Dec 13, 2006

Why we can’t buy off the next bin Laden

winter 2007Peter Bergen & Michael LindA Matter of PrideWhy we can’t buy off the next Osama bin Laden.Peter Bergen, author of The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History ofal Qaeda’s Leader, is a Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.Michael Lind, author of The American Way of Strategy, is the WhiteheadSenior Fellow, also at the New America Foundation.

While there are deep and divisive fissures across the political spectrum over how to combat terrorism, there is asurprising level of agreement as to its cause. “We fight against poverty becausehope is an answer to terror,” George W. Bush told an audience in Mexico in2002. “Today, billions of people live on the knife’s edge of survival, trapped ina struggle against ignorance, poverty, and disease. Their misery is a breedingground for the hatred peddled by bin Laden and other merchants of death,”Howard Dean declared during his 2004 presidential run. Kim Dae Jung, theformer dissident who became the president of South Korea and won the NobelPeace Prize, agrees: “At the bottom of terrorism is poverty.” And the editors ofthe New York Times, arguing that reducing duties on exports from Pakistan canplay a significant role in the war on terrorism, wrote in 2004, “Economics cannotbe separated from national security. Young Pakistanis who can’t get jobs infactories that export to America sometimes go to training camps to learn howto kill Americans.”This analysis, at its root, is an optimistic one. It holds out the prospect thatwidespread prosperity can be a universal solvent for political violence employedby stateless actors and states alike. Conflict, in this view, is not endemic to thehuman condition; it is simply a relic of primitive stages in social development,which can be corrected by enlightened policy. Liberals tend to prefer the idea ofa global or regional “Marshall Plan,” while conservatives and libertarians claimthat cutting subsidies and promoting free trade will produce development inpoor countries. Despite their different prescriptions, many on the left and rightagree that fighting world poverty is important in the fight against transnationalterrorism since it removes the attractiveness of these revolutionary and utopianworldviews.But it is a mistake to treat human beings as profit-maximizing rationalistswho can be persuaded to put aside their differences in order to collaborate ona common project of promoting global prosperity. Individuals and communitiesoften have incompatible secular or religious visions of the good society. And,for better or worse, human beings are social animals, deeply concerned aboutrank and status, both as individuals and as members of communities. Ambitionand humiliation, personal and collective, inspire more political conflictthan economic deprivation. In short, if our goal is to understand the conditionsthat give terrorist movements popular appeal and to understand how virulentideologies spread from madmen and isolated sects to mass movements, ouremphasis must be on subjective perceptions of national, religious, and ethnichumiliation, rather than on the humiliation, genuine as it may be, which is associatedwith poverty.In order to understand the roots of both terrorism and war, we must free ourselvesfrom conceptual confusions. Terrorism and war are tactics that have beenused to promote radical ideologies, depending upon whether revolutionariescontrol a government or not. And to understand radical ideologies, it is necessaryto understand radical ideologues, few of whom have been found amongthe ranks of the poor.A stateless group that uses terrorism while out of power may, if it gains controlof a state, attempt to promote the same goals by the instruments of traditionalstatecraft, such as war, espionage, and perhaps state-sponsored terrorism.Communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong wentfrom being underground terrorists to heads of state, and in doing so changedtheir tactics for expanding control drastically, even while their revolutionaryideologies remained relatively intact. In a similar vein, Osama bin Laden andthe other al Qaeda leaders would prefer to control at least one government asopposed to being forced to operate as a stateless organization. Ayman al Zawahiri,al Qaeda’s chief strategist, concluded his 2001 biography, Knights Under theBanner of the Prophet, with the following observation: “Liberating the Muslimnation, confronting the enemies of Islam, and launching jihad against them requirea Muslim authority, established on a Muslim land that raises the banner ofjihad and rallies the Muslims around it. Without achieving this goal our actionswill mean nothing more than mere and repeated disturbances.”The key factor, then, is not whether a group is stateless or controls a state,but whether or not it is promoting a revolutionary ideology that justifies bothterrorism and interstate war to promote its goals. If today’s militant Islamism isunderstood in these terms—as a revolutionary ideology whose adherents seekto gain state power and exercise it to realize their vision—then it can be viewedas the latest in a series of revolutionary political doctrines of the past few centuries,which included radical Jacobin liberalism, anarchism, communism, andfascism and other forms of radical nationalism.While some of these revolutionary faiths found their greatest support in poorcountries, others took root in some of the richest and most educated societiesin the world. And even in poor countries, revolutionary extremists have almostinvariably come from the comfortable and well-educated upper or middle class.Revolutions may be waged in the name of the poor and dispossessed, but theyare usually made by the relatively rich.The members of al Qaeda are no exception. They are not the dispossessed,but the empowered. Many studied for high-end careers in medicine and engineeringat universities, rather than at some dirt-poor madrassa. The toplieutenant to bin Laden is an upper-class Egyptian doctor; al Qaeda’s top militaryplanner has a degree in psychology and spent time in California as an ITspecialist. Rifia Ahmed Taha, an Egyptian terrorist and a co-signatory of binLaden’s 1998 declaration of war against America, is by training an accountant.Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, another top al Qaeda official, studied electrical engineeringin Iraq and went on to a successful business career. And even binLaden himself studied economics and later spent time working at his family’sgiant construction business.Looking more broadly, consider the work of former CIA case officer—andnow forensic psychiatrist—Marc Sageman. After studying the backgrounds of

172 al Qaeda members and associates for his 2004 book Understanding Terror

Networks, he concluded that this was not a group of feckless, unemployedno-hopers. In his sample of jihadist terrorists, two-thirds had gone to college;they were generally professionals; their average age was 26; three-fourths weremarried; and many had children.Similarly, Peter Bergen and Los Angeles Times researcher Swati Pandey examinedfive of the most spectacular anti-Western attacks of the past decadeor so—the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the bombings of two U.S.embassies in Africa five years later, the September 11 attacks, the Bali bombingsof 2002 that killed 200 Western tourists, and the London attacks of July2005 that killed 52 commuters. Of the 79 Islamist terrorists involved in theseattacks, 54 percent had attended college, which compares favorably to the 52percent of Americans who have doneso. Around a quarter of the terrorists had studied at universities in Europeor the United States, an elite activity for the mostly Middle Eastern andAsian terrorists involved in the attacks.Moreover, Robert Leiken of the NixonCenter has found that of 373 Islamist terrorists arrested or killed in Europe and the United States from 1993 through2004, few were desperate refugees from the Third World. Leiken discoveredthat an astonishing 41 percent were Western nationals who were either naturalizedor second-generation Europeans or converts to Islam. Leiken also foundtwice as many French nationals as Saudis among the terrorists.To that end, the Library of Congress issued a study in 1999 asking, “Who becomesa terrorist and why?” and concluded that there were only a few “majorexceptions to the middle- and upper-class origins of terrorist groups” and thatterrorists generally “have more than average education.” In other words, asking,“Who becomes a terrorist?” turns out to be much like asking, “Who becomesa Rotarian?”This recent research demonstrating that terrorism is a largely bourgeois endeavorechoes the work of French academic Gilles Kepel during the mid-1980s,which focused on 300 militants prosecuted for the 1981 assassination of EgyptianPresident Anwar Sadat. Of those who were of working age, 17 percent wereprofessionals (such as engineers), 24 percent worked as government employees,41 percent were artisans or merchants, 9 percent were in the military or police,and only 5 percent were unemployed. Of those who were students, around athird were studying in the elite faculties of medicine and engineering.

With their middle- and upper-class backgrounds, the leaders of al Qaeda represent

not an exception but the rule among militants who use terrorist methodsin the Middle East. According to Claude Berrebi of the RAND Corporation, 57percent of Palestinian suicide bombers have at least some post–high schooleducation—as opposed to only 15 percent of their age cohort. While one-thirdof Palestinians are impoverished, only 13 percent of Palestinian suicide bombershail from poor backgrounds. In fact, Palestinian pollster Kahalil Shikakifound that the readiness to commit suicide attacks actually rises with one’seducation level.In a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Princeton’sAlan Krueger and Jitka Maleckova of Charles University in Prague alsofound scant proof of a connection between personal poverty and participationin international terrorism. Hezbollah militants killed during the 1980s and1990s were as likely to be well-educated and well-off as they were to be uneducatedand poor. Abu Nidal, the Palestinian terrorist, came from a wealthyJaffa family. Krueger and Maleckova’s study shows similar backgrounds amongIsraeli Jewish extremists who plotted to destroy the Dome of the Rock mosque.They “were overwhelmingly well-educated and in high-paying occupations.The list includes teachers, writers, university students, geographers, an engineer,a combat pilot, a chemist, and a computer programmer.”Beyond the Middle East, the leftist terrorists in Western countries betweenthe 1960s and the 1980s tended to come from similar elite backgrounds. In WestGermany, the majority of members of the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhofgang) were middle class, like most of the members of Italy’s Red Brigadesand the Weathermen in the United States. Notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackalis the son of a wealthy Venezuelan lawyer. Militants in Latin American movementslike Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) and the Tupamaros and Monteneroslikewise tend to be educated and from the upper strata of society. The“black bloc” anarchists who fly around the world to commit acts of vandalismin cities that host IMF and World Bank meetings are obviously affluent ( justconsider the cost of airfare alone). And Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castroall hailed from relatively affluent families. Even Adolf Hitler was the son of aprosperous Austrian civil servant. He had enough money from his mother andaunt to live a bohemian existence in the expensive metropolis of Vienna in hisyouth. This pattern would not have surprised Aristotle, for whom ambition wasa more powerful incentive to sedition and revolution than deprivation: “Mendo not become tyrants in order to avoid exposure to cold.”In the face of this evidence, many invoke twentieth-century Germany as ExhibitA in the argument for the deprivation thesis. The Great Depression, the

argument goes, with the immiseration of much of the German middle class,

helped to create the conditions for Hitler to be appointed chancellor and toconsolidate power. But while it was a factor in Hitler’s rise, the Depressiondoes not explain why his National Socialists were better able than other groupsto capitalize on public discontent. Their appeal was to followers in all socialclasses, and their ideology of racial nationalism, anti-Semitism, and plans tomake Germany a superpower long antedated the global crash of 1929. As thesociologist Michael Mann wrote in his book Fascists, the data show that theHitler movement received strong support from middle-class and elite Germans,including college students and academics. “Supposedly, the best guarantor of afree society and of democracy is a dense network of sociability centered on voluntaryassociations,” Mann writes. “Unfortunately, the Germany that becameNazi was exactly this, a very dense ‘civil society’—and the Nazis were at its veryheart . . . Led by Nazis it became a strong but evil civil society.”humiliationWhat motivates someone to join these revolutionaries, terrorists, and murderers,if not economic conditions? In a word, humiliation. Look again at NaziGermany. While economically weak in between the world wars, what reallymotivated many to embrace Nazism was that they lost World War I, and theconditions of that loss. Hitler’s goal, supported by much of the German elite andthe vast Prussian officer class, was to reverse the verdict of World War I andproceed to create a Eurasian empire capable of dominating the world. No concessionsby the Western democracies short of acquiescence in National Socialistimperialism would have satisfied Hitler and like-minded Germans. Indeed, theoutcome of World War I enraged Arab nationalists as well as German nationalists—and it still does today. Bin Laden sees the Sykes-Picot Agreement, whichled to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, as the beginning of Arab humiliation.For bin Laden, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, like the Versailles agreementfor Hitler, is a humiliation that must be avenged and reversed: “We still sufferfrom the injures inflicted by . . . the Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain andFrance which divided the Muslim world into fragments,” he said.The central role of communal humiliation in inspiring terrorism is the keyfinding of University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape’s study of suicidebombers, Dying to Win. According to Pape, two factors have linked Tamil,Palestinian, Chechen, and al Qaeda suicide bombers. First, they are membersof communities that feel humiliated by genuine or perceived occupation (likethe perceived occupation of the sacred territory of Saudi Arabia by virtue of thepresence of U.S. bases, in the eyes of bin Laden and his allies). Second, suicide

bombers seek to change the policies of democratic occupying powers like Israel

and the United States by influencing their public opinion—in a sense makingthe occupying power suffer the same level of humiliation they have felt.The “humiliation theory” of radical violence helps explain why so manyterrorists come from middle-class or wealthy backgrounds. Unlike economicdeprivation, national or religious humiliation can be painful to all members ofa community. In fact, communal humiliation is likely to aggrieve the affluentmembers the most, precisely because their freedom from a day-to-day struggleto survive liberates them to brood over slights to the community in which theyare natural leaders. It may also explain why so many are willing to sacrificeinnocent bystanders for their cause. They are fighting for an abstract idea ofnational, ethnic, or religious pride, not the masses.To be sure, humiliation can be an outgrowth of poverty. New York Timescolumnist Thomas Friedman has suggested a variant of the deprivation theory,citing the sense of personal and collective humiliation associated withpoverty: “Sure, poverty doesn’t cause terrorism—no one is killing for a raise.But poverty is great for the terrorism business because poverty creates humiliation and stifled aspirations and forcesmany people to leave their traditional farms to join the alienated urban poor inthe cities—all conditions that spawn terrorists.” This has the merit of makinghumiliation a possible intermediary between poverty and political violence. Butthe possibility of a connection between poverty and humiliation neverthelessfails to provide a sufficient cause. A 2002 UN study of the Arab world showedthat it has the second-lowest per capita growth of any region worldwide, whichseems to support the deprivation thesis. But consider that while sub-SaharanAfrica has done even worse economically, and while it has been the location ofmajor terrorist attacks (the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya by al Qaeda,for example) and is the home of 160 million Muslims, the region has not givenbirth to either an indigenous terrorist group or a radical ideology. To be sure,impoverished Sudan briefly served as a base for al Qaeda’s (overwhelmingly af-fluent) Saudi and Egyptian leadership. But it was never more than that. It willalways be the case that well-organized, well-funded, and well-educated terroristswill make use of failed states, but those states are rarely if ever the source ofterrorism. As historian Walter Laqueur has noted, “In the forty-nine countriescurrently designated by the United Nations as the least developed hardly any.

terrorist activity occurs.” And in the same way that poverty is never the primary

cause of terrorism, prosperity is hardly the cure. Alexis de Tocqueville wasonly the first of many to recognize that revolutions often occur in times whenpopulations experience rising expectations about living standards. At least insome societies, the diffusion of wealth and education may help radicals recruitnew allies.Regardless of where they stand on this debate, it is clear to most that no conceivableconcessions, short of acquiescence to their scheme of expunging Westerninfluence from the Muslim world and bringing Taliban-like regimes to powerthroughout it, can appease bin Laden, his followers, and his allies. Moreover,“Marshall Plans” for the Middle East, however justified they may be on othergrounds, will not make al Qaeda and its sympathizers feel less humiliated. Forinstance, as a result of the 1978 Camp David peace accords the United Stateshas transferred tens of billions of dollars to Egypt. This transfer of aid coincidedwith the worst period of terrorism in Egypt’s history; Islamist terroristsassassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981 and killed more than 1,000 otherEgyptians during the 1990s.The first priority, therefore, of an anti-radical strategy must be defending thepeople, territories, and interests of the United States and other targeted regimesagainst terrorist attacks. Passive defenses to keep terrorists out are important,along with active security measures. Israel has successfully reduced the infiltrationof suicide bombers by means of its security fence, and Saudi Arabia isbuilding a fence of its own to prevent terrorists from crossing into and out ofIraq. While making it more difficult for terrorists to inflict damage, the UnitedStates must work with other nations, including unsavory ones, to apprehendjihadists if possible and kill them if necessary. The military has a role to playin some circumstances, but this is primarily a task for international police andintelligence collaboration. Disrupting clandestine cells and networks is particularlyimportant, because of the role of peer-group socialization in the makingof jihadists.While bin Laden and his allies must simply be defeated, their appeal to potentialnew recruits can be limited by policies that reduce feelings of collectivehumiliation in the Arab and Muslim worlds. According to a recent NationalIntelligence Estimate, the American occupation of Iraq is now inspiring jihadistsin the way that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, Russiancontrol of Chechnya, and Indian rule over Kashmiri Muslims long have done.Ending the humiliating occupation of Muslim populations by non-Muslim

nations will remove some of the major grievances that jihadists use as a recruiting

tool. Conversely, to perpetuate these deeply resented occupations in thename of fighting “Islamofascism” will only help the jihadists.In addition, major Muslim nations that are sources of jihadist recruits mustchange too. Along with fighting non-Muslim occupiers, al Qaeda seeks to topplegovernments in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. AlQaeda draws many of its recruits from closed societies that are intolerant ofdissent; it is no coincidence that Saudis and Egyptians play such a key role inal Qaeda. If there were more open societies in the Muslim world, there mightbe more political space for Islamists who reject terrorism when out of powerand who, if they gained power, would abide by the norms of the internationalsystem. This would likely reduce the appeal of al Qaeda as an alternative toconventional political participation.Reducing poverty in the Middle East and around the world is a laudable goalin itself, for humanitarian reasons. But it would be a mistake to treat prosperityas a universal solvent that can deprive jihadists like bin Laden of allies andsympathizers in populations that feel humiliated by foreign domination or frozenout of politics. Ultimately, both foreign occupation and domestic autocracyare political problems that must find political, not economic, solutions. Thecampaign against jihadism and the campaign against global poverty are bothjustified. But they are not the same war.