Panel Paper: Getting Even – an Econometric Analysis on Inequality's Role in Driving Islamist Terrorism in Nigeria

Monday, April 10, 2017 : 2:35 PM
HUB 268 (University of California, Riverside)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Etienne Rosas, Pardee RAND Graduate School
Does economic inequality drive terrorism? The “War on Terror” is for the Middle East what, in a certain sense, the “War on Drugs” is for the Latin America. Both protracted conflicts with heavy U.S. military involvement have resulted in mass casualties, heightened ideological extremism and internal regional destabilization. The fiercely violent backlash, both internal and external, can be interpreted as the consequence of militarily closing off social pressure-release valves, as drugs bring wealth to impoverished communities and insurgencies bring power to otherwise marginalized groups. In the eyes of many who view themselves as oppressed, Western powers have always funded oppressive terrorist organizations; they just don’t terrorize the Western world.

Although macro-level quantitative analyses have repeatedly shown that factors such as socioeconomic status and inequality are poor predictors of violent extremism, a 2014 econometric study by Ted Enamorado et al. looking at drug trafficking organization violence in Mexico as it related to regional economic inequality shows that inequality at the regional or micro level has a strong causal relation to drug-related homicides. The study suggests that drug traffic and the violence associated with it is the mechanism by which groups or individuals attempt to correct economic inequality and redirect wealth towards their own people: forgotten, impoverished and ignored communities. While drug traffic is essentially a business, the culture surrounding it, glorifying violence, martyrdom and lavish wealth attained through these means, seem to highlight that it is also a discourse of upheaval and rebelliousness against a system or government that has disregarded and/or maintained marginalization. How does this relate to terrorism? The economic motives are not the only ones at play in an individual’s decision to partake in drug trafficking and related extreme violence, suggesting that inequality may drive individuals because of the heightened sentiment of unfairness and opportunity to do something to correct their situation, as much as deprivation.

A remarkably similar dynamic may be at play when it comes to terrorists and would-be terrorists, especially in light of new reports of recruits who show violent pasts long before their “islamization”. Applying econometric analysis in Nigeria (home of the influential terrorist group Boko Haram) in a similar fashion to Enamorado’s study, this study will attempt to determine if extremist-related deaths or incidents (or incarcerations which can function as a proxy for extremism prevalence) are similarly explained by economic inequality. This will answer the following: 1) whether inequality has a strong unambiguous causal relation to terrorism, 2) whether we can parallel studies of the “War on Drugs” to the “War on Terror” in the nature of their conflict and social implications and learn from policies and approaches applied in each, and 3) bridge a gap in conflict literature which often separates terrorist phenomena from civil war and other insurgency struggles. Additional to the approach, we will use process tracing methods to qualitatively describe the mechanism whereby inequality or other social determinants have an effect on extremism and terrorist cells’ evolution, and provide policy prescriptions based on this analysis.