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Negative public opinion seen as warning signal for terrorism

Sept. 17, 2009
Courtesy Princeton University
and World Science staff

Ter­ror­ism is more likely when one coun­try’s peo­ple dis­like the lead­ers and poli­cies of an­oth­er, a study has found.

Prince­ton Un­ivers­ity econ­o­mist Al­an Krueger and co-author Jitka Malečková of Charles Un­ivers­ity in the Czech Re­pub­lic an­a­lyzed pub­lic opin­ion polls and ter­ror­ist ac­ti­vity in 143 pairs of coun­tries. The find­ings ap­pear in the Sept. 18 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Sci­ence.

“Pub­lic opin­ion ap­pears to be a use­ful pre­dic­tor of ter­ror­ist ac­ti­vity,” said Krue­ger. The find­ing could be val­u­a­ble, he said, be­cause pub­lic opin­ion of­fers an early warn­ing sig­nal of ter­ror­ism and helps re­search­ers bet­ter un­der­stand the causes of ter­ror­ism.

Krueger and Malečková mined Gal­lup polls of res­i­dents in 19 coun­tries in the Mid­dle East and north­ern Af­ri­ca. Re­spon­dents were asked wheth­er they ap­proved of the job per­for­mance of the lead­ers of nine large, pow­er­ful coun­tries: the Un­ited States, Can­a­da, Chi­na, France, Ger­ma­ny, In­dia, Ja­pan, Rus­sia and the Un­ited King­dom. 

The opin­ions were then linked to the num­ber of ter­ror­ist at­tacks con­ducted against the nine world pow­ers by peo­ple from the 19 coun­tries be­tween 2004 and 2008. The ter­ror at­tacks were com­piled by the U.S. Na­tional Coun­ter­ter­ror­ism Cen­ter.

Krueger said pov­er­ty does­n’t di­rectly cause ter­ror­ism, con­tra­ry to a pop­u­lar view, al­though coun­tries with ad­vanced economies and well-de­vel­oped civ­il lib­er­ties are most likely to be the ter­ror­ism tar­gets.

The study does­n’t ex­plain wheth­er ter­ror­ists act in re­sponse to pub­lic opin­ion or wheth­er they are simply re­act­ing just like the larg­er pub­lic to ex­ter­nal events, he not­ed. Krueger hy­poth­e­sized that great­er dis­ap­prov­al of an­oth­er coun­try’s lead­ers or poli­cies may re­sult in more ter­ror­ist acts be­cause it in­creases the num­ber of peo­ple who pro­vide sup­port and en­cour­age­ment for ter­ror­ists, and who be­come in­ter­est­ed in get­ting in­volved in ter­ror­ism them­selves.

Ex­tend­ing the anal­y­sis, the re­search­ers pro­posed that new lead­er­ship and poli­cies in a coun­try—such as the elec­tion of Pres­ident Barack Obama in the Un­ited States—might change opin­ions in oth­er coun­tries and al­ter ter­ror­ist ac­ti­vity.


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Terrorism is more likely when one country’s people dislike the leadership and policies of another, a study has found. Princeton University economist Alan Krueger and co-author Jitka Malečková of Charles University in the Czech Republic analyzed public opinion polls and terrorist activity in 143 pairs of countries. The findings appear in the Sept. 18 issue of the research journal Science. “Public opinion appears to be a useful predictor of terrorist activity,” said Krueger. The finding could be valuable, he said, because public opinion offers an early warning signal of terrorism and helps researchers better understand the causes of terrorism. Krueger and Malečková mined Gallup opinion polls of residents in 19 countries in the Middle East and northern Africa. Respondents were asked whether they approved of the job performance of the leaders of nine large, powerful countries: the United States, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia and the United Kingdom. The opinions were then linked to the number of terrorist attacks conducted against the nine world powers by people from the 19 countries between 2004 and 2008. The terror attacks were compiled by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. Krueger said poverty doesn’t directly cause terrorism, contrary to a popular view, although countries with advanced economies and well-developed civil liberties are most likely to be the terrorism targets. The study doesn’t explain whether terrorists act in response to public opinion or whether they are simply reacting just like the larger public to external events, he noted. Krueger hypothesized that greater disapproval of another country’s leaders or policies may result in more terrorist acts because it increases the number of people who provide support and encouragement for terrorism, and the number of people interested in getting involved in terrorism themselves. Extending the analysis, the researchers proposed that new leadership and policies in a country—such as the election of President Barack Obama in the United States—might change opinions in other countries and alter terrorist activity.