Countering Violent Extremism: Motivations for Joining Violent Extremist Groups in Sub-Saharan Africa

Peter Wineman, Lynx Fellow 


Though it existed much earlier, since 2001 and the start of the modern Global War on Terrorism, countering violent extremism has become a key objective of many governments in both developed nations and the developing world. Consequently, identifying the causes and motivations for why youth join radical movements is critical in defeating them. For violent extremist groups such as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, the causes for the radicalization of young (mostly) men to violent extremist causes are often less about religious fervor and have more to do with social, political, and economic factors. Nonetheless the current fight to counter violent extremism is centered on defeating religious extremism and while that is undoubtedly a factor, the groundbreaking study Journey To Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment by the United Nations Development Programme found, “more than ½ of voluntary recruits cite religious reasons for joining an extremist group, yet 57% of respondents admit that they either don’t read or have little to no understanding of the religious texts or interpretations.” [1] This begs the question if not religious fervor, what other factors may be more consequential in leading vulnerable youth to join these extremist groups?

            To answer this question, UNDP uses data from surveys conducted in Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia, found that economic factors, specifically lack of employment was “the most frequently cited reason” [2] in the decision to finally join Boko Haram or Al Shabaab. Further, they found “55 % of the voluntary recruits express moderate to severe frustration at their economic conditions” prior to joining an extremist group. [3] To uncover the economic incentives that lead to radicalization, Martin Ewi and Uyo Salifu, writing for the Institute for Security Studies in Money Talks: A Key Reason Youths Join Boko Haram, found “the general or popular perception among respondents was that people are motivated to join Boko Haram because of financial rewards.” [4]

Directly linked to economic prospects and the ability to read and critically understand religious texts or sermons are literacy rates and levels of educational attainment. Prior to discussing the data surrounding this factor, it is important to note that both educated and uneducated people decide to join radical violent extremist groups. This highlights the spectrum of members within an extremist group, meaning the radical cleric, bomb maker, suicide bomber or young recruit who agreed to shoot up a local police station in exchange for money all have different levels of engagement and loyalty to the cause. Therefore, as Ewi and Salifu argued, we cannot say lack of education is the primary factor in radicalization and “was certainly not a major or decisive factor in influencing people’s decision to join.” [5]

In regard to the early stages of radicalization, in Africa unlike other regions where internet and social media serve as primary recruitment tools, “the journey to extremism in Africa appears to rely significantly less heavily…as a venue for recruitment.” [1] Meaning that the path to radicalization is often highly localized and focused on discontent with the local or national government as opposed to more global focused discontent espoused by other violent extremist groups. Addressing this factor the UNDP study noted “the majority of recruits come from borderlands or peripheral areas that have suffered generations of marginalization.” [6] This factor is often strengthened by distrust with local and national government’s ability to provide safety or rule of law in the overall security apparatus. Widespread corruption amplifies this sentiment, serving as an additional source of discontent for many recruits on their way to joining violent extremist groups.

Based on these factors and speaking towards broad objectives targeted at countering violent extremism, the UNDP Journey To Extremism study quotes current UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, concluding, “the creation of open, equitable, inclusive and pluralist societies, based on the full respect of human rights and with economic opportunities for all, represents the most tangible and meaningful alternative to violent extremism.” [7] Rather than traditional strategy that has focused on the radical religious foundation of Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, African governments, international organizations and Western nations with interests in the security situation of the subject regions must focus their energies on solving the foundational problems outlined above in order to achieve any security or stability for the future.

Specifically this means better education and literacy programs for marginalized youth most at risk for radicalization. Additionally, stakeholders must focus on economic improvement for the most marginalized communities to ensure vulnerable groups achieve employment and better future economic opportunities. More broadly, “Africa faces a unique vulnerability to violent extremism that is shaped by persistent underdevelopment and incomplete peace building and state-building in key regions, despite the overall gains in many countries of the past few decades.” [8] These vulnerabilities must be the focus of any meaningful policies which aim to counter the roots of violent extremism. African governments must strive to create economic opportunity for all its citizens including marginalized communities, at the same time ensuring their entire population has faith in the government’s ability to provide security and rule of law. Additionally, corruption causes a deterioration in the population’s trust of the status quo, thus any fight against violent extremism must be paired with a widespread and effective anti-corruption campaign.

Finally, it is important to discredit myths about the motivations for radicalization and how “perceptions regarding the role that religion plays in the radicalization process also have a direct impact on the counterterrorism policies and strategies that will be developed and implemented.” [9] To change this perception and create better, more efficient counter violent extremism policies requires a better understanding of the above factors and how they contribute to the social, economic and political situations that create the willingness of the most vulnerable to join or support violent groups.





[1, 2, 3, 7, 8]

[4, 6, 9]


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