Boko Haram
Boko Haram

GENEVA - Poverty, deprivation and state abuse of power are driving young Africans to join violent extremist groups, such as Boko Haram, al-Shabab and Islamic State, according to a “first-of-a-kind” study by the U.N. Development Program.  

The 124-page study, which was conducted over a two-year period, is based on interviews with 495 voluntary recruits to extremist organizations.  

It explores the reasons why young Africans are attracted to organizations that engage in terrorist activities, and it sheds light on the recruitment process, misperceptions, growing dangers and presents recommendations for resisting extremist messages and recruitment.

“The report finds the road to extremism in Africa is paved with deprivation,” said Mohamed Yahya, lead author and UNDP Africa Regional Program Coordinator. “Poverty, marginalization and underdevelopment play an important role in the African context and it is, therefore, important for development actors to also be involved in finding solutions.”

Yahya said society must move away from its fixation on security to contain violent extremism. He told VOA that “security actors obviously have an important role to play,” but two decades of ever-tightening security measures have not succeeded in stopping the growth of terrorism.  

“Security becomes important only when these groups or these people who join these groups have acted, or have engaged in terrorist acts, or violent extremist acts,” he said.

He added that it would be more useful to work on solutions aimed at preventing young Africans from joining extremist groups, rather than reacting to a terrorist act after the fact.

The report warns Africa’s vulnerability to violent extremism is deepening. It notes half of the continent’s population lives below the poverty line, and many of its young people are chronically underemployed, making them vulnerable to recruitment.

Disillusion, frustration as drivers

Participants in the study were asked about their family circumstances, including childhood and education, religious ideologies, economic factors, state and citizenship.

According to the study, 71 percent of recruits interviewed said some form of government action was the “tipping point” that triggered their decision to join an extremist group; 83 percent believe that government only looks after “the interests of a few;” and more than 75 percent place “no trust in politicians or in the state security apparatus.”  

FILE - Hundreds of newly trained al-Shabab fighter
FILE - New al-Shabab recruits are seen during military exercises in Lafofe, south of Mogadishu, in Somalia, Feb. 17, 2011. With internet penetration in Africa still at low levels, most Islamist recruitment efforts on the continent are still conducted person-to-person.

Half of the respondents cited religious reasons for joining extremist groups, but 57 percent admitted that they understood “little to nothing of the religious texts or interpretations” and indicated that frustration about their economic condition played a larger role than religious ideology.

The study found that recruitment in Africa takes place mostly at the local level, face-to-face, rather than online, as is the case in other regions.  

“In the African context, the Internet plays a very small part in the recruitment process,” said Yahya. “Recruitment is a process of socialization, actually, 50 percent of people join with a friend. Very few people join alone.”

Despite this hands-on method of recruitment, Yahya notes the impact of violent extremism in Africa was very high compared to most regions, except the Middle East.

UNDP estimates some 33,300 people in Africa lost their lives to violent extremist attacks between 2011 and early 2016. The most destructive force has been Boko Haram, which UNDP notes is responsible for at least 17,000 deaths and the forcible displacement of 2.8 million people in the Lake Chad region.

Internet as future recruiter

Yahya told VOA that, for now, recruitment of young Africans between the ages of 17 and 26 by terrorist organizations was still a “labor intensive” process. He warned, however, that ominous changes in this process were likely to occur when the Internet becomes more universally available on the continent.

“When Internet penetration comes, you can realistically assume that recruitment will go up because you can leave messages on the Internet. You can have people joining these organizations in their own private homes,” he said.  

The UNDP official said this future, riskier reality should spur people to action. He said there was still “a window of opportunity to get our houses in order, to provide opportunities for our young people, to ensure that the rights of young people are much more respected.

“We have to invest in education. We have to invest in social services,” he said. “We have to accelerate development in areas that are highly deprived to safeguard and create a kind of resilience against extremism that we want to see.”