Jason Baker is an Officer in the United States Air Force, with a recent deployment supporting the fight against the Islamic State. Jason is also an M.A. candidate at American University’sSchool of International Service. He can be found on Twitter @JasonBakerJB. All opinions in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official positions of the United States Department of Defense or United States Air Force. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessment of the Factors Leading to the Recruitment of Violent Extremists
Date Originally Written: December 3, 2017.
Date Originally Published: January 15, 2018.
Summary: Governments traditionally focus counterterrorism efforts on intelligence, kinetic capabilities, and enhanced domestic security policies. Neglected still, and likely why terror attacks persist, is governments understanding the forces that motivate people to join violent extremist organizations in the first place. Unfortunately, a marriage between counterterrorism efforts and the study of socioeconomic equality, may still be far off.
Text: Terror attacks around the world continue to occur with a regularity that has made them a seemingly normal part of life. As such, the response to, and prevention of, such attacks is a topic regularly covered by journalists, news anchors, and security experts. These analyses usually focus on the need for intelligence to identify terrorists, the use of kinetic capabilities to target terrorists, and enhanced domestic security policies to prevent and protect against attacks. While the majority of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy focuses on these three areas, terror attacks persist. An area of study that continues to be neglected is that which seeks a better understanding of where recruits for violent extremist organizations come from and why they join, so that policy to prevent people from being radicalized in the first place can be made. The biggest drivers of extremist propaganda and recruitment are not a religious message, but income inequality, social resentment, and unstable governments or refugee situations.
Income inequality is a growing problem throughout the world. So much so that in 2015 the World Economic Forum ranked rising income inequality as the world’s top priority. The economically disenfranchised develop strong feelings that can often turn into anger and resentment about their situation, which can drive a need for revenge when they feel they have no power to change the status quo. Such an income equality situation creates favorable conditions for violent extremist organizations to win new recruits and operate.
Similar to feeling economically disenfranchised, many extremist recruits come from the ranks of the socially ostracized. To be certain, this is not to say those who just “don’t fit in” (although that can contribute) to society, but those that are marginalized by their government or large parts of their society. This socially ostracized population could be migrants in a new land who are not afforded the chance to assimilate into society (as seen in Europe) or religious or ethnic minorities in states with hard-line governments (Sunni majorities being governed by Shia hardliners and vice versa). Sometimes ostracism even metastasizes into something as awful as the situation in Myanmar where many Rohingya feel as though they are left with almost no option other than to attack the government.
The greatest of all these factors that leads to terror recruitment are failed states and refugee situations. In violent, lawless places like Syria the group that can offer a better way of life whatsoever is often the one that is joined. Violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State offer services and security in exchange for committing to their cause. A similar situation is seen in Yemen. These failed states create refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) situations that can become breeding grounds for violent extremist recruiting. Violent extremist organizations have their choice of recruiting tactics when dealing with refugee camps and IDPs. Some violent extremist organizations offer food and cash in exchange for joining, and some offer a message of hope and promise of revenge to those angry about their situation. The situation then feeds itself. While anything from failed states to climate change can cause refugee and IDP situations, violent extremism is clearly becoming a more important factor in driving people from their homes. In Iraq, the pre-2003 Christian population of 1.5 million is estimated to have dwindled to 400,000, while over half a million of Syria’s 1.8 million Christians have been displaced. Elsewhere, there are in excess of 2.5 million displaced in Yemen and over 600,000 in Myanmar. The humanitarian reasons for solving the displaced persons crisis the world faces are evident, but it is also a dire security issue.
All of these are problems the world needs to address individually, for their own specific reasons, but also because they create fertile grounds for violent extremist organization recruitment. There is not often a lot of cross over between those who care deeply about countering violent extremism, and those who care about socioeconomic equality. Connecting the two together however, can bring more urgency to the issue of fighting violent extremist organization recruiting with more problem solvers at the table. Policy and decision makers who focus on the drivers of violent extremism organization recruitment may be able to go further than intelligence, kinetic capabilities, and policies that enhance domestic security have thus far.
 The Outlook on the Global Agenda 2015. World Economic Forum. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://reports.webforum.org/outlook-global-agenda-2015/
 Seaver, B. M., Hyman, G. F., Toft, M. D., & McCarthy, D. (2015, September 1). The National Interest. This Is Why Global Income Inequality Is a Real National-Security Threat. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-global-income-inequality-real-national-security-threat-13747
 Koser, K. (2016, July 29). IDPs, Refugees, and Violent Extremism: From Victims to Vectors of Change. The Brookings Institute. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2015/02/20/idps-refugees-and-violent-extremism-from-victims-to-vectors-of-change/
 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) – Norwegian Refugee Council. (2015, December 31—updated May 2016). Yemen IDP Figures Analysis. Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://www.internal-displacement.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/yemen/figures-analysis
 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) – Norwegian Refugee Council. (2017, September 28). How many internally displaced Rohingya are trapped inside Myanmar? Retrieved December 03, 2017, from http://www.internal-displacement.org/library/expert-opinion/2017/how-many-internally-displaced-rohingya-are-trapped-inside-myanmar