The Real Roots of Terrorism


The death of Osama bin Laden is no doubt a historic event, but it is not a game changer in the broader war on terrorism. The operational effectiveness of bin Laden was highly questionable in the last several years, although documentation and videos recovered in the raid do reveal his participation in plans for a new attack.

But ideas are cheap. Recent terrorist attacks such as the Christmas Day bomber to the recent Marrakesh market bombing, for example, required neither guidance nor resources from bin Laden’s Afghanistan and Pakistan-based Al-Qaeda cell. Terrorism is a far more global problem, as my PolicyMic colleague Nathan Lean described in a recent column.

The death of one man will not end the global terrorism threat. But who then is the next bin Laden? Conventional wisdom points to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s long-time number two, or Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. But others could rise up and take a leading role. There are also informal links with a network or other terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia and the Islamic Army of Aden in Yemen. These groups and others could become the next Al-Qaeda with a charismatic and effective bin Laden-like figure.

Predicting the rise of such a leader is impossible, but there is one interesting pattern that arises when analyzing terrorist leadership: location. The same small handful of countries appears repeatedly. Both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri found refuge in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Other Al-Qaeda cells have popped up in Yemen, Iraq, and North Africa, among other locations.

To analyze these countries in more detail, I did some quick back-of-the-envelope number crunching in an analysis of the various factors shared by countries hospitable to terrorist networks. I looked at factors including Islam, corruption (the Transparency International Perceived Corruption Ratings), poor governance (the Foreign Policy/Fund for Peace Failed State Index), and recent violent conflict (from various news sources and the CIA’s World Factbook). I used this data to compile a list of Muslim-majority countries that are in the top 50 of both the Perceived Corruption Ratings Report and Failed State Index and that have experienced recent violent conflict, coups, or ethnic violence. Admittedly, this is a somewhat informal methodology, but it provides an interesting glance into some of the political characteristics of countries that harbor terrorist organizations.

Nine countries made my list. Not surprisingly, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Iraq are all highly corrupt countries with recent violent conflict and are high on the ranks of the Failed State Index (FSI). Somalia, whose pirates disrupt international shipping routes, ranks first in both corruption and the FSI. Afghanistan is second in corruption and sixth in the FSI; Iraq ranks fourth and seventh; Yemen 26th and 15th; and Pakistan 36th and 10th. Sudan, which once hosted bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, ranks seventh and third.  But also on the list are Guinea, Tajikistan, and Mauritania, countries that rarely, if ever, receive mention from mainstream media sources. Niger just missed the cut off by ranking 56th and 19th.

The point is that terrorist networks are not going to be toppled by assassination. While the capture or killing of leadership will aid in the war against terrorism, the impact is minimal. The real correlates of terrorism are failed governments, corruption, and violent conflict in Muslim majority countries, and together these factors foster safe havens for terrorist operations. The only long-term solution to terrorism is to create stable governments (not necessarily democracies) with the capacity to shut down terrorist cells. Until then, the conditions exist for rise of the next bin Laden.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons