On July 2, 2016, a group of terrorists began a deadly attack on a café in Bangladesh. During the twelve-hour-long siege of the café, twenty hostages, two policemen, and six attackers were killed.
In the aftermath of the horrific attack, what intrigued people about the terrorists were not their names, religion, or race: rather, it was their socioeconomic backgrounds.
Bangladesh’s Information Minister was later quoted saying that the “majority of the boys who attacked the restaurant came from very good educational institutions… their families are relatively well-to-do people.” The relatively high socioeconomic backgrounds of the terrorists jarred many outside observers who seemed unused to or even unsettled by the notion that the terrorists were not destitute ideologues. The BBC even ran an entire article expounding on the terrorists’ backgrounds, the claiming that their backgrounds were unusual.
But is a relatively well-to-do socioeconomic background outside of the norm for terrorists?
In the wake of 9/11, United States President George W. Bush began targeting poverty. The theory at the time was that with poverty alleviation came a parallel decline in the number of potential or realized terrorists. This sentiment has continued to be propagated today by top government officials. Former Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted saying, “this issue of poverty, which in many cases is the root cause of terrorism or even the root cause of the disenfranchisement of millions of people on this planet…” Similarly, Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, has iterated many times that “poverty and unemployment are the most important factors in explaining the appeal of terrorism” to people in Tunisia.
Despite the seeming rhetorical consensus of many administration officials from around the world that economic grievances and hardship increase the likelihood of radicalization, this concept has few backers in the social sciences.
Recent empirical studies on terrorism and radicalization demonstrate that most terrorists weren’t destitute when they became radicalized. It is important, though, to draw a distinction between terrorist elites and foot soldiers: terrorist network leaders are often well off, or, in cases such as Al Qaida’s Osama bin Laden, very wealthy. But the societal logic has often been that terrorist foot soldiers are relatively poor – after all, someone without significant means would have less to lose, right?
But this doesn’t seem to be the case – rather, scholarship indicates that to become part of a terrorist organization, there are often socioeconomic indicia that must be fulfilled:
- The subject is politically active. As scholar Alexander Lee points out using a case study of Bengali terrorists, there are information and resource barriers to political participation. To become radicalized, people must first pass these information and resource barriers, which often are predicated on at least a basic absolute level of wellbeing. Thus, people who are politically active often have a higher-than-average level of education attainment and at least some level of expendable wealth;
- Even if the subject for recruitment isn’t wealthy, they often have at least a stable economic situation. Marta Sparago notes that in the Al Qaida’s terrorist network, while foot soldiers often come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, stability is often the common or unifying economic factor.
There’s another crucial point that is often missed during analyses of terrorists’ socioeconomic backgrounds: terrorism and crime are not the same – terrorism doesn’t yield the same capital benefits that crime does. This implies that capital accumulation may not be of utmost importance to terrorist recruits, again reinforcing the idea that potential terrorists are not living in dire straits when they become radicalized.
Detractors to the previous two points will note that while some terrorists in developing countries may have been comparably wealthy to the average citizen, domestic terrorists in developed countries, such as American terrorists Eric Rudolph or Timothy McVeigh, were not relatively wealthy compared to the average American. Alan Krueger, in What Makes a Terrorist, makes note of an explanatory phenomenon: in terms of capital, there is an absolute amount wealth that acts as the barrier to political participation and further radicalization. While in developing countries one needs to be relatively well off to enjoy the benefits of political participation, in a developed country with widespread public access to information, this barrier to becoming politically active is relatively lower. In Krueger’s empirical studies, it appears that this barrier is at a globally absolute. This means that the capital barrier to entry in a terrorist network will be relatively high in developing countries and relatively low in developed countries.
What is a general socioeconomic profile of a terrorist? Using the empirical and qualitative studies mentioned earlier to draw an average (though as Jonathan Rae points out, the widespread exceptions to the terrorist norms render any positive effects of generalizations moot), the average terrorist recruit is going to be an educated young male, usually with a social grievance, with very strong knowledge or opinions on politics or religion. Alexander Lee’s scholarship points out an additional interesting fact: that among the spectrum of activists, potential terrorists are often among the more educated but are often of a lower social class. Finally, the potential terrorist is more likely to come from a middle-income country with strict controls on civil liberties.
The released backgrounds on the Bangladeshi terrorists seem to match this profile well. Were the terrorists’ socioeconomic circumstances really outside the norm? No – rather, our opinion of who is a terrorist is still fundamentally outdated. The primary policy implication of this article is that targeting poverty or people with low socioeconomic backgrounds with the intent of decreasing the rate or terrorist recruitment will not work, or will have little efficacy. Policy makers should instead target subjects with access to political participation.