Officials from across the country and religious figures from around the world just are wrapping up Washington for the White House’s Countering Violent Extremism Summit, a three-day event on combating terrorism. One of the topics being discussed is how aid can best be used to turn would-be supporters away from terrorist networks. For some time now, the U.S. has deployed a development-driven “soft power” campaign to undermine the sort of desperation many believe leads to terrorism — but new evidence suggests that socio-economic status is a poor indicator of how likely someone is to support terrorism.
“We do have to address the grievances that terrorists exploit, including economic grievances ,” President Barack Obama said in a televised statement at the Summit. “Poverty alone does not cause a person to become a terrorist, any more than poverty alone causes somebody to become a criminal.”
“Terrorist groups are all too happy to step into a void. They offer salaries to their foot soldiers so they can support their families. Sometimes they offer social services — schools, health clinics — to do what local governments cannot or will not do,” Obama added. “So if we’re going to prevent people from being susceptible to the false promises of extremism, then the international community has to offer something better.”
A high proportion of young people in volatile and violent countries, plus a dearth of economic opportunities, has long been considered a tinder box for extremism. In 2014, Obama announced an expansion of entrepreneurship, education, and youth programs, because, he said, “these investments are the best antidote to violence.”
And big investments have been made: USAID noted that more $300 million is spent each year on international youth programs, according to a 2012 report from the agency.
But employment, education, and economic opportunities don’t necessarily keep would-be terrorists from taking up arms, according to a new report by the Portland-based development organization, Mercy Corps.
“Terrorism is not just job-seeking by another name. It’s driven by deep-seated problems and personal frustrations in that society,” Keith Proctor, the Mercy Corps policy researcher who authored the report told ThinkProgress in a phone interview.
“There are millions and millions of young people living in poor and violent countries,” he added. “A very small percentage of them actually join an armed movement so [the reason] has got to be something other than poverty.”
Mercy Corps researchers spoke with thousands of former militants and militant sympathizers in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Colombia to understand what causes people to join violent extremist groups.
“Contrary to the assumption that idle youth who aren’t able to make a licit living are fodder for these [extremist] groups, what we’re finding is that it’s really about the social situations that they’re facing,” Proctor said.
The forces that lead them to militancy, he said, include experiences of injustice, discrimination, marginalization, corruption, or physical violence, such as being beaten by police or security forces, or being faced with the killing of a family member.
“I did not join the Taliban because I was poor,” a 23-year-old former militant fighter told Mercy Corps researchers. “I joined because I was angry.”
Why was he angry? Because the Islamic school, or madrassa, where he used to study was destroyed in the U.S.-led surge to clear the area of militants five years ago.
“It was where the young people studied. It was where we all came together. It was the center of my village,” the young man said.
A sense of being wronged – and without a source of meaning in his life – pushed him to join ranks with the Taliban.
Strong feelings of injustice trump economic factors for those who decide to take up arms.
Mercy Corps has seen that firsthand through INVEST, a program it runs in the restive capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
It offered vocational training to more than 22,000 students in the region. The program helped young men and women set up small toiletries shops, and become mechanics or seamstresses. The program drove down prices for goods and services, and gave the majority of participant’s income increases or new jobs, but it didn’t make them any less likely to support terrorist groups.
“Though most graduates are economically better off, INVEST did not result in a measurable drop in support for armed insurgents,” the Mercy Corps report noted.
Vocational and entrepreneurial development programs don’t necessarily cause a decline in sympathy for militancy – and they may even exacerbate the factors that push people to side with militant groups.
“Development money and aid money certainly can exacerbate problems of corruption,” Proctor said. And a sense of not having a fair shot at schooling or employment can increase sympathy for extremists who often promise that they will win justice for those within their ranks.
Proctor suggests programs to combat terrorism should focus on combating the underlying issues that actually fuel militancy like corruption, injustice, and poor governance instead of offering economic rewards through vocational and educational training programs.
These findings don’t necessarily apply to those radicalized in Western countries, however. Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, the gunman who opened fire on a café and synagogue in Copenhagen this weekend was a promising student before he dropped out. The ISIS executioner dubbed “Jihadi John” for his British accent is believed to hail from an affluent area of London.
Still, Proctor said, the two are not completely divorced from the factors he identified as ones that cause people to turn towards extremism.
“I think it’s fairly universal that when young people do not enjoy meaningful opportunities in their lives, and are alienated from the societies around them, and when they have grievances that go unaddressed, that they are going to be more at-risk for joining the kinds of movements that we’ve been seeing in the news recently,” he said.