The phenomenon of terrorism is one of the manifestations of violence that has spread in international societies. Since the early 1970s, the word “terrorism” and its derivatives such as “terrorist” and “counter-terrorism” and others have invaded the literature of all branches of social sciences. The term “terrorism” has become one of the most common conventions in the world, at a time when the crime rate is increasing and its forms are diversified. Scholars in the fields of psychology, criminology, sociology, and religion have devoted themselves to the study of this subject more than any other socio-political phenomenon of our time.
There has been thorough research in the past that focus on the factors that caused and contributed in the spread of terrorism around the world. There is a consensus between scholars that terrorism is a complicated phenomenon caused by multiple factors. This issue has been highlighted in a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions related to the most serious threats to international peace and security, including resolutions 1963 (2010) and 2129 (2013). The first pillar of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy (General Assembly resolution 60/288) embodies the determination to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism. The Secretary-General’s Action Plan to Prevent Violent Extremism (A/70/674) detailed some of these potential conditions, such as: lack of social and economic opportunities; marginalization; discrimination; mismanagement; human rights violations; failures in the rule of law; long-standing and unresolved disputes; and spreading extremist ideology in prisons.
In September 2015, world leaders agreed on a new generation of development-related goals and, on 1 January 2016, adopted the seventeen ambitious global goals, collectively known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the SDGs are of great importance in themselves, as a means of mobilizing the efforts of the international community to address serious challenges related to development, they are also able to support the current efforts to combat terrorism by addressing the conditions conducive to its spread.
The first of the seventeen goals aim to “eradicate poverty in all its forms everywhere”. Extreme poverty rates have more than halved since 1990. Although an impressive achievement, one-fifth of the population of developing countries still lives on less than $1.25 a day, and the daily income of millions of other people is just above that. The definition of poverty is not limited to the mere lack of income and resources needed to secure a sustainable livelihood. It also takes the form of hunger and malnutrition, limited access to education and other basic services, discrimination and social exclusion, as well as lack of opportunities to participate in decision-making. Economic growth must be inclusive so that jobs are created sustainably and equality is promoted.
Is there a relationship between the phenomenon of famine and the armed conflicts, including the emergence and rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) phenomenon? Those who followed the Syrian crisis know the state of severe hunger that hit the Madaya region and its environs; this hunger was not a natural phenomenon but a result of machinations of the elite, which, rather than building a progressive state, in which everyone stands an equal before the law, insisted on sectarian quotas that helped fragment the society and open wide the doors to terrorism and extremism.
The scene of painful Arab hunger did not stop in Syria, but spread to Iraq, where ISIS’s reign of terror was accompanied by terrible corruption, specifically in Mosul, where the humanitarian situation reached its climax in April 2017, as Iraqi forces supported by the international coalition closed in and panic took over as fierce battles raged in the city. With the military victory over ISIS, a joint report of the World Food Program and the Iraqi government indicated that half of Iraqi families were at risk of food insecurity, i.e. the global scale that calls for international support, while 75% of Iraqi children under the age of fifteen were forced to work to help their families provide food, rather than being in education.
The world’s rich may not understand that hunger is caused by the unfair distribution of wealth, and the political visions of the dominant powers might not concern themselves with this issue, but it is a time bomb that will affect them, too. There are at least two ways that privation in the world becomes everybody’s problem.
The first is that it provides space for extremists and terrorists to operate in. A large stock of angry, poor people constitutes an important source on which terrorist organizations can draw for recruits.
Second, the hungry do not fear death; they have nothing to lose. And this has led, and will lead in the future, to huge and frightening waves of illegal immigrants and refugees seeking to get to Europe, America, and Australia, bringing with them their painful memories and embittered feelings, justified or not, that their countries were poor, hungry, and diseased because the rich world exploited them.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a lot of attention given to famines in places that were then called “the third world”, and some action was mobilized, albeit the good intentions did not always have good results. Famine is usually a symptom of protracted wars, and of governments—the notable case was the Communist system in Ethiopia—that have not the slightest respect for human dignity and life, with no interest in developing health care, infrastructure, and prosperity.
Famine and war are both a cause and an outcome of state fragility, another source of concern as a possible factor allowing space for radicalization. In one conference that was held in Cairo in 2007, the experts participating in the conference attributed the reasons for the spread of terrorism and extremism in the Middle East to internal factors, the most important of which are the absence of freedom, poverty, poor distribution of wealth, disparity in social levels between the rich and the poor, the tyranny of the state, oppressive and monopolistic practices of wealth, as well as the fragility of social and national integration, and external factors, the most important of which were Western policies that interfered in the internal affairs of Arab and Islamic countries.
Fragile states are conducive environments for terrorist groups. According to a report delivered by the U.S. National Strategy for Counterterrorism, these terrorist groups exploit conflicts, instability, weak governance, and longstanding political and religious grievances to pursue their goals. Statistics show that 99% of terrorist deaths have occurred over the past seventeen in countries that are in conflict. The fragile states have not only become a hub for growing terrorist organizations, but also for regional and global competitions for power, influence, and resources. This makes fragile states a vital place for terrorist organizations to grow and develop. The support that extremists receive for their hostile attitude towards abusive states, combined with state reactions that repress indiscriminately, push citizens towards radical ideologies. It is clear that societies trapped between poverty, famine, and state fragility, with no real alternative for a just, inclusive, and good governance, will remain breeding grounds for extremist ideologies and an easy target for indoctrination by terrorist organizations.
Terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda have thrived in ungoverned zones. These groups can function with impunity when states are fragile. A weak state, unable to surveil its territory, and lacking institutions to exert proper sovereignty, provide the spaces in which terrorist groups can plan and rehearse their terrorist attacks in training camps, and can exploit this situation to export their activities across unpoliced borders. Where there is poverty and famine, terrorist governance can appear better than no governance, and draw in desperate recruits to be indoctrinated. Endemic corruption reinforces these dynamics.
Where states fall into civil strife because of ethnic, social, or other identity factors, terrorists can rise by acting as the vanguard of one faction in these civil wars. Research repeatedly demonstrates a relationship between terrorism and civil war, with terrorism being a tactic weaker rebel groups frequently resort to. Civil conflicts also make weapons more accessible, which is helpful for any terrorist organization. The difficulty is that while failed states provide a conducive environment for terrorists, nation-building is not always the answer, being counterproductive in some cases.
Careful measures are needed for a successful counter-terrorism policy to ensure that the factors that facilitated the terrorists’ rise are addressed without implementing a solution that is worse than the original problem.