The Call

Call: Global recession = more terrorism

Call: Global recession = more terrorism

By Ian Bremmer

In the Pakistani city of Lahore on Tuesday, a dozen gunmen attacked a bus carrying members of Sri Lanka’s cricket team, killing six policemen and a driver and injuring several of the athletes. Press accounts of the assault suggest a level of coordination similar to that used by the Pakistan-based militants who killed 173 people at several sites in Mumbai in September. Across Pakistan, suicide bombers killed two people in 2005, six in 2006, 56 in 2007, and 61 in 2008. Suicide attackers killed more people in Pakistan last year than in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are two important reasons why the threat of global terrorism is growing. The first is long-term and structural. The second is more directly tied to the global financial crisis. Both have everything to do with what’s happening in Pakistan.

First, a report released in December from the U.S. Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism hints at both sets of problems. The report notes an increasing supply of nuclear technology and material around the world and warns that “without greater urgency and decisive action by the world community, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”

Destructive (and potentially destructive) technologies are now more accessible than at any time in history for small groups and even individuals. This will dramatically increase the baseline threat of disruptive violence from non-state actors over time. It’s not just biological and nuclear material. GPS tracking devices help pirates operating off Somalia’s coast venture further from shore and undertake increasingly ambitious attacks on private and commercial vessels.

Second, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the “greater urgency and decisive action by the world community” called for in the report. For the moment, political leaders around the world are too busy wrestling with the effects of the global financial crisis on their domestic economies (and their political standing) to coordinate action against such a diffuse threat.

But there’s another reason why the financial crisis heightens the risk of global terrorism. Militants thrive in places where no one is fully in charge. The global recession threatens to create more such places.

No matter how cohesive and determined a terrorist organization, it needs a supportive environment in which to flourish. That means a location that provides a steady stream of funds and recruits and the support (or at least acceptance) of the local population. Much of the counter-terrorist success we’ve seen in Iraq’s al Anbar province over the past two years is a direct result of an increased willingness of local Iraqis to help the Iraqi army and US troops oust the militants operating there. In part, that’s because the area’s tribal leaders have their own incentives (including payment in cash and weaponry) for cooperating with occupation forces. But it’s also because foreign militants have alienated the locals.

The security deterioration of the past year in Pakistan and Afghanistan reflects exactly the opposite phenomenon. In the region along both sides of their shared border, local tribal leaders have yet to express much interest in helping Pakistani and NATO soldiers target local or foreign militants. For those with the power to either protect or betray the senior al-Qaeda leaders believed to be hiding in the region, NATO and Pakistani authorities have yet to find either sweet enough carrots or sharp enough sticks to shift allegiances.  

The slowdown threatens to slow the progress of a number of developing countries. Most states don’t provide ground as fertile for militancy as places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. But as more people lose their jobs, their homes, and opportunities for prosperity — in emerging market countries or even within minority communities inside developed states — it becomes easier for local militants to find volunteers. 

This is why the growing risk of attack from suicide bombers and well-trained gunmen in Pakistan creates risks that extend beyond South Asia. This is a country that is home to lawless regions where local and international militants thrive, nuclear weapons and material, a history of nuclear smuggling, a cash-starved government, and a deteriorating economy. Pakistan is far from the only country in which terrorism threatens to spill across borders. But there’s a reason why the security threats flowing back and forth across the Afghan-Pakistani border rank so highly on Eurasia Group’s list of top political risks for 2009 — and why they remain near the top of the Obama administration’s security agenda.