It’s not religion that is at the very heart of terrorism. It’s not nationalism or hatred of the United States, either. 

It’s jobs, according to Steven Koltai. Or more precisely, the lack of jobs. 

Koltai, a successful American entrepreneur who developed the world’s largest satellite television company (it operates 60,200 channels outside of the U.S.), spoke at the monthly meeting of the Midcoast Forum on Foreign Relations at Point Lookout in Northport on December 19 about encouraging entrepreneurship in developing countries as an effective anti-terrorism strategy. 

Koltai served as an advisor to the Obama State Department, where he developed an incubator program for entrepreneurs in Middle Eastern countries; he then went on to work at the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. The ultimate goal of Koltai’s program is to increase American national security.

His new book, “Peace Through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup Culture for Security and Development” (Brookings Institution Press, 2016), details the problem and provides a protocol he used on the ground with success.

The 30- to 40-percent unemployment rate among young men from Yemen to Egypt is the key driver of terrorism in the Middle East, according to Koltai. Without work, many young men cannot marry or establish a home of their own. In short, they cannot grow into men. They become frustrated, angry, and are impressionable, he said, making them ripe for recruitment as jihadis. 

I saw this social dynamic myself when I?reported from the region 10 years ago. In Jordan, young, college-educated Palestinians with perfect English sold knick-knacks to the few tourists wandering around Roman ruins. Since they had jobs, they were the lucky ones, but they were smart, ambitious and educated. The young men were hungry to talk about English literature, psychology, world history, political theory, computer science. They wanted to go to Europe or America and would have been satisfied with professional opportunities right there in Jordan, but said opportunity stopped right there at the street stall. Frustration rose off them like steam from a boiling tea kettle. 

By contrast, the 26-year-old Palestinian man who owned  the internet cafe business in a damp rented room at the back of a dingy alley in the old part of Amman was looking forward. His business was two years old and was busy even late at night when I?went to file my stories. He had two part-time employees, had married, his wife kept the books, and they had a son. The computers were old and his internet connection very slow, but he was always willing to help when the system was unresponsive and he knew what to do. He was preparing to expand to a second location.

Koltai’s 2016 book connects the statistical dots between youth joblessness, jihadist recruitment, and terrorism that has exploded in the Middle East and spilled over to its geographic edges and into Europe and the United States. 

(Notably, unemployment among young women in the Middle East wasn’t measured, probably because they don’t tend to get recruited, according to Koltai.)

Koltai said the U.S. now spends just “one percent of one percent” of our annual budget on entrepreneurship development overseas — less than Germany, the UK, and Canada. Even though we haven’t fought our way out of the terrorist threat, the money has gone mostly to war.  Since 2001, the U.S. has spent $2.5 trillion fighting in wars that upended the region, sent youth unemployment soaring, and prompted eight million refugees to flee. They are now destabilizing Europe, said Koltai. 

Koltai said some U.S. money needs to be diverted to more effective tools. Structural reforms in how U.S. aid is managed and dispersed are also required, he said.  

A complete overhaul of the inefficient U.S. Agency for International Development is at the top of his list, followed by reforming the private-contractor procurement process (it favors large companies with legal teams who can decipher federal legalese), combining development programs that are currently inefficiently spread across too many federal agencies, and coordinating government, university, and business international aid efforts.

This is not high-overhead product-development entrepreneurism as much as it is low-tech process development, said Koltai. Nor is it trickle-down economics; it’s trickle up; a process that starts with, for example, a single flower seller in Indonesia. With guidance, that flower seller learned how to ship, with a resulting 10-fold increase in business. The number of gardeners supplying that flower vendor has increased 50-fold as a result.

“One entrepreneur can result in hundreds of workers and thousands of people affected,” said Koltai. “There is no limit to the potential.”