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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.AP/file

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.”

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.


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Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at