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U.S.: After 9/11, Many Theories, But Little Consensus On What Causes Terrorism

The 11 September 2001 attacks unleashed an army of scholars trying to pinpoint the root causes of terrorism -- with most of that effort focused on Middle Eastern and Islamic societies. But two years after the attacks, no consensus has emerged. That comes as bad news to the U.S. and other governments that see themselves locked in a two-pronged battle -- to both eradicate individual terrorist groups and eliminate terrorism at it roots.

Prague, 10 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts say that two years after the 11 September terrorist attacks, there is still little consensus on what causes terrorism.

Following the attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. pledged a war not just against individual terrorists and groups, but against the roots of terrorism itself. The reason was clear. No long-term anti-terror operation could succeed if -- for every terrorist captured or killed -- two new terrorists were available to take his place.

But even as the military and intelligence battle against terrorist individuals and groups has seen its share of successes, a lack of understanding of terrorism's causes is hampering similar success in the battle to stop terrorism before it starts.

Jitka Maleckova is a Middle Eastern specialist and terrorism expert at Prague's Charles University. She says the 11 September attacks initially spurred enormous interest among scholars in trying to identify the underlying causes of terrorism -- factors that must be present to provoke a person or group of persons to choose random violence and terror as instruments of policy.

She tells RFE/RL, however, that many academics have since abandoned that effort: "I don't think there is a consensus [on the causes of terrorism] -- definitely [not]. I participated at a big conference in Oslo [recently] called originally 'The Root Causes of Terrorism.' During the conference, actually, the title changed because people agreed that we cannot even speak about root causes of terrorism."

Many scholars originally pointed the finger at economic inequality as a root cause of terrorist violence. They reasoned that the widening income gap between the world's richest and poorest nations inevitably gives rise to a level of hopelessness that sees in terrorism a last resort.

But Maleckova and colleague Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton University, have since -- at least partly -- debunked the pure economic theory. Their research of terrorist groups in the Middle East shows almost no correlation between income levels, economic class, and terrorism.

"There is this common belief that terrorism is linked to poverty. And you find this belief among politicians, journalists, and also among scholars, and there's very little research supporting it. Everybody seems to believe that, but in fact there's no research done that would support that," Maleckova says.

Maleckova says, in her opinion, it's still worthwhile to look for underlying causes of terrorism. She says the root cause -- if it exists -- is political in nature: "I still believe it makes sense to look for causes, and I and [my colleague] believe that these will [more likely] be political than economic. Political frustration and the political situation seem to be more important in many cases, if not all [cases]."

The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush has made it clear that it doesn't accept poverty as the sole or even a main root cause of terrorism. In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL last year, Bush said: "Poverty does not cause killers to exist, and that's an important distinction to make. Some of the global terrorists are rich -- monetarily. They're obviously poor in spirit."

The group of 19 hijackers assembled to strike the World Trade Center and Pentagon does not fit the image of the poor and destitute. They were drawn almost exclusively from the Saudi and Middle Eastern middle classes.

Other scholars still see economic inequality as playing a significant role in terrorism, but only as part of a larger matrix of social and cultural factors.

Dina Khoury, a history professor and expert on the Middle East at George Washington University in the United States, says increasing poverty has led to a breakdown in government and social services across much of the Islamic world. She says this breakdown, in turn, has left a void in cultural and educational institutions that Islamic groups, with their own agendas, have been able to fill.

"Increasingly, these governments are withdrawing support from social services, from education services, so that Islamic organizations are taking these over and are able basically to mold very young minds in very specific ways, in ways that are not open to democratic values or [that] view, for example, the United States and the West as the enemy," Khoury says.

But even this appears insufficient to explain the root causes of the hatred itself. Social psychologists and religious experts have also entered the fray with their own theories of societal inferiority complexes and low self-esteem.

The dilemma for policymakers is obvious. With no clear understanding of the sources of terrorism, it's hard to design effective policies to counter them.

Meanwhile, the battle for hearts and minds continues. A survey earlier this year by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center for People and the Press shows attitudes toward the U.S. generally worsening in Islamic countries -- this in spite of America's efforts to improve its image in the aftermath of 11 September.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.