The comments by Risa Brooks regarding the economic and political roots of terrorism exhibit a characteristic frequently found in the debunking of such roots: an absolutist straw man. We are warned not to place stock in economic development as far as counterterrorism is concerned because the evidence shows that development assistance is not “the remedy” to terrorism. We are similarly counseled not to look to political liberalization for help because “exposure to political processes alone is insufficient” to turn people into peaceful political animals and because expanding democracy does not “drain the swamp” of support for terrorism. I know no one who has argued in favor of such absolute propositions regarding economic or political roots. Anyone who did would deserve to be derided (or ignored) just as much as anyone who pointed to any other single factor as the key to combating terrorism, be it seizing terrorist money, assassinating terrorist leaders, or pacifying a particular piece of territory.
In short, just because something doesn’t explain all of the variance doesn’t mean it cannot explain some of it. Brooks is right when she says that societal tolerance for violence is “multifaceted and complicated.” We should be interested in anything that, even if it cannot drain the swamp, can lower the water level somewhat. And counterexamples, such as terrorists who are rich or who enjoy political freedoms, are just that: counterexamples, which in turn can be countered by still other examples.
The debunking of the economic roots of terrorism is further plagued by oversimplification that treats poverty as the only variable worth testing. To the extent that poverty-vs.-wealth is a significant variable, the relationship probably is curvilinear, with the desperately poor being more concerned about the basics of food, clothing, and shelter than about ginning up a terrorist operation. Most likely the economic conditions that most matter go beyond poverty-vs.-wealth and have at least as much to do with mobility and opportunity. Most of this may be hard for a researcher to operationalize in a quantitative study, but that doesn’t mean it is irrelevant to terrorism.
As for political conditions, Alan Krueger—whom Brooks cites—has done some of the most useful quantitative work. He, unlike many others, has carefully disentangled the country of a terrorist’s origin from the country where a terrorist operation occurs. One of his most interesting results is a significant negative correlation between the extent of political and civil liberties and a country’s propensity to breed terrorists.
Something else Brooks mentions—terrorist groups that have political wings—is also significant, but not because of any absolutist straw man about mere exposure to political processes turning terrorists into puppy dogs. Rather, such organizations are an embodiment of the principle—as perceived by the groups themselves—that terrorism and peaceful political competition can be alternative means toward the same end. To the extent that one means is available and works, the other one is less attractive. PIRA/Sinn Fein provides an example of the peaceful political means eventually being available and working sufficiently well that the terrorist means was forsaken. Hamas provides an opposite example—not because the underlying principle about alternative means is not valid, but instead because Israel and the United States refused to let the peaceful political means work (i.e., when it resulted in a Hamas victory).
So I generally agree with Paddy Hillyard’s observations about political and economic roots.