Terrorism comes with more than one cost

Let’s call terrorism what it really is: political violence. Terrorism as a concept only became widespread in the 1960s – after the advent of mass media. Before then, acts of politically inspired violence were routinely described as bombings, assassinations, hijackings and so forth. It is impossible to find a recognised definition of what terrorism is. In the US, international terrorism is “any act intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping”. The US has a separate definition of domestic terrorism. In Saudi Arabia, terrorism is defined as “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”.

Terrorism is a contested concept. My terrorism is not yours. Terrorism is an object of the media – used to connote drama, excitement, condemnation, and immorality. Terrorists are by definition bad people, people who are not like us. Greenpeace used to be terrorists in the eyes of the Japanese, for example. But we all know what political violence is. So let’s stick with that.

We know what people who are motivated to commit political violence do: they use force against people who aren’t typically soldiers to inculcate fear, in order to achieve their social and economic objectives. Despite the harrowing images of the 130 people murdered in Paris – and without wishing to diminish this tragedy in any way – it is important to note that 97 per cent of all deaths from political violence in the last 10 years have occurred outside western countries, in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Mali, and Nigeria. The recent bombing in Ankara killed 102 peace activists, for example.

For a place like Nigeria, where the north of the country is effectively controlled by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group, political violence strangles all economic activity. It is damaging the fabric of their society.

Economies cannot function effectively when a part of the country is subjected to extensive violence. In Nigeria, 46 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. The average Nigerian can expect to live to 52. Their main industries require large amounts of foreign direct investment.

In this context, the economic effects of Boko Haram are enormous. Foreign direct investment flows into Nigeria dropped by 42 per cent between 2012 and 2014.

In Mali – where as I write this, 10 gunmen armed with grenades have taken 170 hostages inside a Bamako hotel – the economy supports 17 million people on about €3 a day each. The effect of political violence there is to force a schism between the poorer north and richer south of the country. There, foreign direct investment has fallen 66 per cent from 2012 to 2014.

The victims of political violence experience huge increases in uncertainty about the future. Why are we being attacked? What will happen next? This increase in uncertainty leads to reductions in investment and changes the climate, both close to where the attacks occurred, and further afield. So, for example, after the September 2001 attacks in New York, vacancy rates increased massively in the three most distinctive Chicago high-rise buildings – the Sears Tower, the Aon Center and the Hancock Center – and their vicinities, than in other areas of the city. A perceived level of threat was enough to affect these buildings 800 miles away from Ground Zero.

The outcomes of political violence are complex. Political violence hurts the perpetrators of that violence almost as much as those who are attacked. Looking at the Palestinian conflict, Efraim Bemmelech and colleagues found that there were substantial effects on the perpetrators of political violence. They found that successful attacks caused unemployment to rise by 5.3 per cent, as well as reducing the number of Palestinians working in Israel by 6.7 per cent. The bombers are harming their own communities through their actions.

Who is more likely to commit acts of political violence? Harvard’s Alberto Abadie looked carefully at where this violence originates. Youth bulges and demographic pressures are important. Poverty does not cause political violence, nor are those engaging in it psychologically abnormal relative to the rest of the population. Abadie’s striking finding was that religion was not an important factor. In fact, transitions from authoritarian regimes to democratic regimes were most strongly associated with increases in political violence. Geographic factors are important to sustaining political violence.

The research points to the influence of the West in creating the ‘transition’ conditions for the rise and spread of political violence. Where effective state controls break down, and an established order falls, what rises to fill the power vacuum is not always a virtuous institutional structure. In fact, it never is. There is no solution to Isis or Boko Haram without understanding the simple premise that bombing more people fleeing the violence, or restricting their asylum in the West, will not work. Peace-building activities, conciliation, dialogue, and negotiations work. We know this because we live in Ireland.

If Isis is a radicalisation programme, an anti-radicalisation programme will help reduce its impact, domestically and internationally. But our leaders would rather send fire and swords than ploughshares to deal with threats to their security.