When I was in grade 13 – which in my day was the last year of high school in the province of Ontario, which I suppose just underscores how old I really am – I remember taking an exam in functions and relations, one of three mathematics options at the time (calculus and algebra were the other two). I had been a very good math student in grade 12 but was struggling with the more nuanced divisions we were exposed to. I did not help matters much when on an exam question worth a lot of marks I wrote the first line down wrong. Instead of 2x I wrote -2x. The rest is history (a subject I later did much better at!).
When you start from an erroneous assumption everything that follows is equally, or more, erroneous. An initial error forces you to make choices that lead you further and further from a correct answer. Instead of going back to first principles and questioning the basis for your belief, you continue on blissfully unaware that all your work is for nought.
I thought of that day back in 1978 when I came across an article on a new piece of research on terrorism. One of the authors is Dr. Valerie Hudson, a political scientist at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, who appears, at least according her website, to have specialised in gender studies and foreign policy. She does not have a background in terrorism, at least not from what I could see. More on that later.
According to Dr. Hudson, one of the main driving forces behind the decision to join a terrorist group is an inability to get married because the man cannot afford the ‘bride price’ (in many countries the male or his family has to pay the bride’s family to enter into a marriage contract). Apparently, bride prices have been skyrocketing in places like Nigeria and Sudan, there is a lot of terrorism in both countries, ergo there is a link.
Before I go further I must confess that I have not read the paper written by Dr. Hudson and her graduate student, so I don’t have access to all her data or hypotheses. But I can make some generic comments based on my own experience and knowledge of radicalisation and terrorism. And I can go as far as to say this study is very unconvincing.
In the article where I saw a reference to her research, the very first line is a good example of a wrong assumption that leads to bad hypotheses. That line is “Terrorism experts have long known that poverty is a factor in tempting young men to join radical terrorist groups, but what about bride prices?” Actually, very few credible terrorism experts see poverty as a significant factor in terrorism and have known that it is not for decades. As a result, the notion that we are missing a crucial driver to explain why men join terrorist groups is unfounded.
Furthermore, and again I have not seen all the data so I apologise if I get this wrong, Dr. Hudson’s hypothesis seems to be based on a n=1, an interview with the one survivor of the 2008 Mumbai attacks whose family couldn’t buy him a wife but the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayba could.
Even I know that a study based on a data sample of n=1 is not a good start. Dr. Hudson further states that “Virtually all societies that produce terrorists are societies that pay bride price.” So what? Virtually all societies that ‘produce terrorists’ – which by the way is every country on this planet so I am not sure what this shows – are found within 20 degrees of the equator, so maybe it is the heat, and not the inability to purchase a partner. Or maybe it is the fact that these countries have lots of people so it might be overcrowding. Or maybe since they are all ex-colonies it is all the West’s fault. Or maybe because lots of them end in the letter ‘a’. Do you see how unhelpful this line of reasoning is?
It gets worse in my opinion. Dr Hudson states ” it’s time to treat this as a factor in explaining instability and terrorism” and says it time to collect data on this link. Then she holds up Saudi Arabia as a model to emulate since the Kingdom helps young men – and young jihadis – pay for wives. Two things there: is Saudi Arabia REALLY a model for other countries to follow given that it is their distribution of hateful Wahhabi material that in large part got us to this point in the first place, and secondly, wouldn’t it be better to get rid of bride prices once and for all (for all kinds of reasons beyond its inherent unfairness to and discrimination against women)?
What really worries me though is that yet again someone is confusing correlation with causation. I saw nothing in the very brief article to suggest that the failure to pay a bride price leads an otherwise normal young man to embrace terrorism. We have to stop looking for simplistic solutions to a complex problem. So while I do not want to discourage those with no real background in terrorism from looking at it, the research does have to be meaningful. Alas, this work is not.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting. He worked as a strategic analyst in the Canadian intelligence community for over 30 years, including 15 at CSIS, with assignments at Public Safety Canada and the Ontario Provincial Police. He specializes in radicalization and homegrown Al Qaeda/Islamic State/Islamist-inspired extremism. He has spoken to audiences about terrorism across Canada and the US and around the world. firstname.lastname@example.org