Book Review: Failed States and the Origins of Violence, A Comparative Analysis of State Failure as a Root Cause of Terrorism and Political Violence, by Tiffiany Howard


By: Martin Meeùs
Terrorism and other forms of political violence are more present than ever in modern societies but are unequally spread around the globe. Why are some regions of the world “terrorist factories” while others are more moderate? In the view of Failed States and the Origins of Violence, by Tiffiany Howard, the FARC, Somali Al-Shabaab militants, Al-Qaeda, and the Tamil Tigers have at least one common characteristic: they were born in failing or failed states.

Howard’s study addresses the lack of consensus regarding the environmental conditions and breeding grounds that give rise to terrorism and political violence. To do so, the author tries to tackle the absence of empirical and quantitative research in the field. Her central hypothesis is that failed states are the roots of terrorism and political violence. The author insists on the novelty and uniqueness of her study, given her use of the “Global Barometer Project” to examine the reasons why certain individuals are more inclined to use political violence than others. Contrary to other macro-level studies on terrorism, not only does the author explain how weak states contribute to terrorism but also which precise features of these states encourage terrorist activities. Additionally, this study is not only descriptive but also predicative. Based upon her descriptive analysis, the author tries to determine which regions will be more inclined to give rise to terrorism and political violence in the future. The author makes ambitious predictions and goes as far as stating that sub-Saharan Africa may witness an uncontrollable level of violence never before seen.

In the first part of the book, Howard deconstructs all major existing studies on the subject of terrorist origins. She then discusses different world regions, beginning with the part of the world that encompasses the greatest number of failed states: sub-Saharan Africa. According to Howard, it is an ideal start to support her hypothesis. The second region discussed is the Middle East and North Africa, since it is the region most plagued by terrorist groups. She continues with South Asia and Southeast Asia, regions that are in-between in terms of failed states and terrorist groups. Finally, Latin America is discussed as a region that encompasses few failed states compared to the regions addressed but where violent extremism is still present.

For the four regions discussed, the author tries to empirically prove her hypothesis that failed states are breeding grounds for terrorism and political violence. The same precise and methodic approach is used in all four chapters dedicated to the four regions. First, she introduces the region at stake, its history of political violence, and the current situation. Then, she describes the variables used in order to apply her hypothesis to the particular region. These variables, which include the level of political violence, the presence of the state, or the level of security, are based upon interviews and specific questions asked of members of the population of the analyzed region. After that, she presents a logit model, which is a form of mathematical equation that evaluates the probability for individuals of each country to commit acts of political violence. Finally, she applies the logit model to the data and discusses the findings in the form of statistical results. In other words, she applies barometer survey data to logit models in order to assess the link between the failure of the states and the level of political violence.

Howard shares novel and interesting views. She argues that the promotion of democracy, modernization, and religious freedom in these regions should be addressed through state building rather than on individual bases. Regarding Islam, Howard states that there is nothing in the religion itself that favors radical ideologies and terrorism. Rather, the reason why Al-Qaeda, ISI, the Muslim Brotherhood, Fatah, or Hamas perpetrate acts of political violence is not related to the nature of Islam but rather to the inability of the governments to provide economical and social goods as well as security. Radical Islam is born with the failure of states and as a result of a repressive political climate and lack of economical development. Howard further argues that the use of political violence by an individual against Western societies and the United States, in particular, implies the support of political violence in his own state.

Thus, Howard makes interesting assumptions and hypotheses that merit discussion. However, the process employed by the author to reach these conclusions is difficult to understand. Indeed, the methodology she uses, which focuses on statistics and mathematical equations, is indigestible and unpersuasive. The reader is overwhelmed by variables, data, and numbers. Ultimately, the reader finds himself asking: is it really possible to address the relationship between state failure and terrorism through interviews that have been transformed into numbers and applied to mathematical equations?

When statistical findings do not entirely support her hypothesis, Howard tries to correct the discrepancy with more dogmatic and idealist arguments. She invokes the complexity of the states, possible cultural exceptions, or the fact that the sample used for interviews may not be representative. These are indeed crucial factors to take into account, and that is precisely the problem of this study. These are the questions that the reader wants to ask at the end of all chapters, for every region discussed. Are data from 2006 still relevant to address terrorism in South and Southeast Asia in 2014? Is a sample between 750 and 1,300 respondents from countries in the Middle East and North Africa sufficiently representative to construct a theory of the states? How can one reduce such complex societies to a couple of logit models? There are very few data sets available and the author tries her best to take the most out of them. But human sciences cannot be reduced to mathematical equations and confined to statistical data. The work is certainly unique, but the Howard’s desire for empiricism is too great and she fails to convince.

Buy Failed States and the Origins of Violence: A Comparative Analysis of State Failure as a Root Cause of Terrorism and Political Violence(affiliate link)

Martin Meeùs is a Belgian L.L.M. Candidate at Berkeley Law. He is a student contributor for Travaux.


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