Alan Krueger studies the economics of terrorism

In his new book, What Makes a Terrorist: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, published by Princeton University Press in September, Alan Krueger takes on a popular myth that economic deprivation and lack of education cause people to turn to terrorism. By analyzing data on global terrorism committed by a range of terrorist groups from 1997 to 2005, Krueger concluded that terrorists are much more likely to be doctors or engineers than laborers. The Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Policy and an adviser to the National Counter-terrorism Center, Krueger spoke with PAW’s Katherine Federici Greenwood.

Why would a labor economist do research on terrorism?

Labor economics has something to say about occupational choice, and one can think about choosing to become a terrorist as a choice of occupation of sorts. Some people choose to be doctors, some people choose to be engineers, and some terrorists. ... I also have done work on the economics of hate crimes in Germany and found that economic conditions and lack of education don’t have very much to do with the occurrence of hate crimes. I suspected that terrorism might be similar.

What did you find?

Economic circumstances have relatively little to do with participation in terrorism. Countries that have low GDP per capita and high illiteracy are not more likely to be countries that terrorists come from than other countries. I have done research looking at the characteristics of people who joined Hezbollah’s militant wing. ... Both the leaders and the foot soldiers are more likely to have finished high school or college than people from the same areas of Lebanon who are not members of Hezbollah. And they are less likely to come from impoverished families.

Why do you think terrorists are drawn from well-educated, middle-class, and high-income families?

The stereotype we have is that participation in terrorism should be like participation in property crime. And who becomes involved in property crime? People who have few opportunities. But a better analogy is toward voting or political protest. Who becomes engaged politically? It tends to be people who are well educated, who have formed strong views, and who are confident enough to act on those views. The terrorist organizations prefer to have more skilled operatives.

How does a country’s degree of civil liberties figure into its supply of terrorists?

The lack of civil liberties is associated with being an origin country for terrorism. A good country to have in mind is Saudi Arabia, which is a wealthy country and has relatively high educational attainment, yet at the same time people from Saudi Arabia have been associated with terrorist attacks. The other thing I found is that the targets of terrorism tend to be wealthier countries, and tend to be democracies, because one goal of terrorists is to change the policies of the groups or nations they target. That is more likely if they attack a country with a democratically elected government.

What are the policy implications, if improving education and reducing poverty won’t stem terrorism?

I’m pessimistic that eradicating poverty and lack of education will have a meaningful effect on terrorism. People sometimes say to me, “This is so disappointing, because all we had to do was solve poverty and we would eliminate terrorism.” ... Half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. If poverty were even a small cause, there would be far more terrorists out there trying to destroy us. At the same time, the United States has a moral obligation, independent of any effect on terrorism, to try to raise living standards around the world.

We should view terrorism as a strategic tactic, one that organizations are using to pursue a particular agenda. So first, we should try to limit the effectiveness of the tactic by keeping the threat in perspective. If the public recognized that the risk of terrorism is relatively small compared to other risks that we face — like everyday driving — that might make it a less effective tactic. Secondly, we have to guard against the more lethal forms of terrorism — such as biological, chemical, and radiological threats — which could be a threat to our way of life. Thirdly, we need to renew our commitment to defending civil liberties both at home and abroad. If you think back to what was motivating Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols [the Oklahoma City bombers], they thought the government had overreached. We don’t need to give would-be terrorists reasons to be paranoid.