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The hypothesis of this paper is two-fold: There are multiple root causes of violent extremism in Africa and there is a nexus among these factors. Toward this end, this paper looks at historical, political, economic, social, psychological, and military root causes of violent extremism in Africa. The hypothesis is tested by looking historically at Nigeria as a failure in political and economic development and as a likely place where violent extremists like Boko Haram would emerge. The paper also addresses Africa’s decision to shift its attention and resources to fighting Covid-19. It explains how this pivot gave violent extremists the freedom to exploit new opportunities. Emboldened violent extremists stepped up their terrorist attacks, their basic services, their narratives, and their radicalization operations.


As we start to explore the different root causes of violent extremism it might be useful to define what we mean by violent extremism. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) defines violent extremism as “advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic or political objectives”. USAID (2011: 2).

In the past, the term terrorism was used to describe this phenomenon. For our purposes I will consider violent extremism as a kind of war. Therefore, it makes sense to think of violent extremism in the Carl von Clausewitz sense that “war is politics by other means.” (

Therefore, one of the political root causes of violent extremism occurs when governments prevent peaceful change. On balance, research shows that blocked political participation creates grievances which are often harnessed to promote extremist violence. (Allen H 2015). Scholars identify government repression and authoritarianism as key drivers in the process. (Khalil L v3 2007) In fact, research demonstrates that blocking non-violent participation is a factor which strongly correlates with an increased risk of terrorism. (Piazza J 2006)

There are numerous examples of non-violent political or civil society groups that resorted to violence in the face of political failure or repression. For instance, the African National Congress turned to violence in 1961 after it was banned as an ‘unlawful organization’ and forced underground. (Cronin A 2009)

Similarly, Boko Haram was originally a non-violent, faith-based group in Nigeria that became increasingly violent in response to disproportionate violence from the repressive Nigerian government. Boko Haram now uses protection of victimized populations against oppressive authorities as a political grievance. (See Pantucci, R. and Jesperson, S. 2015).

In addition, the political marginalization or perceived marginalization of ethnic or religious groups often increases the risk of violent extremism. (Allan H 2015) A good case in point is the failure of the Iraqi government to include Sunni Arabs in the post-2003 political settlement in Iraq. Researchers identify this as a root cause of the 2006-07 civil war and the later rise of ISIS. It turns out that lots of other violent extremist groups claim that political exclusion is a justification for their violence. (Weiss M and Hassan H 2015)


The decline of a political regime’s legitimacy also increases the likelihood of violent extremism. (Forest J 2019, 66). 50 years ago, Ted Robert Gurr argued that a major gap can develop between the aspirations of a population group and the opportunities for its members to achieve them peacefully. When that occurs, the government loses its legitimacy and war becomes more likely. (Gurr T 1970)

Somalia is another good example. A variety of violent extremist groups have been fighting for power following the fall in 1991 of military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre. The Somali Al-Shabaab group has committed the highest number of indiscriminate attacks on civilians. (Forest J 2019 ,67)

When unpopular rulers cannot be voted out of power using democratic procedures, advocates of violent extremism find a wide audience. And when long-standing injustices in society are not resolved, desperate people are willing to die and to kill for causes they perceive as a just alternative. (Schmid, A 2006). Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death!” in a speech he made on the eve of the US Revolutionary War.

Contemporary violence in sub-Saharan Africa stems from long-standing historical grievances about the state’s failure over time to address deeply rooted marginalization and insecurity. The use of repressive machinery to respond to insurgencies often causes violence to occur. (Lind J and Dowd C 2015).


A government earns legitimacy and the support of its people when it provides public goods to its people on a reliable basis. These public goods include basic services such as health care, education, and welfare.

A governmental failure to provide basic services potentially creates a vacuum. Violent extremists can potentially fill this vacuum. If so, filling this gap helps violent extremists build support and legitimacy which might not otherwise have been forthcoming by only using violent tactics.

U.S. Major General Alex Grynkewich, currently the J3 (Director of Operations) at CENTCOM, outlines 3 main benefits of this strategy for extremist groups.

· First, the creation of a social welfare infrastructure highlights the failure of the state to fulfil its side of the social contract, thereby challenging the state’s legitimacy.

· Second, non-state social welfare organizations offer the population an alternative entity in which to place their loyalty.

· Third, a group that gains the loyalty of the populace commands a steady stream of resources with which it can wage battle against the regime. (Grynkewich A 2008).

These benefits Grynkewich mentions are clear in the example of Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and militant group in Lebanon, which operates on three planes – the civilian plane of da’wa (proselytization), social welfare, and religious education; the military–resistance plane of jihad; and the political plane. In its drive to dominate Shi’a society, Hezbollah overcame its chief rival, Amal, and now plays a decisive role in Lebanon’s political system and the Middle East.

Today, the Grynkewich study is more relevant than ever. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa states are understandably shifting their attention and military resources to the domestic response to the pandemic. In Nigeria, the military has been tasked with implementing heightened safety measures, including transferring the sick to hospitals, curbing movement, and guarding food storage from looters. (Colombo, E and Harris, M 2020)

Militaries Squeezed on All Sides

Uche Okpara was prescient in his concerns that the risk of a reduction in military personnel in the Lake Chad region would be high. Shrinking resources undermine the capacity of regional governments to intensify support for soldiers who might remain in the battlefield. At the same time, military personnel find themselves squeezed on all fronts. Their working conditions might allow for the spread of COVID-19, and if they become infected and are quarantined, they naturally become unavailable to curtail emergency attacks from insurgent groups. (Okpara, U. 2020).

Recent research by Emilia Columbo and Marielle Harris show that Okpara was right. Columbo and Harris identify ways that violent extremist groups are making strategic gains during the pandemic by outmaneuvering distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces. As travel and commerce become more restricted, these groups have ample fodder to accuse the government of intentionally depriving its people of basic commodities and life-saving health care. Extremist groups use the pandemic as an opportunity to deliver services such as food distribution and health care provision. (Columbo E and Harris M 2020)

These extremist groups are uniquely positioned to increase their service delivery. They operate in region where government presence is weak, a status likely to keep weakening as governments and their security services struggle to contain the outbreak. Extremist groups with the capacity to provide some form of health care could credibly claim their efforts as succeeding where governments are failing.

Al-Shabaab took advantage of the famine in Somalia 3 years ago to publish photos of its fighters distributing food and medical supplies to needy families. Other violent groups which have built substantial support in this way include the LTTE, Hamas, Jemaah Islamiya (Indonesia), the Gamaa Islamiyya (Egypt), and ETA. (Ibid.)

Violent Attacks

Extremist groups also use Covid-19 as an opportunity to outmaneuver distracted and overstretched domestic and foreign security forces and step-up violent attacks. Violent attacks in the region’s hotspots rose by 37% between mid-March and mid-April 2020. (ACLED 2020)

At a 7 April 2020 press conference, Africom General Stephen Townsend warned that al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and ISIS have announced that they see this crisis as an opportunity to further their terrorist agenda. (AFRICOM 04/07/2020)

Stepped up attacks from violent extremists in 2020 include the following:

· Suspected jihadists killed 25 soldiers at a Malian army base on March 19, and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) insurgents conducted a high-profile kidnapping of Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cisse on 5 March.

· That same week, Boko Haram launched its deadliest operation against Chadian forces to date, killing 92 soldiers.

· On the same day, Mozambican militants in Cabo Delgado broke new ground with simultaneous attacks against district capitals Moçimboa da Praia and Quissanga.

African Governments Losing Ground

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak there were clear signs that African governments were losing ground to violent extremists. In the Sahel, the security situation deteriorated from 2018 through 2019. During this period Burkino Faso saw a 2,150% increase in fatalities in terrorist attacks. (Coleman, J. 2020).

Admittedly, the rise in these terrorist attacks are happening despite the fact that there are 14,000 UN peacekeeping troops as part of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) as well as over 5,000 French troops as part of Operation Markhane. Despite this support from the international community, JNIM and ISGS are gaining ground by exploiting longstanding issues in their persuasive narratives.


While extremist groups are escalating their terrorist attacks, regional governments are redeploying increased security resources to the Covid-19 outbreak. Kenya’s military are enforcing a lockdown and curfew while also offering medical support, transporting vital supplies, and protecting key installations. (Columbo, R and Harris M. 2020)

This dynamic is compounded by the withdrawal of international peacekeepers and counterterrorism units from the region. The focus on Covid-19 leaves militaries shorthanded and vulnerable to a surge in extremist activity. In addition, Foreign defense and security partners are adjusting or reducing their assistance to sub-Saharan Africa and threatening to hinder information sharing and operational support. (Ibid.)

Some European partners are also drawing down personnel stationed in Africa. The British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK), which provides counterterrorism training and other skills, ordered the return of all UK personnel. Similarly, Ireland repatriated its troops from Mali’s UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, defying Guterres’ suspension of peacekeeper rotations until June 30. (Ibid.)

AFRICOM reduced some operations and personnel but so far maintained airstrike missions in the region. In early April, the Command cancelled at least two multinational military exercises after initially announcing the drills would be reduced in “scale and scope.” AFRICOM also barred local workers and declared a public health emergency at its base in Djibouti in April. That said, AFRICOM commander Townsend, however, reaffirmed his commitment to security operations across the continent during the pandemic, and U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabaab have not been reduced. (Ibid.)

Toward a Multidisciplinary Approach

Julie Coleman at the International Counter Terrorism Centre in the Hague reminds us that the one-dimensional militarized strategy to counter terrorism in the Sahel has failed. She recommends a more comprehensive approach that explores historical, political, economic, social, psychological, and military root causes of violent extremism in Africa. Julie Coleman also argues that cooperation amongst the international community and their continued engagement is vital to halting the spread of terrorism in the Sahel. Without continued external support, the Sahelian countries will be left in an even more vulnerable position vis-à-vis extremist group. (Coleman, J. 2020).

Alison Pargeter would agree with Julie Coleman. She says violent extremists have exploited economic marginalization, high levels of poverty and a lack of access to basic services to attract followers. Pargeter adds that areas of radicalization are often economically underdeveloped. regions. Evidence from Libya and Nigeria show that economic and social inequalities (perceived or real) fuel discontent and create conditions conducive to the spread of radical ideologies. (Pargeter, A. (2009) and (Alao A 2013)

Thus, economic malpractice when combined with other factors make violent extremism more likely and mesh with other factors.

Paul Collier modelled the risk of civil war. He asked what factors fuel a civil war? What factors make a country prone to civil war? He considered a wide range of characteristics – political, historical, geographic, economic, and social – to determine which factors were most significant. (Collier P. and Hoeffler, A. 2002)

He determined that three economic factors were most significant: a) the low level of per capita income, b) its low rate of GDP growth and c) its structure – namely its dependence on primary commodity exports. Paul Collier identified countries like Nigeria that have primary commodities (like oil) for their exports are more prone to violence than diversified economies.

In this regard, the World Bank notes that a key root cause of civil war is the failure of economic development. Countries with low, stagnant, and unequally distributed per capita incomes that have remained dependent on oil and primary commodities for their exports face dangerously high risks of prolonged conflict. (World Bank, 2003).

At first glance, a natural resource wealth like oil would appear to be an obvious blessing, especially to a novice. In fact, many economists would say natural resources confer a comparative advantage on a locality. But natural wealth like oil creates a distinctive set of problems. (Ndulu B. 2008) The obvious problem is fossil fuels damage the environment and accelerate contribute to climate change.

In addition, owners of oil can earn more from the capital and labor applied to its exploitation than the same factors of production would earn in alternative uses. The difference, the scarcity value of the resource, is called economic rent or “mining rent.” The presence of mining rent influences and, often, distorts the structure of a well-balanced, diversified economy, its incentives, and its institutions, including its process of governance. (Scott, B 2010)

The strategic challenge of oil comes when there is great wealth in concentrated form. The greater the rent, both in terms of margins and also the total amount, the greater its concentration in a small area and the more of a mixed blessing it is likely to be for national unity and stability.

The converse also seems to be true – that a shortage of natural resources may, in certain circumstances, be a blessing in disguise. Since these two propositions may seem counterintuitive, it seems appropriate to consider some historical data on economic performance before exploring how the presence or absence of natural wealth influences relationships in an economy. (Economist, 1989)

Let’s check the economic performance of other “lucky” countries such as Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand) that were blessed with natural resources. The three countries all enjoyed relatively strong GNP growth until the mid-1960s, when their economies stagnated and from 1965 – 1989 when their three economies performed poorly. Unable to adjust their resource exports to more promising sectors, all three found their growth constrained by continuous deficits in their current accounts.

Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand all borrowed heavily until they were among the most heavily indebted countries relative to incomes and export earnings. Australia, for example, suffered continuing decline of its terms of trade from the early 1950s onward, with almost a 50% drop by the mid-1980s. In fact, Australian exports had no growth as a % of GDP for 30-year period. (World Bank, 1992)

Now let’s explore our earlier counterintuitive proposition – that the leaders of countries with a shortage of natural resources but with highly educated people and skillfully developed institutions may sometimes find a shortage of natural resources a blessing in disguise.

Brains Beat Oil

Let’s compare the economic performance of five East Asian countries with near absence of natural resource wealth but known for their exports of manufactured goods with 9 OPEC countries, including all the leading oil producers except the Emirates.

· The GNP per capita growth rate of OPEC countries averaged only 3.7% during the bonanza years of rising oil production volumes and sharply rising prices from 1960 to 1980.

· During this same period, the per capita incomes of the East Asian manufacturing exporters rose about 7.2% or almost twice the rate of the OPEC countries.

And while per capita incomes of the Asian manufacturing exporters slowed a bit to a positive 5.8% growth the following 10 years (1980-1990), the per capita incomes of these 9 OPEC countries was much worse, actually contracting during this same 10 year period by 1.6%.

How are such performance differences to be explained? How do we explain a worse performance of the OPEC countries, especially in 1960-80 period when OPEC countries were enjoying the proceeds of an unprecedented bonanza?

The Economic Curse of Oil

The “curse of oil” is used to describe the situation in which the economic welfare of country like Nigeria becomes dependent on global oil prices. Before Nigeria discovered oil in the late 1950s, Nigeria had a largely agrarian economy and exported more food than it imported. Not anymore. After the oil wells started pumping, though, local indigenous economic activities were allowed to atrophy, as oil extraction became the country’s primary source of revenue. Over time, massive oil revenues generated from the Niger Delta disincentivized initiative at the local or personal level for may Nigerians. As an industry that employs very few Nigerians, the capital-intensive oil industry in essence replaced its most important resource -- its people – with one that is dependent on global market prices to bring in revenue. (Forest J 2019).

The Dutch Disease

Economically, there is a clear connection between an increasing Nigerian reliance on oil and gas and a decline in non-oil and gas related domestic manufacturing. As exports of oil and gas cause the Nigerian foreign exchange rate against the US dollar to get too strong, manufacturers in industries unrelated to oil and gas find their exports over-priced and unable to compete in export markets. This so-called” Dutch Disease” also occurs because cheaper imports then underprice over-priced domestic manufacturers.

This Dutch Disease is compounded by wage effects which rise in the oil and gas sector, and thereby raise wages elsewhere in the economy. Only the oil and gas sector and the non-tradeable sectors can survive when the exchange rate and wages both significantly increase.

Moreover, reliance on oil and gas leads to fewer investments in education and technology, which are necessary to grow other globally competitive industries. The oil and gas sector gets stronger than domestic manufacturing as government invests more in oil and gas and ignores manufacturing. Talented workers also choose work in stronger oil and gas sector. (Haber, S and Victor Menaldo, V. February 2011; Dunning, T. 2008; Humphries, M. 2007; Sachs J. and Stiglitz, J. 2007); Ross, M. April 2001; Karl, T. 1997).

Asset Depletion Mentality

In addition, the oil and gas sector can provide governments with uneven revenue streams. This volatility occurs because the development of new oil sites proceeds sporadically, and global commodity prices can change suddenly. Political leaders then adopt asset depletion mentality due to these uncertainties. They tend to deplete oil and gas resources rapidly to benefit directly from oil and gas rather than invest in the future. Corruption is often the result of regimes that have access to the substantial revenues afforded by oil and gas extraction. Political leaders also have an incentive to deplete resources rapidly to gain political credit for public expenditures.

Political leaders also increase public spending when oil prices are high. They are forced to over-borrow when oil prices fall. This can lead to balance of payments problems.

The Political Curse

In addition, a political resource curse can flow from an oil and gas resource curse. Political leaders from a rentier state derive most of its revenue from oil and gas rather than from taxes on other domestic economic activity. (Herb M. 2005).

This reduces incentives to encourage private sector growth. These political leaders interact less with citizens and civil society, which undercuts participatory democracy and tends to make them more autocratic. Dictators and corrupt leaders then rely less on civic engagement for legitimacy and more on the police, the military, and a patronage system to maintain power. As more investment flows to security operations, less is invested in education and infrastructure that benefits the population. (Beblawi H. and Giacomo Luciani G 1987)

The high profits (“mining rents)” and high cash flows that are generated have been captured increasingly by governments. Governments have an extremely poor record for converting this “easy money” into new productive activities. In fact, they distort the governance process itself, thus adversely affecting the whole economy. This easy money leads to lax governance if not to outright corruption. In addition, great natural wealth has a structural impact on an economy. Through the balance of payments, this structural distortion makes it exceedingly difficult to redeploy the cash flow from natural wealth into other higher growth export sectors. The negative impact on the balance of payments and the exchange rate have constituted a severe handicap. Paradoxically, the bigger the natural advantage the greater the distortions and potential handicap. (Beblawi H and Luciani G (1987); Theda Skocpol, T. (May 1982); Mahdavy, M. (1970); Lipset, S. (March 1959)

Economic Malpractice: Grievances

Now that we understand why the oil curse created a negative political economy in African countries, let’s explore how this creates a lack of government legitimacy in Nigeria leading to the rise of Boko Haram and other violent extremism in Nigeria.

Decades of the Nigerian government neglecting the (mostly Muslim) northern provinces has created frustrated and vulnerable population groups for Boko Haram’s radicalization operations. The Nigerian military’s indiscriminate use of force has only made things worse.

This sense of social and economic injustice and a lack of political legitimacy is not a vague assumption. James Forest exhaustively interviewed Nigerians who said they no longer believed in Nigeria’s political, economic, or legal institutions.

Their most common grievances included corruption among political and economic elites, economic disparity, barriers to social and educational opportunity, energy poverty, environmental destruction, human insecurity, and social and economic injustice.

USAID argues that an important grievance is the waning gap between the aspirations, hopes, and expectations of Nigerians for a better life and the limited opportunities which prevent Nigerians from achieving higher socioeconomic status by merit alone. Nigerians feel abandoned. (USAID)

Making things worse, the government did not invest in economic development beyond the Niger Delta’s oil infrastructure.” If so much oil wealth goes to the government, the average Nigerian wants to know why Nigeria’s roads are in disrepair, its water, energy, health, and education systems are in crisis, and basic necessities like jobs or credit from banks are in short supply.

Alison Pargeter attributes much of this gap between expectation and the big let-down to authoritarian or repressive regimes in Nigeria. And research from Lydia Khalil notes that authoritarian governments are often the most corrupt.

Forest agrees and says, “Oil rich countries like Nigeria control their economy, where transparency is missing in private and public sector finance, and where most of the resources are owned or controlled by a small elite of the population and where ordinary citizens come to feel that they have limited or no power to enact peaceful change.” “(Forest, J 2019).

Forest argues that this is a particularly apt reason for the kind of economy-related grievances that have motivated the terrorist violence in Nigeria over the past three decades. Despite its oil wealth, Nigeria suffers from massive corruption, high unemployment, and unequal provision of basic services (like clean drinking water and electricity). The economic data is alarming:

· Abdel-Fatau Musah notes that Nigeria has the worst income disparities in all West Africa, with only one percent of the elites controlling 80% of the accrued oil wealth, almost 70% of which is held in foreign banks.

· Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Nigerians live below the United Nations- designated poverty threshold, with no access to jobs or a decent education, and a minimum wage in some parts of the country at $50 per month or less.

James Forest attributes the economic inequality to two factors:

· Some of it is due to the corruption, which has produced a small English-speaking elite who prominently display their massive wealth through their cars, houses, clothing, and elaborate parties. They are concentrated in just a few places, mainly Lagos, Onitsha, and Abuja.

· But much of the economic inequality is also structural and geographically concentrated. Incomes in the primarily Muslim north are 50% lower than in the south, for example. (Forest J 2019)

Ted Robert Gurr argues that as government legitimacy falls, it is more likely there will be a rebellion. (Gurr, T 1970). Why Men Rebel. Princeton University Press.) Alex Thurston says this lack of legitimacy is especially pronounced in Nigeria. (Thurston, A. 2011).

James Forest agrees and argues that if these kinds of socio-economic grievances remain unresolved, it does not bode well for the future of the Nigerian government. Forest notes that Nigeria is a country which has already endured an exceptionally high number of military coups and a civil war since its independence in 1960. (Forest J 2019).

This means Nigeria is in a high-risk group and in what Paul Collier calls a conflict trap. Collier and his colleagues at the World Bank say that once a country has had a conflict, it is in far greater danger of further conflict. On other words, the chief legacy of a civil war is another war. (Collier et al, 2003).

Forest agrees. He concludes that these economic conditions in Nigeria have created an environment in which terrorist groups in both the south (like the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) and the north (like the militant groups Hisba and Boko Haram) can mobilize a population of angry, unemployed youth to take up violence against a government they see as corrupt and illegitimate.

Social and Psychological Factors

In addition, there are important social and psychological root causes of violent extremism. Research shows that population groups are often ready to accept any entity that offers stability in the short-term in the absence of peace and security. That means anarchy and state failure are still breeding grounds for extremist activity. (Allan H 2015)

In the context of the collapse of state control, warlords represent an attempt to fill the gap. Warlords re-establish stability within anarchy, responding to the fraying of state power to the point where the central state becomes, at best, only partly in control. Warlords offer security, rewards, and stability at the local level, but may not offer long-term stability beyond the life of a warlord. The warlord’s motives (whether greed, grievance, or both) are irrelevant for the people living in areas where there is often no alternative. (Thomson A 2010).

Former General David Petraeus argues that it’s important for analysts who wish to counter violent extremism in one region (like Africa) to learn lessons from other regions. In this regard, ISIS entered areas in the Mideast afflicted by weak governance. Weiss M and Hassan H, 2015).

ISIS tried to impose itself as the only legitimate actor ensuring that, like a state, it had a monopoly on the use of force. The reputation of ISIS for governance centered on security provision and delivery of basic services was a recruiting tool not only for fighters but also for civilians to move to or remain in their areas. Support for ISIS demonstrated that security and governance were the primary concern of civilian populations that were impoverished and were fearful for their lives. (Turkmani, R. 19 November 2015).

Identity Groups

It’s also important to look at the groups in social conflict and their claims. The central unit of analysis in protracted social conflict is the identity group, defined in ethnic. racial, religious, linguistic, or other terms. Ronald Fisher explains that it is through identity groups that compelling human needs are expressed. (Ronald Fisher R 1997)

Similarly, Edward Azar argues that the most useful unit of analysis in protracted social conflict (PSC) situations is the identity group - racial, religious, ethnic, cultural and others. The source of protracted social conflict is the denial of those elements required in the development of all peoples and societies, and whose pursuit is a compelling need in all.” (Azar E 1990) and (Azar E and Bunon J 1986).

Communication and Interaction

In addition, it’s important understand the way in which groups or quasi-groups become aware that they are in opposition to another group or groups. This self-awareness as collectivity-in-opposition relies on contact between individual members of groups. In this sense, an identity group is not defined by common interest alone. It must rest on communication and interaction. Joao Gomes Porto adds that this process of communication and interaction includes sharing a measure of grievance and dissatisfaction, behavioral or interactional approach to conflict dynamics is needed. (Porto J 2002).

Moreover, Louis Krieserg notes that these identity groups don’t operate in isolated silos. In fact, they continuously interact with their with their adversaries.” Thus, the identity groups a) become conscious of themselves as groups, b) come to perceive that they have grievances and c) formulate goals that would lessen their dissatisfaction at the apparent expense of another party.” (Krieserg, L 1982)

Identity and Radicalization

This identity-formation is normal and universal and is important to understand in the radicalization of violent extremists. As identity-formation becomes “maladaptive,” some individuals appear to be more vulnerable to radicalization than others. Harriet Allan notes that certain cognitive ‘propensities can combine in at risk individuals to create a ‘mindset’ that presents a higher risk of radicalization and entry into violent extremism. (Allan H 2015)

Where social change has rapidly happened, the search for new personal and group identities can increase the vulnerability of the young to radicalization. (Ibid). Martha Crenshaw notes that identity at the individual level — how an individual sees or describes him or herself — is highly significant in drawing individuals towards violent extremism. (Crenshaw M 1983)

Therefore, many people join violent extremist groups as part of a search for meaning in their lives. (Ibid). Roy Baumeister notes that individuals in search of this meaning and identity have four specific needs — a sense of purpose, efficacy, value, and self-worth. (Baumeister R 1991).

Where identity is as yet unformed, identity is a significant source of vulnerability which violent extremist leaders can exploit. Therefore, causes which promote activism in the pursuit of high ideals, the reformation of society, or correcting grave injustices are potentially powerful solutions to these primal needs. (Ibid.)

In this regard, Colonel Matt Venhaus conducted a study of over 2,000 foreign fighters in Al Qaida-linked movements. He found that ‘they all were looking for something … they want to understand who they are, why they matter, and what their role in the world should be. They have an unfulfilled need to define themselves, which al-Qaida offers to fill. (Venhaus M 2010)

This raises a key question: If the search for identity and personal meaning is universal, why do some individuals find it in violent extremism and others do not? This universal search for identity and personal meaning initially makes those who join violent extremist groups normal. But then things change. Randy Borum and John Horganboth note that this very human need for identity combines with other basic needs and propensities in ways that increase the risk of ‘maladaptive’ behavior. (Borum R 2004) and (Borum R 2014)

Randy Borum provides a psychological model of the terrorist ‘mindset’ and ‘worldview’ that combines vulnerabilities, such as the search for identity, with propensities (our socially learned preferences or traits). Therefore, a young man in search of identity who has a strong propensity to internalize grievance and external threat is a higher risk to join a violent extremist group than one whose identity has formed and who lacks those propensities. (Ibid).

The violent extremist group offers an individual a sense of identity while also meeting other needs. Randy Borum notes that many prospective members of a violent extremist group say violent extremism gives their lives meaning and a sense of belonging, connectedness and affiliation.” (Borum R 2011b)

This is why ‘radicalization’ itself is often regarded as a social process. How the individual and the violent extremist group connect is consistent with social movement theory.

In this regard, the research of Quintan Wikotorowicz on the old British extremist group Al Muhajiroun is extremely useful. Wikotorowicz learned that individuals seeking a cause in this group present a ‘cognitive opening’, while at the same time the violent extremist group is active in promoting itself as an answer to societal aspirations or problems. The two will come together if there is ‘frame alignment’ — a match between the cognitive opening and the worldview offered by the violent extremist group. Thus, the power of the Wikotorowicz’s model (and social movement theory more generally) is how it provides a viable explanation for how individuals bond with a violent extremist group. (Wiktorowicz Q and Kaltenthaler K 2006).

One of the take-aways from this research is that violent extremism is multi-disciplinary in nature. Each academic discipline has a valuable role to play in understanding violent extremism. Psychologists focus on the individuals and identify their internal vulnerabilities. Political science, sociological and historical approaches include external factors.


In recent times, these external factors contribute to how globalization has changed violent extremism. Mary Kaldor’s “new wars thesis” says that globalization is changing the character of conflict. She maintains that globalization creates disenfranchised populations who enjoy few of the benefits of globalization and yet are exposed to its stresses and strains. (Kaldor M 2007).

Peter Neumann applies Mary Kaldor’s thesis directly to terrorism and argues that terrorism is increasingly a “particular response” to the universalizing tendencies of globalization, such as mass communication and migration. Since societies are changing more and faster than ever, we should therefore expect more violence as extremists seek to arrest that change or influence it to their advantage. (Neumann P 2009)


While a few terrorists are “lone wolfs,” most individuals who become violent extremists do so after a period of socialization in some kind of group. For instance, Henri Tajfel and John Turner’s social identity theory stipulates that people categorize themselves and others as members of competing groups. (Tajfel, H. and Turner, J. C. 1986)

J. M. Berger talks about social identity theory in his book on Extremism. Berger says that a social identity group is a group of people who share an identity, such as religious, racial, or national. The in-group is the group in which one “belongs.” The out-group is a group of people who are excluded from a specific in-group. The in-group says they are “not one of us.” (Berger J 2018)

Socialization also involves well-tested psychological phenomena such as groupthink -- the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity and new insights. Socialization also includes the need for social approval which is often called “peer pressure.”

The point is the importance of socialization helps explain why otherwise ‘normal’ people join extremist movements. Recruitment and radicalization tend to follow existing social networks. The research of Marc Sageman and Edwin Bakker shows that those prospective violent extremist group members who have violent extremists among their kinship or peer groups are the most likely to become violent extremists themselves. (Sageman M 2004); (Sageman M 2011) and (Edwin Bakker 2006).

In closing this segment, we’ve seen where scholars agree radicalization is a social process and that identity is a key factor in why individuals become involved in violent movements.

Religion and Ethnicity

That said, there is lively debate about whether religion and ethnicity are strong expressions of individual and group identity. On the one hand, Muhsin Hassan says religion is not a key variable. Take Somalia. Ex-members Al Shabaab were all asked if religion played a significant reason in their decision to join the Al Shabaab VEO? They all said the reason why they joined Al Shabaab did not include deeply held religious beliefs. Instead, they point to their perceptions of a) neglect, b)their need for identity and c) lack of opportunities to improve the quality of their lives as the three main reasons for joining Al Shabaab. A testament to this is the fact that most of them gave up violent extremism when given a better alternative -- the chance of a better life, especially when trusted relatives were the ones presenting such opportunities.” (Hassan M 2012).

Two years after Muhsin Hassan study that said religion is not important to Al Shabaab, Anneli Botha and Mahdi Abdile did a study on Al Shabaab that said just the opposite. Botha and Abdile’s study found that 87% of Al Shabaab members identified religion as their reason for joining the group, and 97% considered their religion to be under threat — suggesting that religious identity can be both a powerful attraction and a strong motivator. (Botha A and Abdile M 2014).

On balance, it appears that the Botha and Abdile study used a larger sampling size and is probably a stronger representation of violent extremism.

Most importantly, the research of other scholars in other contexts support the findings of Botha and Abdile and therefore support building theory. Other scholars say religion and ethnicity are among the most powerful expressions of individual and group identity. In particular, they say that ideologues in violent extremist groups can exploit the growth of religious and ethnic identities.

Drawing from empirical research in five West African states, Olawale Ismail finds evidence that inter-religious rivalry is a strong contributing factor to radicalization of violent extremist groups. (Ismail, Olawale. (2013). For example, rivalry between Muslim and Christian groups in Nigeria overlaid by ethnic divisions has led to several violent events.

In the context of Islamist violent extremism, the emergence of transnational Muslim identity in the 1980s that claimed to supersede specific ethnic, cultural, or geographical notions of identity was mobilized initially for defensive purposes. But then Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups transformed this transnational Muslim identity into an offensive doctrine of global terrorism and revolution. (Hegghammer, T. 2011); (Gleave, R. 2014) and (Maher, S 2015).

That raises the question: Is there something unique about the threat posed by Islamist violent extremism? Anthropologist Mark Juergensmeyer says no. Juergensmeyer maintains that while religion is frequently blamed for causing conflict and terrorism, it is not so much a factor in and of itself as a medium through which grievances – ‘the sense of alienation, marginalization, and social frustration’– are articulated. (Juergensmeyer, M. (2003) and Juergensmeyer, M. (2006)

Mary Kaldor, Stacey Yadav, and Jessica Stern would all agree that violent extremist group leaders who articulate grievances in this way are thus able to operationalize religious identity. But violent extremist groups are not alone in this activity. Politically motivated ethnic elites also capitalize on shared identity or emotions and irrational beliefs. These ethnic elites engender insecurity by distorting narratives to achieve their ends through violence. (Kaldor M. 2007) and (Stacey Yadav 2010) and Jessica Stern (2003).

To understand how to counter grievances that violent extremist groups are exploiting, we need to understand why the Nigerian economic malpractice is happening and how to get it right with a better alternative to what the violent extremist groups are offering. We also need to understand why the environmental malpractice is happening. A good place to start with economic and environmental malpractice is with natural resources in Africa.

Political/Military Factors

It’s also important to understand that violent extremism does not occur in a geo-political vacuum. For instance, at times an African nation state can be so weak that violent groups take on some of the functions of the state (such as forming armed militias). This can be seen, for example, in Iraq, where the Hashd Sha’abi — ‘Popular Mobilization Forces’ — are aligned to and supported by the central government but are also a violent expression of Shia Islamism. That said, in other situations violent extremist groups are presumably in some sort of opposition to a relatively strong state.

But assuming that violent extremists are usually in the role as oppositionists, a key question is how important is competition with the state a factor in the ability of violent extremist groups to recruit and radicalize its members?

Let’s go back to the situation when the state is so weak that violent groups take on some of the functions of the state. Historical and political science analyses suggest that, in weak or failing states, religious or ethnic identity is easily operationalized by violent groups.

Iraq again provides a powerful illustration: even an ultra-violent and socially repressive organization such as ISIS was initially successful in attracting strong popular support as it was perceived as a defender of Sunni Arab privileges and even existence against a hostile Shia state and its violent allies.

That said, the major factor here is not so much the ideological competition between ethnic/religious groups and a state which denies this ideology as the weakness of the state from a balance of power perspective. Quantitative studies show that state instability is ‘the most consistent predictor of country-level terrorist attacks.” (Gelfand M et al 2013) and (Piazza J 2006)

Other studies suggest that highly repressive as well as liberal, democratic states suffer fewer terrorist attacks than states in transition between autocracy and democracy. Let’s drill down into this vulnerability of states in transition between autocracy and democracy.

In his book At War’s End, University of Ottawa Professor Roland Paris talks about the liberalism of President Wilson (or Wilsonialism). Paris notes that peacebuilding missions in the 1990s generally followed the Wilsonian notion that promoting “liberalization” in countries that had recently experienced civil war would help to create the conditions for a stable and lasting peace. In the political realm, liberalization means democratization. In the economic realm, liberalization means movement toward a market-oriented economic model (or marketization).

Although the 14 peacebuilding operations launched in the 1990s varied in many respects, their common characteristic was to try to transform war-shattered states into “liberal market economies” as quickly as possible. (The case studies Roland Paris looks at include Angola and Rwanda, Cambodia and Liberia, Bosnia and Croatia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Namibia and Mozambique, and Kosovo and Sierra Leone. (Paris R 2004, p. 5)

Paris notes that those who designed these peacebuilding operations hoped and expected that democratization would shift societal conflicts away from the battlefield and into the peaceful arena of electoral politics, thereby replacing violent warfare. Similarly, Paris notes that those who designed these peacebuilding operations also hoped and expected that marketization would promote sustainable economic growth, which, in turn, would reduce tensions. (Ibid).

Paris notes that there is a large body of empirical scholarship (dating back to John Locke) that partially supports this “liberal peace thesis.” (Ibid.)

However, Paris notes that the transition from civil conflict to a market democracy is full of pitfalls: Promoting democratization and marketization has the potential to stimulate higher levels of societal competition at the very moment when states are least equipped to contain such tensions within peaceful bounds. In other words, the Wilsonian goals of democratization and marketization are still valid. The problem is the method used to effect this change. If you try Colombia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs’ shock treatment, competition quickly turns to conflict, and civil war is resumed. (Sachs J 1999, pp. 90-101)

To minimize the vulnerability and ensuing violence of countries in transition, Paris recommends building “institutions before liberalization” (IBL), much as Monnet helped to build the European Coal and Steel Community, and Marshall helped to create the Marshall Plan. (Paris, R 2004, p. 7).

In other words, institutions soften the blows of the transition. Similarly, Charles Tilly in his classic, The Politics of Collective Violence, says much the same thing in a different way. He says that ‘high-capacity democracies’ and ‘high-capacity non-democracies’ (that are stable and strong) are much less likely to experience civil war (which may include violent extremist groups) than ‘low-capacity non-democracies’. (Charles Tilly, 2003)

Discrimination and Exclusion

After 9/11 America began a global war on terrorism. Who would have thought that two decades later homegrown white supremacists would be far and away the greatest terrorist threat to America? And who would have thought that the innocent expression “Black Lives Matter” would trigger protests all over the country. But police brutality and discrimination and exclusion against black Americans is still happening and continues to be a national disgrace.

So, if America fought a civil war over slavery and police in the US still do not treat blacks and white the same, it’s a logical assumption that there could be places in the world where America was in the mid-1800s. If so, I would expect a strong relationship between perceived grievances and violent extremism in those places.

Therefore, a good working hypothesis is that people with shared experiences of socio-economic discrimination and exclusion are more susceptible to a legitimizing ‘single narrative’ which binds together multiple sources of resentment. Even though a combination of other factors contributes to the multiple root causes of terrorism, socio-economic discrimination and marginalization do help to explain why extremist groups are able to recruit support in large numbers. And the use of a single narrative to justify, recruit and motivate is near universal among extremist groups.

The ‘single narrative’ is a term which originated in the British Government around 2004 as a description of Al Qaida’s simplistic message that the West is at war with Islam, and that the West’s hostility lies behind repression or conflict in Muslim lands. If we fast forward to 27 January 2017, the ill-advised Executive Order 13769 banning the travel of Muslims entering the US, vindicated Al Qaeda’s warning. (Schmid A 2006).

This message of ‘existential threat’ underlies Al Qaida’s strategy of provocation – by which the ‘prophecy’ becomes self-fulfilling. The Al Qaida narrative does not, though, stop at grievances — important as these are in providing evidence of the West’s hostility. It suggests that the West wants the complete defeat and subjection of Islam and Muslims. (Kepel G 2010).

Arie Kruglanski and his colleagues note that the Al Qaeda narrative in the latter sense is assumed to be crucial to justifications of violence against others and providing group members with a sense of self-importance. Kruglanski, A 2009)

Dipak K. Gupta suggests that they need to be articulated by charismatic individuals or ‘political entrepreneurs’ to be successful. (Gupta D 2005)

In conflicts involving violent extremism, discrimination and marginalization do appear to explain why extremist groups are able to recruit support in large numbers. Iraq is becoming a classic case of a conflict where persistent marginalization of one community (the Sunni Arab minority) is pushing large numbers into violent extremism. (Hassan H and Weiss M 2015)


As we look back at the different root causes of violent extremism, what are some useful take-aways? On the political side, the legitimacy of a government role in whether the ideology of a violent extremist group resonates with potential recruits. As the legitimacy of a political regime declines, its citizens are more likely to be attracted to a violent extremist group. Decades of neglecting the northern provinces in Nigeria have created an environment for a violent extremist group like Boko Haram to recruit and operate effectively. Their recruits want to join Boko Haran when they no longer believe in their country’s political, economic, and legal institutions will help them. Their most common grievances are corruption, economic disparity, barriers to social and educational opportunity and injustice.

These problems with an oppressive and authoritarian government do not improve when the military cracks down on these groups. If these kinds of grievances remain unresolved, it does not bode well for the future of governments like that in Nigeria.

James Forest notes that it is important to understand the context in which economic grievances are seen by violent extremists. The issue is not poverty or unemployment per se. In fact, there are lots of poor countries with no violent extremism to worry about. Violent extremism often develops in oil-rich countries like Nigeria. People in Nigeria see the oil wealth and aspire, hope, and expect a better life. Discontented activists rightly ask why illiteracy is so high, why the roads are so bad, why poverty and why high unemployment when there is obviously so much oil wealth flowing to the government?

The best strategy for reducing violent extremists is to offer recruits a better alternative. We saw that when the Nigerian government became too dependent on oil exports, Nigeria’s foreign exchange rate rose and its previously job producing agricultural and manufacturing exports went away. Boko Haram grievances resulting from this needless, unemployment and poverty could have been avoided with a more balanced, diversified, and labor-intensive economy like that seen in East Asia.

But let us assume that a government has a viable economic vision with genuine social inclusion and shared prosperity. That is not enough. The government needs a persuasive influence campaign. That means the government needs to sell it. The message needs messengers who the population group trusts. The messenger with the message also needs political legitimacy from all the population groups. And finally, the government needs enough capacity to implement the vision.

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argues that that US influence operations need to be far more persuasive.

In his new book, Gates says,

“The United States – which invented modern communications, public relations, and the internet itself – still lacks an effective information operations strategy, policies, and proper capabilities to communicate our message, counter that of our adversaries and competitors, defend our institutions, and go on the offensive.” (Gates R. 2020).

If this were a war game, imagine two population groups outside the circle of trust. Each of these groups has what Robert Jones calls “exploitable energy.” Violent extremists and their external actors emerge with a narrative to tap into (or leverage) this exploitable energy. Jones notes that ISIS tapped into the popular discontent of the Sunnis who distrusted the Shia government in Iraq. When the U.S. military opted to cut and run from Iraq, ISIS filled the gap. ISIS not only outcompeted the U.S. for influence in Iraq, it outcompeted Al Qaeda with a better alternative. Jones argues that the Unites States must become much more competitive and develop a more persuasive influence campaign. (Harorio J Feb 2020) and (Harorio J July 2020) and (Jones R Nov 2020)

Jones argues that the U.S. should look at the world through the lens of the populations groups and try to influence them rather than trying to influence governments. The U.S. mistake has been trying to act like a great power and forcibly control territory and control people in this territory. The world has shifted to influence, not control. Jones persuasively argues that the US government has been way too slow in adjusting to competition for influence with population groups. (Jones R 2020) Finally, this new African strategy to counter violent extremism needs to orchestrate social inclusion and produce the kind of pervasive shared prosperity that will win hearts and minds of all the African people.

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