Does welfare cause terrorism?

Political commentary and more.
Dec. 17 2001 8:49 AM

Does Welfare Cause Terrorism?

You knew Mickey's Assignment Desk would come to this.

 Here are some suspected terrorists in the news:

  • Zacarias Moussaoui, the French North African charged with conspiracy in connection with the 9/11 attack, became an Islamic radical living in London "while drawing welfare benefits and studying economics," Newsday reports.

  • Ahmed Ressam, the member of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group who was arrested crossing the U.S. border with bombs designed to blow up L.A.'s airport, moved to Canada in 1994 where he "survived on welfare payments" and petty crime, according to terrorism expert Peter Bergen.

  • Metin Kaplan, who heads a German radical Islamist sect suspected of attempting to fly a plane into the Ataturk mausoleum in Turkey, "claimed social [welfare] benefits in Cologne for many years until 2m Deutschmarks ($1.2m) in cash was found in his flat," reports the BBC.

  • Abu Qatada, the cleric who taught Moussaoui and is accused of having links to al-Qaida agents in six countries, avoided extradition to Jordan on terrorism charges by settling in England, where "[l]ike many other London-based Arab dissidents, [he] has received regular welfare checks from the British government—and government subsidized housing," according to the Washington Post. Abu Qatada's welfare payments were stopped when it was discovered he controlled a secret bank account containing approximately $270,000.

Do you see a pattern? There's a story here! And it's not as crazy or demagogic as it seems.

The point isn't simply that many terrorists take advantage of Western welfare states, the same way they take advantage of Western freedoms and Western technology. The point is that extreme anti-social terrorist ideologies (radical Islam, in particular) seem to breed in "oppositional" cultures supported by various government welfare benefits.

This is particularly evident in France, where—as  this  Los Angeles Times piece describes—unemployed and alienated North African Arab immigrants in subsidized public housing projects turn to crime and violence in a vicious cycle familiar to students of the African-American "underclass." Except that in France, in the "violent neighborhoods, the housing projects where the young men can be recruited" into terrorism, an "ironic thing" happens, according to a French intelligence officer quoted by the Times' Sebastian Rotella:

"When the extremists take control, violence goes down. Islam brings discipline. But then we have to watch that neighborhood for a different reason."

Such North African Arabs make up "the backbone [of] Islamic terrorist groups in Europe" reports Peter Finn of the Washington Post—although the 9/11 hijackers seem to have been a separate, elite al-Qaida group drawn largely from Persian Gulf states.

What do you want to bet that the French pattern is visible in Britain, which has been (in the Post's words) "a haven for fundamentalists who enjoy traditional British liberties and a generous social welfare system even as they rail against the culture that has given them refuge"?

In fact, there's a good argument that "welfare benefits + ethnic antagonism" is the universal recipe for an underclass with an angry, oppositional culture. The social logic is simple: Ethnic differences make it easy for those outside of, for example, French Arab neighborhoods to discriminate against those inside, and easy for those inside to resent the mainstream culture around them. Meanwhile, relatively generous welfare benefits enable those in the ethnic ghetto to stay there, stay unemployed, and seethe. Without government subsidies, they would have to overcome the prejudice against them and integrate into the mainstream working culture. Work, in this sense, is anti-terrorist medicine. (And if you work all day, there's less time to dream up ways and reasons to kill infidels.)

Appetite-whetting precursor:OpinionJournal.com has posted several items on "terrorist welfare queens" but hasn't made the larger point about entire alienated subcultures being sustained by welfare.

Assigned to: Lawrence Mead, who claimed in his 1992 book, The New Politics of Poverty, that Europe is "about a generation behind the United States" in confronting the social problems created when a discriminated-against group becomes dependent on state aid. Alternatively: Heather Mac Donald, John Podhoretz, John O'Sullivan. … If I knew a neolib who might write this, I'd assign it to them. But I don't. [Bill Clinton?—ed. Not a bad idea! It would make his U.S. welfare reform campaign look globally relevant.]

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