Where in the World Is It Safe from Terror?

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What creates a wide open space for terrorist groups in the 21st Century? It’s extreme economic distress, including massive unemployment, particularly among the youth population. It’s governments run by money-hungry fatcats, who tax and borrow like there’s no tomorrow, who steal and plunder the nation’s scarce wealth, and who give little more than crumbs back to the people. It’s gaping socioeconomic divides or deep ethnic-religious fault lines with a long history of segregation, discrimination, and class warfare.

On this train, crossing the Andes while a leftist revolution was raging in Chile in 1970, I learned some important lessons about safety and danger that I want to share with you today.

But first, I have some urgent questions for you and every investor in America:

Is the United States a sitting duck for the revolutionary zeal and horrors of the Islamic State?

Where in the world is it still safe to invest?

Which places and countries are the most vulnerable to the kind of turmoil that terror can create?

In my own family, we’re not particularly fearful of random dangers. But we’re now asking these questions before we make any new investment, before we plan a trip, or whenever our thoughts turn to loved ones and friends far from home.

I sometimes think of investing in real estate overseas. I want to go back to the northern Sahara or on a safari in East Africa. How dangerous would that be?

Our son, Anthony, lives in Tokyo; my brother, in central Brazil; my sister, in a mountainous resort region of Costa Rica. I have friends and acquaintances in Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Mozambique, Pakistan, Russia, China, and the Philippines, to mention a few.

For each situation, my mind gravitates to a kind of spur-of-the-moment rating scale: Definitely safe. Maybe not-so-safe. Could be dangerous soon. Downright dangerous right now.

Earlier this year, quiet suburban areas in the United States were in my “definitely safe” category. Now, since the San Bernardino attacks, that category simply doesn’t exist anymore. No matter what populated area you go to in the world today, the best we can expect is “probably safe.”

But let’s face it: This off-the-cuff guesswork doesn’t cut it. What we need are tough questions and fact-based analysis.

What Makes a Country Vulnerable
To Terror in the 21st Century?
 

The most objective answer actually comes from the World Bank, which compiles a series of governance indicators on almost every country. They measure the degree to which citizens have a voice in government, the level of political stability and absence of violence, the rule of law, the control over corruption, and more.

For a single metric, I feel the most reliable is an indicator they call “government effectiveness,” which directly goes to the quality of services that the government provides and indirectly reflects the quality of the government overall.

On their scale, the government that they consider to be the most effective and benevolent in the world (Singapore) gets a ranking of 100; the government that’s the most chaotic and repressive (Somalia) gets a ranking of 0. Think of it as a test of the country’s overall stability and vulnerability to turmoil.

Some might argue that the primary factor leading to terrorism is not instability but rather Muslim extremism. I would argue that the instability comes first. Then, it’s that instability which opens the door to extremism.

I think the sheer existence of Saudi Arabia helps support my argument. It’s the Arab country which has the most extreme Muslim government in the world, based on strict Sharia law, but it’s also among the most stable (for now), getting a not-so-bad governance score.

Just last week, for example, 51 Saudi citizens were sentenced to execution by decapitation and crucifixion. All according to Sharia law.

Their “crime”?  Participating in a street demonstration.

What’s even more shocking is that three were minors, including one boy who was just 15 years old at the time of the incident and whose parents insist he was an innocent bystander arrested by mistake.

Opponents of the executions hoped that intense diplomatic pressure from two staunch Saudi allies — the UK and the U.S. — might persuade judges to lighten the minors’ sentences. But the response from Riyadh is, in essence: “It’s none of your business. We don’t meddle in your independent judiciary; don’t you meddle in ours!”

Meanwhile, in parallel with Sharia law, the Royal Family has consistently showered much of the population with lavish benefits, financed with some of its vast oil wealth.

It’s a powerful carrot-and-stick combination that, not surprisingly, helps Saudi Arabia rank high in some areas: Despite the abject cruelty of Sharia law, the government gets an effectiveness grade of 62 from the World Bank, among the higher scores in the Arab world.

The state has a monopoly on terror. There’s virtually no space for anti-government terrorism. And despite some isolated attacks, local extremists have gotten practically zero traction with the population.

What, then, does create a wide open space for terrorist groups in the 21st Century?

Fuel for Revolution

My answer should not surprise you: It’s often the same kinds of rot and kindle wood that fed the fires of revolutionary movements in Latin American countries in the last century:

It’s extreme economic distress, including massive unemployment, particularly among the youth population.

It’s governments run by money-hungry fatcats, who tax and borrow like there’s no tomorrow, who steal and plunder the nation’s scarce wealth, and who give little more than crumbs back to the people.

It’s gaping socioeconomic divides or deep ethnic-religious fault lines with a long history of segregation, discrimination, and class warfare.

Martin Weiss traveling around Latin America with his family, circa 1949.

 

I have personally witnessed all of this from an early age. Starting in 1949, I lived or traveled in nearly every country in Latin America. I saw the wretched, cruel conditions that existed — even in some of the most literate countries, like Cuba, which later succumbed to guerrilla leader Fidel Castro; and even in some of the wealthiest, like Venezuela, which succumbed to later-day leftist, Hugo Chavez.

Similar conditions are vividly present in the Middle East today.

That’s a key reason why the U.S. enterprise in Iraq was such an unabashed failure.

That’s mostly what gave rise to the so-called “Arab Spring” of youth protest movements that began in late 2010, the “Arab Winter” of civil strife that soon followed, and the terrifying spread of the Islamic State that we’re witnessing today.

And, alas, that’s also why the upheavals may have barely begun: The on-the-ground conditions that breed them are only getting worse. And those same conditions are by no means limited to the Arab world. Indeed …

If we can make a strong case that the Middle East was vulnerable to terrorism and extremism due to its divisive economic conditions, we can make an even stronger case for vast regions of Africa and Asia.   

In Sub-Saharan Africa, at least 15 countries — with a combined population greater than America’s and an area almost as large as China’s — score far lower on critical economic and social indicators than Iraq and Syria ever scored.

In fact, not long ago, for political refugees and economic migrants fleeing the region, the “wealthy and stable” Libya ruled by Lockerbie bomber mastermind Muammar Gaddafi was considered “a choice destination.”

Consider Nigeria, where the increasingly powerful Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram is on a heinous, murderous rampage that has killed 22,000 and displaced  than 2.3 million people, more than any other terrorist group. The central government gets an effectiveness score of only 11.5, among the worst in the world.

Or, if you think that’s bad, what about the huge, newly independent nation of South Sudan, where the government itself leads wild rampages of rape and pillage. It gets a lowly score of 0.5. Along with Sudan to the north (score — 1.5), it could be one of the next major targets of the Islamic State or its affiliates.

I won’t subject you (or myself) to reading (or writing) about the unthinkable horrors gutting the body, mind and soul of the once-proud peoples of those collapsed or collapsing nations. Suffice it to say that it helps explain why any alternative, even the Islamic State, may appear less repugnant to certain suffering populations than it does to you or me.

Meanwhile …

In South Asia — including vast areas of Pakistan, southern India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — the metrics of despair are also extreme.

India, despite all its progress and modernization, still gets a below-par government effectiveness ranking of 45.2. That may be accurate as a national average. But it belies the egregious greed of politicians in the impoverished southern regions, where the Maoist People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army is estimated to have between 6,500 and 9,500 armed cadres.

The governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh, both massively populous Muslim countries, rank even lower, at 22.1 and 21.6, respectively.

Now do you see why the spread of the Islamic State has been so rapid and so brutal?

To better understand exactly how, let me walk you through the four stages of the Islamic State’s global expansion …

Stage 1. Testing the Waters

Here’s an overview of the Islamic State’s tactics in countries that it has not yet penetrated:

Its leaders, based primarily in Syria, seek to inspire or direct random terrorist attacks on soft targets — restaurants, theatres, markets, individuals. 

Their goal is to radicalize jihadists and instigate lone-wolf attacks. Those attacks, in turn, are designed to provoke governments to over-react, to generate public anger, and to prod retaliation against minorities, especially against Muslims or certain Muslim sects. Their deliberate strategy is to create a climate of fear, which naturally transforms itself into a caldron of hatred.

If they get what they want, they may dedicate more resources to the target country. If not, they mostly move on (despite some random efforts to generate headlines of symbolic value). Here are three prime examples:

Australia: Just over one year ago, a lone gunman held hostage 10 customers and eight employees of a chocolate café in downtown Sydney. This came on the heels of Australia’s first terrorist attack in modern times, when a jihadist stabbed police officers in Melbourne. But thanks largely to Australia’s stellar rankings on all the key stability factors, there have been no major attacks since.

United States: A 12-year period of relative calm was first shattered in a big way when two brothers from the turbulent Caucuses region of the Russian Federation exploded two pressure-cooker bombs during the Boston Marathon of April 15, 2013. The San Bernadino shootings came nearly 30 months later, killing 14 and injuring 22.

Fortunately, neither event has been linked to an organized terrorist group based in the United States, and there’s no evidence — yet — that such a group even exists. Moreover, the U.S. government, despite gridlock and excessive influence by lobbyists, boasts a very good effectiveness ranking of 89.9 (just behind Iceland’s 90.9 and the United Arab Emirates’ 90.4).

As we’ve seen, this doesn’t preclude random terrorist attacks on innocent people. But it does make it relatively more difficult for the Islamic State to recruit or establish a foothold in the United States.

On the other extreme is …

Bangladesh: One week after its lethal Paris attacks, the Islamic State boasted that its “soldiers” had also been murdering targets in Bangladesh and would “continue to terrorize the crusaders and their allies until the rule of Allah is established on earth.”

But it was nothing new. Muslim extremists in Bangladesh — from both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — have been killing or maiming local writers, foreigners, police officers, Shia Muslims and clerics for many months.

They recently murdered a Japanese farm expert in northern Bangladesh. They killed an Italian aid worker in Dhaka’s diplomatic zone. And they hacked to death secular Bangladeshi bloggers.

According to the Financial Times, this means that Bangladesh may have joined Afghanistan and Pakistan as a major new Asian battleground for the Islamic State.

They’re right. Bangladesh has more people than Germany and France combined. It’s the eighth most populous country in the world. The government sets the “national poverty level” at a miserably low $2 per day, and still 26% of the population fall below that level. Nearly half of the nation’s children — 48% — are malnourished. And as I said earlier, on a scale of zero to 100, its government gets an effectiveness grade of 21.6.

Don’t be surprised if it becomes the launching pad of the Islamic State in South Asia.

Stage 2. Establishing A Foothold

The initial testing of the waters is supported by powerful media efforts and begins to get some real traction. It spurs a significant number of local passport-carrying citizens to travel to Syria for jihadist training. And in many cases, it helps encourage pre-existing terrorist groups to pledge their support to the Islamic State. Examples:

Philippines: Radical Islamist groups have carried out over 40 major bombings against the majority Christians, government officials and foreign visitors going back as far as 2000.

Just through the year 2007, long before the Islamic State proclaimed its existence, the attacks had already killed or injured nearly 2,000, many more than the casualties caused by terrorist attacks in Indonesia, Morocco, Spain, Turkey or the U.K. combined.

Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamist group based in the southwest of the country, has led an “insurgency for an independent province” for 24 years. It has engaged in kidnappings, assassinations, extortion, rape, drive-by shootings, drug trafficking, and even child sexual attacks.

It was responsible for the country’s worst-ever terrorist attack in 2004, bombing a ferry and killing 116 innocent people of all ages. And 10 years later, on July 23, 2014, it declared its allegiance to the Islamic State.

The government’s effectiveness score is on the good side (61.5, just a half point below Saudi Arabia’s). But as in India, the services are far inferior in the south, where the terrorists are based.

Russia: A major boost to Vladimir Putin’s popularity — and his growing stranglehold on the country’s levers of power — has been his two “victories” in wars to defeat separatist rebels in Chechnya, one of the Russia Federation’s southern republics.

But Putin’s victories came with a great price: From the ashes of Chechnya’s bombed out capital and countryside, there arose a die-hard movement of anti-Moscow Islamic extremists.

It would later brand itself as the “Caucasus Emirate,” operating not only in Chechnya, but also in nearby Ingushetia, and Dagestan (where the Boston marathon bombers originated).

The Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility for bombing the Nevsky Express high-speed train between Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2009 … the Moscow Metro in 2010 … Moscow’s Domodedovo International airport in 2011 … the mass transport system of Volgograd in Southern Russia in 2013 … and many more civilian targets. Just since 2010, over 3,000 have been killed and nearly that many wounded on both sides.

In more recent years, the group was believed to be on the decline. But just six months ago, the Caucasus Emirate declared its allegiance with the Islamic State, which, just two days earlier, had announced the formation of a new “Caucasus Province.”

All this has mostly symbolic value. But here’s what really gives the Kremlin nightmares: An unknown — but probably large — number of Russian-speaking Chechen jihadists have joined the Islamic State on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. These Chechens have built a reputation as the most skilled and tenacious fighters. They have risen into the higher echelons of the Islamic State’s leadership. And now, they’re starting to flock back into the Russian Federation to mount a whole new wave of terrorist attacks against innocent citizens.

Russia’s government effectiveness score: A middle-of-the-road 51.4, but again far lower in its rebellious Muslim republics, where the corruption and abuse of power make Moscow’s governance shine by comparison.

Stage 3. Infiltration and Invasion

The Islamic State sends members of its top leadership to the country. They take control of strategic territories, even some major cities. They incorporate other local terrorist organizations under their single banner. And they begin to form the basis for a state within a state — a cancer deliberately designed to metastasize and spread.

We see this happening in Egypt, where the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, already operating in the Sinai of Egypt for several years, have mounted a series of strategic attacks against government forces — and now, with the downing of a Russian civilian airliner, against foreign “crusaders” as well.

Egypt’s government effectiveness score: 20.2, a point and half below Bangladesh’s.

Another important case study: Yemen, where the Islamic State competes with al-Qaeda to exploit the chaos of civil war waged between Iran-inspired Shiites and Saudi-supported Sunnis. When forced to choose between deadly chaos under the government and a Draconian “calm” under jihadists, you’d be surprised how many people, whether educated or not, opt for the latter.

Yemen’s government effectiveness: a bottom-of-the-cesspool score of 7.2.

Also probably in this relatively advanced Stage 3 is Afghanistan, where the Islamic State is attracting a growing number of Taliban who, after 12 years of battlefield misery, are now fed up with their leadership and angered by its willingness to negotiate with the government.

The government’s ranking is 8.2, one step above Yemen’s. But imagine trying to assign a score to the governance of Taliban, the Islamic State’s current target in the country.

Stage 4. Territorial Conquest and State Building

The Islamic State takes control over large parts of the country. It conducts regular military operations. It imposes Sharia law. It rewrites school curriculums with an extremist Islamic overlay. And it integrates its newly conquered territories into a semi-organized “economy” with centrally planned taxation and budgets.

I have already described this to you via the eyes and ears of my Internet friend in Mosul, Iraq. (See “Four Shocking Truths about ISIS.”)

A similar pattern is being replicated in Syria and Libya. And much has been written about how the governments in all three countries are in various stages of collapse.

Suffice it to say that Iraq’s government effectiveness score is 13.9, which is a lot worse than Bangladesh’s. Syria’s, at 6.7, is worse than Yemen’s; and Libya’s, at 2.9, is worse than that of Sudan, widely criticized for its rampant, bloody atrocities.

The bad news: This may not be the final stage.

The worse news: Even if the U.S. and its allies finally cave to the mounting political pressure to send in ground troops against the Islamic State, and even if they “win” the wars for Syria and Iraq, the terror cancer cells will simply go elsewhere — to one or several of the countries now in Stage 3 or Stage 2.

The good news: Much of the world is not vulnerable to anything beyond Stage 1.

All of North America, nearly all of Western Europe, plus much of East Asia and Latin America have good or excellent government effectiveness scores.

If you’ve traveled to some of these countries, it shouldn’t surprise you: I told you about Singapore at the top of the world with a score of 100. In addition, Switzerland is 99.5; Hong Kong, 98.1; Netherlands, 97.6; Japan, 97.1; Norway, 96.6; Denmark, 96.2; Canada, 95.2; Germany, 94.7, and so on. 

When you live in countries with efficient government services and polite government bureaucrats … and then spend some time in countries where they can’t even keep the lights on, you can feel the difference in your sleep. And you can see, first hand, how important this is for the quality of life and the relative safety from terrorism.

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