Ways Forward in Global Counterterrorism

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Military means are at the center of current counterterrorism efforts. This article argues that the focus on military means is a mistaken one. Military interventions as well as presence in occupied countries rather contribute to an increase in terrorism. On the other hand, economic causes of terrorism remain under-addressed. A more effective counterterrorism policy would include increased financial and economic foreign aid.

The Mistaken Focus on Military Means in Global Counterterrorism

Since its inception, the “Global War on Terror” has focused more on military and intelligence measures to counter terrorist threats than on applying softer means toward this goal. By March 2011, Congress had approved a total of $1.283 trillion “for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs and veterans’ health care for the three operations initiated since the 9/11 attacks: Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Afghanistan and other counter-terror operations; Operation Noble Eagle (ONE), providing enhanced security at military bases; and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).”[1] Of this, $1,414.8 billion was assigned to the two military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2007, military spending amounted to $170.9 billion, in 2008 to $185.7 billion and in 2009 to $155.1 billion. Other estimates calculate the costs for the Iraq war alone at above $3 trillion.[2]
Comparatively, in 2007, the United States spent $18,901 million overall on foreign aid to developing countries, in 2008 the sum amounted to $23,860 million and in 2009, the United States spent $25,174 million. In 2009, the Near East and South Asia together received $11,778 million in grants and credits as financial aid while Africa received $6,022 million. In 2008, total foreign assistance from the United States toward North Africa and the Middle East amounted to $13,956 million, of which $8,382 million comprised military assistance.[3] Military activities—specifically counterterrorism activities—have received more foreign policy funding than any other activity.
It has been argued that the military-centered approach against terrorism has had several problematic effects. The most prominent among them obviously is the legitimacy crisis that the United States created with it’s highly disputed intervention in Iraq. Most claim that the invasion was an illegal act of aggression under international law—hence the widespread concern—and this intervention has set a precedent for unilateral attacks that could erode (and in the case of Russia have already potentially eroded) the general will to comply with the international standard of non-aggression. The implications of this for future international relations should not be underestimated. If international law is not upheld by the strongest power in the world, who will protect it and comply with it? Secondly, the Iraq intervention in particular has discredited the United States with the international community and the people of the world. While approval ratings for the United States have shot up under President Barack Obama, continuing a military-centered foreign policy could serve to further decrease the legitimacy and consensus on which U.S. hegemony is based. This could affect global stability as well as international capacity to cooperate and to foster trust among nations.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, military counterterrorism serves short-term goals, but does little to guarantee long-term success in the struggle against political violence.[4] The argument that military interventions increase the motivational basis—as a precondition—to engage in terrorism against the perceived occupational power has been theoretically and empirically substantiated.[5] But not only do interventions increase hatred against the West, they also do not address other underlying conditions that contribute to the emergence of terrorism.
Issues such as rampant unemployment, substandard education, poor social services, healthcare and a general lack of development need to be addressed in order to tackle the root of the problem of political violence. The recent uprisings in the Middle East are just one outcome of a serious development crisis in the region. While there is not an apparent connection between the revolts and groups like al Qaeda, the situation could change if the West does not contribute to improving the situation of the peoples in the area.
Poverty and inequality are regarded as preconditions for terrorism, and while the leading figures of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda may be affluent, the foot-soldiers often are from ranks of the impoverished and unemployed. Young people, and particularly young men, without other ambitions and opportunities are more vulnerable to recruitment by terrorist groups.
Political oppression and lack of democracy, freedom and political participation are also important aspects contributing to the emergence of terrorism. However, the reversal of these developmental impediments is not necessarily aided by military interventions—at least not military interventions alone. Political change, while desirable, is not necessarily achieved by interventions. Democracy has to be built from the bottom up, engaging people’s power. As the recent events in the Middle East illustrate, people are ready for change. Supporting their struggles is a reasonable strategy. Libya will hopefully develop into a more successful example of democratization than Iraq. However, supporting these developments with military power alone will not be enough to secure stabilization and democracy in the long-term. Alternative policies are necessary to engage and support these new democracies on their way to stabilization. Otherwise, the short-term euphoria of victory and change may be overshadowed with subsequent years of increased outbreaks of violence. For the stabilization and integration of these states to be successful, however, the mechanisms of global governance, including economic and financial foreign aid, are necessary.
Economic Causes of Terrorism
When arguing that a revised counterterrorism policy is needed, the motivations for terrorism must be investigated. An effective counterterrorism policy should address these motivations, or “root causes”, of terrorism and thereby aim to reduce its renewed occurrence.
While the connection between underdevelopment and civil war has been clearly established, making a similar connection between terrorism and underdevelopment is more difficult. Part of the problem results from the structure of transnational terrorist groups because they operate across borders around all over the world. However, some successful attempts at showing a positive correlation between poverty in countries of origin and the emergence of terrorism from these countries have been made. Koseli, for example, showed a positive correlation between poverty and terrorism in the case of Turkey.[6]
Ethan Bueno de Mesquita has presented more recent findings with regards to selected causes of terrorism.[7] Some of these most discussed causes of terrorism are poverty and underdevelopment. As Bueno de Mesquita finds, the results are mixed but suggestive. On the one hand, Krueger and Laitin find that “wealthy countries are more likely to suffer terrorist attacks and that economic performance is not a statistically significant predictor of which countries terrorists emerge from.”[8] Abadie finds no statistically significant relationship between per capita GDP and terrorism risk.[9] On the other hand, several authors have found a “statistically significant negative correlation between measures of economic performance an the level of terrorist violence.”[10] Also, Li and Schaub find that economic development in a country reduces terrorism in that country.[11] Finally, it is known that failed states and less democratic states breed more terrorism and serve as safe havens for transnational groups, and a link between these states and underdevelopment can be made.[12] Relative deprivation as a cause for terrorism has also been positively discussed,[13] as has exclusion from globalization[14].
Another approach focuses on the economic situation of terrorists themselves. Krueger, Maleckova and Berrebi find that terrorist operatives from Hezbollah and Hamas are “neither poor nor poorly educated.”[15] Usually they are well educated and come from relatively well-off backgrounds. Therefore, so the argument, improving economic conditions would help little to reduce the emergence of terrorism. However, this argument has been refuted many times over. For one, terrorist groups are complex entities, with their own internal hierarchies and structures. And it has been established that the lower ranks among these groups, such as the suicide bombers themselves, come from the unemployed poor rather than the middle ranks of researchers and technicians, or leadership figures from the upper echelons of society. Also, it has been argued that terrorist groups apply strategies of recruitment similar to any business organisation: they try to select interested individuals who are the best qualified and best educated, who are usually not among the poorest. Finally, terrorist groups need not themselves be comprised of the poorest people in order to create a connection between underdevelopment and this form of violence; the connection exists if these groups adopt the plight of their fellow countrymen as a motivation to engage in political struggle.[16]
Foreign Aid as a Tool against Terrorism
Early on, the primary tools in waging the Global War on Terror were military- and intelligence-based, but non-military foreign aid has also been used to counter terrorism. In fact, U.S. foreign aid to developing countries increased under President George W. Bush. The primary recipients of this aid were Afghanistan and Iraq, where schools, hospitals and infrastructure have been built.
However, using foreign aid as a counterterrorism tool is controversial. The main argument against foreign aid is the claim that most members of terrorist organisations like al Qaeda do not belong to the poorer strata of their socities. However, as the link between poverty and the emergence of terrorism is further drawn, non-military foreign aid will become increasingly important.
Several studies have researched the relationship between foreing aid and terrorism. Not surprisingly, two studies strongly confirm the positive impact of foreign aid on the reduction of terrorism. Bandyopadhyay, Sandler and Younas conclude that “targeted countries with global interests must bolster proactive measures through tied aid to countries where transnational terrorist groups reside. … because counterterrorism aid generates global benefits in terms of reduced terrorism for all targeted countries.”[17]
Azam and Thelen argue that “Western democracies, which are the main targets of terrorist attacks, should invest more funds in foreign aid, with a special emphasis on supporting education, and use military interventions more sparingly”.[18]
However, they also caution that foreign aid can be used by illiberal regimes to suppress political freedom and repress the population, which does not in fact help to decrease the emergence of terrorism. Foreign aid is thought to have the greatest positive effect against terrorism within the countries of origin of this aid. According to a study by Jean-Paul Azam and Veronique Thelen:
The results confirm the effectiveness of foreign aid to reduce the number of terrorist attacks originating from the recipient country. In the host country, the impact of foreign aid may be different as counter-terrorism measures also influence the number of imported attacks. This finding suggests that there are incentive problems regarding the role of foreign aid, which must be not too intrusive in the policy of the recipient government. Foreign military interventions are also counter-productive and they seem to be a strong attraction factor for terrorists. A strong presence of foreign actors in the recipient country or foreign influence might in fact be counter-productive.[19]
This not only confirms the positive impact of foreign aid on terrorism, but also provides evidence against the use of military means in the struggle against terrorism. Oppressive counterterrorism approaches within recipient countries of foreign aid have also been found to be counterproductive:
The evidence suggests that repressive counterterrorism measures may not be the optimal way to fight terrorism. Government crackdowns and harsh repressive measures funded by foreign aid can create a societal backlash and lead to more support for terrorist groups and thereby increase the supply of terrorist attacks.[20]
Therefore, the policies pursued by Western countries should increasingly include measures of support for developing countries in the critical regions and beyond. The West needs to help bring about increases in employment rates, improved education, better social services and health care. Only by spreading wealth to the Middle East and other suffering areas, the international community will be able to drain the potential support basis for current or future terrorism long term. The West needs to refocus its efforts away from being centred around the military and intelligence towards an even stronger inclusion of softer and more cooperative means.
Anna Cornelia Beyer, PhD, is lecturer in security studies at the Universsity of Hull in the United Kingdom. She has studied U.S. counterterrorism for more than a decade and has published widely in this area. Her publications include: Violent Globalisms: Conflict in Response to Empire; Effectively Countering Terrorism: The Challenges of Prevention, Preparedness and Response; Counterterrorism and International Power Relations: The EU, ASEAN and Hegemonic Global Governance. Before joining the University of Hull in 2007, she held an academic post at the University of Tuebingen, Germany.

[1] Amy Belasco, “The Cost of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Other Global War on Terror Operations Since 9/11,” CRS Report for Congress, 2011, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf.
[2] Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (Victoria: Allen Lane, 2008).
[3] U.S. Census Bureau, “Foreign Commerce & Aid: Foreign Aid,” 2011, http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/cats/foreign_commerce_aid/foreign_aid.html.
[4] Cornelia Beyer and Michael Bauer, eds., Effectively Countering Terrorism: The Challenges of Prevention, Preparedness and Response (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2009).
[5] Cornelia Beyer, Violent Globalisms—Conflict in Response to Empire (London: Ashgate, 2008); Robert Pape, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
[6] Mutlu Koseli, Poverty, Inequality & Terrorism Relationship in Turkey (Richmond: Virginia Commonwealth University, 2006).
[7] Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, “The Political Economy of Terrorism: A Selective Overview of Recent Work,” (working paper, University of Chicago, 8 February 2008), 2, http://home.uchicago.edu/~bdm/PDF/pe-terror.pdf.
[8] Alan B. Krueger and David Laitin, “Kto Kogo?: A Cross-Country Study of the Origins and Targets of Terrorism,” in Terrorism, Economic Development, and Political Openness, ed. Philip Keefer and Norman Loayza (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 148–73.
[9] Alberto Abadie, “Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism,” American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings) 96, no. 2, (2006): 50–6.
[10] S. Brock Blomberg et al., “Economic Conditions and Terrorism,” European Journal of Political Economy 20, no. 2 (2004), 463–78; Kostas Drakos and Andreas Gofas, “In Search of the Average Transnational Terrorist Attack Venue,” Defence and Peace Economics 17, no. 2 (2006): 73–93.
[11] Quan Li and Drew Schaub, “Economic Globalization and Transnational Terrorist Incidents: A Pooled Time Series Cross Sectional Analysis,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48, no. 2 (2004): 230–58.
[12] Susan E. Rice, “The Threat of Global Poverty,” The National Interest 83, (2006): 76-82.
[13] Caroline F. Ziemke, “Perceived Oppression and Relative Deprivation: Social Factors Contributing to Terrorism,” http://kms1.isn.ethz.ch:80/serviceengine/Files/ISN/100831/ichaptersection_singledocument/0712d791-157e-44dd-b742-77b3a7ac533f/en/5%5B1%5D.pdf,110f.
[14] Li and Schaub, “Economic Globalization.”
[15] Alan B Krueger and Jitka Maleckova, “Education, Poverty, and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 17, no. 4 (2003): 119–44; Claude Berrebi, “Evidence About the Link Between Education, Poverty and Terrorism Among Palestinians,” (Working Paper 477, Princeton University Industrial Relations Section, 2003); Bueno de Mesquita, “The Political Economy of Terrorism,” 2.
[16] Beyer, Violent Globalisms.
[17] Subhayu Bandyopadhyay, Todd Sandler, and Javed Younas, “Foreign aid as counterterrorism policy,” Oxford Economic Papers 63, (2011), 423–47.
[18] Jean-Paul Azam and Veronique Thelen, “Foreign Aid Versus Military Intervention in the War on Terror,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 54, no. 2 (April 2010), 237–61.
[19] Jean-Paul Azam and Veronique Thelen, “Where to Spend Foreign Aid to Counter Terrorism,” (Paper for the 2011 Meeting of the European Public Choice Society), http://crem.univ-rennes1.fr/EPCS11/submissions/epcs2011_submission_175.pdf.
[20] Burcu Savun and Jude C. Hays, “Foreign Aid as a Counterterrorism Tool: Aid Delivery Channels, State Capacity, and NGOs,” (APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, 2011), 25, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1900690