The links between terrorism and economics turn out to be complicated, and sometimes counterintutive. (Photography by Freedom House, CC BY 2.0)

Tactical response

Studying terrorism’s social context produces complicated answers about its causes.

Political scientist Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, AB’96, began with a warning. The “new science of violence,” he said—the close and careful study of terrorism, insurgency, and other asymmetrical warfare—is rich with productive data and provocative findings. But there’s no easy cure. “There are no pat recommendations to be had about how we end conflict. These things are not just a matter of being willing to spend enough money or having the political will.” After all, he said, the United States has poured trillions of dollars into counterterrorism and counterinsurgency since 9/11.  As a scholar, Bueno de Mesquita added later, “my obligation is to say that to the extent that people are telling you we know what to do, I don’t think we know what to do.”

Still, over the past decade researchers have teased out increasingly precise answers to complicated questions about political violence: the dynamics between poverty and terrorism, for instance, or what it means that so many suicide bombers have college educations. An applied game theorist and Chicago Harris professor, Bueno de Mesquita analyzed these and other issues during an Alumni Weekend lecture that filled much of the auditorium at Kent Chemical Laboratory.

The connection between poverty and terrorism, he said, seems deceptively simple. One prevailing idea is that “people engage in acts of violence because they’re desperate, because they have miserable lives, and they’re trying to achieve change.” It makes sense that helping a poor country get richer would decrease violence.

But it turns out to depend on what kind of riches. Violence tends to drop with rising prices for labor-intensive commodities that offer jobs and wealth to large numbers of people. By contrast, “capital-intensive” commodities—like oil, diamonds, or minerals—don’t offer many jobs. “But they’re easy to steal,” Bueno de Mesquita said, and especially attractive targets to militants trying to weaken the government and fund a rebellion. So, when oil and minerals become more valuable, “that predation mechanism, that ‘Now I can really win a valuable prize,’ might come into play.”

He demonstrated using data from Colombia. When the international price of coffee dropped in 1997, taking jobs and farm wages with it, guerilla attacks by Colombian rebels rose sharply, but only in coffee-producing regions; elsewhere in the country, the level of violence remained unaffected. Next, Bueno de Mesquita put up a graph showing what happened in Colombia when the price of oil jumped up. Again, two lines diverged: guerilla attacks in oil-producing regions increased, but not so much in the rest of the country. “These two commodities are acting in exactly opposite ways,” he said.

Using similar data, he turned to the question of education and terrorism and the fact, much puzzled over, that Hamas and Hezbollah members are better educated, wealthier, and less likely to be unemployed than the Palestinian population in general. Many scholars have concluded from this that poverty and education must not matter in the question of who becomes a terrorist. Instead, Bueno de Mesquita believes it says something about supply and demand.

“It’s not trivial to be a successful terrorist operative,” he said. Many suicide bombings kill only the suicide bomber; 35 to 40 percent of them detonate their bombs prematurely by mistake. “Terrorist organizations, like any employer, select the best people they can find.” And when a country’s economy turns bad and jobs dry up, he argued, well-educated people who sympathize with the cause often find themselves without other employment. Terrorist organizations can then choose from a better pool of applicants.

Drawing on data from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said “One standard deviation increase in unemployment leads to it being 38 percent more likely that you have an operative who has a college education, an 18 percent increase that they have prior experience, and a 21 percent increase that they’re assigned to a difficult target,” meaning one inside Israel, rather than the occupied territories.

Much less clear is what to do with this knowledge. One difficulty, Bueno de Mesquita said, is fighting “strategic” terrorists who can switch from one target to another depending on which sites a government decides to fortify or leave unguarded. He displayed a graph charting the rate of airplane hijackings before and after metal detectors were introduced in US airports in 1972. Beginning in the 1960s, hijackings were epidemic, with sometimes as many as 70 in a single year. Then in the early ’70s, the number of hijackings fell to almost zero. Bueno de Mesquita’s graph looked like a picture of a cliff.

The effect is stunning, he said, until you see the data on hostage-taking incidents that didn’t invole airplanes. He showed another graph, nearly an exact inverse of the first one. “It’s almost a one-for-one offset in the reduction of hijackings,” he said, later adding, “You can prevent hijackings, which is different from preventing terrorism.”

Bueno de Mesquita’s final lesson was on the difficulties in waging counterinsurgencies. Using data from the US campaign in Afghanistan, he showed that when coalition forces killed a civilian, support for the Taliban rose, along with insurgent attacks. This contrasted sharply with Russia’s experience in Chechnya, where in 1999 a brutal counterinsurgency campaign put down a strong rebellion. Examining dates when random Russian artillery shellings led to civilian deaths, Bueno de Mesquita found that afterward those towns saw a dramatic decrease in violence. “Which is an interesting fact, right?” he said. “Because the United States, fighting what is an attempt at a benign counterinsurgency, sees massive backfiring when it kills civilians.”

Why the difference? “It might be,” he said, “because when you’re trying to convince civilians that you have their best interests at heart, when you’re trying to win hearts and minds—when you kill them, it really hurts that strategy. When you’ve explicitly adopted the policy that, ‘If you guys continue to support the rebels, we are going to kill you,’ then when they see a lot of capacity for violence, they are in fact deterred.”

The Russian counterinsurgency’s effectiveness in Chechnya isn’t enough reason to recommend it as policy, ­Bueno de Mesquita emphasized—morally, or perhaps even materially. That successful counterinsurgency, he said later, “I think is directly accountable for the Moscow subway bombings” in 2010. “The environment became so difficult for the Chechen rebels that they could no longer put boots on the ground. And the only tactic available to them at that point was urban warfare with very few people. They transitioned from being civil war fighters to being terrorists, because being a terrorist isn’t a thing; it’s a tactic.”