeton economist Alan Krueger.  "When nonviolent means of protest are curtailed," he says, "malcontents appear to be more likely to turn to terrorist tactics."  Which -- ironically, given that Krueger is no fan of President Bush's actual policies at home or abroad -- is close to his rhetoric: "Liberty has got the capacity to change enemies into allies."

Source: "Princeton Economist Says Lack of Civil Liberties, Not Poverty, Breeds Terrorism," Wall Street Journal, July 5, 2007.

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