European Eye on Radicalization (EER) hosted its thirteenth webinar, focusing on the factors that help foster and/or bolster terrorism.
Terrorism has been high on the international security agenda for two decades and has been a prominent subject in the social sciences for half-a-century. Scholars in the fields as diverse as psychology, criminology, sociology, and religion have spent lifetimes devoted to the subject: its causes, forms, and how to combat it.
There is agreement that terrorism is not monocausal; that there are numerous external elements that allow violent extremists to prosper. Poverty and famines; joblessness and lack of economic opportunity; state fragility and repression; ethnic tensions and official discrimination; human rights violations and failures of the Rule of Law; state manipulation of terrorist groups and poorly-run prisons that allow extremism to spread: all have been advanced as contributors to the success of terrorists, and all surely play their part. But the relative weighting of these factors that allow terrorism to flourish have, and continue, to provoke intense debate.
EER would like to bring some light to this subject that often brings so much heat. The webinar will last about an hour, and our expert panel comprises:
- Alexander Lee, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rochester University, whose forthcoming book is The Cartel System of States: An Economic Theory of International Politics.
- Barak Mendelsohn, a Professor of Political Science at Haverford College and the author most recently of Jihadism Constrained: The Limits of Transnational Jihadism and What It Means for Counter-Terrorism, about which EER interviewed him recently.
- Bakary Sambe, the Regional Director of the Timbuktu Institute’s African Center for Peace Studies (ACPS) based in Dakar, Senegal.
- Isel van Zyl, the Africa Programme Lead for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) Strong Cities Network. ISD is based in London, but Zyl is based in Pretoria.
A Problem of Definitions
Alexander Lee said there are separate issues at work: namely what brings terrorist activity to a country and how that plays out in states that are otherwise at peace versus states where an insurgency or civil war is underway, and within that what it is that draws people into being recruited. These are “related, but to a remarkable extent the literatures do not talk to each other”. One significant problem is that organizations using terrorism require very small numbers of people to get noticed, as compared with a political party or an insurgent army, meaning that the literature is trying to extract broader meaning from a very rare occurrence and any socio-economic or other factors that are at play are by definition anomalous. This literature also suffers a deep problem of definitions: there are a limited number of cases where it can be agreed at an “event level” that something is terrorism, says Lee, but expanding that to define a “terrorist group” and separating out terrorism from other forms of political violence “you get into normative questions very quickly”. Lee says that his definition of terrorism would focus on situations where the state is powerful and terrorism is the action of desperation.
Barak Mendelsohn agreed with Lee that defining “terrorism” has proven extremely difficult: there is “no agreement, and no reason to think we will reach an agreement”, which creates an immediate problem in “establishing empirical facts” that in turn makes analysis and conclusions for policy very difficult and divergent. Also agreeing with Lee, Mendelsohn notes that defining a “terrorist group” is more difficult again: “Do you need one [terrorist attack to be called a ‘terrorist group’], do you need five, do you need one-hundred?” And, again, there is no universally-agreed line between terrorist and insurgent activity—not least because nearly all insurgents will use terrorism at one time or another.
Bakary Sambe pointed to problems of definition that occur between the West and, for example, West Africa, where French forces have deployed to help combat jihadism, but have focused largely on the religious dimension of these movements and the problem is far more complex, including socio-economic and political grievances, and the differences in capacities of these groups—which in itself affects their recruitment.
Means and Motive
Mendelsohn noted that the profile of people who join groups that use terrorism consistently as against those that use it sporadically, and those who join groups that govern territory as against those that do not, are very different. Even within groups this is highly various: the Europeans who went to join the Islamic State are distinct from the Iraqis and Syrians who joined or were forced to join when the Islamic State occupied their towns. In short, generalizability is extremely difficult even in the most tentative sense.
Underlining the point, Mendelsohn noted the tendency within the academic literature to look at the profiles of convicted terrorists and try to find commonalities. But the problem goes back to something Lee mentioned: terrorism is extremely rare; any feature of a terrorist identified as significant is going to be shared by vast numbers of people who have not (and will not) engage in terrorism. Poverty is an obvious case in point: there are enormous numbers of people globally who are below the poverty line, and a barely detectable percentage of them get involved in terrorism.
Isel van Zyl noted the Global Terrorism Index finding that there had been a 1,000% increase in violent attacks in the Sahel in the last fourteen years (i.e., since 2008), and points to underlying drivers as “lack of access to basic services, rapid population growth, and weak governance”. There has been some decrease in the activity of Al-Qaeda’s Al-Shabab in Somalia, but that is partly because it has consolidated control in rural areas, and it remains the case that 48% of terrorist activity takes place in Sub-Saharan African, Zyl says. Despite the deployment of regional and international security forces, and the large number of preventing violence extremism (PVE) programs, violence and instability persists.
Zyl says that “state fragility and limited governance” are “fundamental issues” that lie behind this problem, creating vacuums that violent extremists exploit. Terrorist-related incidents take place in general within fifty kilometers of a conflict zone and nearly 90% of terrorist attacks take place in countries undergoing civil strife. “Existing and perpetual fragile environments” and “weak governance” let violent non-state groups flourish by proposing themselves as service-providers for towns and villages where states cannot or will not. The state’s inability or unwillingness to give populations other choices leads them into the arms of extremist groups. The financial incentives offered by terrorist groups in countries in dire poverty act as a powerful pull factor. The poverty, lack of services, and high unemployment not only create situations where extremist groups can use money to draw in recruits, but foster resentment against the state that acts as a push factor.
Another large factor in people joining armed extremist groups in Africa is the lack of post-conflict stabilization: a lot of countries on the continent have undergone or are undergoing domestic wars, and the lack of rebuilding of infrastructure and institutions, and reintegrating former combatants, makes demobilizing violent groups difficult. This is exacerbated by the lack of support systems for those who have suffered trauma and other mental health harms.
Mendelsohn recommends inverting the question of, specifically, terrorism’s relationship to poverty: rather than focusing on terrorism as such, look on it as one of the “societal ills”—after all, the profile of somebody who gets involved in terrorism is often very similar to those who join criminal gangs, another societal ill that the state has an interest in combatting. If developing countries in particular channeled the resources currently expended on counterterrorism into reducing poverty, improving access to healthcare, the quality of education, and in general creating a situation to “allow individuals to develop themselves and reach their potential”, it would “reduce predatory behavior in society”, and if this “more comprehensive” approach was taken to solving the societal ills, suppressing terrorism would be a side-effect benefit.
Sambe similarly argued that too much Western focus—and Western-influenced decision-making in places like West Africa—leads to states engaging in military counter-terrorism measures that can degrade extremist groups, but leaves in place the conditions and context that allowed the groups to prosper in the first place. The lack of PVE policies has been a serious omission in the Sahel, says Sambe. More focus needs to go on applying policies tailored to local conditions—to solving issues like pastoralism, land apportionment, and ethno-tribal disputes—rather than applying solutions drawn from Western contexts where these problems largely do not exist.
Zyl points to the lack of responsibility taken by central governments for PVE, reintegration, and reconstruction programs as a major factor in perpetuating the conditions that allow violent extremism to remain. A lot of local civil society actors and foreign NGOs are doing parts of this work, but to be truly effective it must be implemented at a national scale. Echoing other panelists, Zyl says the lack of “broad development approaches” have hampered efforts against terrorism: the securitized approach misses what the United Nations Development program points to—namely, “poverty, unemployment, and socio-economic marginalization”—as the largest factors in terrorism’s spread in Africa.
Question and Answers
The panelists looked at some of the case studies where terrorists are drawn from more privileged sections of society and what that tells us about the causes of violent extremism; the state of the academic literature at the present time in comparison with decades past; and the role of mental health in the terrorism problem.