What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism
by Alan B. Krueger
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), 180 pp.

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ph.D. Candidate at the Catholic University of America

The question of why some people are drawn to terrorism has long bedeviled researchers. Though some commentators, such as Marc Sageman, have approached this question using the scientific method, far too many analyses of the “root causes” of terror are based on simple intuition or bow to popular conceptions. One of the most pervasive popular conceptions—which serious researchers have rejected with virtual unanimity—is that poor economic conditions and lack of education are intimately tied to the phenomenon of terrorism. This view has been expressed by heads of state (including Tony Blair and George W. Bush), government officials, Nobel Prize winners, religious leaders, and some terrorism experts.

Though Sageman and others have previously refuted the alleged linkage between poverty, lack of education, and terrorism, Alan B. Krueger’s What Makes a Terrorist contributes substantially to the discussion. The book is based on a set of three lectures that Krueger, the Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Princeton University, delivered as part of the prestigious Lionel Robbins Memorial Lecture Series at the London School of Economics and Political Science in February 2006. In the book, he guides the reader through a rich array of evidence about individuals who participate in terrorism, and also performs analysis at a society-wide level. Krueger’s methodology is nearly flawless (with the relatively minor exception of a shallow discussion of terrorist rhetoric), and his conclusions compelling.

Krueger’s work draws on years of research into the economics of terrorism, and this is reflected in his comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach. Krueger’s main argument, which he advances in the first two parts of the book, is that little evidence supports the idea that poverty, lack of education, and terrorism are connected. Drawing an analogy to hate crimes, which he correctly describes as “a close cousin to terrorism” (p. 15), Krueger draws on his own research and that of other scholars to demonstrate that economic conditions are largely unrelated to the incidence of violent hate crimes. Instead, “a breakdown of law enforcement” (p. 23) is a more important predictor. This provides some refutation of the deprivation-aggression hypothesis that has often been used to link poverty and terrorism.

Since terrorism “does not occur in a vacuum” (p. 23), and the choice to engage in it is often linked to the values and attitudes that individuals derive from their communities and cultures, Krueger examines a number of public opinion surveys—from the Pew Global Attitudes Project (surveying attitudes in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey) and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Krueger shows that “people with a higher level of education are in general more likely to say that suicide attacks against Americans and Westerners in Iraq are justified” (p. 24), and that there is “no indication that at higher levels of income people are less likely to say that suicide bombing attacks are justified.” (p. 26) Thus, one of Krueger’s conclusions is that “merely increasing educational spending and years of schooling without focusing on the content of education may even be counterproductive when it comes to terrorism.” (pp. 13-14)

But there is a large leap from expressing support for terrorism in a public opinion poll to actually becoming a terrorist oneself. Krueger reviews a variety of evidence on participation in terrorist groups and movements. This evidences ranges from U.N. relief worker Nasra Hassan’s interviews with Palestinian militants and Claude Berrebi’s dissertation on terrorists from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Sageman’s 2004 work Understanding Terror Networks and a biographical analysis that Krueger himself performed of members of Hezbollah and the Israeli terror group Gush Emunim. Krueger concludes that far from poverty being the root cause of terrorism, “there is a general agreement in the literature that most terrorist organizations are composed of people drawn from the elites.” (p. 44)

Moving from the individual to the societal level, the second part of Krueger’s book similarly finds “little support for the view that economic circumstances are an important cause of participation in terrorism.” (p. 6)

Though Krueger’s refutation of the thesis that poverty produces terrorism is thorough, persuasive, and even devastating to the conventional wisdom, it is unlikely that high-level officials and prominent pundits will stop connecting the two anytime soon. There is simply too much surface appeal to the connection, and it provides a comforting answer to the question of why some people become terrorists. But it is best to deal in reality rather than myth, no matter how convenient those myths may be.