Poverty and Lack of Education Cause Terrorism… Right?

Written by: Michael Kravshik.

Ever since 9/11 the Western world, and Americans more specifically, have been asking why. What would cause these lads to want to fly through a building to their death, murdering three thousand people they have never met? This is a difficult and complicated question and I’m certainly not going to presume I can answer it, especially in one blog post.

At the same time, just because we can’t answer it in full, doesn’t mean we can’t eliminate some potential explanations. The theory that terrorism is caused by poverty and lack of education has had no shortage of supporters. Even ‘my friend’ John McCain, during his 2008 Presidential campaign maintained that in the fight against radical Islam “scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs.” At first glance this seems quite reasonable. People struggling to find dinner every night look at all the food Americans throw out and their high rate of obesity, and ask themselves how this is fair. In addition, the folks in the Ivory Towers have always had a knack for self-aggrandizement, so one might assume that all those terrorists need is an M.A. in gender studies to understand that envy isn’t the answer (although Occupy would seem to suggest otherwise). For a country with 67% of high school grads going to post-secondary school and less than 1% childhood malnutrition, it’s no wonder that Americans, or any other citizen of western countries, don’t find suicide bombing that enticing… right?

Screenshot of the bottom of the 2010 UN Human Development Index (click to enlarge)

Unfortunately, it’s a weak argument. Aside from the fact that very few people seem to be jealous of Americans these days, it just doesn’t add up. For starters, a lot of the world’s poorest countries don’t actually have a terrorism problem. They have many problems to be sure, but of the poorest and least educated countries in the world, those who actually export terrorism are very few and far between. At the same time some of the biggest ‘offenders’ in this area aren’t even on the list. The picture to the side is of the bottom of the UN Human Development Index, which takes many variables into account including years of schooling, income and life expectancy. Yes, Afghanistan and Yemen are on the list, but Saudi Arabia and Egypt are not. And what about Nepal?  Or Haiti?  Or even Zimbabwe, which scored lowest on the list (See full data here, scroll down to the excel files). None of these three countries are particularly known for terrorism, and none of the 9/11 hijackers were native to any of these countries.  In fact, they came from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the UAE, none of which are on the bottom of the development index.

Since these figures are only averages I think its only prudent to look at some individual terrorists, and see if this ‘poverty and lack of education’ theory really pans out, as follows:

  • Omar Sheikh – British born and of Pakistani origin – London School of Economics Graduate – Leader of the Daniel Pearl beheading plot
  • Mohammad Sidique Khan – British born and of Pakistani origin – Leeds Metropolitan University Graduate – Oldest of the 7/7 London Tube Bombing plot
  • Nidal Malik Hasan – US born and of Palestinian origin – Earned his medical degree courtesy of the US Army – perpetrator of the Fort Hood shooting
  • Mohammad Bouyeri – Dutch born and of Moroccan origin – Nyenrode College student – killer of Theo van Gogh, Dutch film maker.
  • Ayman al-Zawahiri – Egyptian born and raised (upper middle class family) – Graduated a surgeon from Cairo University – Current Leader of Al-Qaeda
  • And of course, Osama Bin Laden himself – Saudi Arabian born and raised (son of a billionaire) – Business Administration and Economics graduate from King Abdulaziz University – Founder and Former Leader of Al-Qaeda

Finally, lets come full circle back to 9/11 (if Bin Laden himself wasn’t enough). Mohammed Atta was the cell leader of the 9/11 hijackers. Not only was his family wealthy (from Egypt’s Nile Delta), but he was also an engineering student at Cairo University, an English student at the American University in Cairo, and an urban planning student at Hamburg University (in Germany).

Whether looking at country averages or specific individuals, this theory just does not seem to follow the facts. If a billionaire economics student can become the worlds most wanted terrorist, than clearly education and poverty have very little to do with his motivation.

Now, I’m not saying that poor and uneducated people aren’t more likely to be swayed by the manipulations of these extremists. I have no knowledge of the correlation between those two variables. So perhaps it aggravates the issue, but it certainly doesn’t cause it. If wealthy, well-educated people still find the need to kill themselves (or others) for a ‘greater cause’, and poverty stricken, uneducated Nepalese and Zimbabweans don’t, then this is quite clearly not the answer we’re looking for. Someone had once mentioned to me that this relationship gives us motivation to fight poverty and lack of education. My response is that those two cause’s should not need any false motivation, as they are quite worthy of fighting all on their own.

My opinion is that the true cause(s) of terrorism will not be simple enough to explain in a one-line title of a blog post.


This is my opinion. What’s yours?

3 thoughts on “Poverty and Lack of Education Cause Terrorism… Right?

  1. I’ve long believed that there’s a strong correlation between feelings of a lack of agency within the political process and an inclination towards terrorism. This is almost universal and the pattern fits outside of the Muslim world (look at the LTTE, or JVP in Sri Lanka, or Maoist movements in Nepal and Peru, or even a student-led terror group in post-1988 Burma). This is entirely subjective and has nothing to do with poverty or a lack of education – if anything, educated people within a wealthy but unfree society (Saudi Arabia, Libya or Saddam’s Iraq, perhaps) might be even more inclined to radicalise for the simple reason that they have the critical faculties necessary to realise that they aren’t happy with the status quo in the first place. And then you have your discontents within the West who feel the same way, justifiably or unjustifiably.

    • Michael: I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if that correlation exists. Feeling helpless (or hopeless) can make people do crazy things. I think looking outside the Islamic world for similar patterns is actually a great place to start to look for the ‘answer,’ as it can help cut out a lot of variables as compared to only looking within the Islamic world. Nothing to do with poverty or education, but certainly related to the bigger question. You’re trying to start answering the question I didn’t dare get into…yet. I like it, keep it coming.

      • not a nation of peusiss like the U.S. I always find it ironic that the Americans most frightened of terrists are the macho, gun-toting blustery types. When you call them peusiss to their face, they shut up.The income gap issue is something that I spent commenting on at my blog today (the first three posts in succession), and I’ve done so earlier this month, as well. My conclusion is that debt inequality is the real story, not income inequality; that if the predators had not preyed upon the middle class, aggregate demand would not have dropped off a cliff as it has. This is consistent with Steve Keen’s analysis, but a little deeper than the gross data that he usually uses (in order to avoid criticism).

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