Sociology of the suicide bomber

Issue: 122

Richard Seymour

Alan B Krueger, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism (Princeton University, 2007), £17.95

Explaining terrorism is a difficult and controversial business. Witness George Bush’s perplexed response to the 9/11 attacks: “I’m amazed that there’s such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am—like most Americans, I just can’t believe it because I know how good we are.”

Such mock innocence notwithstanding, a sort of folk wisdom has formed around the topic of terrorism, shared by both Bush and Tony Blair, which is that it results from poverty and ignorance. Thus Blair pledged (apparently without conviction) to deliver “the slums of Gaza” from statelessness and poverty. In the US media the explanation was more usually expressed as a particularly crass “politics of envy” argument, in which the terrorists were said to be “jealous” of American wealth and freedom. For the duration of the “war on terror” Alan Krueger has been disputing such explanations.1

As he argues in this book, based on a series of lectures, these claims are unsustainable in the light of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary. He seeks to discern the relevant factors generating the “supply of” and “demand for” terrorists. In his view, the “supply” is quite elastic as any number of socio_economic conditions can produce a terrorist. Krueger believes it is the “demand” for terrorists, produced by terrorist organisations and by the lack of alternative political outlets, that needs to be reduced—by attacking terrorist organisations and protecting civil liberties.

Krueger’s first substantial case study is that of Palestinian terrorism. He looks at surveys of public opinion on the question of violence against “Israeli targets” and “Israeli civilians”, carried out during and after the al-Aqsa Intifada. He finds that there is little correlation between lower incomes or poor education and a propensity to support such attacks. Majorities among Palestinians at all educational levels believed that such attacks stood a better chance of success than negotiations. Krueger also draws on data suggesting that those who carry out the attacks are themselves much less likely to be impoverished than the general population. More than 60 percent of them, he finds, have more than a high school qualification, compared to 15 percent in the general population (pp26-35).

These findings are supported, to some extent, by other analysts. For example, Robert Pape’s study of suicide attacks found that as a rule such attackers are not “egoistic” but tend to act “altruistically”.2 Luca Ricolfi’s study of Palestinian suicide missions found that those who actually carry out the attacks tend to have higher incomes and education than the reference population, in part because those who carry them out need to be resourceful and capable of carrying out sophisticated operations. Nonetheless, Ricolfi does acknowledge that material deprivation, alongside repression, has a significant role in generating the sense of humiliation and rage that prepares people to commit suicide missions.3

Krueger does not discuss these dimensions at all. Indeed, the fact that patterns of support for, and implementation of, Palestinian suicide attacks have been closely correlated to the rhythm of diplomacy—in the case of the al-Aqsa Intifada, the failure of the Oslo negotiations—falls below his radar. The lack of any discussion of Israeli oppression or of the closing down of options for peace is curious, especially given his finding that the lack of liberty is the single greatest determinant of terrorism (pp75-79).

Another important case study is that of “foreign insurgents” in Iraq. Here a problem of definition clearly emerges. “Terrorism” is a notoriously difficult term to pin down. Krueger suggests it may be understood as premeditated political violence intended to influence audiences beyond the immediate victims. He also believes that terrorism belongs to a category of “randomly targeted acts of violence” (pp14-15).

However, the vast majority of attacks by insurgents in Iraq are clearly not random but directed against occupation troops or Iraqi security forces deputised by the occupiers. Thus, at the height of the insurgency in 2006, a report to Congress by the US Department of Defence suggested that 68 percent of all attacks were directed specifically against coalition troops.

Nonetheless, Krueger proceeds to dissect the nationality of captured foreign insurgents—who he acknowledges have been a minority—and finds that statistically the most significant factors are a high Muslim population and a lack of liberty in their country of origin. Although the support of Muslims has been important to the Iraqi insurgency, Krueger rejects the Islamophobic narrative of the hard right that castigates Muslims in particular as being inclined to terrorism. He finds “no significant differences across major religions” in terms of whether affiliation is likely to produce terrorism (pp80-81).

Another factor discussed is the level of “economic freedom” in the country of origin of the foreign insurgents, as defined by the World Bank, the Wall Street Journal, and the Heritage Foundation. Those countries producing the insurgents tended to rank higher on the indices for economic freedom. The author seems to conclude that this rules out any underlying economic motivation, but there may well be some significance in the findings that he misses. After all, the Index of Economic Freedom considers a large state, restrictions on “property rights” and curtailments of financial and trading freedoms to be harmful to overall “economic freedom”. An “absolute minimum of expenditure” is considered a boon.4 But the degradation of social welfare systems, the freeing up of financial markets and the reduction of trade barriers produce immense social misery. Krueger relies on rightist orthodoxy as if it was self-evident. This is true elsewhere. For data on civil liberties, for example, he cites the right wing US foundation Freedom House, which has the dubious honour of having praised the 1979 elections in Rhodesia staged by Ian Smith as well as the 1982 elections in El Salvador, which took place in a context of massive state terror.5

The problem of defining his subject plagues Krueger’s findings throughout. In his haste to write off poverty as a significant factor in the generation of terrorism he relies on some unsustainable distinctions. For example, dealing with evidence showing that it was generally the poorest of the Catholic working class who supported the IRA in Northern Ireland, he speculates that this could be an example of something closer to guerrilla warfare than “the activities of a small terrorist organisation”. But this could equally be said of many other examples that he does accept as terrorism. As Robert Pape has pointed out, suicide attacks are generally carried out by “broad based national liberation movements” and are seen as a “last resort” where other tactics have failed. There is no sense in which Hamas, for example, is simply “a small terrorist organisation”.

There are certain elite terrorist groups that do fit Krueger’s definition which are not discussed. Readers will search in vain for a mention of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, which was certainly one of the most indiscriminately murderous groups in the world before its apparent demobilisation in 2006. In the first ten months of 2000 alone it was held to have carried out 75 separate massacres. For a book that takes such pride in its handling of empirical data and conceptual clarity, the absence of any discussion of counterinsurgency terrorism is a curious weakness.

Krueger concedes in the “Q & A” section that if he were to rewrite the book, he would avoid the word “terrorism” altogether. But he goes on to insist that what he is studying remains “politically motivated violence carried out by sub-state actors with the goal of spreading fear within the population” (pp145-146). It would be more appropriate to say that he is studying a particular form of insurgency and that his book is intended as a guide for counterinsurgency.

As the introduction explains, he had intended to call the book “Enlisting Social Science in the War on Terrorism”. Krueger is broadly a supporter of what he sees as the attempt to create democracy in Iraq. Having divined that the lack of civil liberty is the main determinant of terrorism, he does not ask why those repressed by their own state should choose to attack the US army or its embassies. This would involve discussing imperialism and placing it, as Pape does, among the foremost causes of terrorism.

For all the wealth of data contained in this book, there is no convincing case made as to what a terrorist is, never mind what makes a terrorist. Krueger acknowledges that it might have been better entitled “What Doesn’t Make a Terrorist” (p171). But even when he is undermining glib myths about terrorists being largely poor and ignorant, he is insufficiently attentive to the relevant social and political backgrounds and far too apt to reach for glib formulae himself. The book is also encumbered by superfluous statistical jargon that gets in the way of the information and undermines the author’s otherwise breezy and discursive manner.


1: See, for example, Alan B Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, “Does Poverty Cause Terrorism? The Economics and the Education of Suicide Bombers”, New Republic, 24 June 2002.

2: Robert Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005).

3: Luca Ricolfi, “Palestinians 1981-2003”, in Diego Gambetta (ed), Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Oxford University, 2005).

4: See

5: For a summary, see Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Bodley Head, 2008).