Does Poverty cause terrorism?
In June 2005, the UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, asserted that “terrorists, whose ambitions are very plain, find ready recruits among young men in societies with little hope, even less justice, and narrowly sectarian schools.” While only those hostile to Annan’s way of countering terrorism would accuse him of deliberately naming only one cause for terrorism, it seems tempting to assume that the poor and deprived use terrorism as a last resort to challenge their misery.
The picture is all too easily conveyed, and Kofi Annan’s assumption is only one of many statements following this idea. Without naming them all, similar things have been said by the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and statements from the Left in general think of Arab peoples as impoverished, where a mixture of deprivation and radical preaching are assumed to lead young men to take up arms against whoever they perceive as enemies, more often than not by terrorist means, given their lack of a regular army.
Several implications have been made so far which require further investigation: firstly, what definition for terrorism shall be used in order to determine its connection with poverty? Secondly, who qualifies as being poor? Thirdly, do those who are in fact poor take up arms? If so, against what enemy and why? Fourthly, what kind of background do those who are known to be terrorists have?
The general emphasis in this essay will be on Islamist terrorists, since they are currently perceived as the greatest terrorist threat. However, if terrorism is to be understood as a coherent form of violence, or as at least one particular way of fighting, all terrorist groups should be taken into consideration by taking both “traditional” nationalist and solely politically motivated terrorists, the IRA and the German RAF, as well as their religious counterparts into consideration.
Since this essay is more about the roots of terrorism than terrorism itself, the definitions are not quite so important, but the discourse on terrorism present in the media (and in some other places) seems to discuss first and define later; so for the purpose of methodological correctness, both subject terms should be clarified before entering the discussion.
There is no commonly accepted definition of terrorism, and sometimes the definitions of institutions that one would assume to share one definition, have differing views:
“Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” (FBI)
A similar definition, excluding the notion of unlawfulness but focussing more on the intention to spread fear, was proposed by the US Department of Defence:
“The calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to inculcate fear, intended to coerce or intimidate governments or societies as to the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious or ideological.”
The problem with these two definitions is obvious: they are simply too vague and general. Victims of the US war in Vietnam would probably state that the violence used against them by the US Army was designed to unlawfully force both the Vietnamese government and population into adopting a political and economic system favoured by the US. terrorists?
All definitions of terrorism proposed so far have been contested, but for the purpose of this essay, the following definition will be used, which is not as flawed as the other definitions: “terrorism is the intentional use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims.”
Two main definitions of poverty exist: The first one (as used by the UK national census) classifies an income of less than half the national average as poor. The problem with this definition is that half of an average British income is more than sufficient in Spain, let alone Nigeria. A more absolute definition of poverty is used by the World Bank:
“A person is considered poor if his or her income level falls below some minimum level necessary to meet basic needs. This minimum level is usually called the "poverty line".
Since the inability to cover the cost of the basic needs is the sense in which Annan described poverty in his essay, and his thesis is the one to be discussed here, the definition he used will be used here. This does not mean, however, that relative deprivation may not lead to violent patterns of behaviour. Thus, poverty and terrorism may in a way be connected, both in rich and in poor societies. The next part of this essay will take a closer look at a structural link between poverty and terrorism, on the part of the supporters as well as the actors themselves.
 K. Annan, “In larger Freedom”: Decision Time at the UN, Foreign Affairs 84 (3) (2005), 63.
 D.J. Whittaker (ed.) (2003), The Terrorism Reader, 2nd ed., London&NewYork: Routledge, 3.
 BBC Scotland: http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/education/int/ms/health/wealth/def_of_poverty/definitions.shtml, accessed 9/11/2005
- Quote paper
- Nicholas Williams (Author), 2005, Discussion and evaluation of the relationship between poverty and terrorism, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/127209