Sarah Chayes, a former foreign correspondent for U.S.-based National Public Radio and The Christian Science Monitor, has seen firsthand how corruption in developing countries can fuel terrorism, when individuals who have suffered as a result of official graft feel they have no other recourse but violence. In her latest book, “Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” she explains how corruption is the common thread woven into the worst security situations around the world -- from Nigeria to Afghanistan and beyond.
Chayes spoke to RFE/RL’s Afghan Service Correspondent Farishta Jalalzai for Lady Liberty about how militants turn the failings of corrupt governments to their advantage and what Western leaders should do to combat it. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Lady Liberty: How did you first discover just how deeply intertwined corruption and terrorism are?
Sarah Chayes: It was on the ground in Afghanistan, where I saw people becoming more permeable to the Taliban’s message, as they became more and more outraged at the corrupt practices of their own government. Extremist movements can make the argument that the reason this police officer demanded a bribe from you, or, and it can get really bad, the reason this judge raped your sister is because they are apostates, and if only our government were really implementing religious law, they couldn’t behave this way to you.
If you look at the revolutions of the Arab Spring and their aftermath, and more recently the revolution in Ukraine, which was more specifically an anti-corruption revolution, you can see the consequences of corruption. Just as I saw the expansion of the Taliban in Afghanistan as an expression of people’s indignation at the Karzai government, I saw the same with the expansion of ISIS in Iraq. People were so distraught at the way the Al-Maliki government was capturing every resource in their country that they decided there’s almost no difference between their government and ISIS. That’s the direct connection between corruption and security challenges that I’ve been seeing around the world.
Lady Liberty: And are the terrorists winning with this argument?
Chayes: I’m afraid at the moment the narrative the terrorists are telling people--‘we are clean and good and we are going to avenge the abuses of these kleptocratic and humiliating governments’--is a powerful narrative that a lot of people are responding to. All we have to do is look at Iran to see that when radical Islamist groups come to power, they are no less corrupt than the secular governments they replace.
But when you’re a young man in northern Nigeria and you’ve just been smacked in the face by a police officer because you didn’t want to give him a bribe, you’re going to be angry and you’re not going to make an in-depth study of comparative political history before you join Boko Haram. So long as Western governments continue to finance and side with and fight for these kleptocratic governments, we will see terrorists continue to gain ground, unfortunately.
Lady Liberty: So what should Western governments do?
Chayes: The question is where do these people put their money? I bet the corrupt Afghan politicians don’t keep their money in Afghan banks. There is money from Nigerian corruption in London. Are American and British politicians courageous enough to take on the economic interests in their own countries that are making a killing on corrupt money? I know it sounds counterintuitive to say we need to look at property records in New York if we want to catch terrorists in Iraq, buy that’s what I really think needs to happen.
Lady Liberty: But going beyond security concerns, this is also a moral question. Is there any room for morality in Afghan politics?
Chayes: We’re living in a period where money is valued above almost every other ideal. It has corrupted our politics, or personal relationships, and it’s very dangerous to society.
Politics in south Asia are seen as a dirty business. But I would take the massive turnout in the first round of the last elections in Afghanistan as a sign that it’s not how people want it to be. If they thought it was irrevocable, they wouldn’t have voted.