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Does a Nation's Wealth Fuel Terrorism?

Looking back to a 2008 study for some answers in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.
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A French rally after Wednesday’s attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. (Photo: Valentina Calà/Flickr)

A French rally after Wednesday’s attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. (Photo: Valentina Calà/Flickr)

Wednesday’s horrific attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French newspaper, has renewed that age-old question once again: How does this keep happening?

Brothers Said and Chérif Kouachi—currently on the run from authorities—are suspected to be the culprits. They also, according to the New York Times, were already known to French intelligence services, as Chérif was arrested in 2005 for trying to join the extremist fight against American troops in Iraq. So, looking at this from a broader perspective, what are the national conditions most responsible for breeding terrorism?

The fact that this attack took place in the relatively politically and economically stable France underscores a study by the National Science Foundation in 2008 that can provide some helpful clues. Led by Harvard University public policy professor Alberto Abadie, researchers found that the root cause of terrorism is political freedom and geography—and not, as so many claim, poverty. Digging through over 1,700 terrorist acts that occurred in 2003, the majority of which were domestic acts, Abadie found no substantial link between national wealth and terrorism. Instead, he saw a relationship between politicalfreedom and terrorism.

"Nations with very high or very low levels of political freedom tend to experience little terrorism,” Abadie wrote in a press release at the time.

Abadie urged nations to pay more attention to political freedom as a facilitator for terrorism. Oppressive regimes like North Korea, he argued, eliminate political dissent through totalitarianism, while countries like Iraq—transitioning, as he put it, between high and low levels of political freedom—prove to be more ripe for terroristic activity.