Bad Economy = Deadlier Terrorists

Here’s yet more evidence that a good economy is good news all around. In a new working paper, Efraim Benmelech, Claude Berrebi and Esteban F. Klor have analyzed data (abstract here) on Palestinian suicide terrorists between 2000 and 2006 and found that “[h]igh levels of unemployment enable terror organizations to recruit more educated, mature and experienced suicide terrorists who in turn attack more important Israeli targets.” Interestingly, “poverty and economic conditions are not correlated with the quantity of terror.”?[%comments]


Are there really "experienced suicide terrorists"?

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Poverty itself does not breed terrorists. The poorest, most famished, most diseased, and most depressed future are in Sub Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent. They are not blowing up passenger planes.

IF a plane is blown up, a city bombed or a passenger vehicle is hijacked---who would you suspect today? Unless you have been in a coma for the past 20 years and haven't seen a newspaper, you will suspect one particular group and you would be correct 95% of the time. Forty years ago it would have been Soviets, 30 years ago Puerto Rican Separitists. 25 years ago IRA bombers.

But for our time, 95% of the cause is radical Islamic Terrorists. And the Arab world is doing quite well economically with the high price of fuel and rapid growth of Asia--2008 was the highest real oil price in history. The really poor countries of the world like Botswana, Zimbawe and Congo, getting enough food to eat is a struggle. Most have never flown in an airplane, let alone try to hijack one.

Terrorism for 2010 is not a simple case of poverty, but rather politics and religion. Fear and revenge.



Didn't you get the message? The Israelis are the terrorists and the Palestinians are freedom fighters.

Chris B


The point of the paper was that a bad economy helps terrorist organizations recruiting efforts where there are terrorists. It was not that a bad economy results in terrorism.

If I remember Critical Reasoning 101, both statements are not close to being logically equivalent.



Has anyone looked at the type of "more important" Israeli targets and if there's any reasonable link between them and the economy? For instance, a bad economy would mean a higher concentration of people at a government agency that provides social services like unemployment benefits. The increased crowds would make it more difficult to detect suicide attackers as well as increasing the number of deaths/injuries.

Similarly, the Israeli legislature became more divided as the economy sank, which meant more campaigning and more campaign events (again, lots of people in a published location).


Remember that terrorist campaigns are essentially military campaigns seeking to establish some political goal (A wants B to leave some territory, usually). This finding is congruent with that model: In a down economy, militaries are able to recruit more mature/educated/experienced people to become soldiers in a down economy because the opportunities available to those people are fewer. However, a military does not necessarily launch more missions because the economy is bad.

The first commenter makes a good point though - not sure there are that many veteran suicide bombers.


Careful with the Islam/suicide terrorism connection. Remember that the group that developed modern suicide terrorism practices and their most prolific practicers was actually the Marxist (atheist) Tamil Tigers. Less salient in the last ten years, sure, but still, major players in the suicide terrorism game. And the poverty link: suicide terrorism isn't about protesting "I don't have food so I'm blowing you up!", it's "You're on [what I think is] my land, so I'm blowing you up!"


Ian Kemmish

High levels of unemployment don't necessarily make it easier to recruit such people. If unemployment is high but static, then the pool of such people would be relatively small; I'd be more inclined to examine rapidly rising unemployment, where one might expect a pool of recently laid-off people looking around for a cause (in both senses of the word).

As a counterpoint, one could also consider young middle-class radicals from countries like Egypt, many of whom seem to come from families who've "never had it so good".

Recent events in Northern Ireland could also be taken to suggest that elections (or at least a change in government) cause an increase in terrorist attacks. Probably not a good enough reason to do away with them, though....

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

You're on [what I think is] my land, so I'm blowing you up!"
- Jordan

Your land hypothesis does not bear out in realty. Land disputes are as old as agriculture. The United States and Canada has had thousands of land disputes over the centuries and they have not resulted in the Bombing of Landmark Skyscrapers full of Innocent People.

As global warming changes geography and leads to changes in tide and land access, melting glaciers, landslides, and even earthquakes, the Canadian boundaries will also change, in particular islands off Puget Sound and the Atlantic Coast. But I guarantee you that no innocent lives wil be lost by terrorism in this territorial dispute.

Any country that borders on another has land disputes, just like any property owners in the countryside. There are over 200 countries in the world. There are tens of thousands of land disputes and hundreds of thousands of protesting parties. Switzerland has land disputes with its neighbors lasting centuries. Germany and France still dispute Alasace Lorraine region going to World Wars over it....but they have not had terrorist bombings or loss of life since WWII. China disputes its numerous borders including that with India, Russian, Vietnam, Afganistan, Mongolia, Japan and Taiwan. These are powerful countries strategically and historically, but there are no air plane bombs. There is NO Sub Saharan Neighboring Nations that are dispute free.

Land disputes are NOT the sole cause of terrorism in 2010. The secret ingredient is a radical virulent strain of Islam. And for them legal means and courts, peaceful protest and negotiations are not viable options.

In our agnostic Western societies, we have trouble believing that Religion can have a powerful affect on human lives. We are so past the Crusades, Pilgrims and Inquisitions. And the power can be both positive and negative.



I agree that the language of an "experienced suicide bomber" is oxymoronic, but I find an even greater flaw. We often hear of rationality and that we as humans are not as rational as we would like to be perceived as. But, in the general context of studying terrorists and their behavior, I think it is foolish to even attempt classifying a terrorist's decision based on utility theory and rationality.