Understanding and combating terrorist groups: Is it all a matter of economics?

It’s easily drowned out by daily reports of military actions against extremist militant groups around the world, but there’s one weapon that’s being quietly deployed to counter organized religious violence: research.

Eli Berman, professor of economics at UC San Diego and research director for International Security Studies at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, is both an economist and a terrorism authority. His on-the-ground research in terrorism hot spots worldwide has provided insight into how groups such as Islamic State are able to wield such power. Berman’s findings have helped inform plans of action for development, military and other personnel in regions affected by extremism.

Economics and the study of terrorism might appear incongruous. But Berman, a combat veteran in the Israel Defense Forces, sees economics as crucial to understanding religious violence.

“Today we think that any ‘rational’ choices people make are fair game for economists to study,” Berman said. “In the days after 9/11, I suspected that we could do a better job of dealing with terrorists if we thought of them not as psychopaths from B-movies but as rational actors,” he added. “That intuition has turned out to be supported by our empirical research, which I’ve been able to subsequently carry out with the help of superb colleagues and some very gifted and resourceful postdoctoral scholars and graduate students here at UC San Diego, and in the Empirical Studies of Conflict project.”

Rational choices — and cash

The connection between motivations and behaviors isn’t the only insight economics can bring to the war on terrorism. There’s also economics in its simplest sense: the money fueling the movements.

“Terrorists rely on robust and organized systems of financing. … We must understand how they do this in order to derail their efforts,” said Farah Pandith, former special representative to Muslim communities at the U.S. Department of State and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Whatever their mechanism — oil, drugs, antiquities, slaves — it is working for them.”

Berman’s 2009 book, “Radical, Religious and Violent: The New Economics of Terrorism,” explores the relationship between economics and religious militancy.

“Berman’s book uses an innovative approach to draw startling conclusions about both religion and terrorism, particularly at their intersections,” said Randall Law, associate professor of history at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., and author of “Terrorism: A History.” “Perhaps the most startling thing is how much insight he can provide into so-called ‘religious terrorism’ while barely taking into account the theological content of religions.”

Filling a gap in services

Berman hypothesizes that groups like the self-styled Islamic State, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban gain loyal followings in part by providing benefits to their communities — for example, systems of governance that fill a vacuum in states where official governments aren’t providing adequate services to their people.

“Controlling contested territory is very difficult without the consent of residents. So all rebels, be they religious or secular, provide some services to noncombatants,” Berman said. “Those services could be arbitrary, corrupt, discriminatory, extortionary and otherwise repugnant, but the key is that all they need to do is be of higher quality than the competition is offering. For [Islamic State], the competition is the Syrian or Iraqi governments, who set a very low standard.”

Gathering data on the ground

Field research is key to bridging the gulf between academic study and the realities of organized religious violence in places like Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, according to Berman.

Years of on-the-ground study by his team in locales ranging from Northern Ireland to Uganda and Afghanistan, where he camped out with NGOs and U.S. forces, have spawned actionable advice for development and military practitioners. For instance, Berman has figured out how to combine project assistance (such as building roads and schools) with the provision of security to both reduce violence and improve economic and humanitarian conditions in regions impacted by religious terrorism.

“Since 9/11, the academic work around terrorism has increased tremendously. We have so much more information about the backgrounds, motivation and ecosystems that sustain violent ideology,” said Pandith of the Council on Foreign Relations. “We must have data to prove things are happening and to develop proactive ways to deal with the ideological threat.”

Paul Rogers, Tribune Content Solutions

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