Forget Everything You’ve Ever Read About Terrorism, Then Read These Two Paragraphs

Pulitzer Prize winning author Lawrence Wright’s new book The Terror Years, features an epilogue that challenges conventional wisdom surrounding the origins of terrorism. Two particular paragraphs that challenge conventional thought caught our attention.

Wright’s book is a collection of 10 essays he’s written for The New Yorker throughout his career investigating and writing about the origins of terrorism.

The U.S. has embraced a strategy called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which focuses on trying to identify the root cause of radicalization among would be terrorists. The U.S. Department of State notes that a key part of this effort is “to address the specific societal dynamics and drivers of radicalization to violence and counter the ideology.” Such nebulous endeavors have sparked various dead-end initiatives. The State Department was widely criticized in 2015 for literally asking Twitter how to counter the Islamic State.

A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seen with a mural of the Islamic State in the background, stands guard in front of a building in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), seen with a mural of the Islamic State in the background, stands guard in front of a building in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Marie Harf, then State’s spokesperson, fell back on the poverty line, suggesting in early 2015 that jobs were better equipped to counter ISIS than the military. A #jobsforisis hashtag quickly trended on Twitter following her comments.

An excerpt from Wright’s book strongly pushes back on poverty and State’s CVE. Wright raises difficult questions for U.S. policy-makers:

It’s common to suggest that dealing with root causes of terrorism is the best and maybe only way to bring it to an end, but there is very little evidence to support that notion-or, indeed, what those root causes are. Poverty doesn’t necessarily lead to acts of terror. Nor does tyranny, nor do wars, corruption, a lack of education or opportunity, physical abuse, ethnic hatred, food insecurity, political instability, gender apartheid, a feeble civil society, a muzzled press, nor an absence of democracy. Not one of these factors by itself is sufficient to say that here at last is the reason that idealistic young people line up for the opportunity to behead their opponents or blow themselves up in a fruit market. But each of them is a tributary in a mighty river that floods the Middle East, a river we can call Despair.

Yes, there is an absolute relationship between poverty, education, and violence, but it often works in the reverse of what is commonly assumed. Palestinians who are involved in terror organizations, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, tend to have better educations, are more likely to be employed, and have higher incomes than the general population. The worst violence in the occupied territories often occurs in times of relative prosperity. Game theorists have discovered improving economies may actually lead to increased acts of terror, perhaps because the targets are richer. And as for the absence of democracy, America’s expierence in overthrowing tyrants in Iraq and Libya and attempting to bring pluralistic rule to the middle east should be a sufficient caution without applying such remedies in the future.

The FBI even launched a website called Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Curtain on Violent Extremism, which focuses on helping would-be recruits realize when they are being recruited.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University is highly critical of CVE, saying that the government’s campaign “all but ensures that they have negative impacts, including: stigmatizing Muslims and reinforcing Islamophobic stereotypes, facilitating covert intelligence-gathering, suppressing dissent against government policies, and sowing discord in targeted communities.”

Wright’s book The Looming Tower, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction, and traces the origins of al-Qaida.


Staff Writer

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