Fighting Terrorism Means Fighting Poverty


Three weeks ago, a Taliban commander named Mohammad Ashan turned himself in to Afghan police. Ashan had noticed wanted posters around his native Paktika province promising a $100 bounty for his capture, and he surrendered himself hoping to collect it. Needless to say, he collected nothing and was detained on the spot.

Ashan’s comically simple arrest led Jon Stewart to wonder if, instead of 10 years and $550 billion worth of war, all we needed was “$12 worth of poster board and a sharpie” to effectively fight terrorism. It’ll take more than $12, but Stewart was on to something. Despite its facetiousness, Stewart’s joke gestured at a real strategy for reducing the allure of terrorism: fighting poverty.

Like many terrorists, Ashan may have been stupid, but he was also very poor. He came from a poverty-stricken rural province, where he was among the many unemployed. The Taliban was (and still is) one of the few active employers – not to mention one of the best paying – and Ashan, struggling to support himself, was understandably attracted. Although he may have sympathized with their cause, Ashan’s background suggests that he joined the Taliban for the same reason he turned himself in – to make some money.

Clearly, joining the Taliban wasn’t as lucrative as Ashan had hoped; he remained poor enough for $100 to seem like a decent trade for his freedom. But Ashan’s story is still an illustration of the link between poverty and terrorism – a link that has been apparent for years, but hasn’t been adequately addressed.

As far back as 2002, Colin Powell argued that “we can’t just stop with a single terrorist or a single terrorist organization; we have to go and root out the whole system. We have to go after poverty.” Since then, many world leaders have echoed Powell, and several events have validated his argument – the Mohammad Ashan incident being the most recent.

The most infamous was the 2008 Mumbai attack, in which several of the attackers came from poverty and chronic unemployment, and at least one was promised that his family would receive $1,500 in exchange for his martyrdom. Then there’s the Second Battle of Swat, in which scores of poor locals fought with the Taliban for a shot at some money and land. The list of examples like these goes on and on.

Admittedly, ideology or other factors may help explain these cases. But poverty must be part of the explanation – otherwise, the cash incentives would’ve been unnecessary. Which brings us to a crucial understanding: terrorist groups capitalize on poverty. If terrorist groups are the only employers around, or the only providers of other public goods, poor communities are more to likely support them and feed them new recruits.

So, the fix seems clear enough. The ‘war on terror’ should include a war on poverty. No one should have to choose between joining the Taliban or being unemployed, and no one should live in such desperation that a few thousand dollars makes suicide attacks seem palatable. Yet, many governments have done too little to ensure that the poor don’t gravitate toward terrorist groups, especially in the Middle East.

Governmental failures to address poverty are highlighted by the community services that many terrorist organizations provide. Hezbollah, for example, runs schools and hospitals in poor parts of Lebanon. Hamas also runs schools, as well as orphanages and soup kitchens. The Taliban operate dozens of madrasas (religious schools) in poor communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. All of these groups employ people. And in many regions – particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan – these groups are one of the only, if not the only, employers.

This state of affairs is absurd. Groups like the Taliban should not be running schools, hospitals, or anything for that matter. Governments should be providing all of these social services, or at least making sure the (non-terrorist) private sector provides them. This provision will create jobs, alleviate poverty, and erode community support for terrorist groups. Consider that, in Afghanistan especially, there are still millions of kids who don’t make it past primary school, which means there are millions of opportunities for the government to step in, expand education, and hire builders, teachers, tutors, coaches, cooks, janitors, school bus drivers… Mohammad Ashan could have filled a number of these jobs.

Wherever there are similar shortfalls of public goods – and there are plenty – governments need to fill the void. If they don’t, terrorist organizations will. And when governments are short on funds, as is often the case in Afghanistan, wealthy countries should take heed and make money available (or incentivize the private sector to invest) – on the condition that it is invested in public goods, which will crowd out terrorist activity. This is all easier said than done, but it is doable, and necessary if we’re truly committed to rooting out terrorism.

Image courtesy of isafmedia

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About Ryan Rappa

Ryan Rappa is a Global Academic Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi, and recently completed a Master's Degree in Political Economy from NYU.

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