Saturday, February 9, 2008

Who is an Insurgent?

It is widely acknowledged that terrorism and terrorists draw their sustenance from economic deprivation and exploitation, coupled with lack of proper education. This analysis has been applied to both sub-national insurgencies and international terrorism. In India, the naxalite movement has been traced back to relative deprivation and regional disparities. But increasing evidence points to the explanation not being as simple as thought.

A cursory analysis of all the leadership of the insurgent Naxalite movement in India reveals that its leaders mostly come from financially well-off and educated backgrounds. Though the foot soldiers are recruited from the deprived and aggrieved communities, the leadership is dominated by outsiders, most often from outside the community itself. Thus we have upper caste leadership for the predominantly tribal and lower caste naxalite movement. Apart from the intelligentsia, even the more important positions of such groups, like the explosives expert, major suicide bombers, mainly come from outside the aggreived community or from the more well off and educated from the community. More broadly, it has been found that the leadership and the guiding force in shaping such movements come from well educated and financially sound individuals, who are attracted to the cause of the aggrieved.

Alan Krueger, a Princeton professor, has done pathbreaking research on why so many terrorists come from middle-class backgrounds, by drawing in on data from thousands of Middle Eastern and German terrorists. In "What Makes a Terrorist," he presents his argument in full. The Christian Science Monitor called the book a "a concise, accessible argument against the notion that we can defeat terrorism through aid and education." Prof Kruger argues that from both the supply side (with educated recruits better able to understand and appreciate socio-economic and political causes for the grievance) and demand side (terrorist organizations want success in their missions and educated recruits are more likely to succeed), better off and educated individuals are more probable and desirable recruits.

But Gary Becker argues that a few high profile examples like the 9/11 bombing are a red herring and do not convey an accurate picture about the educational and economic backgrounds of terrorists. Positing the counter example of the backgrounds of the suicide bombers in the first Intifada against Israel, who were young (mean age of 20), unmarried, and without college education, he claims that better economic opportunities reduce the attraction of terrorist martyrdom. The educated terrorists with good economic opportunities, who carried out the high profile 9/11 attack, get attracted only by vital leadership roles in an exceptional mission.

He says, "Just as economic progress greatly affects family structure and the amount of freedom available, it also sharply reduces the willingness of people to hide or otherwise protect terrorists because they have more to lose if they are caught. Although leaders of terrorist organizations usually come from more educated classes, these organizations rely on numerous foot soldiers to do a lot of the dirty work. They are generally recruited from younger and less educated groups. It becomes much harder to recruit many of these soldiers when good jobs are available, especially if these recruits are asked to commit suicide."

Gerald Posner takes a different position and argues that given the limited supply and the increasing need for specialised skills and technical sophistication, coupled with courage and training, means that terrorists have to be educated and hence more likely to be from middle class backgrounds. He does an economic analysis of the demand and supply for terrorists, and traces the origins to the presence of a widely-felt public grievance - economic or most often political.

He says, "If demand for terrorism is grievance-driven, then one can expect the supply of terrorists to come mainly from the intelligentsia, for the members of the intelligentsia are more likely than ordinary people to be moved by ideas, resentments, and political ambitions rather than by material concerns. They have the leisure and the education to think big thoughts, like overthrowing a government, which rarely brings material improvements."

While the long term solution may be to eliminate the grievance itself, there are some initiatives that can be taken in the short and medium run. These aforementioned analyses of terrorists and their motivations, seems to indicate that supply side internventions to choke out recruits for terrorist organizations may not be very effective. I am more inclined towards Alan Kruger's demand side interventions like efforts to degrade the terrorist organizations financial and technical capabilities, and vigorous protection and promotion of peaceful means of protest, thereby reducing the demand for pursuing grievances through violent means. Providing many windows for ventilating grievances can be a more effective weapon against terrorism than efforts to choke off recruitment.

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