Why most terrorists are so incompetent.

The economic mysteries of daily life.
July 21 2007 7:53 AM

Dumb Bomb

Why most terrorists are so incompetent.

The attempted attacks in London and Glasgow, Scotland, three weeks ago surprised many people for two reasons: that the suspects were all educated medical professionals rather than desperate, uneducated vagrants; and that they  botched the job so badly.

The first revelation should not, by now, have been much of a surprise. My Financial Times colleague Gideon Rachman has reminded us that Osama Bin Laden is an engineer, his family is fabulously wealthy, and his deputy is a doctor.

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Economist Alan Krueger, author of a new book called What Makes a Terrorist?: Economics and the Roots of Terrorism, attempts to add to these examples with a systematic study of the evidence. He concludes that terrorists, political extremists, and those who commit hate crimes are often relatively well-to-do. This is a difficult thing to prove, not least because each of those categories is controversial and there is a world of difference between, say, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. Krueger dips into different sources of data, each one imperfect, trying to build up a compelling picture from opinion polls, biographies of terrorists, and broader studies.

Opinion polls from Gaza and the West Bank conducted in December 2001 show that students and professionals are more likely than the unemployed or laborers to say that terrorism can be justified, and more likely to deny that a suicide bombing in a Tel Aviv nightclub should be described as "a terrorist act." (The polls reveal more unanimity than disagreement on these points but certainly offer no evidence that education or wealth leads to more moderate views.)

When he was a graduate student at Princeton, the young economist Claude Berrebi gathered data on more than 40  Palestinian suicide bombers. He concluded that they were far better educated than the typical Palestinian, and also richer. Krueger offers a complementary picture using biographies of 129 Hezbollah fighters killed in action, although not necessarily while attempting a terrorist attack. They, too, were somewhat better educated and less likely to be poor than the typical young Lebanese man of the time.

More indirect evidence comes from studies of hate crimes, which are thought to have some parallels with terrorism. Again, economic motives are hard to find. It was once the conventional wisdom that lynchings in the American South were more common whenever cotton prices were low, indicating tough times for the economy. Historians no longer believe in the correlation. In general, hate crimes do not seem to be more common in economic downturns—although economist Emily Oster seems to have found an exception in medieval witch hunts, which were more common when crops failed.

All in all, the research that professor Krueger gathers together suggests that if there is a link between poverty, education, and terrorism, it is the opposite of the one popularly assumed. We should not be surprised to find that terrorists can add up, read, and even write prescriptions.

What is more surprising is that the attackers in London and Glasgow were so incompetent. Claude Berrebi and Harvard economist Efraim Benmelech studied—there's no nice way to put this—the human-resources policy of Palestinian terrorist groups. They found that older, better-educated terrorists secured more important suicide missions and killed more people. Having more than a high-school education doubles the chance of escaping capture, for example.

If the terrorists in this case do turn out to be the doctors and other professionals who are, as I write, suspected of the crime, it would demonstrate that even years of education and experience do not guarantee a successful attack. Blowing up innocent people is obviously harder than it looks, and for that we can all be grateful.

Tim Harford is a Financial Times columnist. His latest book, The Logic of Life, will be published in paperback on Feb. 10.

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