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09 Nov 2004 - 27 Apr 2021
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Alberto Abadie: 'In the past, we heard people refer to the strong link between terrorism and poverty, but ... when you look at the data, it's not there. This is true not only for events of international terrorism ... but ... also for the overall level of terrorism, both of domestic and of foreign origin.' (Staff photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)
Freedom squelches terrorist violence
KSG associate professor researches freedom-terrorism link
By Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office

A John F. Kennedy School of Government researcher has cast doubt on the widely held belief that terrorism stems from poverty, finding instead that terrorist violence is related to a nation's level of political freedom.
Associate Professor of Public Policy Alberto Abadie examined data on terrorism and variables such as wealth, political freedom, geography, and ethnic fractionalization for nations that have been targets of terrorist attacks.
Abadie, whose work was published in the Kennedy School's Faculty Research Working Paper Series, included both acts of international and domestic terrorism in his analysis.
Though after the 9/11 attacks most of the work in this area has focused on international terrorism, Abadie said terrorism originating within the country where the attacks occur actually makes up the bulk of terrorist acts each year. According to statistics from the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base for 2003, which Abadie cites in his analysis, there were 1,536 reports of domestic terrorism worldwide, compared with just 240 incidents of international terrorism.
Before analyzing the data, Abadie believed it was a reasonable assumption that terrorism has its roots in poverty, especially since studies have linked civil war to economic factors. However, once the data was corrected for the influence of other factors studied, Abadie said he found no significant relationship between a nation's wealth and the level of terrorism it experiences.
"In the past, we heard people refer to the strong link between terrorism and poverty, but in fact when you look at the data, it's not there. This is true not only for events of international terrorism, as previous studies have shown, but perhaps more surprisingly also for the overall level of terrorism, both of domestic and of foreign origin," Abadie said.
Instead, Abadie detected a peculiar relationship between the levels of political freedom a nation affords and the severity of terrorism. Though terrorism declined among nations with high levels of political freedom, it was the intermediate nations that seemed most vulnerable.
Like those with much political freedom, nations at the other extreme - with tightly controlled autocratic governments - also experienced low levels of terrorism.
Though his study didn't explore the reasons behind the trends he researched, Abadie said it could be that autocratic nations' tight control and repressive practices keep terrorist activities in check, while nations making the transition to more open, democratic governments - such as currently taking place in Iraq and Russia - may be politically unstable, which makes them more vulnerable.
"When you go from an autocratic regime and make the transition to democracy, you may expect a temporary increase in terrorism," Abadie said.
Abadie's study also found a strong connection in the data between terrorism and geographic factors, such as elevation or tropical weather.
"Failure to eradicate terrorism in some areas of the world has often been attributed to geographic barriers, like mountainous terrain in Afghanistan or tropical jungle in Colombia. This study provides empirical evidence of the link between terrorism and geography," Abadie said.
In Abadie's opinion, the connection between geography and terrorism is hardly surprising.
"Areas of difficult access offer safe haven to terrorist groups, facilitate training, and provide funding through other illegal activities like the production and trafficking of cocaine and opiates," Abadie wrote in the paper.
A native of Spain's Basque region, Abadie said he has long been interested in terrorism and related issues. His past research has explored the effect of terrorism on economic activity, using the Basque country as a case study.
Abadie is turning his attention to the effect of terrorism on international capital flows. Some analysts have argued that terrorist attacks wouldn't have much of an impact on the economy, since unlike a war's widespread damage, the damage from terrorist attacks tends to be relatively small or confined to a small area.
In an era of open international capital markets, however, Abadie said terrorism may have a greater chilling effect than previously thought, since even a low risk of damage from a terrorist attack may be enough to send investors looking elsewhere.
Related stories:
Reconstruction of Iraq holds key to future terrorism fight
KSG 'terror report' sobering
U.S. is still vulnerable to terrorism
Harvard study examines trade-offs of civil liberties to reduce terrorism risk
Survey indicates public support for racial profile screening of airline passengers if such screening reduces significant flight delays

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