Since al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and then attacked the World Trade Center three years later, the United States has dedicated billions of dollars and thousands of lives to addressing the threat of terrorism. Over time, policymakers converged on economic development as a key to ending terrorism, in the belief that poorer people are more susceptible to the appeals of violent groups or more likely to perpetrate violence themselves. If economic development aid raised incomes, the thinking went, support for militant groups would diminish.
This logic has taken hold at the highest levels of American policymaking. In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama argued in favor of sending more development aid to poor countries, because “extremely poor societies” are “optimal breeding grounds for disease, terrorism, and conflict.” The same year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concurred, declaring economic development an “integral part of America’s national security policy.”
Yet there is no evidence that economic development changes attitudes toward violent militant groups, or even that it is the poor whose attitudes are problematic. A number of scholars, including Claude Berrebi, Alberto Abadie, and Alan Kreuger and Jitka Malečková, have found that people who join terrorist groups are predominantly from middle-class or wealthy families. Public opinion scholarship, such as that of Najeeb M. Shafiq and Abdulkader Sinno, and Mark Tessler and Michael Robbins, suggests that differences in income and education do not explain variation in support for suicide bombing and other forms of violence. According to Oeindrila Dube and Juan Vargas, job loss appears to correlate with greater violence in Colombia. And Effi Benmelech, Berrebi, and Esteban Klor have found that poor economic conditions enable Palestinian groups to recruit higher-quality operatives. But in another study, Eli Berman explained that regions with higher unemployment in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Philippines are actually less violent. In Iraq, moreover, there is no evidence that large-scale development programs impact violence, although small-scale programs administered with deep knowledge of the
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