The Dangerous Red Herring Linking Poverty and Terrorism

There is a commonly held thought that if society understood the root cause of a problem, it would be able to arrive at solutions. Such reasoning implies that diagnosis is an essential part of solving the problem.

One of the major problems confronting the world in the 21st century is terrorism. Innocent civilians are being murdered and maimed in such diverse places as: Bangladesh; Turkey; France; United States; Nigeria; Israel; India; England and Libya. Stopping such violence is a global priority.

In attempting to stop the scourge, the United Nations and the United States made a common diagnosis and prescription for stopping terrorism: poverty leads to despair and violence, so solving global poverty would eradicate terrorism.

The problem with the diagnosis is that it has no basis in fact.

The United Nations on Poverty and Terrorism

The UN developed a global counter terrorism strategy which called on all of its member states to take a series of steps to eradicate terrorism. It stated:

Affirming Member States’ determination to continue to do all they can to resolve conflict, end foreign occupation, confront oppression, eradicate poverty, promote sustained economic growth, sustainable development, global prosperity, good governance, human rights for all and rule of law, improve intercultural understanding and ensure respect for all religions, religious values, beliefs or cultures” would promote stability and end terrorism.

The UN repeated its call for economic opportunity for all as a cure for stopping the mass murder of innocents in its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy:

“To reiterate our determination to ensure the timely and full realization of the development goals and objectives agreed at the major United Nations conferences and summits, including the Millennium Development Goals. We reaffirm our commitment to eradicate poverty and promote sustained economic growth, sustainable development and global prosperity for all.”

While no one would suggest that poverty is positive, it also true that pollution and disease are problems plaguing our global society. Yet the UN had enough sense to not include those issues in a document meant to specifically address terrorism (yet- is global warming coming?).

The Obama Administration was in sync with this line of thinking.

The United States on Poverty and Terrorism

In February 2015, after terrorists beheaded Christians on a beach in Libya, the US State Department’s spokesperson Marie Harf said that the root cause of extremism was poverty:

“the root causes that lead people to join these [terrorist] groups, whether it’s lack of opportunity for jobs…we can work with countries around the world to help improve their governance, we can help them build their economy so they can have job opportunities for these people….If we can help countries work at the root causes of this- what makes a 17-year old kid pick up an AK-47 instead of trying to start a business, maybe we can try to chip away at this problem.”

President Obama made similar remarks about Countering Violent Extremism at a summit at the same time where he said:

“we must address the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances.  As I said yesterday, poverty alone does not cause a person to become a terrorist, any more than poverty alone causes someone to become a criminal.  There are millions, billions of people who are poor and are law-abiding and peaceful and tolerant, and are trying to advance their lives and the opportunities for their families. 

But when people — especially young people — feel entirely trapped in impoverished communities, where there is no order and no path for advancement, where there are no educational opportunities, where there are no ways to support families, and no escape from injustice and the humiliations of corruption — that feeds instability and disorder, and makes those communities ripe for extremist recruitment.  And we have seen that across the Middle East and we’ve seen it across North Africa.  So if we’re serious about countering violent extremism, we have to get serious about confronting these economic grievances.”

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism at the State Department in Washington
February 19, 2015. (Photo: Reuters / Joshua Roberts)

The United Nations and the Obama administration were lock-step in finding the root cause of terrorism.  Insanity had company.

No Connection Between Poverty and Terrorism

The UN and the Obama Administration have repeated this poverty propaganda without any evidence, or more specifically, despite the evidence.

Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was from a wealthly family, as were many of the hijackers on the planes.

The terrorism that struck Bangladesh in July 2016 was perpetrated by wealthy men that attended elite universities.

This is often the norm.

The National Bureau of Economic Research did a study in September 2002 that found no connection between poverty and terrorism.  Among its findings was that racism and nationalism was behind the widespread support for killing Israeli Jewish civilians among Palestinian Arabs of all income levels.

A report by the Brookings Institute in 2010 authored by Corinne Graff noted that:

“since 9/11, terrorism experts have invoked empirical evidence that poverty does not correlate with a higher incidence of terrorist attacks and participation. The consensus appears to be that poverty does not motivate individuals to participate in terrorism, and that development assistance, therefore, has no place in a longer-term counter-terrorism strategy.”

The New York Times also came around to reporting this conclusion on March 27, 2016, in an article called “Who Will Become a Terrorist? Research Yields Few Clues.” The article discussed how there is little correlation between an a person’s education and poverty level with the probability he will engage in acts of terrorism. For example, the shooters in San Bernardino, CA in December 2015 were a middle class couple.

Yet the global body of the United Nations, and the most powerful democracy on the planet, the United States, are working on combatting terrorism with a flawed world view.


There are many ramifications of chasing a myth.  The implications are enormous when the subject is combatting global terrorism.

President Obama was correct when he called out the “warped ideologies espoused by terrorists like al Qaeda and ISIL” that use “their propaganda to Muslim communities, particularly Muslim youth” to advance a program to kill innocents. He is also correct that “Muslim communities, including scholars and clerics, therefore have a responsibility to push back” against these dangerous notions.

All citizens of the world have a similar responsibility to push back against the Obama administration and the United Nations that is pivoting the focus of counter-terrorism to economic development. The tactic to fight against twisted ideologies cannot be to give those communities more jobs and money.  Such thinking led the Obama administration to give the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, Iran, an estimated $150 billion and a legal pathway to obtain ballistic missiles, while keeping its nuclear infrastructure in place. The Obama administration logic that the Islamic Republic of Iran will be so happy to have the money and be embraced by the global community, that it will abandon sponsoring terrorism and its twisted ideology, has (yet) to play out.

Meanwhile, the world does little to combat the narrative and ideology itself.

In Gaza, the United Nations has allowed the Hamas government to ban the teaching of the Holocaust in UNRWA schools, and the teaching of global human rights.  Instead, UN Secretary General just talks about providing economic opportunity to Gaza.  When the UNSG said that he stands with Gaza, while never pushing to reform the thinking of the Palestinian Arabs, what message does he think he is conveying?

There was a thin line that separated the “Hope” that characterized the election of Obama in 2008, and the “wishful thinking” without basis in fact, that Obama’s detractors feared.  The trauma of global terrorism that has spread on his watch is anchored in a worldview that often denies uncomfortable truths and replaces it with a propaganda of his own.

Related First.One.Through articles:

Failures of the Obama Doctrine and the Obama Rationale

Obama’s “Values” Red Herring

The Invisible Anti-Semitism in Obama’s 2016 State of the Union

Liberals’ Biggest Enemies of 2015

Absolute and Relative Ideological Terrorism in the United States

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