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Political Rights and Terrorism

Rights vs. TerrorMuch of the conversation about the roots of terrorism assumes that terrorism comes from economic dislocation and degradation, that the poorer a nation is, the more likely it will be a well-spring of terrorist movements. But that assumption doesn't match reality. While there are certainly examples of groups using terror as a tactic emerging from the most down-trodden parts of the world, there are also plenty of examples of terrorists coming from relatively well-off nations.

Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie, of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, examined statistics for both domestic and transnational terror groups around the world and correlated them to other characteristics such as per-capita income, education levels, religious and ethnic fractures, and economic development. As it turned out, there was no statistical correlation between economics and terrorism, or between education and terrorism. Nor was there a correlation with any of the other characteristics, save one: political freedom, as measured by Freedom House's Index of Political Rights.

But the connection wasn't straightforward:

Political freedom is shown to explain terrorism, but it does so in a non-monotonic way: countries in some intermediate range of political freedom are shown to be more prone to terrorism than countries with high levels of political freedom or countries with highly authoritarian regimes. This result suggests that, as experienced recently in Iraq and previously in Spain and Russia, transitions from an authoritarian regime to a democracy may be accompanied by temporary increases in terrorism.

(Setting aside quibbles about whether Iraq is actually transitioning to a democracy, it's clearly no longer under an authoritarian thumb.)

If this observation holds up under further scrutiny (the data used just cover 2003), the idea that there is a democracy/terror curve has some worldchanging implications. As countries which had been ruled by authoritarian governments shift towards more greater political rights, they will likely experience a spike in unrest and violence. Governments will in turn be tempted to impose greater restrictions and controls -- precisely the wrong step to take. Instead, a push for more political freedom and stronger democratic institutions could be a faster and surer route to the dying down of terrorism. The history of Northern Ireland over the past decade arguably supports this idea: as the British government and the IRA moved to adopt a political solution over the military conflict, support for residual terrorist groups declined dramatically.

It also suggests to me analogies beyond the strictly political: if the "full political rights" end of the spectrum matches the ideal version of "free/open source," and the "no political rights" matches the ideal version of "proprietary/closed," would we expect to see greater "hacking" and "virus" activity if closed systems open up a bit, or if open systems start to restrict access? If so, this would suggest that "half-open" systems of control -- such as those some have suggested for emerging bio and nano technologies -- may be a greater problem than either a fully closed or fully open system.

This seems a reasonable supposition, but does anyone have a sense of how something like this would be researched?

Comments (25)


Of course it's not that simple. Factor in loss of cultural identity and history coupled with complete hopelessness for a future and you might find some correlations.

Possibly. Those factors make intuitive sense, but then so did economic dislocation.

Clearly this is an issue that desperately needs further study.

Zaid Hassan:

Economic dislocation is a story told in the West that many like to believe because it's a nice, simple explanation.


Read the Harvard Gazette article and it reminded me of what one of my high school teachers taught about the French Revolution. Sent the Abadie reference to John Robb and Thomas Barnett. Barnett also recognizes the idea as common knowledge in the field.

Reading Jessica Stern's _Terror in the Name of God_ now and she mentions de Tocqueville on this very point (page 80). He observed that the most dangerous moment for governments is when they begin to reform, again in reference to the French Revolution.


The framing and the assumptions are the key elements here.

Dr. Abadie approaches political situations as if they were problems in physics: isolating variables, finding correlations, determining the validity of data sets.

It is an apparently objective and rational treatment of an area that is anything but. Mental constructs and definitions in the social sciences are intensely political. The American revolutionaries were terrorists to the British, though we in the US now see them as heroes. Ditto the Algerians fighting for independence from the French.

The underlying model of the paper is one of health and disease. The status quo is health; terrorism (defined by the status quo) is the pathology. The purpose of the study is to eliminate the disease.

A more truthful representation of the situation would see differences of interest and struggles for power. In other words, history.

The paper strikes me more as a piece of ideology than objective science.

If the thesis is true, then it demonstrates an intractable problem. A government that responds to an insurgency by granting more liberties is afraid of being seen as "weak" or "coddling terrorists." In other words, of not being "tough guys." Not to over-generalize, but I think we'd need many, many more women in leadership before we'd see a mature response to insurgencies.

For what it's worth, Bart, Dr. Abadie is Basque, and would know all too well the historical and cultural elements wrapped up in the use of violence against civilians as a political tool.

Zaid, economic dislocation is a simple explanation, one consonant with the economics-driven social models which were dominant for a few decades. It's also wrong. The political rights correlation is somewhat more complex (viz. the curve), but will undoubtedly have exceptions of its own: it's an observation, not a model.

I find this thesis wholly unsatisfying. It's a unidimensional treatment of a multidimensional phenomenon, a political Flatland.

I prefer that old standby, the prairie fire (an icon favored by old Lefties in the Plains States) as an analogy.

Fuel -- discontent from lack of opportunity, being ignored, economics, or tedium -- accumulates. Combustion -- revolution, insurrection, or terrorism, depending if you're the protagonist or antagonist -- occurs when a flame or a spark -- the idea of "an other state of being" ignites the fuel.

The actual process of combustion can be described simply as a chemical reaction, but the experience of a prairie fire has many more social aspects: animal fear, human panic, hope of escape, exit strategies, the run for safety, organized attempts to extinguish the fire, the cost of rebuilding in the aftermath, etc.

So what if liberalization breeds "terror"? Are we going to stop liberalization? Who's going to do that? Should we accept the manifestations of discontent? Should we accelerate change? These are the interesting and important questions.


Another issue worthy of address is exactly why it is that an Authoritarian regime has a lower preponderance of terrorists--does it suppress the *intent* to commit acts of terrorism, or does ubiquitous government and law enforcement agencies simply make terrorism unfeasible or impossible?

Without knowing that for certain, it seems like this research could be used in *favor* of authoritarian regimes in places that occupy the middle of the curve.


Jamie, do you have more information on Dr. Abadie's career and background, other than the fact that he is Basque? That he is Basque is not in itself any guarantee of greater insight or objectivity about terrorism. I notice that he has written a paper on the economic costs of terrorism in Basque country (abstract at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=283350 ), a subject that seems more rooted in actual science. Are there any critical analyses available of Abadie's work?

The main thing that I could find via Google was that right-wing blogs had picked up his study and were claiming it supported Bush's position.

To me the significance of the paper is that it signals a rightward shift in Establishment thought, given that the paper issues from the JFK School of Government at Harvard. As Chris suggests, it will probably be used as justification for further imperial interventions.


As one who has spent a fair amount of time at Harvard, completely as a townie visitor, I can say that the institution is not very liberal at all and never really has been. They got a special set of blinders there and the only thing they see is power. Ideology is only the decoration.

Reading Jessica Stern on Pakistan, one clear recommended action would be to provide educational opportunities rather than leave the population to the madrassahs. It that a kind of liberalization that would short circuit rather than allow terrorism? That's the question.

When you have a pressure cooker, how do you let off steam without blowing up the kitchen? What are the escape valves? Those are the things we have to discover and put in place. Economic opportunity before educational opportunity or in lock step? Female emancipation as a solution or a provocation or both? More democracy or less, remembering how the Islamists won elections in Algeria in the early 1990s and seem to be gathering strength in Pakistan and Turkey? Technological development with what kinds of technologies? Globalization of what type?

As for totalitarian and authoritarian regimes having low rates of terrorism, it's hard to do when the state is already actively terrorizing the population. Studying Hungarian history, I was astonished at the close control the Austrian secret police had on the people after the revolution of 1848. They knew just about everything that was going on. I read one account on a visiting American who was detained for questioning for a couple of weeks. The movie "The Round-Up" about how the Austrians manipulated prisoners after the revolution is also highly instructive in understanding how such power works. And still does.

Zaid Hassan:

Maybe I'm slow and maybe because I'm exposed and a part of Pakistani and Islamic culture but it seems that Western academics and "experts" are more interested in peddling their wares than genuine understanding.

If you go out of your way to mess with people and perpetuate what they percieve as injustice then they're going to be mad at you. Let me give you a very mild example from the US.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK invited its readers to write to voters in Ohio in order to convince them not to vote for Bush. It backfired. They got thousands of vitriolic letters from Ohio voters telling them where to stick it and that no one other than Americans have a right to influence the US elections. The letters were nasty and ugly.

Now that was just a case of Brits writing letters to US Voters. Do you think that Pakistanis or Afghanis or Saudis are any less patriotic then Americans? Why is it so hard to understand this?

It's insulting to hear that education will "solve" the issues of third world terrorism as if it were some sort of disease. It's very simple. People who believe that they are the victims of oppression will look for routes to justice. If none are forthcoming and the injustice continues then they will get more angry and more desperate and eventually some will resort to violence.

Finally, the nation-state regularly and often resorts to illegal violence in order to pursue it's self-interests. Those are the rules of the game. Why do we expect the powerless to play by a fairer set of rules when those in power quite clearly don't?


While I think there's validity to Abedie's discussion that we shouldn't be focused on poverty as the source of terrorism, the study seems to really be stating the all too obvious while missing the point entirely. It's hardly surprising to me that in a highly organized and centrally managed country, whether it's at one end of the political spectrum (e.g. Iraq under Saddam) or the other (e.g. the U.S), there's little "terrorism," i.e. rogue individuals and groups committing violence against the state, while in countries in the midst of political upheaval, it looks a lot more like a free for all.

Meanwhile, is it really acurate to see Iraq under Saddam as more free from terror? Instead, it's the state that becomes the terrorist. In the case of Iraq, much of that's directed inward. In supposedly emancipated countries like the U.S., it's directed outward. That is, the people of the U.S. like to believe that we're free from terror, but can only pretend that's true if we ignore Hiroshama, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, Columbia, Afghanistan, Iraq.....

Sure, politically transitional countries become wildcards for everyone involved, which can't be good, but I think if you were to measure "terror" as lives cost on a nation by nation per capita basis, you'd be looking at a very different graph. In fact, I almost wonder if more lives are lost to violence at the hand of politically stable nations than those in transition? And though I wouldn't begin to defend authoritarian regimes on any basis, as they make virtually everone worse off, is it fair that "civilized" nations get classed as free from terrorism, when adding the cost of that internal civilization to the external chaos (in the name of freedom mind you) probably amounts to the same total quantity of human misery?

Many good comments here.

I think it's pretty clear from the article itself that it's not a full-blown research effort yet, but more of a quick bit of analysis to check one hypothesis (that economics drives terrorism) that happened to generate another (that there's a non-linear relationship between political rights and terrorism). That it's "all to obvious" is easy to say, but quite a bit of the ongoing discussion of drivers of terrorism has focused on the economic argument and the equally simplistic "powerlessness" argument.

I'm not surprised that supporters of Bush's policies have picked up on this article. There's a broad class there that seems predisposed towards misinterpretations. An argument that increasing political rights is the best course to reducing the amount of non-state terror doesn't equate to an argument that Bush's plans are the right strategy.

It's all too easy to view Abadie's argument only through the prism of the current disaster in the Middle East. The evolution of the situation in Northern Ireland, especially when contrasted with the situation in the Basque region of Spain and France, is a perspective less driven by today's headlines. In these cases, Abadie's proposition seems to fit well. (The assertion that Abadie's Basque heritage informed this paper came from the Harvard Gazette article linked in the second paragraph.)

"Terrorism" as a specific term is becoming less and less useful; unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a good replacement term for its specific meaning (politically-motivated violence directed against civilian populations). It's not supposed to mean "violence against the state" and certainly not "violence against soldiers" (an interpretation not mentioned specifically here, but is common parlance in DC). It technically also doesn't mean violence directed against military targets where civilians are also hurt/killed; in that logic, killing civilians when bombing snipers in buildings in Fallujah is not technically terrorism, and neither was the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon -- but firebombing Dresden in WWII and the 3/11 attack on Madrid train station clearly were. To a lot of people, however, all four should qualify.

The "it's the weapon of the powerless" argument, I think, misses the bigger picture. Asymmetric warfare has long been favored by groups unable to engage in whatever passes for "conventional" warfare of the day (hell, the US was founded by a bunch of guerillas). Terrorism as defined by political scientists -- the use of politically-motivated violence against civilians -- also has historical precendents... and has rarely worked. More often, it makes the situation worse, to nobody's benefit.

Zaid Hassan:

I'm not clear why the notion that terrorism is a weapon of the powerless misses the bigger picture? Or to be a bit more nuaced about it - what I'm saying is that what we often label as "terrorism" can be a form of warfare and political struggle. This is especially true in instances where the perpetrators feel they have no other options.

If that's a simplistic argument then I'm afraid that's all the logic it takes to drive an individual to commit an act of violence or to organise an act of violence. Of-course there is the context, which is the source of such logic - but I fail to see what bigger picture this line of reasoning is missing.

Also, if the US was founded by a bunch of guerrillas - then are you saying they failed in their aims?

Finally, here's an interesting (and I think insightful) article by Eqbal Ahmed, which discusses different form of terrorism.


I think it misses the bigger picture because (a) it's not the only weapon of the powerless (no matter what they may be told), and (b) terrorism hasn't historically been effective (again, as opposed to guerilla warfare).

I used the US as an example of the success of guerilla or asymmetric warfare, which is distinct from terrorism as the term is used by political scientists. It comes down to the intended target of the attacks: attacks directed at military targets are broadly deemed as "legitimate" and can often be effective in their goals, while attacks directed at civilian targets are broadly deemed "terrorism" and are only rarely effective.

And thanks for the Eqbal Ahmed link; I'll read it tonight.

Zaid Hassan:

Ah I see. However what you seem to be saying is that if people are turning to terrorism as a solution then they're missing the point - rather than me being the person missing the point :-) For the record, I believe that the extra-judicial murder of civilians is a bad tactic.

My point is that people turn to extreme forms of violence in order to create change when they believe they have no other choice. No one tells them so - or rather, they know so because they see that their situation is getting worse and nothing is making it better. It may well be that they haven't tried this route or that route but there's obviously a good reason why they reached such a conclusion.

Ahmad's conclusions as to what we should do about terrorism are very clear.

Sorry for the lack of clarity on my part.


Eqbal Ahmad's article is indeed interesting but his solutions are pretty much a pipe dream given the present administration and its pronounced proclivities towards state terror.

As for education as a solution, providing educational opportunities beyond madrassahs is a suggestion from a mujahideen in Pakistan quoted by Jessica Stern in _Terror in the the Name of God_. Even if it were possible it would not be a short term solution by any means and a middle-aged, middle class, ostensibly white American like myself would have very little to do or say about it.


Thank you for absorbing the many comments, Jamais, and trying to find a meaning from them all. It is a powerful skill to be able to listen as you seem to, without becoming defensive.

I think if this study came from Denmark or Switzerland, one could approach it with more openness.

On such a partisan topic as this, when the works of academics can be used as justification to mount invasions, it is critical that a work be as free from nationalism and propaganda as possible.

It's also true that finding alternatives to the cycle of violence is critical, whether it is terrorism or war or imperial intervention.


Here here! Though this study may not point the way,spurring debate is of value in itself. Clearly the larger question is one of eliminating violence. It might be interesting to look for other research that explores this same basic question. And we're almost certainly hamstrung by the fact that violence has been a part of our entire history, but conscious programs to eliminate it (intellectually, rather than by force) are inevitably sparse and relatively recent.

There's almost certainly good fodder in the prison systems -- I can't point immediately to sources, but there's been a lot of work in the past 20 years about lowering criminal recidivism through proactive counseling and treatment vs. brute incarceration. Which sort of brings us round to talking about basic and obvious points, e.g. it makes sense that offering a helping hand rather than a blunt stick is a better way to get people to behave in a friendly manner. To my way of thinking, as long as there are tremendous disparitites in wealth and power that leave the average citizen poor (relatively) and powerless (at the mercy of the state), I see no end to the violence, whether it's "terrorism," revolution, crime, or "legitimate" state action.

Imagine, for instance, what things in Iraq might look like right now if we had taken the ~$150 Billion we've spent on the war thus far,and instead marched in and started building farms, roads, hospitals and schools, and started feeding the hungry? Even if we did it by force (not that I'm suggesting that's a good idea), how many would fault us, and how many casualties would there be?


I include my notes (and a few comments) from Jessica Stern's _Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill_ (HarperCollins, 2003):

(xix) What surprised me most was my discovery that the slogans sometimes mask not only fear and humiliation, but also greed - greed for political power, land, or money. Often, the slogans seem to mask wounded masculinity.

(xx) First, terrorism is aimed at noncombatants. This characteristic of terrorism distinguishes it from some war-fighting. Second, terrorist use violence for dramatic purpose: instilling fear in the target audience is often more important than the physical result. This deliberate creation of dread is what distinguishes terrorism from simple murder of assault.

(xxiv) This book is partly about how leaders bring themselves and their followers to the point where their empathy for victims is gone.

(15) Terrorists often strike people who know them as two different people: the family man and the killer... Public shaming of members is one of the hallmarks of a cult.

(16) Cutting off information from the outside world and destroying personal possessions or anything that reminds members of their precult lives is another common practice among cults... [a French fascist felt he as if he was joining a religious order] that required that he "divest himself of his past" to be reborn as a person capable of what Himmler called heroic cruelty.

(26) I tell Kerry [Noble] that I've noticed that one thing that distinguishes religious terrorists from other people is that they know with absolute certainty that they're doing good. They seem more confident and less susceptible to self-doubt than most other people.

(50) profile of a typical Palestinian suicide bomber before 9/11/01
Young, often a teenager.
He is mentally immature.
There is pressure on him to work.
He cant find a job.
He has no options, and there is no social safety net to help him.
He would try to work for the PA [Palestinian Authority] but he doesn't get a job because he has no connections.
He tries to get into Arafat's army, but again, he doesn't have the right connections. He doesn't have "vitamin W." (Vitamin W is an expression for wasta in Arabic, which refers to political, social, and personal connections.)
he has no girlfriend or fiancee.
On the days he's off, he has no money to go to the disco and pick up girls (even if it were acceptable).
No means for him to enjoy life in any way.
Life has no meaning but pain.
Marriage is not an option - it's expensive and he can't even take care of his own family.
He feels he has lost everything.
The only way out is to find refuge in God.
He goes to the local mosque... He begins going to the mosque five times a day - even for the 4 am prayers. (An average devout Muslim will not attend the early-morning prayer.)

(52) Soldiers are trained to risk their lives for their country; but a suicide bomber goes into the operation assuming not that he might die, but that he will die. The more training a soldier receives, the more skilled he is at avoiding death, whereas the opposite is true for a suicide bomber. When such a person makes a cost-benefit analysis about the value of his life versus the value of his death, he attaches greater value to death - both for his country and for himself.

(137) The bottom line, I now understood, is that purifying the world through holy war is addictive.
NB: Addiction may be the dominant political force in the US today and is a defining characteristic of late stage capitalism, IMHO. Anne Wilson Schaef's _When Society Becomes an Addict_ and _The Addictive Organization_ are good resources on this topic.

(143) We will see terrorist groups competing for market share in the same way firms or humanitarian organizations do. They advertise their mission and accomplishments. They meet with high-level donors. Just like humanitarian NGOs, they may begin to view their donors as the most important entity to please, rather than their clients, as the appearance of accomplishment becomes more important than actually achieving social or religious justice.

(173) As military technology continues to improve and spread, enabling what political scientist Joseph Nye calls the "privatization of war," virtual networks and even lone-wolf avengers could become a major threat.

(209) It occurs to me that he [Syed Salahuddin of the Hizb-ul Mujahideen, the largest Kashmir-based militant group] seems to agree with the proposition that the rise of nongovernmental organizations (including terrorist groups) is weakening the relative power of states.

(225) The U.S. cruise missile attacks against militant training camps in August 1998 "damaged the image of the United States," Sami-ul-Haq [of Pakistan's Jamiat-ul-Ulema Islan party] explained, and turned Osama bin Laden, an ordinary man, into a hero. America's opposition to madrassahs is damaging the image still further, instilling "sentiments of violence" in madrassah students, he tells me.

(230) Asked about the biggest threat to their groups' survival, a militant says that "free secular education for all" leading to an "increase in the literacy rate" is the gravest threat to the survival of the jihadi groups in Pakistan.
NB: A broadcast/Internet/hard copy literacy campaign that blankets Pakistan as a "public service." Perhaps adapting Paolo Freire's methods in teaching literacy in the Brazilian favelas?

(276) The tri-border area where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet is becoming the new Libya: The place where terrorists with widely disparate ideologies - the Marxists groups FARC and ELN, American white supremacists, Hamas, Hezbollah, and members of bin Laden's International Islamic Front - meet to swap tradecraft. Authorities worry that the more sophisticated groups could make use of the Americans as participants in their plots, possibly to bring in materials.

(279) The most resilient group discussed in this book is the save-the-babies group Army of God, a virtual network whose members meet only to discuss the mission, not concrete plans.

(283) Whenever we face a terrorist threat, we should ask ourselves: Who stands to gain? Who is making money? Who is receiving benefits of any kind? Who is taking advantage of whom?

(284) Other factors that appear to increase a country's susceptibility to terrorism include a "youth bulge," and especially, a high ratio of men to women. Young males comprise a growing fraction of the population across the Islamic world. Studies suggest that countries with a high ratio of males to females, and with young men comprising a large fraction of the population, are significantly more prone to violence of all kings.

(287) But democratization is not necessarily the best way to fight Islamic extremism. Most states that attempt to transition from autocracy to democracy get stuck in a kind of in-between state. and electoral democracy does not necessarily imply liberal democracy, especially in the Islamic world. Algeria's Islamist party won democratically, shortly after a drop in world oil prices. In Pakistan, Islamist parties - some of which openly promote a "Talibanization" of Pakistan - did well in the 2002 parliamentary elections, in part because of the government's continuing failure to provide public services, but also because of anger about Islamabad's concession to the Uniterd States in the war on terrorism.

(289) Another, equally important question often overlooked by policy makers and analysts is: How can we fight terrorist groups without making the problem - hatred of the new world order and of America - even worse.

Zaid Hassan:

Just a few quick comments. Ahmad died in 1999 - worth bearing in mind when considering his work.

The other thing that I find interesting is the notion that his solutions are a pipe dream because the current regime isn't inclined towards them. Are you saying that any solutions to terrorism must conform to the biases and worldviews of the current regime? Isn't that a bit like saying a potential Civil Rights Movement must conform to the racist notions of the segregationists because anything else is a pipe dream?


"Are you saying that any solutions to terrorism must conform to the biases and worldviews of the current regime? Isn't that a bit like saying a potential Civil Rights Movement must conform to the racist notions of the segregationists because anything else is a pipe dream?"

No. I'm saying that thinking the present administration will institute any of Ahmad's solutions to terrorism is a pipe dream. They are going in the opposite direction and after four years of experience with the Bushites I don't think that there's much that is going to change their minds. I would not expect any kind of "Nixon goes to China" or "DeKlerk releases Mandela" moments from them.

"(230) Asked about the biggest threat to their groups' survival, a militant says that 'free secular education for all' leading to an 'increase in the literacy rate' is the gravest threat to the survival of the jihadi groups in Pakistan.
NB: A broadcast/Internet/hard copy literacy campaign that blankets Pakistan as a "public service." Perhaps adapting Paolo Freire's methods in teaching literacy in the Brazilian favelas?"

That's something I would be willing to work on but you would know better whether such an idea is hopelessly stupid or not, Zaid Hassan.


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