How bribes create terrorists

Members of the Houthi movement in Yemen chanted slogans during a funeral procession last month for comrades killed during clashes with presidential forces in Sana.


Members of the Houthi movement in Yemen chanted slogans during a funeral procession last month for comrades killed during clashes with presidential forces in Sana.

What stokes terrorism? There are lots of explanations, many of which focus on macro forces, like the politics of fundamentalist Islam and the uneven distribution of rewards in market economy. This past Friday at the Boston Athenaeum, Sarah Chayes offered a surprisingly different explanation: Terrorism, she argued, is an outgrowth of the daily humiliations that arise in corrupt countries.

Chayes is the author of a new book, “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” based on her experiences as an NPR correspondent and an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She says it’s hard for Americans to appreciate how pervasive corruption is in terrorist hotbeds like Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan.


“It’s everywhere you turn, and that includes doctors and teachers,” she says. “You’re a young man in a place like Egypt, this happens to you once, twice, three times, you feel humiliated and frustrated, you have no recourse, and that drives people to extremes.”

Chayes criticizes the US government for not paying enough attention to what she sees as the central role of corruption in the terrorism-related conflicts we’re engaged in. “At Foreign Service, there’s no mandatory instruction on how corruption works,” she says. “Our intelligence agencies do not collect or analyze intelligence about corruption.”

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:
Our conservative columnist offers a weekly take on everything from politics to pet peeves.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

This view of corruption might seem to absolve the US of any role in the creation of terrorists — instead of our drone strikes or capitalist values, blame falls to the petty dealings of traffic cops and autocrats. But Chayes argues that’s a nearsighted take. “We are seen as enforcing and enabling these corrupt governments,” she says.


Inside the files of the Islamic State in Iraq

108 terrorist memoirs, analyzed


The Internationalist: The jihadi hunters

2011: Inside the hard drives of the terrorist group that preceded ISIS

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.
You're reading  1 of 5 free articles.
Get UNLIMITED access for only 99¢ per week Subscribe Now >
You're reading1 of 5 free articles.Keep scrolling to see more articles recomended for you Subscribe now
We hope you've enjoyed your 5 free articles.
Continue reading by subscribing to for just 99¢.
 Already a member? Log in Home
Subscriber Log In

We hope you've enjoyed your 5 free articles'

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week
Marketing image of
Marketing image of