Who becomes a terrorist? Do extremist groups turn exclusively to the poor when they are recruiting?
Who becomes a terrorist?
Many Pakistanis are struggling to answer that question after newly disclosed data shows over the past decade, Pakistan has the highest number of terrorism-related deaths in the world.
Writing in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, journalist Sultan Mehmood, an adviser to the Dutch government on macroeconomic policy, says it’s wrong to suggest that extremist groups turn exclusively to the poor when they are recruiting.
George W. Bush and other world leaders (both past and present) have repeatedly claimed there is a link between extremism and a lack of education. In July 2005, for instance, following the bombings of the London transit system, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “Ultimately what we now know, if we did not before, is that where there is extremism, fanaticism or acute and appalling forms of poverty in one continent, the consequences no longer stay fixed in that continent.”
But Mehmood and several other terrorism experts say that conclusion is wrong. Mehmood references the research of Georgetown University professor Christine Fair, who studied 141 killed militants in Pakistan and concluded many were recruited from middle-class and well-educated families.
In another study, Princeton University’s Graeme Blair surveyed 6,000 people across Pakistan and concluded “the poor” are 23 times more averse to extremist violence than is the middle-class.
Mehmood writes that Princeton’s Alan Krueger has a more plausible theory. Krueger says there is evidence of a link between political oppression and terrorism recruitment.
"On the demand side, terrorist organizations want to succeed," Krueger wrote in The American, an online magazine. "The costs of failure are high. So the organizations select more able participants—which again points to those who are better educated and better off economically."
Krueger explained his own study of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political group that has been labelled a terrorist organization by the Canadian government. The research examined 129 Hezbollah martyrs who had been profiled in the group's newsletter, and then cross-referenced the data with information on the Lebanese population from the 1996 Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs Housing Survey.
The deceased members of Hezbollah had a lower poverty rate than the Lebanese population: 28 per cent versus 33 per cent. Moreover, Krueger wrote the Hezbollah members were better educated: 47 per cent had a secondary or higher education versus 38 per cent of adult Lebanese.
Still, determining where extremists come from is a complex question, and there is certainly anecdotal evidence suggesting some Pakistanis have joined militant groups because they need the money. I interviewed one such Taliban recruit in the city of Faisalabad in 2010 amid rumours that the Taliban was paying more than $6,000 to would-be suicide bombers.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at the Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead