How to combat violent extremism? Fight poverty
While in Afghanistan, I met a young man who was the sole breadwinner for a family of eight. He had attempted to find work by going to Iran, but was deported. During this time, he learned that one of his sisters had gotten sick and passed away. By the time I met him, he was delivering supplies for the Taliban. This job allowed him to feed his family. For the first few years he was in this role, he hadn't even heard of Osama bin Laden. This young man's story is echoed by approximately 70 percent of those working for the Taliban. They are simply young men trying to support their families.
For people living in fragile states like Afghanistan, joining groups like the Taliban might well be one of their only options to provide for loved ones. Libyan intelligence chiefs, for example, say that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is building an "army of the poor" by offering upward of $1,000 in cash to those who join the radical group. For people living in countries where annual salaries equal a couple of hundred dollars, such economic incentives easily trump ideological barriers. While government employees in Afghanistan earn less than $2 a day, the Taliban pays equivalent of $10 to $20 for a day of action.
In regions where turmoil is the norm, economic incentives do not have to be extreme to be effective. People in fragile states are driven to desperation by marginalization, discrimination, the lack of socioeconomic opportunities and the loss of proper governance. Somali youth are often recruited with much smaller payoffs like $50 or even just provided with technological items like mobile phones. Those recruited to al-Shabaab with such tactics have generally received little to no education, often making them more vulnerable to recruitment and radicalism.
Violent extremism is driven by a combination of societal and ideological factors and may manifest differently in individuals and societies. While there is undoubtedly ideological extremist recruitment occurring, poverty is the key component that allows these groups to grow.
As U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated in the "Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism," there is no single solution, tool or approach to combat it. We need to increase our scope of thinking about violent extremism and take measures to prevent its proliferation across vulnerable societies around the world.
In order to combat violent extremism, we need to fight poverty by ensuring that every child receives a quality education that equips him or her for life. This education should teach respect for human rights and diversity while fostering critical thinking, promoting digital literacy and developing social skills that can contribute to a peaceful global community. Violent extremists require the tacit support of a larger circle of sympathizers. Depriving these groups of their support would greatly reduce their capacity to cause harm while evading justice.
There is a need for greater cooperation and a clear, unified signal depicting zero tolerance for violent extremism by the international community. Unity in principled action will overcome the rhetoric and appeal of violent extremism.
Until the root causes leading to the creation and growth of these organizations are confronted by a united front, new organizations will continue to form and existing groups will never be completely eliminated. Fortifying alternate routes for those in fragile states to gain stability and establish careers outside of violent extremist groups will destabilize recruiting efforts.
We must reduce the ability of extremist groups to exploit the internet and social media to radicalize and recruit individuals. ISIS is a particularly adept practitioner of social media recruitment: Entire communities become desensitized and increasingly numb to the evil. We must provide law enforcement with tech tools that will help safeguard against the power of digital messaging in recruiting efforts.
In our concerted efforts to counter violent extremism, we have to broaden our responses and engage the drivers of radicalism much earlier. The U.S. must partner with other actors to combine strong, informed military action with effective diplomacy and sustainable development. By joining together in a united front, we can provide people in fragile states with the resources and opportunities to turn down the recruitment efforts of extremist groups. Together we can ensure that young men like the one I met in Afghanistan don't have to join the Taliban to support their families.
Chang is CEO of Linking the World, a humanitarian organization that builds resilient communities in areas of instability and conflict. Chang also served as a fellow with the Center for the Study of Civil-Military Operations at West Point, where she developed community-focused academic programs in areas requiring humanitarian assistance.
Published on The Hill