Campus & Community

KSG takes close look at terrorism

7 min read
Joseph S. Nye
Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. voiced concern that the nation might already be beginning to relax and forget the lessons of Sept. 11. (Staff photos by Stephanie Mitchell)

The link between terrorism and global poverty isn’t as clear as many initially thought and may not exist at all, panelists said at a two-day conference (May 3-4) at the John F. Kennedy School of Government that sought real-world suggestions on how to cut terrorism off at the roots.

“Undermining Terrorism: New Concepts and Policies for an Interdependent World” brought together Harvard experts on terrorism, government, and international affairs and put their ideas before about 200 invited guests. The Harvard experts and attendees worked together in smaller sessions to hash out several practical suggestions.

The suggestions ranged from promoting women in leadership positions around the world to increasing security around weapons-grade nuclear material to making software manufacturers liable for security gaps in their products.

The conference came as Congress worked on homeland security legislation that would create a new Department of Homeland Security, which would incorporate the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Customs Service, the Coast Guard, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The legislation would also create a White House director of the National Office for Combating Terrorism.

The recommendations were presented on Saturday (May 4) to Adm. Steve Abbott, deputy director of the Office of Homeland Security, who delivered the conference’s closing address.

Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers delivered the lunchtime keynote speech on the conference’s opening day. He posed a series of questions to attendees that he hoped would steer discussion in a fruitful direction and stimulate further discussion both at the conference and in the broader University community. Summers urged attendees to focus on causes of terrorism, specifically those that can be changed, and to address the ethnic stereotyping and prejudice that can lead to ethnic violence. He also said he thought the influence of poverty on terrorist organizations may be less significant than many believe and suggested that the true roots might be a feeling of alienation from the global community.

“We need to understand the roots of [terrorist hostility]: disaffection, a failure to feel included. I suspect that thinking about fostering a broader sense of community, though difficult, is more important than increasing material [wealth],” Summers said.

Summers urged the group to evaluate the vulnerable points of terrorist organizations – its leadership, for example – which, if removed or changed, could render them harmless.

The conference sessions featured a variety of Kennedy School faculty and included smaller group gatherings where specific ideas and proposals could be discussed. Kennedy School Dean Joseph S. Nye Jr. kicked the conference off Friday morning (May 3), by challenging those attending to get some work done, not just sit back and listen.

Nye said he was concerned that the nation might already be beginning to relax and forget the lessons of Sept. 11. He said it is important that reforms begun after Sept. 11 continue if future attacks are to be prevented.

Reiterating themes in his recent book, “The Paradox of American Power,” Nye said it is important for the United States to consider the implications of acting unilaterally in a world where the nation may appear to be dominant but where the Internet, the communications revolution, and globalization has diffused power.

One of the results of modern technology, Nye said, is the “privatization of war,” which puts the ability to cause violence on the scale of Sept. 11 – which used to be reserved for national governments – in the hands of terrorists.

“In the 20th century, if you wanted to kill lots of people, you needed a government apparatus to do it. In the 21st century, that power is in the hands of deviant groups of individuals,” Nye said. “The lesson of Sept. 11 is that events in poor, weak countries halfway around the globe mean very much to us.”

The opening panel discussion highlighted the complexity of the problem. Different panelists talked about the mindset of the terrorists, economic considerations, and political issues.

Jessica Stern, lecturer in public policy, said the driving force behind terrorism isn’t so much economic deprivation as perceived economic deprivation, coupled with perceived humiliation and hopelessness. While those negative factors might influence some to join terrorist ranks, the groups themselves often project a certain allure. The societies where terrorist groups arise view them as prestigious, giving members and their families added stature in the community.

Though religion is sometimes a founding cause for terrorist groups, over time, it becomes just another tool leaders use in recruiting. Because different people are motivated by different things, savvy leaders use a variety of inducements, Stern said, from financial incentives to posthumous fame to the emotional security of being part of a group.

Robert Lawrence, the Albert L. Williams Professor of International Trade and Investment at the Kennedy School, said he had no simple answers to the question as to whether poverty is linked to terrorism. While terrorist leaders tend to come from professional classes and money is important to the groups’ operations, the foot soldiers are often poor and the organizations need failing or failed states – which are often poor – in which to set up shop.

Still, Lawrence said, relatively wealthy nations, such as Britain and France, have terrorist organizations, and some very poor countries do not. Lawrence said we may actually find that terrorism will increase as poorer nations develop economically and its citizens are freed from the daily struggle to survive.

“I don’t believe we ought to try to keep people poor, but we need to keep in mind that this is a complex relationship and policies we pursue are as likely to foster periods of disruption as they are to solve the problem,” Lawrence said.

But talk of economics may be misdirected, according to Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, who said he believes terrorists are, at their root, politically driven organizations fighting national separatist wars, civil wars, and colonialism. Allison pointed to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s vision of a greater Islamic state incorporating several current nations and his desire to get U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia as evidence that Al Qaeda is no different.

With terrorist organizations dependent on failed states for their home bases, Michael Ignatieff, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and professor of the practice of human rights policy, said creating a network of strong, capable governments around the world that can crush major groups that set up shop on their home turf might be the best answer.

He said the end of the Cold War was accompanied by a burst of nationalist movements that created several new nations, only a few of which have been viable.

“We came into the ’90s with an acceleration of globalization, accompanied by an epidemic of state failures … of which Afghanistan was the poster child,” Ignatieff said. “The only control we have on terror is more global networks of capable, legitimate states that can crush illegitimate organizations of violence.”

As Israel is finding out now, Ignatieff said, the best guarantee for security is to have neighbors that are strong nations. The Palestinian Authority, he said, is a failed state.

“This is what the Palestinian Authority has become. Because the PA is unable to meet the needs of its population, it’s decided to meet its frustrations,” Ignatieff said. “It’s the most dramatic example I know of how a failed state can become a security nightmare. Good states need strong neighbors, not weak neighbors.”