The canard that poverty causes terrorism just won't die. It was one thing when Nation writer David Corn and others connected the two back in 2002. The liberal default position is that poverty causes crime. It was an instant knee-jerk reaction after 9/11. But by now we all ought to know better. Except, the theory is still being peddled despite the lack of evidence to support it.
On Monday the Times of London, citing analysts, reported: "'Orchard of fighters' grows out of poverty and mistrust in Yemen."
Last week, President Obama said of the Christmas bomber, "We know that he traveled to Yemen, a country grappling with crushing poverty and deadly insurgencies."
Yemen's crushing poverty? Abdul Mutallab isn't even Yemeni; he is Nigerian, and an affluent one, at that. Apparently, the president is suggesting that poor, unsuspecting Abdul Mutallab wound up in Yemen and was radicalized by Muslims there who were themselves radicalized by Yemen's "crushing poverty." Why mention it if that is not the general theory he is putting forth?
Yet there is a little problem with that theory. According to the World Bank, Zimbabwe is 11 times poorer than Yemen. Yet no Zimbabwean national has been caught trying to blow up U.S. airliners. There's a simple reason for that. Less than 1 percent of the population of Zimbabwe is Muslim.
Despite Zimbabwe's crushing poverty, al Qaeda has almost no one to radicalize and recruit there. In Yemen, an almost entirely Muslim nation, al Qaeda's pickings are easier.
The terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and continue to do so today are not the radical poor. They're radical Muslims.
Consider this list of known al-Qaeda terrorists, and find what links all of them:
• Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed was a mechanical engineer
• Mohammed Atta grew up in a middle class household; his father was an attorney.
• Ramzi Binalshibh was a bank clerk.
• Mohammed Atef was an Egyptian police officer.
• Marwan al-Shehhi was a soldier studying in Germany on an Army scholarship.
• Ziad Jarrah came from a wealthy Lebanese family and attended private, Christian schools.
• Abdulaziz Alomari graduated with honors from his Saudi high school and went on to graduate from college.
• Wail M. Alshehri was a Saudi P.E. teacher and university student.
• Waleed M. Alshehri, also a student, was Wail's brother. Their father was a prominent Saudi tribal leader.
• Zacarias Moussaoui, the "20th hijacker," had an MA in international business studies.
• Major Malik Nadal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, was a psychiatrist.
• Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, the underwear bomber, was the son of a bank chairman.
• Hammam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, who killed eight CIA agents in Afghanistan last month, was a physician.
A few of the "muscle hijackers" on 9/11 might have qualified as poor. Richard Reid, too, although his father was a career criminal, so poverty can hardly take all the blame in his case. But most of the 9/11 hijackers and other al Qaeda terrorists who have tried to attack the United States cannot be classified as poor.
When looking for one factor that unites all al Qaeda operatives, it is clearly not poverty. Al Qaeda's terrorists cannot be connected based on their family or personal income. The one commonality they all share is an adherence to radical Islam. (The emergence of female suicide bombers in Iraq eliminates the other commonality, that prior to that all were male.)
The absence of a causal link between poverty and terrorism goes well beyond al Qaeda, too. In 2004, Harvard professor Alberto Abadie published a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research called "Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Root Causes of Terrorism." He decided to include domestic as well as international terrorism to make his study as broad as possible. He concluded that "the risk of terrorism is not significantly higher for poorer countries." However, "a country's level of political freedom better explains the presence of terrorism."
If the left advocated overturning despotic regimes as a strategy for eliminating one of the "root causes of terrorism," it would have a much better argument. There is a clear link between political freedom and terrorism. But President Bush made a similar case, so the left won't touch that argument. Boxed in by political correctness and with nowhere left to go, the left defaults to its old scapegoat, poverty. Alas, there isn't a shred of truth to the claim that poverty is a root cause of terrorism.
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