There is a pervasive belief that poverty is a key driver of terrorism. American foreign aid increased under George W. Bush, justified partly by security concerns. Bush said at the time, “We work for prosperity and opportunity because they’re right. It’s the right thing to do. We also work for prosperity and opportunity because they help defeat terror.” Similarly Bill Clinton has stated “we have to create more opportunity for those left behind by progress, thus reducing the pool of potential terrorists.”
This framing of poverty and development as national security issues continued with the Obama administration. In Obama’s reckoning “our security and prosperity depend on the security and prosperity of others.” As the head of USAID put it: “On the logo of USAid, it says ‘from the American people.’ but our work has to be seen as ‘for the American people.’ Development is a fundamental part of our national security. It is extreme poverty which creates the long-term drivers of our insecurity.”
Yet prosperous Western nations are themselves now exporters of Jihad. The combination of Saddam Hussein’s rule and America’s sanctions had plunged Iraq into penury, yet the country produced fewer terrorists under Saddam than Britain, for example, has in recent years. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 by the British-born Omar Saeed Sheikh, who had left the prestigious London School of Economics to become an aid worker in Bosnia. In 2003 two British Muslims bombed a Tel Aviv bar. An investigation by the BBC found that at least 32 British citizens have travelled to Somalia to fight with the terrorist group al Shabaab.
In 2006 London’s then-Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair talked of “young, reasonably affluent, some reasonably well-educated British-born people” who were “prepared to commit suicide and murder thousands of people at the same time.” The Daily Telegraph reported in 2011 that America’s security-focused foreign aid was not just being spent in the world’s impoverished regions – America had launched its own programme to tackle home grown extremism in Britain. The head of the State Department’s counterterrorism office offered the US Embassy in London $50,000 for counter-extremism programmes.
And now American journalist James Foley has been decapitated by what is presumed to be a British citizen. While European politicians have, like their American counterparts, worried about the security implications of the destitute of the third world, their own countries have been “breeding grounds” for terror. Over 2,000 jihadists have descended on Syria and Iraq from across Europe to join al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State, and other extremist groups. One British man fighting with the Islamic State recently told CNN “I grew up in a middle class family. Life was easy back home. I had a life. I had a car.” Fighters have also travelled from Australia, Canada and the United States.
The ability of rich Gulf countries to finance terrorist networks is more dangerous than any impoverished failed state. Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, Stuart A. Levey, has written of the “deep-pocketed donors in the Arabian peninsula and beyond” as being “the backbone of al Qaeda’s financial support network.” In WikiLeaks cables then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton refers to Saudi Arabia as “a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups.” Donors in the country “constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Kuwait is described as a “source of funds and a key transit point” for terrorist groups while Qatar is a “fundraising locale” for Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The U.S. Army’s Field Manual 3-07 states that “The greatest threats to our national security will not come from emerging ambitious states but from nations unable or unwilling to meet the basic needs and aspirations of their people.” With the massively increasing military expenditures of China and the current situation with Russia, this statement sounds slightly absurd. People have been travelling from the richest countries in the world to kill people in some of the poorest. Poverty is a moral problem, not a security one.