US State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf has been placed on the defensive for saying that the "root cause of [ISIS and other] terrorism… is poverty and lack of opportunity." She has not backed down, however.
She first made the statement in an interview on MSNBC, later strengthened it in an appearance on CNN, and responded to Twitter criticism with a tweet of her own.
Speaking last Monday with Chris Mathews on MSNBC, Harf said, “We cannot win the war on terror, nor can we win the war on ISIS, by killing them. We need to find them jobs. We need to get to the root cause of terrorism and that is poverty and lack of opportunity in the terrorist community.”
Shortly afterwards, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer invited her onto his show to explain herself, and she re-emphasized that "lack of economic opportunity" is something that much be changed so that "young men in that vulnerable age group [are given] a different path in life." She even quoted former President George W. Bush as having "talked about poverty being one of the drivers leading people to extremism."
Harf did attempt to backtrack in the course of the interview with Blitzer by emphasizing that "good governance" is needed in the countries where ISIS terrorists flourish. However, when Blitzer noted that "some of the best-known terrorists out there came from wealth and privilege, with higher education, degrees, whether Mohamed Atta or bin Laden himself," she said, "Absolutely. And, look, countering violent extremism takes on a variety of different ways…"
Ultimately, Harf took to Twitter to further explain herself and reiterate that the U.S. needs a different strategy: “Point is that pols across spectrum, military cmdrs, & CT experts all agree strategy needs to address conditions that allow extremism to grow,” she wrote on Tuesday.
Liberal MSNBC columnist Steve Benen wrote that "condemning Marie Harf’s comments is pointless. She articulated a vision plenty of officials, in both parties, have presented many times – a forceful confrontation with terrorists in the short term, coupled with a more comprehensive approach that prevents terrorism in the longer term."
The Clarion Project ("Challenging Extremism, Promoting Dialogue") explained why criticizing Harf's comments is actually far from pointless.
"Study after study has proven that there is no connection between Islamist terrorist recruitment and poverty, unemployment and lack of education," writes Clarion's National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro. "This was the conclusion of a survey of 400 Al-Qaeda members all the way back in 2004, as well as the determination of a Queen Mary University survey published last year."
"Simple observations and basic logic falsifies this Marxism-rooted theory that terrorism is basically the result of class warfare and social inequality," he added.
"The issue here isn’t the errors made by Harf," Mauro wrote. "It’s the fact that this discredited premise continues to permeate the national security apparatus, over a dozen years after the 9/11 attacks… Harf is just the face of a government stuck on autopilot."
Harf was a Middle East analyst for the CIA and national security communications advisor to President Obama during the 2012 campaign.
Mauro concludes: "This episode [is] about a policy where the U.S. government publicly grasps for straws to find any explanation for the Islamic State other than Islamic extremism. And, even more disappointingly, Harf and other top policy-makers actually believe easily discredited theories and use them to accomplish that counterproductive objective."