- In the past decade and a half, research has been conducted on the drivers of violent extremism. However, there is no authoritative statistical data on the pathways towards individual radicalization. While there are some recognizable trends and patterns, there are only a few areas of consensus that exist among researchers. Qualitative research, based mainly on interviews, suggests that two main categories of drivers can be distinguished: “push factors”, or the conditions conducive to violent extremism and the structural context from which it emerges; and “pull factors”, or the individual motivations and processes, which play a key role in transforming ideas and grievances into violent extremist action. More research, both qualitative and quantitative, is required on this evolving phenomenon.
A. Conditions conducive to and the structural context of violent extremism
- The available qualitative evidence points to the presence of certain recurrent drivers, which are common among a wide variety of countries and regions and which lead, sometimes in isolation and sometimes in combination with other factors, to radicalization and violent extremism.
Lack of socioeconomic opportunities
- Countries that fail to generate high and sustainable levels of growth, to create decent jobs for their youth, to reduce poverty and unemployment, to improve equality, to control corruption and to manage relationships among different communities in line with their human rights obligations, are more prone to violent extremism and tend to witness a greater number of incidents linked to violent extremism. Citizens may consider weak development outcomes as confirmation of the lack of a government’s legitimacy, making state institutions less effective in responding to violent extremism when it arises. The absence of alternative employment opportunities can make violent extremist organizations an attractive source of income.
Marginalization and discrimination
- No country is completely homogeneous. Diversity in and of itself does not lead to or increase a country’s vulnerability to violent extremism. However, when a country experiences insecurities such as scarce resources, and when one group, whatever its demographic weight, acts monopolistically in political and economic sectors at the expense of other groups, the potential for intercommunal tensions, gender inequality, marginalization, alienation and discrimination increases, as expressed through restricted access to public services and job opportunities and obstructions to regional development and freedom of religion. This, in turn, may incite those who feel disenfranchised to embrace violent extremism as a vehicle for advancing their goals.
Poor governance, violations of human rights and the rule of law
- Violent extremism tends to thrive in an environment characterized by poor governance, democracy deficits, corruption and a culture of impunity for unlawful behaviour engaged in by the State or its agents. When poor governance is combined with repressive policies and practices which violate human rights and the rule of law, the potency of the lure of violent extremism tends to be heightened. Violations of international human rights law committed in the name of state security can facilitate violent extremism by marginalizing individuals and alienating key constituencies, thus generating community support and sympathy for and complicity in the actions of violent extremists. Violent extremists also actively seek to exploit state repression and other grievances in their fight against the state. Thus, Governments that exhibit repressive and heavy-handed security responses in violation of human rights and the rule of law, such as profiling of certain populations, adoption of intrusive surveillance techniques and prolongation of declared states of emergency, tend to generate more violent extremists. International partners that are complicit in such action by States further corrupt public faith in the legitimacy of the wider international system.
- The lack of adequate efforts, in line with international obligations, towards the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, exacerbated by discrimination against ethnic, national, gender, racial, religious, linguistic and other groups and the absence or curtailment of democratic space, can provide opportunities for exploitation by violent extremists. State institutions that do not adequately fulfil their international obligations to uphold these rights can fuel grievances and undermine not only their own effectiveness but also social norms and social cohesion.
- In addition, more attention needs to be paid to devising efficient gender- and human rights-compliant reintegration strategies and programmes for those who have been convicted of terrorism-related offences as well as returning foreign terrorist fighters.
Prolonged and unresolved conflicts
- Prolonged and unresolved conflicts tend to provide fertile ground for violent extremism, not only because of the suffering and lack of governance resulting from the conflict itself but also because such conflicts allow violent extremist groups to exploit deep-rooted grievances in order to garner support and seize territory and resources and control populations. Urgent measures must be taken to resolve protracted conflicts. Resolving these conflicts will undermine the impact of the insidious narratives of violent extremist groups. When prevention fails, our best strategy towards securing lasting peace and addressing violent extremism entails inclusive political solutions and accountability.
Radicalization in prisons
- Research shows that harsh treatment in detention facilities can play a disconcertingly powerful role in the recruitment of a large number of individuals who have joined violent extremist groups and terrorist organizations. Several factors have been identified as spurring prisoners to seek protection by joining groups, including inhumane prison conditions and inhumane treatment of inmates, corrupt staff and security officers, gang activity, drug use, lack of security and proper facilities, and overcrowding. Safeguards need to be put in place to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies to other prisoners while upholding the protection afforded under international law to persons deprived of their liberty, including with respect to international standards and norms relating to solitary confinement.
B. Processes of radicalization
- Although the conditions conducive to violent extremism affect entire populations, only a small number of individuals are actually radicalized and turn to violence. Both complex individual motivations and human agency play a key role in exploiting these conditions and transforming ideas and grievances into violent action.
Individual backgrounds and motivations
- A negative personal experience which resonates with the narrative of violent extremist ideologies can heighten the chances that an individual will embrace violent extremism. Individual motivations vary from the serious to the routine: researchers have reported precipitating events as diverse as experiencing or witnessing torture, the death of a relative or friend at the hands of the security forces or a foreign power, unfair trials, the loss of property and the humiliation of a parent — and even the refusal of a personal loan.
- While some highly educated individuals have played consequential roles in violent extremist organizations, many members are poorly educated, often not having completed secondary education. A large number have only rudimentary literacy levels and almost no religious knowledge or education, making them vulnerable to indoctrination. It is quite likely that they may have been engaged in petty crimes and illicit activities prior to their involvement with violent extremist groups. Membership in a group also promotes a sense of belonging or relief from the burden of alienation, isolation or anomie.
Collective grievances and victimization
- Historical legacies of, or collective grievances stemming from, domination, oppression, subjugation or foreign intervention can enable narratives of victimization to take hold. These narratives can provoke simple and powerful emotional reactions which may then be exploited by violent extremists: the memory of past or present actual or perceived oppressions is upheld so as to fuel the thirst for revenge against oppressors.
Distortion and misuse of beliefs, political ideologies and ethnic and cultural differences
- Violent extremist groups cynically distort and exploit religious beliefs, ethnic differences and political ideologies to legitimize their actions, establish their claim on territory and recruit followers. Distortion and misuse of religion are utilized to divide nations, cultures and people, undermining our humanity. Faith and community leaders are critical in mentoring vulnerable followers so as to enable them to reject violent ideologies and in providing opportunities for intra- and interfaith dialogue and discussion as a means of promoting tolerance, understanding and reconciliation between communities. Leaders, Governments, the international community and the media have to work together to prevent confrontation and polarization within and between countries, faiths, nations and peoples. We have to work jointly to halt this vicious cycle of provocation and response which often fuels the forces governing the nexus between conflict, terrorism and violent terrorism, as seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen and other countries.
Leadership and social networks
- While contextual factors, personal experiences and collective grievances can all contribute to the emergence of violent extremism, there must also be a social context that provides some form of organization and direction for these elements. This is often established through the intervention of a charismatic leader or political entrepreneur, and through informal family and social networks. It can be difficult to join violent extremist organizations unless you already know one of their members, this being an inevitable consequence of the fact that their activities are often exclusive and clandestine. However, in recent years, online tools have served as an additional, and more accessible, pathway to group membership.