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The economics of religion and terrorist organisations (Part 1)

It's been a week since I went to the first of two seminars on the economics of religion and terrorist organisations by Professor Larry (Laurence R.) Iannaccone (of George Mason University). GMU's Mercatus Centre has an interesting list of Working Papers Index that may bear further investigation. (Language Note: "Mercatus ("mer-KAY-tus") is the Latin term used to describe the activity of markets, trade, and commerce.")

Prof. Iannaccone was billed as "a prominent United States economist and an expert on the economics of religious extremism and terrorism", and had been asked to speak at two seminars about:

"How to run a Terrorist Organisation—Economic perspective on the organisation—why do people join and how do they keep loyalty"

"Economics of Religious Extremism and Terrorism—links to radical religious organisations—link to terror—underlying causes of terrorism"

in both cases introduced by Dr Paul Oslington, Senior Lecturer, School of Business, Australian Defence Force Academy and committee member of the Canberra Branch of the Economics Society of Australia.

Iannaccone's time in Australia, specifically Canberra, was at the instigation of and funded jointly by the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University and the Charles Sturt University St Marks National Theological Centre, Canberra, and an "economics and religion group".

Before I get into discussing what was said, the interested reader might perhaps like to scan Iannaccone's paper "The Market for Martyrs (203kB PDF)" (December 2003). So far as I can tell, he relied on it (as could be expected) for the seminars. It is useful, if you wonder why people would offer themselves as a martyr (aka "suicide bomber", etc).

The topic for the first seminar was "How to run a Terrorist Organisation—Economic perspective on the organisation—why do people join and how do they keep loyalty".

Iannaccone began by setting a classic economic Supply v Demand setting for the terrorist organisation model:

Supply = those who sacrifice

Demand = those who benefit

    but noting that suicide...
  • rarely benefits groups that participate (as they get the opprobrium of the governments and the masses);
  • does not benefit innocent bystanders;
  • benefits society only in that it instantly increases 'consumption' for a brief period (funeral costs, etc).

    The suicide Market:
  • demand is the key;
  • is hard to get started;
  • is hard to shut down, once started, especially from the supply side (e.g. bombers);
      policies leading to substitution (new source of supply of suiciders):
    • give rise to increased recruiting to bombing
    • lead to special groups that lead to an adequate supply
    • give rise to un-usual and dysfunctional groups

Iannaccone briefly discussed the rise of extreme groups (cults) in the USA and Europe in the 1960s-70s, with similar attributes, strategies and problems to what is seen today. Examples included the Moonies. He typified them by their bizarre beliefs and practices, saying that society's concerns were mostly greatly exaggerated even though the phenomenon was real, and that the research that was conducted mirrors modern interest in suicide bombing.

    He added that:
  • the recruits were typically normal in all respects
  • conversion was:

    • rare, unless the people were weakloy tied to outside contacts and practices;
    • through pre-existing social networks (hence, barriers to recruitment are normal);
    • a process of repeated social interactions over time
    • they tend to ‘convert themselves’
    • there is ‘high motivation’
    • significant doubt will still exist
    • significant defection (leaving) will occur over time, up to 100% in some groups
    • psychological problems for people who leave were caused MAINLY by ‘violent extraction’ (families using ‘experts’ and ‘deprogramming’)

    The insights out of this are:
  • the literature has lessons for us now;
  • emphasis “social profiling” (rather than personality profiling);
  • exploit doubt, disillusionment and disaffection;

Please watch for the next installment.


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