Monday, November 23, 2015

Is development as an enabling condition for terrorism?

Is development an enabling condition for terrorism?

Enabling conditions have been a useful framework across many academic disciplines, as moving beyond the mechanistic cause and effect framework to include more complex issues tends to better reflect observed outcomes. These have been adapted into the fields of psychology (Cheng and Novick, 1991), biology (Ruiz-Mirazo et al, 2008), and many other fields (Tinsley and Faunce, 1980; Moore and Rodger, 2010). In complex systems, concepts like necessary and sufficient and linear-styled thinking are limited, as the scales in time and space is too variable, especially when systems are coupled with social factors

With the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, resulting in over 120 deathswe can reflect on the global reach of the effects that ripple through social systems. In the wake of such a tragedy, it is important to understand the complexity of the task of identifying risks of national security, and the sensitive balance between civil liberties and the steps taken to ensure the safety of a nation's citizens. No matter where the loss of life occurs, it is a tragedy for all, both in the loss of unique individuals and all the benefits they may have brought to the world. 

Figure 1 The first image which comes up when one searches "terrorism" in Google Images. The image shows some commonalities of terrorist groups: a small group of gunman, isolated, and anonymous in silhouette (Image source:

However, it's easy to look back with hindsight, or to comment hastily with an agenda in mind. I suggest that it's potentially better to understand the root causes, or in absence of that, the enabling conditions for a terrorist group to form. In epidemiology, this is commonly referred to as primary prevention - preventing the development or exposure which causes the disease. 

It should be noted that I don't expect to break new ground with this blog post, however I think an brief overview of the research between development and terrorism is warranted. I will go through this in a few short summaries over the next few weeks. From my previous post linking global protests with networks of MNCs, we see that social movements even on a local level can have wide reaching implications, especially in densely connected networks.  

We know that the development of terrorism occurs within coupled social, economic and cultural systems, and across many contexts. Models have shown limited impact of economic development on the presence of terrorism (Piazza, 2006), although the study found that factors such as state repression, party politics, and ethno-religious diversity is more predictive.

Some have suggested that the political structures within Iraq are the dominant factor, with the former ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford stating that only a political solution which fully incorporate Sunnis into Iraq would be successful (Source: NYTimes). If the regression model above by Piazza (2006) is valid globally, the influence of political repression by states is especially important, suggesting that an inclusive culture at the federal level would help to prevent the radicalization which is one condition which can create fertile soil for more extreme ideologies to form. Similar studies have shown that the both ideologies and the amount of territorial area controlled by a group is most predictive of the projected deaths of a group. Groups that were both religious, ethno-nationalist, and controlled territory were the most likely to kill in a regression of data from 1998 to 2005 (Figure 2; Asal and Rethemeyer, 2008).

Figure 2 Predicted lethality of terrorist groups estimated by linear regression given ideology, size, and control of territory, note the lack of effect modification of the variables on projected deaths by organizational size (Asal and Rethemeyer, 2008).

This is a complex question, which might be inappropriate to answer in the length and rigor of a blog post. Knowing this, I think it could be asked again - can development be an enabling condition for terrorism? Should we search for enabling conditions for these complex problems, or it is a waste of time? Does the reflexive response to such global tragedies (including such attacks in a Kenyan mall, and many others) help or harm society? 

And one final question - do blog posts such as this one add "fuel to the fire", such as the news coverage of school shootings - do we need a constant re-framing of the news events in order to fully understand a problem (Chyi and McCombs, 2004)? Feel free to comment below. 


Asal, Victor, and R. Karl Rethemeyer. "The nature of the beast: Organizational structures and the lethality of terrorist attacks." The Journal of Politics 70.02 (2008): 437-449.

Cheng, Patricia W., and Laura R. Novick. "Causes versus enabling conditions." Cognition 40.1 (1991): 83-120. [link]

Chyi, Hsiang Iris, and Maxwell McCombs. "Media salience and the process of framing: Coverage of the Columbine school shootings." Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 81.1 (2004): 22-35. [link]

Moore, Susan A., and Kate Rodger. "Wildlife tourism as a common pool resource issue: Enabling conditions for sustainability governance." Journal of Sustainable Tourism 18.7 (2010): 831-844. [link]

Piazza, James A. "Rooted in poverty?: Terrorism, poor economic development, and social cleavages 1." Terrorism and Political Violence 18.1 (2006): 159-177. [link]

Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa, Jon Umerez, and Alvaro Moreno. "Enabling conditions for ‘open-ended evolution’." Biology & Philosophy 23.1 (2008): 67-85. [link]

Tinsley, Diane J., and Patricia S. Faunce. "Enabling, facilitating, and precipitating factors associated with women's career orientation." Journal of Vocational Behavior 17.2 (1980): 183-194. [link]

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