Causes of Terrorism: Economic Inequality and Poverty

Subject: Warfare
Pages: 13
Words: 3601
Reading time:
14 min
Study level: PhD


The concealed realities about the augmenting international wars triggered by terrorism remain the most contested global predicament for several decades. The increasing international terrorism activities have always put nations’ security at stake with several militant activities focusing on possible remedies to avert the condition (Sen 2008). Researchers across the field of political science have now continuously shifted their interest on the dangers and the aftermaths triggered by terrorism rather than reflecting on the authentic causes of this world frightening menace (Boylan 2010). However, some incredible researchers have faced the issue broadly and provided realities over this mayhem (Abadie 2006). Concerning this issue, policy debates and some studies in a bid to provide strategies to end revolutionary violence have frequently cited poverty and economic inequities as part of the various root causes of support for the perpetrating groups. Despite extensive research providing insight into this intimidation aspect, little remains known. For this reason among others, this study seeks to investigate the extent to which economic inequality and poverty cause terrorism, based on case studies of Middle East.

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Background to the discussion

The lingering notion embedded in several nationalist is that religion and tribal differences have always elicited terrorism activities across the globe (Barro 2000). However, among political figures and politicians within the media and the entire public, the conception that transnational terrorism has always resulted from unequal economic distribution of global wealth and global poverty remains quite familiar (Berman & Laitin 2008). Beyond practical investigations, empirical evidence, and theoretical discernment, it remains a clear indication that this belief is essentially a reasonable premise (Abadie 2006). Denying citizens of a certain country access to equal economic certification results to inabilities to satisfy their basic human needs, and intensifies struggle towards socioeconomic equality consequently weakening their living power, which further provokes violence (Burgoon 2006). Truancies about these facts have remained empirically validated with the world continuously witnessing augmenting transnational terrorism. Political scientists have provided a greater insight through this issue with a majority of them pointing out poverty and international inequalities as the main predictors of terrorism across the globe with European nations and the United States being in a longstanding conflict with the Middle East.

This phenomenon should always reflect from the historical perspective to understand the issue properly. The history behind terrorism is as old as human civilisation and dates back to several millennia when countries engaged in inter-territorial conflict with land being the most vital resource. Terrorism is not only a historical rooted issue, but also a biblical menace when Roman emperors engaged in a religious war. Traditional war involved little religious and tribal groups who terrorised each other using simple arms. However, the slight terrorism menace dramatically changed from trivial sub region wars into international combat after the launch of French Revolutionary Governments after which the European nations’ tribal clashes evolved into international conflicts in the 17th centuries. Michael (2007) postulates, “The French Revolutionary Governments coined the word terrorism by instituting systematic state terror against the population of French in the 1790s, killing thousands of people” (p. 38). Further war events triggered different reactions across the globe resulting to the emergence of terrorist militias who have continuously elicited transnational terrorism.

Initially the world was calm with unprecedented peace, as nations engaged in peaceful interactions across all spheres of life despite their economic and political differences. The peace civilisation gradually wore away as nations continuously confronted each other for global, political, and economic power, and even to date Asian countries, especially in the Middle East, have paced war against such inequalities. The existence of natural resources especially the large oil portions held by the countries in the Middle East have been the causal aspects of transnational economic wars particularly with the European nations. Piazza (2006) asserts that the fact remained an assumption among policymakers and politicians until the events of September 11 2001 when the Americans faced the worst terrorism attack allegedly from the Al Qaeda militia supported by the one time most wanted Osama bin Laden. The events of this moment marked the time when national and international policymakers better understood substantial division that has existed over the importance of economic conditions in fuelling terrorism.

Problem statement

International terrorism or transnational terrorism has been a critical issue around the globe with the involvement of superior nations further triggering international tension. For the past three consecutive decades, terrorism activities have increased with a jumble of deaths witnessed in terror-infested zones. The mind seizing international terrorism menace is increasingly becoming the most contested public and political matter with fear that the recurring transnational terrorism activities may finally revisit to the terrible world hostilities experienced during the two world wars, viz. World War I and World War II (Akram et al. 2011). Terrorism activities have always affected both developing and developing economies economically, socially, and politically with massacres characterising the events of such confrontations. However, the poor and disadvantaged normally suffer the aftermaths of terrorism with the wealthy enjoying adequate security from their respective nations. Confusion has always remained among nationalists who live in a dilemma about the central cause of terrorism. For this motive, this study seeks to investigate the extent to which economic inequality and poverty cause terrorism by focusing on cases in the Middle East.

Theoretical perspective

Terrorism is an action affiliated with crime. It is simply a state of fear resulting from the act of violence. Michael (2007) posits, “Terrorism is the public harassment, wave of agitation, protest against the government, damage to public and private property, in order to draw the attention of authorities” (p. 37). Due to the increasing importance on the need to understand this aspect, researchers have figured this issue from a theoretical point of view. Several theories concerning crime and justice have proven significant in the literature concerning the relationship between terrorism and economic well-being (Ukpere 2011). Based on research studies and analysis conducted in economics to identify the reasons behind the escalating trend in terrorism across the world, much remains unclear about the real cause of transnational terrorism. However, the interest of research has cited the trend in terrorism as one that streams from the economic inequalities amongst nations. In a bid to provide insight into the correlation between terrorism and economic disparities, theories are essential.

Psychological theory and terrorism

The actions projecting from human activities normally result from a psychological feeling, which is an inner force that triggers human actions. The science of psychology has long associated human reaction, including repulsive activities, with psychologically and cognitively driven motives. In the attempt to provide a theoretical perspective of the relationship between terrorism and economic inequalities or poverty, this study explains two significant theories, viz. the rational choice theory and relative oppression or deprivation theory to “combine these points of view, considering interactions between circumstances and actors” (Victoroff 2005, p. 12). Based on the rationale choice theory under the psychological paradigm, terrorism is a psychological issue where terrorists can be either sane or insane. According to rational choice theory, “if most terrorists do not meet diagnostic criteria for a major mental illness or for sociopathy, then they must conclude that they are rational” (Victoroff 2005, p. 14). On the other hand, rebellion occurs when people can no longer tolerate misery. The two theories combined can best explain the poverty/ terrorism relationship.

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Rational choice theory

The rationale choice psychological theory rests on the argument that terrorists have no specific educational background as a qualification to engage in terrorism activities. The psychological power of the terrorists and the decision they make have some correlation between the activities of terrorism and their psychological state. The state of living and the economic instabilities have always been some crucial factors considered as driving forces towards individual actions. However, the relationship between economical inequalities and poverty has had little impact on the terrorism activities conducted by terrorists. Victoroff (2005) posits, “The outrageous inhumanity of attacks on innocent civilians challenges the commonplace understanding of ‘rational’ behaviour” (p.15). Rationalism is a form of behaviour associated with individual manners from rampancy either resulting from a poor family background or memories of injustices that trigger the explosion of intrinsic grudge. The theory suggests that individuals born rationally believe that inhuman activities underscore what make them stronger and that terrorism is an activity that hardens their living.

Relative oppression or deprivation theory

Human nature and activities characterising the actions of individuals sometimes result from historical injustices or grudge. Oppression or deprivation of human rights especially factors that result in inabilities to provide or satisfy their basic human need, they feel extremely deprived. The act of economic deprivation refers to the inability to have access to reasonable economic opportunities or successive inequalities in economic status. The theory rests on the argument that acts of oppression have normally resulted in political violence that has long triggered activities associated with insurgence. Victoroff (2005) posits that particularly in the case of “nationalist-separatist or ethnic-sectarian terrorism, actors often cite the injustice of their treatment by governments that rob them of identity, dignity, security, and freedom as the motive for their joining a terrorist group” (p. 20). Despite the fact that not all individuals experience the oppression and deprivation injustices, perceived oppression may be a concrete cognitive or emotional variable to examine as some of the potential risk factors affiliating with tourism activities.

Empirical Evidence

The escalating probe over transnational tourism has evolved from the theoretical perspective to certain realities instigated by the intensified empirical evidence undertaken in the current decades. The preconceived connection between “material well-being and terrorism has existed in several political figures across broad political spectrums and found its way into the international security policies and conventional economic development, consequently shaping debates on an assortment of matters ranging from humanitarian support in Africa to restoration of Iraq” (Piazza 2006, p.159). Despite little evidence linking the relationship between transnational terrorism and economical inequalities, much has transpired in the Middle East countries, which can at least explain the existing relationship between the two aspects (Rueda & Jonas 2000). Several studies have only empirically validated religious connection with terrorism, but not economical injustices with transnational terrorism. Burgoon (2006) argues, “The empirical patterns are less clear, with some finding income, land, and horizontal inequality spurring violence and humanitarian emergencies” (p. 82). This study provides insight into this matter by providing some prior empirical evidence linking the two aspects.

Social cleavages, poor economic development, and terrorism

In a bid to provide a greater insight into the relationship between the two aspects, a study conducted by Piazza (2006) is imperative to validate the existing relationship. Recognising the empirical literature provided by this researcher is imperative based on the empirical framework that guided the results of this study. This study drew facts from theoretical discussion of three points that lend themselves to empirical evaluation. The study evaluated the popular hypothesis that the state of poverty, economic inequality, and poor economic development are the root causes of terrorism. Piazza (2006) employed a sequence of multiple regression analyses on incidences of terrorism and sufferers in ninety-six countries since 1986-2002. In this study, the researcher employed a theoretical approach dubbed “rooted-in-poverty hypothesis”, which illustrated the understanding of terrorism as an expression of discontent and desperation in socioeconomic disparities. Piazza (2006) provided an analysis of basic descriptive statistics on terrorism and socioeconomic indicators, which could not immediately validate the “rooted-in-poverty hypothesis”. The statistics from 1986-2002 are as provided in the following table.

Table 1: Top ten countries for terrorist incidences -GDP per capita and human development indices (terrorism incidences from 1986-2002

Country Incidents (1986-2002) (Rank) Average GDP
Per capita
2001 human development index rank
India 237 1 2,358 115 (Medium)
Colombia 129 2 5,615 62 (Medium)
Yemen 59 3 1,608 133 (Low)
Turkey 56 4 5,805 82 (Medium)
Greece 48 5 11,862 23 (High)
Israel/Palestine 48 6 12,651 49 (High)
Angola 45 7 2,510 146 (Low)
Peru 45 8 4,622 73 (Medium)
Pakistan 40 9 1,928 138 (Low)
France 39 10 22,897 13 (High)

Table 1 presents information of the top most countries affected by terrorist attacks from 1986-2002. It demonstrates the “top ten countries for terrorist attacks in rank order with their matching period on the per capita gross domestic income and Human Development Index (HDI) ranking, which is clarified and empirically validated” (Piazza 2006, p.160). Per capita GDP “is a measure of total wealth produced and consumed in a country divided by population, and HDI, is an index that measures the level of economic development considering income, literacy, and life expectancy” (Piazza 2006, p.160). According to studies, the two economic indicators are measurements extensively employed for comparing levels of dearth and wealth across countries. Based on the table above and the hypothesis that poverty and economic inequalities positively correlate with increased rates in terrorism attacks, it is expected that not all the countries among the top ten would have low per capita GDP statistics. This aspect is an example of empirical evidence that can provide concrete meaning that there is minimal interactive relationship between economic disparity and extremism.

On the other hand, similar expectation is to prove this observation by ensuring that the top ten countries in the list of terrorism incidences would have low Human Development Index. Contrarily, the majority of the countries affected by the incidences of the tourism attacks from 1986-2002, had medium Gross Domestic Product figures and medium Human Development Index. The case being different, only three (Yemen, Angola, and Pakistan) of the top ten terrorism affected countries have the evidence of profile for low levels of socioeconomic development. A number of the mentioned countries in the top ten terrorism menaces have considerable medium development levels in the socioeconomic (Sageman 2004). Inclusive of this list, France, Greece, and Israel/Palestine have had considerably high economic growth resulting from the industrialisation aspect. Table 2 further elaborates the issue of relationship between terrorism and economic inequality and poverty. Table 2 positions the top ten countries affected by terrorism, based on terrorism strength from 1986-2002. Determination of terrorism intensity is in terms of the number of victims inclusive of kidnappings, injuries, and fatalities encountered during the terrorism attacks.

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Country Incidents (1986-2002) (Rank) Average GDP
Per capita
2001 human development index rank
Kenya 5,365
$ 1,211 123(Medium)
United States 4,011
27,816 6(High)
India 2,779
2,358 115 (Medium)
Israel/Palestine 2,257
12,651 49 (High)
Sri Lanka 1,815
3,365 81(Medium)
Iraq 1,646
3,413 106 (Medium)
Russia 1,314
8,377 60 (Medium)
Saudi A. 1,037
10,348 68 (Medium)
United K. 984
19,627 14 (High)
Colombia 835
  1. 1
5,615 62 (Medium)

Based on the empirical evidence provided by table 2, almost three of the countries in the top ten terrorism attacks form the global economic power. In the ranking above, “none of the countries under this classification ranks in the low levels of development in terms of Human Development Index (HDI) rankings” (Piazza 2006, p.161). The majority of the countries in this counter fall under “medium” with three industrialised world developed economies including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Palestine/Israel make up top of the list. Numerous studies have argued out that, based on the empirical evidence, it is possible to rule out that, “what tables 1 and 2 suggest, through mere reporting of descriptive statistics, is that the relationship between level of economic or social development and the phenomenon of terrorism may be complex or, perhaps, illusory” (Piazza 2006, p. 162). For this reason, it is important to note the indirect relationship between prevailing economic conditions and the terrorism attacks among nations that differentiate empirical evidence and theoretical views.

Economic Conditions and Quality of terrorism

Similar results produced by empirical evidence from several researchers have significantly proven that poverty and economic conditions do not correlate directly to the occurrence of terrorism. The deficiency of affiliation involving the regularity of terror attacks and economic wellbeing, coupled with the confidential backdrop of suicide terrorists established in previous studies evidently imply that economic situations do not encompass a direct cause on extremism. However, “economic conditions can greatly influence the occurrence of terrorism through other indirect channels” (Solimano 2004, p.27). Another considerable research that provides an example of empirical evidence on this aspect is Benmelech et al. (2012), which aimed at identifying whether there is an exiting link between socioeconomic conditions and the quality circumstances of terrorism. Despite politically affiliated theories connecting the two aspects, empirical literature continuously dismisses this inkling. According to Benmelech et al. (2012), this study proffered a systematic examination of the correlation between economic conditions, nature of their targets, the characters of suicide bombers, and the consequences of the attacks.

Pertaining to this study, the fact that several studies have consistently proven that there is no direct correlation between economic fluctuations and the origination of terrorism, Benmelech et al. (2012), argue that it is imperative to acknowledge the indirect relationship existing between the two circumstances. The study empirically combines detailed statistical data set on the case of Palestinian suicides terrorists during the era of the Second Intifada. The report obtained from Israeli Security Agency (ISA) carried data on the earnings and workforce participation within the West Bank and Gaza Strips. This data included “basic information of individual terrorist characteristics, characteristics of the targets and the outcome resulting from the attacks” (Benmelech et al. 2012, p.119). It involved 157 suicide terrorists comprising data on their terror organisation, age, education, and city of residence.

Based on the findings of the study, out of 157, the youngest suicide terrorist was aged 12 years old while the oldest was 64 years of age and accounting to an average age of slightly in excess of 21years. Of this target population, which probably represented the sample size, about 19 of them, accounting to 19(12.1 per cent) of the terrorists, had prior terrorism knowledge and experience. The educational level of the terrorists was of medium standard, which implied that whether they had an academic degree or attended an institution of higher education, their activities did not relate to poor academic levels that in most cases affiliate with low levels of economic development (Anderson 1997). However, further investigation on this study revealed that intensified economic grievances of large segments of the populace result to increased chances of individuals willing to execute suicidal terrorism. Conclusively, this study concurs with Bueno de Mesquita (2005) who proposes that there is “an indirect and subtler relationship between economic conditions and terrorism” (p. 518).

Minority economic discrimination and domestic terrorism

Further studies conducted by Piazza (2011) can provide a greater insight into the exiting contest in the correlation between terrorism or rather insurgence activities and the state of socioeconomic inequities. Piazza (2011) used a hypothesis comprising of three main points derived from theoretical discussions to provide a concrete empirical evaluation. The theories of this study hinged on the premise that discrimination has the probability of producing domestic terrorism, the absence of remediation over economic discrimination reduces chances of terrorist activity, and that minority economic oppressions are important factors that trigger domestic violence and terrorism. The first statement of the hypothesis stated, “Countries with minority groups that experience economic discrimination will experience higher rates of domestic terrorism” (Piazza 2011, p. 342). The second hypothesis stated, “Countries with minority groups that do not experience economic discrimination will experience lower rates of domestic terrorism” (Piazza 2011, p. 342). The two hypotheses rested on the prospects that favouritism, by propelling group grievances in certain zones, may probably be an impetus to domestic terrorism.

Based on the empirical evidence collected to support the argument and the assumptions embedded in the hypothesis, several aspects transpired in the study that can best explain the correlation between terrorism and economic inequalities across nations. In the empirical evidence provided, the main findings of the study concluded, “Economic discrimination is a significant predictor of domestic terrorist events in countries and that the absence of and remediation of minority economic discrimination are significant negative predictors of domestic terrorism” (Piazza 2011, p. 348). In a bid to analyse whether the existing notion that poverty is a contributor to terrorism is true, the study provided important findings that researchers can rely on in future researches and arguments. Based on the findings of this study, it was contrary that poverty and economical inequalities as alleged is not a significant predictor of domestic terrorism. Based on this observation and even other empirical evidences, countries with greater economic development experience more cases of terrorism than counties that are economically low. Distinctively, the relationships between the two aspects have very little association based on this empirical evidence.


Terrorism has become one of the most contested matters across the globe with cases of terrorism and suicide bombing gradually consuming the discussions of policymakers in the peace initiatives. According to Blair et al. (2013), several theoretical literature and empirical evidence has existed and increasingly proved significant in providing credible theory and evidence on the two aspects. Theory has cited that human actions may result from oppression or deprivation with greater chances of rationally born individuals becoming more rampant in such circumstances (Akram et al. 2011). However, empirical evidence on the relationship between the existence of terrorism issue and its relationship with economic inequalities has consistently proven that the two aspects do not correlate. According to the general results deduced by several empirical evidences, the relationship between economic inequalities and terrorism remains indirect. In short, where the relationship exists, several indicative factors trigger the activities of terrorism apart from the economic disparities itself (Hoffman 2006). Hence, based on empirical evidence provided by credible research this paper concludes that economic disparities and poverty contribute indirectly to terrorism.

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