As the narrative has it, the millions of poor, unemployed youths living in camps and peripheries worldwide are a fertile recruiting ground for militant ideologues seeking manpower. But that narrative may need debunking — with new research suggesting that anger, more than hunger, is to blame.
The radicalization of marginalized youths, who have been enlisted globally — from Afghanistan and Colombia to the suburbs of Paris and Minneapolis — is at the forefront of the national security agenda for many countries.
On Wednesday, US officials will sit down in Washington to discuss once again how to counter the effective recruiting strategies of militant groups around the world — tackling challenges like winning the narrative war on social media and building partnerships with religious leaders — as part of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.
But a report released today by global aid agency Mercy Corps suggests that governments and analysts still understand little about what exactly drives the world's youth to join armed insurgencies and terrorist groups. It also indicates that more than poverty and unemployment, it's the experience of injustice that triggers the decision for many, coupled with exposure to corruption, humiliation, and violence.
"For a long time there has been an 'economics of terrorism' narrative that suggested that young people join terrorist groups because they don't have meaningful employment, they lack opportunities, and therefore they're a ready pools of recruits for al Qaeda," Keith Proctor, the report's author, told VICE News. "Essentially the narrative suggested that terrorism is really just job seeking by another name. We didn't think that was right."
The group set out to test the narrative by conducting both quantitative research and surveying youth in three countries currently mired in conflict. In Afghanistan, Somalia, and Colombia, the researchers found that the "jobs argument" didn't hold, Proctor said.
"What we found is that unemployment status is a very poor predictor of whether a person is going to join an insurgent group or not," he added. "A far better predictor is the experience of injustice, discrimination, marginalization, being on the receiving end of corruption, and experiences of physical violence and being abused by police, security forces, or having a family member killed. All of this, of course, is not to say that no one has ever joined a terrorist organization or armed militia because they needed food, but it's just generally not the case."
"If poverty and unemployment were driving terrorism, there would be a lot more terrorism," Proctor said. "There are millions of people living in poverty — why aren't more of them joining armed movements? The fact is that most young people are peaceful. They want a future, and they're often optimistic in spite of their circumstances."
Dignity Not Dollars
The so-called "youth bulge" theory, which correlates societies with mushrooming youth populations with those most prone to conflict, violence, and terrorism, has long been a favorite among war pundits and officials, and one which has fueled anxieties about millions of — mostly black and brown — "idle" youths around the world. These youths are often described as a "ticking bomb" ready to be radicalized, and assumptions about them have shaped policies across the board, from investment and education to criminalization and surveillance.
Unraveling the myth matters because that's what informs governments' responses to the phenomenon, Proctor said. This includes the allocation of millions in foreign aid to programs with questionable relevance to the root cause of the problem — mostly short-term economic reintegration initiatives that fail to address broader frustrations and sometimes even exacerbate them, he said.
"It's not jobs, it's injustice," Proctor said. "Future efforts to try and address this problem really need to start with a pretty hard look at what we're funding, why we're funding it, and what we need to change."
Part of the problem lies with the structure of most aid agencies and their emphasis on short-term progress reports and "burn rates" — spending large amounts of money, and spending it quickly — often with little input from local residents, including youth themselves, on what's actually needed.
"The way that we do aid and development, it can help a lot if we're smart about it and targeted, but it can also hurt a lot," Proctor said, adding that the focus should be on "making sure our efforts are informed by young people and led by young people, not treating them as recipients of development rather than partners in the process."
But there's also such a thing as too much aid.
In Afghanistan, for instance, billions in aid has often contributed to corruption, abuse, and government illegitimacy that has only further fuelled the anger and alienation felt by many of the country's young, the report found.
While these circumstances are often connected, it's corruption, nepotism, and discrimination that often triggers the violence, not mere poverty and joblessness.
"Those are not things you fight against," a young Afghan man told the report's researchers.
"I did not join the Taliban because I was poor," said a former militant who joined the group when he was 18, following a NATO strike on his school. "I joined because I was angry. Because they wronged us."
Circumstance Not Ideology
Ideology also has a lot less to do with radicalization than with the mere coincidence of one's exposure to violence, the researchers said.
Where youth chose to join one armed group over another, "often geography and personal history were more important," Proctor noted.
"In Colombia, for example, we found that the reason why they joined one armed group over another was not necessarily because of ideology, but because that armed group happened to be in their neighborhood," he said.
The report overwhelmingly found that the recurring thread in the "triggering factors" that drove the surveyed youths to join militant groups is anger. And while the Mercy Corps focused on youth in conflict zones, the same psychological factors may also apply to the radicalization of youths in Western Europe and the US, where again alienation — not poverty — has regularly proven to be a trigger, the researchers said.
Thousands of young men and women have flocked from Europe and North America to join the ranks of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in recent months. Many are second-generation immigrants, often lacking their parents' connections to their countries of origin, yet marginalized in their own. Poverty was rarely found to be a determining factor, and some have actually reportedly come from relatively privileged backgrounds — like the British Islamic State fighter known as "Jihadi John," who became an executioner for the caliphate, but who grew up in an affluent London suburb.
"It's hard not to see parallels even in Western, developed countries, particularly among groups of people who are marginalized in some way, or feel disconnected and alienated from the society around them," Proctor said. "We need to find meaningful opportunities for young people to participate in their communities, to feel a part of the society in which they live, and also to address their grievances, which in many cases are very legitimate."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi