It seems obvious that poverty and terrorism are closely interwoven. The search for answers in last week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai has prompted the links between the two to be probed once again.
But how associated are they, really?
Back in 2002, the general consensus was that poverty relief efforts could be a leading tactic in the fight against terror. Since then, however, a number of researchers have taken issue with this correlation, starting with the fact that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by middle-to-upper-class men. (A 2003 paper suggests that terrorist groups may recruit well-educated, well-off members because they can blend into their Western targets.) Harvard professor Alberto Abadie ties the rate of terror events to a nation's political freedom as well as its size, elevation and weather — but not its economic status.
The rationale behind the idea that terrorism can be a by-product of poverty persists because it seems pretty logical. Poverty can surely lead to a sense of societal alienation, which could make people more likely to join a terrorist group. Assuming that is the case, extending the benefits of economic growth to marginalized communities could lessen the threat of terrorism. But is this perceived alienation actually a result of poverty, or something else entirely?
Anecdotally, poverty relief efforts — especially education — appear to be powerful antidotes to terror. A prime example is American Greg Mortenson's efforts to build dozens of schools in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are documented in the book Three Cups of Tea. According to Mortenson, "Education in general is a powerful tool to provide alternatives to the illiterate, impoverished areas that are the recruiting grounds for terror."
With 14,000 terrorist events in 2007 alone, attempts to understand the roots of terrorism aren't mere academic exercises. Correctly determining the true causes of terrorist activity can mean the difference between a successful anti-terror strategy and thousands of lives lost.