It’s become a commonplace in newspapers to blame poverty of fueling terrorism by creating a state of misery and frustration that pushes people to join terrorist organizations. While this doesn’t seem a totally groundless accusation – it makes sense and feeds the riches’ tormented conscience – more and more research shows that the effect of poverty on terrorism is not that straightforward.
It’s important to note that most of the time terrorists do come from poorer countries with high unemployment, and that terrorist organizations often provide much higher salaries than any other job, if any other job is available at all. In fact, a lot of different factors interact with the decision to become a terrorist. Personal and cultural ideals, values, and principles are just as important as material and social gain (reputation & fame for fighting the imperialists) of entering terrorism.
A cocktail of education and poverty
What's more, it seems that very low levels of education and wealth do not drive people to join a terrorist movement. It may sound counter-intuitive, but if you think about it for a minute, the very poor and uneducated usually:
- Do not know about the outside world, or have extremely limited knowledge of it. So how could they be angry at how the rich live ("decadence", "liberal behavior",...)? A good deal of arrested or identified terrorists were students in European universities;
- Are illiterate. Given the extent of manipulation and ideological indoctrination, people usually need some educational basis to understand it. In the case of Islamism, one would need to know literary Arabic in order to understand the Qur'an and the very special "version" of it that they use.
So terrorism isn’t a direct or solid effect of poverty, and it usually implies a minimum of education. What then is the source of frustration and anger? Studies have showed that countries with weak governments, institutions and personal civil rights are a great environment to nurture the production of terrorists.
In countries undergoing a profound transition (e.g. from authoritarian to democratic regime), this sort of political instability often comes along with a blurring of rules and laws. These periods of change come with a transformation of the social order, values, ways of doing things that can become very distressing and unsettling for the people.