Kerry: Potential Terror Recruits Need ‘More Economic Opportunities’

Patrick Goodenough | September 30, 2013 | 4:37am EDT
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Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu preside over a ministerial meeting in New York of the Global Counterterrorism Forum. (Photo: State Department)

( – Launching a new global counter-terror fund, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the importance of “providing more economic opportunities for marginalized youth at risk of recruitment” – although much research has debunked the notion of a link between poverty and Islamist terrorism.

At a meeting in New York Friday of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), Kerry and his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu unveiled a $200 million initiative designed to leverage public and private funding in support of what the GCTF calls “countering violent extremism” (CVE) efforts.

The aim of the first-of-its-kind fund, known formally as the “Global Fund for Community Engagement and Resilience,” is to support local communities and organizations to counter extremist ideology and promote tolerance.

“It’s about challenging the narrative of violence that is used to justify the slaughtering of innocent people,” Kerry told the meeting of ministers from the 29 countries making up the GCTF.

But alongside the ideological issue Kerry also raised the notion of economic factors.

“Getting this right isn’t just about taking terrorists off the street,” he said. “It’s about providing more economic opportunities for marginalized youth at risk of recruitment. In country after country, you look at the demographics – Egypt, the West Bank – 60 percent of the young people either under the age of 30 or under the age of 25, 50 percent under the age of 21, 40 percent under the age of 18, all of them wanting jobs, opportunity, education, and a future.”

Researchers have noted that some of the most prominent jihadist terrorists over the past decade or more, far from being driven by desperation and a lack of economic opportunity, are educated members of their societies.

Osama bin Laden was the son of a billionaire businessman, Ayman al-Zawahiri is a physician and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed has an engineering degree.

A similar pattern was evident in south-east Asia, where key members of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network were well-educated men.

In a study of Singapore’s experience in combating radical ideology over the 2001-2011 decade, researchers from the country’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies observed that they included Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian former army captain and businessman (who in 2000 provided lodging in Kuala Lumpur to two of the 9/11 hijackers and was later involved in a foiled Singapore bomb plot).

Others were JI bomb expert Azahari Husin, a university lecturer in Malaysia with a doctorate in engineering, killed in 2005; wanted JI fugitive Zulkifli Abdul Hir, a U.S.-trained engineer; Noordin Mohammed Top, a university graduate who became Indonesia’s most-wanted terrorist until killed in 2009; and other JI figures who hold degrees or engineering diplomas.

According to a Rand Corporation report on counterterrorism, prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2009, “Terrorists are not particularly impoverished, uneducated, or afflicted by mental disease. Demographically, their most important characteristic is normalcy (within their environment). Terrorist leaders actually tend to come from relatively privileged backgrounds.”

One of the authors of the RAND report, Darcy Noricks, also found that according to a number of academic studies, “Terrorists turn out to be more rather than less educated than the general population.”

“Education can encourage terrorism in several ways,” he wrote. “One is that schools may be used simply as convenient recruiting hubs or, in some cases, even as ‘mobilizing structures’ with the right mix of youth, insulation from social control, and opportunities.

“Another is that schools may propagate violent ideology and expand the context in which the use of violence is considered appropriate and desirable.”

The GCTF itself recognizes to some degree that the poverty-terror link is questionable.  A document on “good practices” for CVE, adopted by the forum on Friday, notes that “research has rejected the thesis that poverty begets violent extremism,” although it adds that “the gap between the expectations and reality of an individual’s socioeconomic status can be a condition conducive to violent extremism.”

It adds, for instance, that extremists may offer financial payments to individuals or their families.

When President Obama first took office, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the bloc of mostly Muslim-majority states, sent him an open letter attributing terrorism both to “political injustice” – citing the Palestinian issue – but also to “deprivation, poverty [and] despair.”

In earlier years, Obama himself is on record as making the terrorism-poverty link.

A month after 9/11, Obama – then a state senator – expressed support for the looming military operation in Afghanistan, but also raised concerns about what he called “some of the root causes of this terrorist activity.”

“For nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, or much of the Middle East, young men have no opportunities,” he told the Chicago Defender in October 2001. “They see poverty all around them and they are angry by that poverty.”

“They may be suffering under oppressive and corrupt regimes and that kind of environment is a breeding ground for fanaticism and hatred,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s absolutely critical that the U.S. is engaged in policies and strategies that will give those young people and these countries hope and make it in their self-interest to participate and create modern, open societies like we have in the U.S.”

The GCTF was launched in September 2011, with the U.S. and Turkey as co-chairs. The Obama administration’s decision not to invite Israel to join drew strong Republican criticism but has not been reversed.

Eleven of the forum’s 29 members are Islamic states, most of which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. They are Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

The other forum members are the U.S., Australia, Britain, Canada, China, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland.

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