NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Roots of Terrorism

June 17, 2003

Walter Laqueur's book, "No End to War: Terrorism in the 21st Century," surveys trends in terrorism throughout the world while concentrating on Islamist terrorism.

While some on the left urge policymakers to address the root causes of terrorism, Laqueur says that such an approach won't yield the desired results, since the commonly identified wellsprings of terrorism -- poverty and political oppression -- fail to account for the terrorism that most threatens the United States.

According to Laqueur:

  • Almost no terrorism occurs in the world's poorest 49 countries, and of course the Sept. 11 terrorists all came from middle- and upper-middle-class families.
  • Similarly, the 20th century's most repressive regimes (Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany) were free of terrorism, while in South America in the 1970s terrorism first broke out not in the harshest dictatorships, but in Uruguay, the most democratic state.
  • Contrary to the conventional wisdom, then, terrorism flourishes in countries "democratic in character, or alternatively, in a wholly inefficient dictatorship," Lacquer writes.

Again, contrary to conventional wisdom, he shows that suicide terrorism isn't a "purposeless manifestation of despair," but rather a tool of highly organized groups that train, guide and arm terrorists.

This distinction carries important policy implications, for "while the suicide terrorist may be unstoppable, those behind him certainly are not; they can be deterred by inflicting unacceptable damage on them."

Source: Benjamin Schwarz, "Examining Terrorism's Roots and Taking Aim at Its Myths, New York Times, June 14, 2003; based on Walter Laqueur, "No End to War: Terrorism in the 21st Century," Continuum, June 2003.


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