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U.S.: Analysts See Weak Link Between Poverty And Terrorism

  • Jeffrey Donovan

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, U.S. President George W. Bush suggested there is no link between poverty and terrorism -- in other words, poverty does not, by itself, prompt individuals to commit terrorist acts. Analysts surveyed by RFE/RL tend to agree with this assessment, pointing out that America faces attacks from wealthy Islamist extremists driven by a violent rejection of modern values. But they caution that not all terrorists are motivated by the same thing, and U.S. policy would be well served by recognizing as much.

Washington, 27 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Jerrold Post has spent hours talking to terrorists, staring into their eyes, trying to understand why they kill. The most remarkable thing about them, he says, is that they are truly unremarkable.

A political psychologist, Post is a professor at George Washington University in Washington. Recently, Post concluded a series of interviews with 35 suspected terrorists detained in Israel, focusing on what drives them to plot and carry out suicide attacks.

"I guess what I was most struck by was their normalcy. These are not crazed fanatics. In fact, when I asked them what led you to follow this path, we got a peculiar look, and they basically said everyone was following these groups. It was quite discouraging to see how deeply rooted some of these feelings are within a broad reach of [Middle Eastern] society."

What motivates terrorists has been a hot topic in America since U.S. President George W. Bush launched a war on terrorism following the 11 September attacks that killed some 3,000 people last year. After the attacks, Washington was abuzz with talk about addressing the root causes of their actions. Many analysts singled out poverty as the main motivator of terrorists.

But that notion is all but dead these days. Analysts and U.S. officials are quick to point out that Osama bin Laden -- the man blamed for the attacks on America -- is a multimillionaire and most of the 19 hijackers on 11 September were middle-class Saudis and Egyptians.

Poverty, it seems, had no role in driving the killers -- a point Bush himself made in an interview with RFE/RL last week: "Poverty is a tool for recruitment amongst these global terrorists. It's a way for them to recruit -- perhaps. But poverty doesn't cause killers to exist, and it's an important distinction to make."

Analysts interviewed by RFE/RL tend to agree with this assessment. They say poverty does play a role, but only as part of a complex dynamic in which desperate Arab youths become cannon-fodder for extremists driven by a rejection of modern values and, at least partly, by U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Fouad Ajami, a professor at Washington's Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, put it this way:

"At some point, you pick up the children of the poor as cannon fodder; at some point, you recruit them, you bring them in because they're desperate, because they have no means of sustenance. But I think fundamentally, it's not about poverty, it's about power."

That will to power is hard to fathom. Ajami says it's partly an animus that religious zealots have toward Arab authoritarian governments -- which they would like to overthrow -- but also toward America and modern Western values, which they would like to destroy.

"Trying to understand this hatred, with logic, is like trying to measure distance in kilograms. You can't really understand the force of this hatred. It's not about things America does," he said. "It's about things that America is and the message that America represents in the world."

At the same time, Ajami says they are tantalized and repulsed by the promise and values of America, whose presence looms large psychologically and politically.

Agreeing with Ajami, George Washington University's Post says that many young Muslims are frustrated by the virtual impossibility of improving their lives in authoritarian societies -- such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- backed by the U.S.

But rather than direct that frustration at the regimes themselves, Post says Arab youths have been mobilized by Islamists to channel it against Israel, the West, and its main symbol, America. He says the terrorists he interviewed showed common traits: "A great deal of admiration and envy for the West and what it offers, and yet a lot of frustration, too, which has been mounted into resentment; the notion of the 'superpower' being able to do anything it wants to do, and being responsible therefore for the frustrations they are experiencing in their own societies."

Nathan Brown is a colleague of Post's at George Washington University. He says there is also a widespread sense among Muslims that the U.S. is betraying its own values in the Arab world.

"They would see the United States as supportive of existing authoritarian regimes. They would see the United States as acting in the Arab-Israeli conflict in a way that was contrary to any ideas of freedom. In some ways, what they are claiming is the United States is hypocritical -- not that they don't like its ideals, but that it doesn't live up to them."

Yet, President Bush often says terrorists are motivated by a hatred of freedom. They attack, Bush says, because America is the world's beacon of freedom.

Analysts suggest that is an oversimplification -- one that could lead to negative consequences for U.S. policy.

Post says that while Bush's definition may fit Osama bin Laden's brand of militancy -- what he calls "radical religious terrorism" -- it is not necessarily accurate describing three other types of terrorism.

Post lists these as nationalist-separatists, such as Spain's Basque group ETA; social revolutionaries inspired by Marxism, such as Italy's Red Brigades; and right-wing terrorists who seek to overthrow the government, such as American Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he blew up a U.S. government building in 1995.

"These are four quite different types of terrorism, all coming under that banner. And in this campaign to counter terrorism, we always have to be thinking quite differently about their different motivations."

Critics say Bush's war on terrorism fails to distinguish among these various kinds of terrorism.

For example, Russian journalist Masha Lipman -- writing in "The Washington Post" last week -- said the notion that terrorists simply hate freedom is not applicable to all situations. Lipman said she doubts the Chechen militants who held hundreds of civilians hostage in Moscow recently wanted to punish Russia for loving freedom.

Post, for his part, says he sees the hostage takers as separatist terrorists.

Bush, who has tended to sympathize with Russia on the Chechen issue while urging a peaceful solution, has been widely criticized -- even by supporters on the American right -- for not taking a stronger stand on Chechnya.

"The New Republic," a neoconservative U.S. magazine, said this week that the only way the U.S. will win its war on terror is by persuading moderate Muslims that it is not waging war against Islam. But by appearing to give Russia a pass on Chechnya -- perhaps to win its support for a war with Iraq -- the journal said Bush is conveying precisely the opposite message to the Muslim world.

Post says that only by patiently and truthfully projecting its image and values in the Muslim world will America win its war on terrorism.

He says the most worrisome conclusion of his work with terrorists was his realization of just how widespread their sentiments were. He says that in the Muslim world, hatred is being "bred in the bones" of millions of youths trained to want to kill Americans and wage jihad against the West.

As long as that continues, Post concludes, America will face an uphill battle to win Muslim hearts and minds.

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