The Journey to Extremism: What drives people on the path to violence?

Organization: Secretariat of the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law

What drives people to join extremist organizations in Africa? Over the past decade, the number of attacks attributed to extremists have grown immensely, both in number and in geographic scope. Military and security approaches to limiting extremism have not achieved sufficient results, necessitating research into underlying causes and drivers to understand the attraction of extremist groups. To this end, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) produced a broad study titled Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment, in which they explore the factors that push people into extremism on the basis of more than 700 interviews conducted with former members of extremist groups and others in regional hotspots like Somalia and Nigeria.

Together with UNDP and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Platform organized the Dutch launch of the report at de Balie on 25 October. To watch the discussion, click here.

Mohamed Yahya, Africa Regional Program Coordinator at UNDP, took the stage to outline the motivation behind the report as well as its most interesting findings. The report compares the personal journeys to extremism undertaken by interviewees with others from similar environments and backgrounds who have not chosen the path to extremism to see why certain individuals choose the path they take.

The study found that recruitment mostly takes place in poverty stricken borderlands, often further from the reach of central governments. In general, those recruited are characterized by lower degrees of education, both secular and religious. While about half of those surveyed joined for religious reasons, they often lacked basic knowledge of scriptures, illustrating the effect that conduits (recruiters, who often provide for their recruits) have in creating a religious underpinning for violence. Recruits joined to fulfill personal needs: primarily employment and personal security, but also to further their education or to find a husband or wife. Their recruiters were often people in localized networks: friends, acquaintances, family members.

Among almost all respondents, most of whom were between 17 and 26 years of age, confidence in (state) institutions was very low. The lack of provision of basic resources, opportunities and services by governments greatly impacted these negative perceptions. Consequently, government actions were often a tipping point for recruits to commit to violence: state responses, often undertaken through heavy-handed approaches by security forces, accelerated recruitment for more nearly three quarters of those surveyed. As noted by Hester Somsen of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, improving state-citizen relations should be a primary focus of development work.

The panel took in and discussed other approaches to extremism. The report showed the necessity of creating exit pathways for those who have joined extremist organizations. Without an opportunity to leave and to reintegrate into societies they have harmed, there is not incentive to escape. Ilwad Elman, of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, described resocialization projects in Somalia where former members of al-Shabab tried to re-establish trust between themselves and their community by rebuilding police stations that had been destroyed as a result of extremist action.

All parties agreed that the messenger is as important as the message. It is best to use locals, particularly those who have lived the same experiences, to target the roots causes of extremism – especially where faith in institutions is minimal. Continuing to measure, evaluate, learn lessons and adapt programs, using knowledge gleaned from reports such as this one, is crucial to reducing harm and ultimately preventing extremism.

To watch the full discussion, follow the link above.

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