Terrorism: A Career Choice?
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-27963675
Recently the Warwick PPE programme (that's Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) put on an event for school students. The idea was to show what each of the three disciplines--Philosophy, Politics, and Economics--can contribute on a topic of current importance. It turned out that philosophy is good at trying to understand the concept of terrorism, and the study of politics helps us to understand how western politics have influenced our concepts of terrorism. I decided to talk about why young people choose to become terrorists in terms of the economics of career choice. Here, roughly, is what I said.
Right now you are probably getting a lot of advice about career choices, so I am going to talk about terrorism as a career choice--the sort of choice that has been made recently by a number of young British people who have gone to Syria to join ISIS. First of all, what is a terrorist? Someone who kills or injures civilians with a particular purpose: to create a violent spectacle, and so to spread terror beyond the immediate victims. The motivation is political: to support political demands--maybe. I say "maybe" because for reasons that will become clear I am less certain on this point.
Where is the economic aspect of terrorism? Terrorists seem to belong to the world of politics. What do they have to do with economics? For today, the point is that the decision to become a terrorist is an occupational choice. To become a terrorist is costly. There are also benefits – but what are they? The choice can be understood using concepts from economics such as cost, benefits, and rational decision making.
Is terrorism a choice (1)?
A first step is to establish that becoming a terrorist is indeed a choice. Do people choose terrorism or are they driven into it by despair (or by voices in their heads)? My answer is that they choose.
How to we know this? From two things. One is that far more people support terrorism than take part in it. Across societies and over time support for terrorism is rarely a majority point of view, but around the world supporters do come in significant numbers that amount to sizeable minorities:
This table (from PewResearchCenter 2013) shows that support among Muslims for suicide terrorism is highly variable--widespread in some places, quite infrequent in others. (In most countries it shows a tendency to dwindle over the period shown.) But it is worth bearing in mind that the first three countries shown in the table are among the most populous on earth: Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria together account for more than 600 million people. If you apply the percentages for 2013 to the working-age populations (aged 15 to 64) of the 11 countries in the table, you come up with at least 50 million sympathizers. So, support for terrorism is shown by sizeable minorities.
In contrast, those who choose a career in terrorism are tiny minorities. In 2013 there were perhaps as many as 250,000 international terrorists worldwide. I base that on a rough count of members of groups aiming to attack the United States (from U.S. State Department 2014). This is a tiny number. Among 4.3 billion people of working age in the world it is one 1 in 18,000. In the Middle East and North Africa, active terrorists number perhaps 150,000. Relative to the MENA working-age population that is one in 1,500. In short, many people sympathize with terrorists, but hardly anyone becomes one.
Is terrorism a choice (2)?
If fewer people choose to become terrorists than express support for it, the next thing to ask is whether the participants have truly had the opportunity to choose. Do they have the competence to choose? Do they have alternatives from which to choose? To both questions the answer is: Yes. These people are not driven by crazy inner urges they cannot control; study after study has shown that most are psychologically normal (starting from Merari 1998). Moreover these people do not lack alternatives. In every society the people with fewest choices are women, the elderly, the poor, and the uneducated. But the typical terrorist is male, young, relatively affluent, and relatively educated (e.g. Krueger and Maleckova 2003). These are people with more choices, not fewer. They are not compelled by their circumstances.
Is terrorism a rational choice?
So, terrorism is a career choice. Is it a rational choice? Economic thinking revolves around the idea of people as rational actors. A rational actor isn’t a good or bad person, just a person whose behaviour follows a consistent logic. A rational actor should compare expected marginal private benefits with marginal private opportunity costs. The word "marginal" emphasizes that each person should ask: What difference will my choice make? The word "private" means: the difference to me. Then, the rational person will choose the option that yields the largest net gain to him or her. The gain does not have to be monetary; it will come in any form that the person concerned values.
Choosing terrorism: marginal costs?
What if the option to be considered is “terrorist”? The young person can make a list of marginal costs and benefits, just like a list of "for" and "against." The marginal costs associated with becoming a terrorist are many and large. You have to make the effort to research the groups that are willing to recruit you and work out the differences among them in order to seek to join one of them (in economics that is called a matching problem: there has to be the right match between the group and you). This effort is a cost. You have to learn occupational skills such as violence and concealment. Learning is costly too. You have to make efforts to adopt and live a new social identity, becoming a warrior or martyr.
Any career choice is likely to present analogous costs of matching, training, and developing a new professional identity. The costs of choosing terrorism that would not arise with other choices are that you have to abandon your home, your family, and a peaceful way of life in order to risk death. And, if you survive, and decide that you made a mistake, there may be no going back. These are all things that go under "against."
Choosing terrorism: marginal benefits?
So the costs are many and large. What goes under "for"? What are the benefits that terrorists seek from their career choice?
One benefit you might think of (assuming these are indeed benefits to you) would be to achieve the declared goals of the group: usually, to unify the homeland, or to drive out foreigners, or to establish religious order. But the economist rules this one out on several grounds, each of which should be decisive on its own. First, on average, attacking civilians does not achieve declared goals (Jones and Libicki 2008; Abrahms 2011). In other words, terrorism is counterproductive.
This is not all. Even if terrorism were productive, one person more or less would make no difference, so the marginal gain from your personal participation is inevitably less than the private marginal cost that you will bear. Finally, terrorists often turn out to be quite uninformed about their own group's declared goals (and not only that; they are usually also fairly clueless about world politics and religion). For all these reasons we cannot put much weight on claims, often made many years later, that "I joined the IRA to bring about a united Ireland" (for example).
Note. A listener reminded me: Maybe people join in terrorism out of anger at Western actions. I understand, and we'll come to the beliefs that are required for participation in terrorism. But all the evidence (Abrahms 2011 again) suggests that international terrorism against civilians moves public opinion to the right and increases the likelihood of Western cross-border intervention against terrorists. In other words, again, it's counterproductive. Even Osama bin Laden could see that. When you see people persisting in very costly courses of action and the actions are known to be counter-productive, you have to ask: Why?
But … But what other benefits might there be? A clue lies in the fact that, while psychologically normal, terrorists are often excluded or isolated (e.g. Pedahzur 2005): they are young unmarried men, or young women who were prematurely widowed, or poorly assimilated migrants. Correspondingly, Max Abrahms has argued, what terrorists value above all is the comradeship and supportive ties they find in the organization they joined.
Here are some examples (from Abrahms 2008). Among 516 Guantanamo Bay detainees, knowing an al-Qaida member was a significantly better predictor than belief in jihad. Among 1,100 detained members of the Kurdish PKK, respondents were ten times more likely to say they were attracted to join “because their friends were members” than by political ideology. There are related findings from Europe based on study of the IRA, ETA, RAF, and Red Brigades.
Moreover, terrorist groups are well placed to supply intense comradeship. They provide shared dangers and extreme experiences that cannot be shared with outsiders.
So terrorism is like ... ?
This suggests a more general model for terrorism. What benefits do young people seek from work? To some, salary and prospects matter most. For others, most important is the kind of work. Suppose you want excitement and risk; you don't want work that is routine or desk-bound. Suppose you want teamwork and comradeship, not isolation. Suppose you want the opportunity for acknowledgement of your personal role; you don't want to disappear into an anonymous mass.
If you are that sort of person, you might consider competitive team sports, or becoming an outdoor adventure leader, or joining the emergency services, for example the fire brigades. Or ... you might become a terrorist.
Radicalization and beliefs
So far I've said nothing about beliefs. Yet in choosing terrorism beliefs do play a role. For only a tiny minority chooses terrorism. Most young people do not want to kill others in order to share excitement and form bonds of affection with co-workers. What can overcome this natural reluctance? Here is where beliefs matter.
As an economist, I note that beliefs shape rational choice. You cannot make a rational career choice without beliefs. Here is a minimum set of beliefs that seem to matter for young people who choose terrorism. There is the choice of identity: the very concept of self-interest is predicated on the existence of a "self" that answers the question: Who am I? (as argued by Harrison 2006). For those that choose terrorism the answer is apparently: —I am a warrior (or: —I am a martyr). Sometimes the choice of identity is fuelled by anger. But this choice alone is not sufficient; you can be a soldier or a martyr without directing your rage against innocent people.
There is also a matter of values: Specifically, when I choose how to behave in society, how much weight should I give the interests of other people, compared to my own self-interest? Here the critical answer is: —People who don’t share my beliefs have no right to be considered and don’t deserve to live. This, and only this, makes it OK for the soldier to kill them.
When some young people look for others with whom they can form social bonds, these beliefs can tip the rational choice towards terrorist groups. So to adopt these two beliefs, the identity of the soldier and the exclusion of others from the right to exist based on different beliefs or culture, must be decisive in what some authorities now call "radicalization."
- Abrahms, Max. 2008. What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy. International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Spring 2008), pp. 78–105.
- Abrahms, Max. 2011. Does Terrorism Really Work? Evolution in the Conventional Wisdom since 9/11. Defence and Peace Economics, 22:6, 583-594.
- Harrison, Mark. 2006. An Economist Looks at Suicide Terrorism. World Economics 7:3, pp. 1-15.
- Jones, Seth G., and Martin C. Libicki. 2008. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica.
- Krueger, Alan B., and Jitka Malečková. 2003. "Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(4): 119-144.
- Merari, Ariel. 1998. “The Readiness to Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, 192-207. Edited by Walter Reich. Second edition, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Pedahzur, Ami. 2005. Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity.
- PewResearchCenter. 2013. Muslim Publics Share Concerns About Extremist Groups. Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project. Washington, D.C.
- U.S. State Department. 2014. Country Reports on Terrorism, 2013. Bureau of Counterterrorism.